3 things to know about Benny Carter, an unsung champion of jazz
Since 2001, Jazz Appreciation Month (popularly known as "JAM") has encouraged people around the world to spend April celebrating the music form's history and heritage and participating in jazz in some way—listening, playing, or learning. As the original home of JAM, the National Museum of American History selects a jazz musician each year to feature on the annual JAM poster as a salute his or her contributions to jazz. Past posters have featured Billy Strayhorn, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, and others.
This year, we've chosen performer, bandleader, and composer Benny Carter (1907–2003) as our featured musician for the 2016 JAM poster. Carter, a titan of jazz in many ways, is mainly remembered for his role in promoting the alto saxophone as a lead solo instrument in jazz bands. But his work and multiple instrumental talents have often been overlooked in the larger story of jazz history.
Carter donated his archives to the museum in 2000—and this year's poster features a photograph from the Benny Carter Collection, now housed in the museum's Archives Center. We've dug through his archives, notes, and photographs to bring you three interesting facts that you should know about Benny Carter, just in time for Jazz Appreciation Month.
1. Benny Carter may be the only musician to have recorded music on a horn in the 1920s and surfed his own website in the 1990s.
Carter recorded, composed, and performed music for eight decades. His mother taught him how to play piano at an early age, but he was quickly drawn to the trumpet. Aiming to buy a trumpet, the young musician saved for months. But when his first weekend with the instrument didn't make him a trumpet pro, he decided to trade it in for a saxophone.
For the most part, Carter taught himself to play, but he made rapid progress. He went from playing dime dance palaces in New York to sitting in on performances in Harlem nightclubs as a teen. He would later return to and master the trumpet, as well as the trombone, piano, and clarinet.
Carter made his first documented recording in 1928 with bandleader Charlie Johnson. He would continue to produce several records every decade until his last album, Tickle Toe, in 1997. For the first half of his career, Carter played in orchestras, starting in New York, before moving to tour in Europe in 1935. With World War II looming, he returned to New York in 1938 to play regularly with his big band orchestra at Harlem's Savoy Ballroom. In the early 1940s, Carter moved out to the West Coast and transitioned to smaller groups and started his septet with Dizzy Gillespie. In the later decades of his life, he toured as a soloist nationally and in the Middle East and Japan.
Carter was also a celebrated arranger and composer, regarded as one of the principal architects of the big band swing style for his work in the 1920s for the orchestras of Fletcher Henderson, Benny Goodman, Chick Webb, and many others. His composing and arranging work followed him to the West Coast, where he arranged and conducted for film and television, and for almost every major popular singer, including Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Ray Charles, and Louis Armstrong.
2. Benny Carter's work broke many racial boundaries for future generations.
When Carter began his musical career in the 1920s, white musicians would occasionally play at African American nightclubs, but African Americans were not allowed to even visit the white nightclubs of New York. For Carter, however, the color of skin did not matter; what mattered was a musician's quality of music. In 1936, Carter became a bandleader for the first interracial, multinational band.
"The point was," he observed, "getting the best musicians available who were interested in doing this gig."
He spent three years touring Europe with this orchestra, which helped spread jazz across the continent. In the 1940s, Carter took his composing and arranging talents to Hollywood, becoming one of the first African Americans to enter the industry and paving the way for others to follow him.
Beyond music, Carter attempted to free himself and other African Americans from racial restrictions. In 1944, Carter and his wife, Ynez, purchased a home in Los Angeles from owners who had signed an agreement to prevent the home from being owned by any non-white person. In a lawsuit on the matter, Carter's neighbor, Edythe Davis, testified that she did not object to having "colored people" as domestic workers in her home, but did not want them as "social equals" in her neighborhood. Carter won the case and in 1948, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that restrictive covenants, such as discrimination in housing practices, were unenforceable in Shelley v. Kraemer.
3. Benny Carter was one of the first African Americans to work in the film industry, producing soundtracks for hit films and TV shows.
In 1943, music publisher Irving Mills was co-producing a film called Stormy Weather, and asked Benny Carter to be the film's music arranger. Carter agreed and would wake up early to write for the studio, and then work nights performing and writing songs for his band.
With increasing demands from movie studios, in 1946 Carter disbanded his orchestra to work full time on scoring for motion pictures. He would continue to write for popular shows and movies, including The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952), The Five Pennies (1959), and Buck and the Preacher (1972), and for the televisions series M Squad, Ironside, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, and Bob Hope Presents. By bringing jazz into film soundtracks. Carter helped pave the way for other African American music arrangers, such as Quincy Jones, to gain respect in film and television music production.
We're honored to feature Benny Carter on the poster this year and feature his music in a special evening performance and in four free daytime concerts right here at the museum. 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."
Want to learn more about this giant of jazz? Interested in the JAM 2016 poster? Stop by the Jazz Appreciation Month page to listen to Benny Carter’s oral history, request your own copy of the poster for Jazz Appreciation Month while supplies last, and mark your calendar for our concert series.
Regan Shrumm is an intern in the Division of Culture and the Arts. She recently finished her master's degree in Art History and Visual Studies at the University of Victoria.
Meg Salocks works with the jazz and food history programs at the museum. She recommends you sign up for the Smithsonian Jazz Newsletter to learn more and see the upcoming concert schedule.