Cultural Percussionist

Benny Carter Day

Bennett Lester Carter (August 8, 1907 – July 12, 2003) was an American jazz saxophonist, clarinetist, trumpeter, composer, arranger, and bandleader. With Johnny Hodges, he was a pioneer on the alto saxophone. From the beginning of his career in the 1920s he was a popular arranger, having written charts for Fletcher Henderson’s big band that shaped the swing style. He had an unusually long career that lasted into the 1990s. During the 1980s and ’90s, he was nominated for eight Grammy Awards, which included receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award.

Born in New York City in 1907, he was given piano lessons by his mother and others in the neighborhood. He played trumpet and experimented briefly with C-melody saxophone before settling on alto saxophone. In the 1920s, he performed with June Clark, Billy Paige, and Earl Hines, then toured as a member of the Wilberforce Collegians led by Horace Henderson. He appeared on record for the first time in 1927 as a member of the Paradise Ten led by Charlie Johnson. He returned to the Collegians and became their bandleader through 1929, including a performance at the Savoy Ballroom in New York City.

In his early 20s, Carter worked as arranger for Fletcher Henderson after that position was vacated by Don Redman. He had no formal education in arranging, so he learned by trial and error, getting on his knees and looking at the existing charts, “writing the lead trumpet first and the lead saxophone first—which, of course, is the hard way. It was quite some time that I did that before I knew what a score was.”

He left Henderson to take Redman’s former job as leader of McKinney’s Cotton Pickers in Detroit. In 1932 he formed a band in New York City that included Chu Berry, Sid Catlett, Cozy Cole, Bill Coleman, Ben Webster, Dicky Wells, and Teddy Wilson. Carter’s arrangements were complex. Among the most significant were “Keep a Song in Your Soul”, written for Henderson in 1930, and “Lonesome Nights” and “Symphony in Riffs” from 1933, both of which show Carter’s writing for saxophones.

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