Benny Carter, a master of the alto saxophone whose compositions and arrangements for big bands, vocalists, film and television scores were consistently admired, died Saturday morning at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in L.A. He was 95.
Carter had been hospitalized for about two weeks with bronchitis and other problems.
His influence as a performer stretched from the 1920s through the 1990s. He worked as an arranger in the ’30s and ’40s for nearly every major big band, leading his own smaller groups from the early ’50s on and composing extensively for film and TV. Acclaim for Carter’s soft and penetrating style of playing the alto sax came from both critics and his peers; Louis Armstrong once said, “Everybody that knows who he is calls him ‘King.’ He is a king.” ‘
While he was never an activist, Carter was a leader in bringing the racially divided L.A. chapters of the musicians’ union under a single roof. In Holland in the late 1930s, Carter led the first international, interracial band.
Born Bennett Lester Carter in New York City, he was largely self-taught as a musician. He received piano lessons at 10, picked up the trumpet at 14 and, a week later, started on the saxophone. He was playing Harlem nightclubs at 15.
Carter made his recording and arranging debut in 1928 with Charlie Johnson’s Orchestra. Later that year, he joined Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra, taking over the arranging from Don Redman. Carter’s scores, and in particular his writing for reed instruments, revitalized the band. Scholar Gunther Schuller once said, “Carter was now the arranger everyone followed.”
As musical director of McKinney’s Cotton Pickers in Detroit, Carter returned to the trumpet; his trumpet recordings with the group in the early 1930s rivaled his alto work. (He would later play trumpet with Fats Waller, guitarist Django Reinhardt and others, clarinet with Lionel Hampton and Ben Webster.)
Carter returned to New York and formed the first band of his own in 1932, but with little commercial success, the act disbanded in 1934. He went on to Paris in 1935 to play with Willie Lewis’ orchestra and then became arranger for the BBC Dance Orchestra. For the next three years, Carter played and recorded with the top British, French and Scandinavian jazzmen as well as with visiting American stars such as Coleman Hawkins.
He returned to the U.S. in 1938 and led a big band (1939-41) and then a sextet. In 1943, he relocated permanently to Los Angeles, appearing in the film “Stormy Weather,” which led to more film work. Carter wrote for the studios for more than 50 years, but he continued to record as a bandleader and with singers such as Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald in the 1940s and ’50s, as well as touring with Norman Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic program.
In 1961, Carter made what many consider his finest recording, “Further Definitions,” a session in which he duplicated the instrumentation of a session from 1937.
For the rest of the ’60s, Carter didn’t tour, instead working almost exclusively on film and TV scores, having become busy in the 1950s: He arranged the music for “An American in Paris,” (1951), “The Five Pennies” (1959) and “The Guns of Navarone” (1961), among others.
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).
In the mid-’70s, Carter returned to nightclubs. He recorded for Pablo in the late 1970s and early ’80s and then for the MusicMasters label into the mid-1990s.
Carter was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1987 and won two Grammys outright (in 1992 and ’94). He also received the congressional designation as a National Treasure of Jazz in 1988 and, in 2000, the National Medal of Arts from President Clinton.
In 1996, the Library of Congress commissioned Carter to write “Peaceful Warrior,” which was dedicated to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. His last major work, “Echoes of San Juan Hill,” was performed by Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, with Carter, then 89 years old, as featured soloist.
Carter is survived by his wife, Hilma, a daughter from a previous marriage, one grandchild and one great-grandchild.