Program : 
I'm in the Mood for Swing: A Tribute to the Life and Music of Benny Carter

Benny Carter photo courtesy

On this edition of Riverwalk Jazz, The Jim Cullum Jazz Band welcomes the great multi-instrumentalist; composer and arranger Benny Carter, captured live at The Landing jazz club in San Antonio in March 1992.


For over six decades, Benny Carter occupied a unique place in American music and jazz. He wrote the music for dozens of films, television series and hundreds of jazz pieces. As a bandleader and arranger in the 1930s, Carter defined big band swing. He not only wrote musical arrangements for the ensembles he led, but he wrote music for virtually all the great swing bands of the era, including Fletcher Henderson, Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller. Benny Carter was known for taking chances on innovative young musicians and gave important breaks to Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach and Miles Davis. As a player, Benny has recorded on five instruments: trumpet, clarinet, trombone, piano, and the instrument he’s best known for—alto saxophone.


Musicians who had the good fortune to play with Benny Carter recall their experience with reverence. According to trumpet player Doc Cheatham, everyone he knew wanted to be in a Benny Carter band. Doc said, “We broke our necks to get into Benny’s band. We never even asked how much money we’d make.” Bassist Hayes Alvis said that working with Benny Carter was the happiest time in his life. “If a musician could hold a chair with Benny, he’d have it made. Every bandleader in the business would hire you if you made the grade with Benny Carter.” When jazz pianist Teddy Wilson was asked what the greatest influence on his playing was, he said, “Playing classical music and being around Benny Carter. Benny played that flowing saxophone every night and that came out in my piano playing.”


Benny Carter 36

Benny Carter, 1936. Photo courtesy Rutgers University, Institute of Jazz Studies.

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Benny Carter wrote “Krazy Kapers” (a riff tune based on the chord changes of “Diga Diga Doo” performed here in a hot rendition by The Jim Cullum Cullum Jazz Band). Carter first recorded it on October 10, 1933 with The Chocolate Dandies. Pianist Teddy Wilson had arrived in New York the night before the session to join Carter’s band; tenor saxophonist Chu Berry and drummer ‘Big’ Sid Catlett were also on hand. “Once Upon A Time,” another Carter original from that session, featured Carter on trumpet; here The Jim Cullum Jazz Band does the honors.


Bennett Lester Carter was born in 1907 in the Bronx. He began life in an apartment on West 63d St. in a tough neighborhood, sometimes called “San Juan Hill” or “The Jungles.” Today that neighborhood is the site of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, a venue where Benny Carter has conducted and performed many times. The Carters were a musical family. They always had a piano in the house, and Benny’s father played guitar. His mother gave Benny his first piano lessons when he was 10 years old, and then sent him and his sisters to a piano teacher in the neighborhood.  Benny sang in the Episcopal choir in a church nearby. It was obvious that he had a true gift for music. His mother thought he should learn to play the violin, but Benny wanted to play a horn. On our radio show, he recalls:


“As far as I can remember, my first real step in music was when I bought a trumpet. I took it home on a weekend. I think I was fourteen years old. I had been paying on it for months—33 weeks at a dollar a week, and I picked it up on a Saturday.  Over the weekend I found I couldn’t play it. I thought I was going to be an instant Bubber Miley. He was a musician who lived around the corner from us and played with the Duke Ellington Orchestra. I admired him very much, especially for his great success with the Orchestra. He walked from our street to the subway station at 66th St. and go to Harlem, and he let me carry his horn for those few blocks. By Monday I realized it would take more than two days to play like Bubber Miley. I took the trumpet back and traded it for a saxophone because I had been told, erroneously of course, that a saxophone was easier to learn. Nothing is easy to learn.”



Benny Carter. Photo courtesy Rutgers University, Institute of Jazz Studies

Bubber Miley wasn’t the only professional musician Benny Carter knew as a kid. His cousin Cuban Bennett was a well-known trumpet player in Harlem nightclubs in the 1920s. Cuban was greatly admired by fellow musicians Roy Eldridge and Rex Stewart for his advanced musical ideas, and he had a tremendous impact on his young cousin. Benny Carter continues his story:


“Cuban Bennett was the greatest. He had a big, beautiful tone, no gimmicks, and he was very, very musical. Whatever gift I have I feel I got from him. He certainly inspired me. When I blew trumpet I always wanted to feel that it related to what he did, at least I’d be flattered to feel that it did.”


In 1923 Benny Carter’s family moved out of the ‘Jungles’ and up to Harlem, which was uptown, upbeat and alive with jazz. Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith said, “I’d rather be a fly on a lamp post in Harlem than a millionaire anywhere else.” At clubs and “taxi-dance” halls, Benny sat in on sessions and played with jazz greats like Sidney Bechet, James P. Johnson and Count Basie. Carter was invited to play with Duke Ellington’s Orchestra and Horace Henderson’s Wilberforce Collegians. He settled into a job at Small’s Paradise playing with the ‘swingingest’ band in town led by Charlie Johnson.


Carter fit right into the music scene he found in Harlem. At 20 years old, he composed and published his first song, “Nobody Knows” in collaboration with Fats Waller. That same year, the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra recorded his first musical arrangement, “PDQ Blues.” A year later at 21, Benny was leading his own band at Harlem’s flashy nightspot—the Savoy.


On November 6, 1929, Benny Carter took part in an historic recording session for the Victor label. That day, McKinney’s Cotton Pickers put together a band with Fats Waller on piano, Coleman Hawkins on tenor, and Don Redman and Benny Carter on alto saxophones. Carter’s playing, heard on this week’s show in an historical recording of “I'd Love It” then live on stage is magnificent in both the 1929 and the 1992 renditions.


Fletcher Henderson

Fletcher Henderson photo courtesy

By 1931, Carter was playing in Fletcher Henderson’s band and arranging for the group on a regular basis. It was here that Benny had his first introduction to a freewheeling, fast-dealing music publisher Irving Mills. Mills bought a tune from Benny for $25, then dashed off a lyric, put his own name on the number as the composer and recorded it with a band he dubbed, “King Carter and His Royal Orchestra.” Benny Carter wasn’t even invited to play on the session! Amazingly Irving Mills managed to get away with collecting all the royalties on Benny’s composition for 28 years. It’s been played and recorded many times by many groups through the years; here Benny Carter sits in on alto with the Cullum Band on his composition “Blues in My Heart.”


In the early 30s Carter led his own band in long engagements around New York at the Harlem Club, the Apollo Theater, and the Empire Ballroom. In 1935 he travelled to Europe to play with the Willie Lewis Orchestra. He landed in Paris and began playing in clubs. He’d sit in, sometimes on piano, with Stéphane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt in the famous Quintette of the Hot Club of France. A year later he moved on to London to take a position writing music arrangements for live broadcasts by the BBC Dance Orchestra. In an interview with Riverwalk Jazz host David Holt, Benny tells the story…


Benny with JCJB

Benny Carter with Jim Cullum and Eddie Torres. Photo courtesy Riverwalk Jazz

“When I first went to Europe I went to join Willie Lewis’ Orchestra in Paris where I played in a club with him for nine months, and then I went to England to work for the BBC, thanks to the efforts of Leonard Feather. I didn’t know Leonard Father personally at that time, but I knew him through his writing, and he knew me through my music. The job with Henry Hull at the BBC meant that I wrote about, oh, three to six arrangements a week for a full orchestra with a string section. That’s one, maybe two arrangements a day. Working for the BBC was almost like writing for the Hit Parade, which I did later, back in the States. I enjoyed England very much and still do. I like Europe professionally, musically and socially.”


Benny Carter was in demand to play dates all over Europe. He toured Denmark, Sweden, Holland and France and made some memorable recordings for the Vocalion label in London. In spite of all his great success abroad, eventually he wanted nothing more than to return to the States and make music with his old friends in New York. Two months after he came back in 1938, he was in the studio with Lionel Hampton in an all-star band making a record for the Victor label of his now classic “I'm In the Mood for Swing.”  The Jim Cullum Jazz Band welcomes Benny Carter on alto saxophone to the bandstand at The Landing.


On this edition of our radio show, series Host David Holt asks Benny Carter about who, other than his cousin Cuban Bennett, was his greatest musical influence. Carter responds,


“I guess really my greatest influence was Doc Cheatham. He made a trumpet player out of me. He played lead trumpet in my orchestra in 1932. I didn’t own a trumpet at that time, but he’d give me his, and he encouraged me, saying, “take this horn and go up to the microphone and play.” His big sound was what I wanted to get, and with his encouragement and his insistence, I learned to play the trumpet— thanks to Doc Cheatham.”


When Lights are Low

"When Lights are Low" sheet music. Images courtesy

Holt then asks Carter about his influences on the saxophone, and Carter mentions the great Jazz Age saxophone pioneer Frank Trumbauer. In an observation about the proper place of technique in jazz, Carter admires Trumbauer’s restraint despite possessing great technical facility on his instrument.  He says that Trumbauer “had it all under his fingers but wouldn’t make useless use of a lot of notes.”


Also featured on the playlist for this radio show is an original John Sheridan arrangement of “When Lights Are Low,” composed in 1936 (with the lyric by Spencer Williams), arguably Carter’s best-known original tune. It has been covered by Lionel Hampton, Sarah Vaughan, Tony Bennett and many others. The harmonic complexity of the tune’s bridge section (it goes through four different keys in the space of 8 bars) was very rare for 1936 but had become a commonplace of jazz composition by the 1950s. Ironically, Miles Davis recorded the tune in 1956—but simplified the bridge’s chord changes.

Other original Carter tunes on this week’s show:


Sympony in Riffs

"Symphony in Riffs" record label.

  • “Symphony In Riffs,” from 1933, the title of a 1989 TV documentary about Benny Carter for the A & E cable TV network. The producers made available to Riverwalk Jazz selected quotes from musicians and writers appearing in the film: Leonard Feather, Andre Previn, Quincy Jones and Ella Fitzgerald.
  • “People Time” written by Benny Carter as part of a suite celebrating the American Bicentennial in 1976 for an animated film, People, People, People.
  • Carter contributes a spirited vocal on his “All That Jazz.”
  • Our show wraps up with Benny Carter playing a duet with trombonist Mike Pittsley on Carter’s “Wonderland.”


Photo credit for Home Page: Benny Carter photo courtesy