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Summary Article: Carter, Bennett “Benny” Lester (1907–2003)
from The Great Depression and the New Deal: A Thematic Encyclopedia

Benny Carter was an African American jazz composer, arranger, band leader, alto saxophonist, and trumpeter. Referred to by many of his peers as “the King,” Carter was a major figure in the jazz world from the 1920s into the 1990s. During the Depression era, he brought his jazz talents to Europe with a racially integrated band.

Carter was born August 8, 1907, in New York City. His mother, who taught him piano, introduced him to music. While attracted to the trumpet through the influence of neighbor Bubber Miley, who played with Duke Ellington, he became frustrated that he could not quickly master the instrument and shifted to the saxophone. By his mid-teens he was performing at Harlem night spots. Carter briefly attended Wilberforce University, but left school to play with Horace Henderson’s Wilberforce Collegians. In 1928, Carter joined the Charlie Johnson’s Orchestra and although he had no formal music training, he arranged the sound for the recordings Charleston is the Best Dance After All and Easy Money. His growing reputation as a performer and arranger led to his appointment as musical director for the Detroit-based McKinney’s Cotton Pickers. By 1932, Carter was back in Harlem, forming his own band with such jazz performers as Teddy Wilson and Dickey Wells.

Although fellow musicians praised Carter’s band, commercial success was difficult during the early Depression years. Thus, he welcomed the 1933 opportunity to join the Willie Lewis Band based in Paris. While in Europe, Carter played a season at a Dutch seaside resort with an interracial band, a breakthrough moment for integration in jazz. Carter also worked with the British Broadcasting System as an arranger for jazz programs. Carter, however, missed the burgeoning swing music scene in the United States and returned to Harlem in 1938 and quickly found work arranging the recordings for major jazz figures Lionel Hampton, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Tommy Dorsey. In 1941, Carter formed a short-lived sextet which included Dizzy Gillespie and Kenny Clarke. The following year, he moved to California where he began a successful film-scoring career, including film scores for Stormy Weather (1943), An American in Paris (1951), and The Gene Krupa Story (1959). While focusing on his career in film and the emerging television industry, Carter continued to perform as a soloist and toured with such all-star groups as Jazz at the Philharmonic and recorded on the Verve record label.

In the 1970s, Carter expanded rather than contracted his activities, touring in the Middle East under the sponsorship of the State Department. He also developed a large following in Japan, frequently commuting to Tokyo for performances. Carter also educated Americans on the importance of jazz by conducting seminars at Princeton, which awarded him an honorary doctorate in 1974. Carter continued to record with jazz giants such as Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie and in the 1980s, Carter produced two of his most notable recordings: A Gentleman and His Music (1985) and I’m in for Swing (1987).

Carter’s contributions to jazz were recognized with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1987, and in 1996 he was honored by the Kennedy Center. The King’s career spanned seven decades. After retiring from performing in 1997, Carter died on July 12, 2003, from bronchitis.

References and Further Reading
  • Berger, Monroe, Edward Berger, and James Berger. 1982 Ben Carter: A Life in American Music. Scarecrow Press, 198 Lanham, MD.
  • Carter, Benny. 1998 Benny Carter Collection. Milwaukee, WI: Hal Leonard Corporation.
  • Lewis, Floyd. 2000 Classic Jazz: A Personal View of the Music and the Musicians. University of California Press Berkeley.
  • Shipton, Alyn. 2007 A New History of Jazz. Continuum New York.
  • Briley, Ron
    Copyright 2010 by ABC-CLIO, LLC

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