Jazz Great Benny Carter Dead at 95 in Los Angeles
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Legendary jazz pioneer and big band leader Benny Carter, who helped break Hollywood’s bar to black composers, died on Saturday at Cedars Sinai hospital in Los Angeles, friends said on Sunday. He was 95.
Carter, who was one of the first black composers and arrangers to work on mainstream Hollywood films, including such classics as “Stormy Weather,” had been hospitalized for about two weeks, complaining of bronchitis and fatigue, said family friend Virginia Wicks.
“If Benny was not there, we wouldn’t be here,” said composer and arranger Quincy Jones, a close friend and protege. “We walked through the door on his shoulders. He was a quiet and dignified man. And one of a kind.”
In a career that spanned seven decades, Carter played with such jazz luminaries as pianist Willie “The Lion” Smith, Fats Waller, Miles Davis and Dizzie Gillespie. He is also credited with launching Ella Fitzgerald’s career by introducing her to bandleader Chick Webb.
A largely self-taught musician, Carter established the swing-era, big band sound through ensemble compositions for the Fletcher Henderson orchestra and later his own band.
Born in 1907 in New York City, Carter studied piano with his mother and was inspired by his neighbor, Bubber Miley, a musician with Duke Ellington’s band.
He began sitting in at Harlem night spots at the age of 15, having left school. By 1928, he was recording with Henderson’s band and is credited with groundbreaking arrangements like “Keep A Song In Your Soul.”
“He was one of the architects of the big band sound,” said longtime Carter friend and biographer Ed Berger.
Carter applied the principles of the jazz solo to whole sections of the orchestra in a way that made them swing as they never had before, said Berger.
As a result, the major big bands at the peak of their popularity in the 1930s sought him out and his own orchestra attracted a who’s who of jazz musicians, including such sidemen as saxophonist Chu Berry and pianist Teddy Wilson.
“They were sort of an incubator for great soloists,” said Berger.
Carter’s compositions, including “Blues in My Heart” and “When Lights Are Low,” have become jazz standards.
In 1941, he formed a sextet that included such bebop pioneers as trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and drummer Kenny Clarke. Known as a courtly and patient mentor, Carter nurtured some of the next generation’s major stars in jazz.
“Everyone should listen to Benny Carter, he’s a whole musical education,” said Miles Davis, who played with Carter in his California-based big band that also included trombonist J.J. Johnson and drummer Max Roach.
Carter was also a pioneer in breaking down color barriers for black musicians and composers. He formed the first international and interracial band in the Netherlands in the mid-1930s and a decade later became one of the first black composers to work in film and television.
A self-effacing and private man, Carter was modest about his accomplishments. “No one was ever more articulate than Benny Carter — except about himself,” said Berger. “He would not admit that this was any great, earth-shattering thing. To him it was just another gig.”
Carter is survived by his wife, Hilma, a daughter, Joyce Mills, a grandchild and a great grandchild, said Wicks.