Thursday, August 9, 2007
Taking the measure of a great artist is never an easy task, but when you’re trying to figure the dimensions of a giant like Benny Carter, the job is nearly impossible.
With a career spanning almost the entire history of jazz, Carter was a creative force for so long that he ended up absorbing influences from musicians who were originally schooled on his innovations. Along with Johnny Hodges, he pioneered the use of the alto saxophone in jazz (with a style that sounds as sophisticated today as it did in the 1930s). He went on to become one of the swing era’s finest trumpeters, an unprecedented feat. As an arranger, composer and bandleader, Carter made brilliant contributions. But by the time he passed away in 2003 at the age of 95, his vast range of achievements seemed overlooked, except by his musical peers, who had long ago crowned him King Carter.
The powerhouse Bay Area saxophonist Mel Martin is doing his part to keep Carter’s music in the spotlight, and has organized a talent-laden tour celebrating the King’s legacy on the occasion of his 100th birthday. Martin, who forged a deep friendship with Carter in the 1980s and ’90s, brings the Benny Carter Centennial Tribute Band to the Jazz & Blues Company on Saturday, featuring the prodigious pianist Roger Kellaway, Cal Tjader bassist Robb Fisher, drummer Sylvia Cuenca, and alto saxophonist Andrew Speight, who was also a close friend of Carter’s.
“In my opinion Benny Carter is the most underrated musician of the 20th century,” says Martin, who recently released Just Friends, a lovely live album he recorded with Carter at Yoshi’s in 1994.
“It’s controversial to say this, but he was as good a composer as Ellington and Strayhorn. He was a great trumpeter. He recorded with Billie Holiday on clarinet. Stan Getz did one thing great. He played a beautiful tenor sax, and you could focus on him and his sound. Benny did so many things at such a high level and he was always highly regarded, but that isn’t the same as being really famous with audiences.”
One reason Carter isn’t better known in the mass media is that he was notoriously reluctant to give interviews, and when he did sit down with a journalist, he was elusive and taciturn. His friends describe him as a funny and warm raconteur, but after cooperating with Morroe Berger, Edward Berger and James Patrick on a magisterial 1,360-page biography, Carter seemed to feel he had said his piece.
I interviewed him a couple of times in the mid-‘90s, and while he was unfailingly polite, he quickly made it clear that he only wanted to discuss his most recent album. “I’ve discontinued doing interviews because I’ve pretty much said all that I have to say,” Carter said. “At my age, or at this stage, or whatever you want to call it, time is pretty much my most precious commodity.”
“He was the worst interviewee on the planet,” Martin says with a laugh. “When I was writing for Saxophone Journal, I begged him for an interview. We were at this big European festival and I said ‘Benny, I’d love to do an interview with you.’ He said ‘Why don’t you go over and interview Ornette Coleman? He’ll tell you about harmelodics.’ But when he was just talking, he told great stories. He used to love talking about Charlie Parker, who he held in the highest regard.”
Always open to new musical ideas, Carter often hired young innovators. When Wiggins was with Carter’s band, the trombone section boasted J.J. Johnson and Max Roach held down the drum chair. A little later Miles Davis joined the trumpet section. “He mentored many, many musicians,” Martin says. “Phil Woods and Jimmy Heath still talk about him.”
As vast as Carter’s musical contributions were, he was also a pioneering social figure who forced open many doors that were closed to African Americans. He was the first black arranger and composer to work in the Hollywood studios. And he played an important role in the amalgamation in Los Angeles of the black Musicians Union 747 with white Local 47.
“Benny opened the eyes of a lot of producers and studios, so that they could understand that you could go to blacks for things outside of blues and barbecue,” said Quincy Jones in the Bruce Ricker documentary Benny Carter: A Symphony in Riffs, which was recently reissued on DVD by Rhapsody Films. “He made it possible for that doubt to be taken away.”
One reason Carter sought work in the studios is that he was never able to attain fame leading an orchestra, though he contributed charts to many of the leading big bands, including Fletcher Henderson, Cab Calloway, Chick Webb, Benny Goodman and Count Basie. In his encyclopedic study The Swing Era, jazz historian Gunther Schuller offers the theory that it was “the kaleidoscopic profusion of talent which explains why Carter has never had the kind of popular success he and his musician colleagues and admirers had hoped for.” Martin is trying to make sure that the same fate doesn’t befall Carter’s reputation today.
MEL MARTIN’S BENNY CARTER CENTENNIAL TRIBUTE BAND performs 7:30pm Saturday at The Jazz & Blues Company, The Eastwood Building, San Carlos and Fifth, Carmel. $45. 624-6432. thejazzandbluescompany.com.