Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

The Legacy of Benny Carter

Mel Martin on the music and influence of the legendary saxophonist and composer

Benny Carter
Benny Carter (photo: Enid Farber)
Benny Carter and Mel Martin
Benny Carter Big Band
Benny Carter and Mel Martin

Writing about the legacy of the great Benny Carter is to examine the history of Black Music in America. Largely self-taught, his contributions extend beyond jazz and permeate every corner of American Music. He received many awards for his contributions and was feted by many Presidents. He was known early on as “King” Carter and is still reverentially referred to with that title by those associated with him. In the many situations he was involved, the musicians always deferred to his final judgment on any musical issues that would arise. He was a multi-instrumentalist playing alto saxophone, clarinet, trumpet, trombone and piano. He was an innovative arranger, orchestrator and a great composer. He formed the first integrated band in Europe and helped to integrate the Los Angeles Musician’s Unions. His bands featured a virtual who’s who of great artists early in their careers. He was instrumental in discovering such great talents as Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and many more. He arranged for the bands of Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Duke Ellington Glenn Miller, Gene Krupa and Tommy Dorsey. His arrangements can be found the books of all of the pop singers from Frank Sinatra to B.B. King.

When I think of Benny Carter, which I often do, I think of a man who along with Johnny Hodges, literally invented a virtuosic style of playing the alto saxophone that was later embellished on by many of the swing era saxophonists and which set a strong precedent for the bebop style as played by Charlie Parker. His early use of flat fifth intervals, II-V harmony and a fleet technical skill, was the precursor to Charlie Parker, Sonny Stitt, Jimmy Heath, James Moody, Phil Woods and many others. His earliest recorded solos show a control of the saxophone and the many musical elements that exceeded what any one else was doing at that time. His trumpet playing was the equal of any players from his era. He pioneered the use of five saxophones as a section in his earliest big band writing. Known for his “soloistic” ensemble writing, his became the standard for saxophone writing ever since. He created scores for such great films as Stormy Weather and even appeared in a few. He was the first black musician to work in the Hollywood studios often as an unaccredited “ghost” writer. He opened those doors to writers such as Quincy Jones, Oliver Nelson, J.J. Johnson, Benny Golson and others. He also was writing for many television series such as M-Squad, Ironside, Night Gallery, Bob Hope Chrysler Theater and others.

I believe that he was often underrated as a composer. He was the lyricist for many of his compositions, as well. Many of his songs achieved notoriety such as the pop hit “Cow-Cow Boogie,” “When Lights Are Low,” “Only Trust Your Heart,” “Key Largo” and “Blues In My Heart.” However, he wrote many more which remain unknown to the general public. When I toured with his big band in the early ’90’s, I became familiar with many of his wonderful compositions that he had arranged. I have received two grants from the National Endowment for the Arts to record some of his music. In 1994, Enja Records released Mel Martin Plays Benny Carter that was comprised of two sessions. One was a quartet with Kenny Barron, Rufus Reid and Victor Lewis. We recorded “A Kiss From You,” “When Lights Are Low,” “Summer Serenade,” “Souvenir,” “Another Time, Another Place” and “Wonderland.” The second session was a live quintet recording done at the original Yoshi’s in Oakland, CA with Benny Carter on alto saxophone, me on tenor saxophone and flute, Roger Kellaway on piano, Jeff Chambers on bass and Harold Jones on drums. We recorded “Hello,” “Only Trust Your Heart” and a previously unrecorded piece “Zanzibar.” The second session was the basis for a second NEA funded Jazzed Media recording, Just Friends, in 2007 for his Centennial Celebration that featured his great ballads “People Time” and “Elegy in Blue.” The album also featured several standards and one original of mine “Spritely.” I recently recorded another of his pieces “Where The Warm Winds Blow” on my Jazzed Media recording of the same name.

My work and association with Benny Carter opened many doors for me. Whenever I speak with other musicians, we often trade Benny Carter stories that are legend as I did recently with Frank Wess and Sonny Rollins. Benny could remember the names of members his friend’s families and treated them like members of what he and his wife Hilma referred to as our “extended family”. He was always most gracious and my wife Catey and I would visit him at his Los Angeles home often. We never talked about anything but music and family. In that way we were very much alike. It was a great privilege and an honor to count him as a close musical and personal friend. I still defer to his judgment when I need some music or personal advice. Thank you for being there Benny.

Originally Published