Benny Carter, legendary sax player, composer and arranger, dies at 95

Monday, July 14th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ Jazz great Benny Carter hardly ever looked back. He enjoyed whatever he was doing at the moment _ composing or arranging, improvising on the alto sax or trumpet, leading a band or making opportunities for other black musicians.

``I don't look back at the good old days,'' Carter once said. ``The good old days are here and now.''

Carter died Saturday at age 95 after being hospitalized for about two weeks with bronchitis and other problems, family friend and publicist Virginia Wicks said Sunday.

``A big, big person walked out of the room yesterday,'' said friend and producer Quincy Jones. ``A great human being.''

In a career that spanned more than six decades, Carter performed with or wrote music for nearly all of jazz's swing-era greats, including Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Dizzy Gillespie and Glenn Miller.

Carter's compositions, which include ``When Lights Are Low'' (1936) and ``Blues in My Heart'' (1931), became jazz and big band standards, and many saxophone and trumpet players continue to measure their work against his solos.

Bennett Lester Carter was born Aug. 8, 1907, in New York. He took piano lessons from his mother when he was 10 and picked up the trumpet four years later.

After failing to learn it in a week, though, Carter put down the trumpet and picked up the saxophone. He eventually did master the brass instrument _ only a year later. By age 15, he was a regular at Harlem night clubs.

Despite being mostly self-taught, Carter became known as a virtuoso instrumentalist. Critics and his fellow musicians credited his originality and improvisation with helping launch the golden age of big band jazz in the 1930s.

``You got Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and my man, the Earl of Hines, right? Well, Benny's right up there with all them cats,'' Louis Armstrong once said. ``Everybody that knows who he is calls him `King.' He is a king.''

His foray into arranging began in 1928 when he was a member of Charlie Johnson's Orchestra. In 1943, Carter was the arranger for ``Stormy Weather,'' an all black musical. He went on to arrange the scores for ``An American in Paris'' (1951) and ``The Guns of Navarone'' (1961).

He later composed and arranged music for 20 television series, including ``M Squad,'' (1957-60) ``Ironside,'' (1967-75) ``The Name of the Game'' (1968-71) and ``It Takes a Thief'' (1968-70).

It was his composing and arranging that opened doors for many of his fellow black musicians. He used his influence to push successfully to desegregate the Musicians' Union's white and black locals.

Carter put together his own orchestra in 1932 but disbanded it a year later.

In 1942, he reorganized the group, which included bebop pioneers Gillespie and Kenny Clarke and later Miles Davis. He called it quits again in 1946 in part because of his growing Hollywood career.

Carter stopped touring altogether in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1976, he returned to performing live in New York and later that year recorded ``The King,'' which featured duets with Gillespie.

Carter was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1987 and the congressional designation as a National Treasure of Jazz in 1988.

He enjoyed a resurgence in the 1990s for a series of albums on the MusicMasters label, winning two more Grammy Awards and receiving a Kennedy Center lifetime achievement award.

In 2000, he was presented with the National Medal of Arts by President Clinton.

Jones said he visited Carter in the hospital and had the sense that ``the king'' had simply decided it was time to go.

``He said he had lived, for 95 years, the greatest life he could ask for, and he wanted to leave us like he lived with us, which was in such dignity,'' Jones said.