For over six decades, Benny Carter occupied a unique place in American music. As Duke Ellington once wrote: “The problem of expressing the contributions that Benny Carter has made to popular music is so tremendous it completely fazes me, so extraordinary a musician is he.”
Born in New York in 1907, Carter received his first music lessons on piano from his mother. He was attracted to the trumpet through his cousin, the legendary Cuban Bennett, and a neighbor, the great Ellington brass man Bubber Miley. Carter saved for months to buy a trumpet but, failing to master it over the weekend, he exchanged it for a C-melody saxophone. Frankie Trumbauer was an early inspiration to the young Benny, who was largely self-taught. By age fifteen, Carter was already sitting in at Harlem night spots.
As a soloist, Carter, along with Johnny Hodges, was the model for Swing Era alto saxophonists. He is nearly unique in his ability to double on trumpet, which he plays in an equally distinctive style. In addition, he is an accomplished clarinetist, and has recorded proficiently on piano and trombone. As an arranger, he helped chart the course of big band jazz, and his compositions, such as “When Lights Are Low” and “Blues In My Heart,” have become jazz standards. Carter has also made major musical contributions to the world of film and television. His musicianship and personality have won him the respect of fellow artists and audiences on every continent.