(8 Aug. 1907 – 12 July 2003), alto-saxophonist, arranger, composer, bandleader, and trumpeter, was born in New York City as Bennett Lester Carter. His father was a guitarist, and his mother played organ and piano. Carter began playing piano as a child and briefly took up the trumpet before concentrating on the C-melody sax. By 1924, when he began working professionally, he was playing alto sax. Carter picked up early experience by working with June Clark, Billy Paige's Broadway Syncopators, Lois Deppe's Serenaders, pianist Earl Hines, Horace Henderson's Collegians, Billy Fowler, pianist James P. Johnson, and briefly in 1927, Fletcher Henderson. That same year he became a member of Charlie Johnson's Paradise Ten. Carter made his recording debut with Johnson and was both an alto-saxophone soloist and an arranger during his year with the group. From 1928 to 1931, Benny Carter was a member of the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, gaining a strong reputation for both his playing and his writing. During this period, “Blues in My Heart” became his first original to be recorded. He spent part of 1931 with Chick Webb's band and was the musical director of McKinney's Cotton Pickers during its decline. Doubling on trumpet, Carter led his own big band from 1932 to 1934, impressing musicians with his professionalism and musicianship but failing to catch on commercially. By the early 1930s, Benny Carter was considered, along with Johnny Hodges, to be the top alto-saxophonist in jazz. His distinctive tone, relaxed style, and thoughtful solos on both alto saxophone and trumpet were appealing and reliable, while his writing for orchestras was clean, uncluttered, and full of swinging ideas. In 1934 Carter played and recorded with Willie Bryant. The following year he moved to Europe, where for three years he kept busy performing all over the continent. He worked as the staff arranger for Henry Hall's BBC Dance Orchestra, played and recorded with Willie Lewis, and led bands of his own. In recordings he was heard not only on alto saxophone and trumpet but also occasionally on clarinet, tenor sax, piano, and vocals. During this period Carter introduced his best known composition, “When Lights Are Low,” along the first jazz waltz, “Waltzing the Blues.” With war talk in the air in 1938, Benny Carter returned to the United States. He led a big band for three years, had a regular sextet, and appeared in all-star record dates. In 1943 he moved to Los Angeles, where he headed another orchestra until 1946. He became a pioneer for African Americans in the studios, writing for the 1943 film Stormy Weather (appearing on trumpet in a pianist segmentFats Waller) and becoming a regular contributor to other films during the next four decades. Benny Carter's 1943–1946 big band at times included such modern sidemen as trumpeter Miles Davis, trombonist J. J. Johnson, and drummer Max Roach. While Carter slightly modernized his own style through the years, his playing and writing was always a logical outgrowth of his development by the early 1930s, staying timeless without going stale. Carter recorded a series of impressive albums in the 1950s and occasionally toured with Norman Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic. Even after the rise of Charlie Parker and John Coltrane, he remained a vital force in jazz. Carter's 1961 album Further Definitions, which teamed his playing and writing with tenors Coleman Hawkins and Charlie Rouse and alto-saxophonist Phil Woods, was immediately considered a classic. By the mid-1960s, however, Carter was so busy with writing assignments for the Hollywood studios that he virtually retired from active playing. A decade later Benny Carter returned to the jazz scene fulltime with his playing abilities unimpaired. He recorded regularly for the Pablo label from 1976, was featured on all-star sessions, and wrote for a variety of big-band projects. An ageless performer, Carter showed little sign of decline as he progressed through the eighth decade of his musical career. In 1997 his ninetieth birthday was celebrated not just by his fellow musicians, who long ago had nicknamed him “the King,” but by Carter himself, who performed in prime form at the Hollywood Bowl, seventy years after his debut with Charlie Johnson. Shortly after his birthday, Carter retired. Although there were rumors of him learning the soprano sax and possibly making a comeback, he chose to leave the music scene in top form. Benny Carter passed away in 2003 in Los Angeles, a month shy of his ninety-sixth birthday.
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