A Year: Day to Day Men: 8th of August

Lounging on White Cotton

August 8, 1907 was the birthdate of jazz saxophonist Bennett Lester Carter.

Bennett Carter appeared on record for the first time in 1927 as a member of the Paradise Ten led by Charlie Johnson. He did arrangement work for recordings by Fletcher Henderson and his band. Carter’s arrangement of the 1930 “Keep a Song in Your Soul” for Henderson was very complex and a significant song in his career. After leaving Fletcher, Carter became leader of McKinney’s Cotton Pickers in Detroit until he formed his own band in New York City. The songs “Lonesome Nights” and Symphony in Riffs” written in 1933 show Carter’s masterful writing for saxophones.

By the early 1930s Bennett Carter was considered one of the leading alto saxophonists. He also became known as a leading trumpet player, having rediscovered the instrument from his childhood. Carter’s orchestra played the Harlem Club in New York but only recorded a few records for Columbia, Okeh (under the name of “The Chocolate Dandies”), and Vocalion.

In the middle 1940s, Bennett Carter made Los Angeles his home, forming another big band, which at times included Max Roach, JJ Johnson, and Miles Davis. But this would be the last big bands he would lead. With the exception of occasional concerts, performing with Jazz at the Philharmonic, and recording, he ceased working as a touring big band bandleader. Los Angeles provided him many opportunities for studio work, and these dominated his time during the next decades. He wrote music and arrangements for television and films, such as “Stormy Weather” in 1943. During the 1950s and ‘60s, he wrote many arrangements for vocalists such as Sarah Vaughan, Ray Charles, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, and Peggy Lee.

In 1969, Carter was persuaded to spend a weekend at Princeton University by Monroe Berger, a sociology professor at Princeton who wrote about jazz. This led to a new outlet for Carter’s talent: teaching. For the next nine years he visited Princeton five times, most of them brief stays except for one in 1973 when he spent a semester there as a visiting professor. In 1974 Princeton gave him an honorary doctorate. He conducted teaching at workshops and seminars at several other universities and was a visiting lecturer at Harvard.

Bennett Carter had an unusually long career. He was perhaps the only musician to have recorded in eight different decades. Another characteristic of his career was its versatility as musician, bandleader, arranger, and composer. He helped define the sound of alto saxophone, but he also performed and recorded on soprano saxophone, tenor saxophone, trumpet, trombone, clarinet, and piano. Carter received the Jazz Masters Award in 1986 given by the National Endowment for the Arts. In 2000 he was awarded the National Medal of Arts created by the United States Congress.

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