Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Benny Carter, 1907 – 2003: A Tribute

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

One bright, sunny day “when the world was young,” a business luncheon found me in Pasadena, CA.

Located a few miles northeast of Los Angeles, CA., and because of this proximity, always considered a part of “old” California, the city is nestled in a valley just below the majestic San Gabriel Mountains.

The site for the meeting was The Athenaeum Club which is adjacent to the California Institute of Technology [Cal Tech] campus.

The Athenaeum is a members-only club that offers dining and lodging privileges to Cal Tech faculty, students and alumni, as well as, to employees of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and at the Huntington Museum/Library, both of which are also in Pasadena.

I was early for the meeting and the maître d'hôtel welcomed me to visit the club’s inner courtyard and gardens while I waited for my party to arrive.

Upon entering these areas, I noticed a vaguely familiar face seated on a bench in a shaded alcove. He was hunched over with this hands on his knees looking at an LP cover.

At his feet was a bag with the distinctive logo of Poo Bah's a record store that for many years was situated in an old house in Pasadena at the corner of Wilson and Walnut.

As I walked in his direction, it dawned on me that the man starring so intently at album cover was saxophonist Bill Perkins.

I had met Bill many years earlier during the making of his Quietly There LP as Victor Feldman and Larry Bunker, both of whom I studied with, invited me to a few of its recording sessions in the fall of 1966.

Bill looked up as I approached where he was sitting, smiled and with a brief nod in my direction, went back to examining the album.

I caught enough of a look at the album cover to recognize it as Benny Carter’s Aspects [United Artists 4017/5017S].

My recognition of it startled me into saying to him: “I have that record and you are Bill Perkins.”

To which he smiled, nodded and ask me to sit down.

I had forgotten that Bill had an engineering degree from Cal Tech which granted him alumni privileges at The Athenaeum. If I remember correctly, he was there to attend some sort of forum on acoustics that was scheduled to take place in one of the club’s small conference rooms. Bill had a long-standing interest in recording music.

After exchanging a few brief pleasantries, Bill looked down at the LP that he was still holding in his hands and said: “I was supposed to play on this date, but couldn’t make it, so Buddy Collette took my place.”

During the course of our brief conversation, I was struck by the respect that Bill evidenced for Benny Carter. I had always known of “Perk’s” fondness for the playing of tenor saxophonist Lester Young, but his knowledge of Benny’s career and his appreciation for his gifts as a musician was something that I hadn’t expected from such a “modern” musician.

When I said as much, Bill commented that while Benny’s first arrangements dated back to those he did for the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra in the late 1920s, the charts on the Aspects album prove that his writing was up-to-date and current. “You might think that you were listening to Hefti or Mancini.”

Bill also offered that much of what Benny wrote during his career went unnoticed because it wasn’t recorded under his own name or because he wrote it for others while not calling attention to himself. “The man was such a Pro: he just did his job and went on to the next one.” [I was almost tempted to say, “Just like you, Bill,” but had the good sense not to]

Bill then looked at me over his reading glasses and said: “Do you realize that Benny Carter has been around since the very beginning of Jazz?”

What neither of us realized when Bill made this statement was that Benny was to also be around for another twenty years! He lived from 1907-2003!!

My luncheon guests arrived and I said goodbye to Bill and thanked him for the nice chat.

When I came across the Aspects CD recently, I remembered this brief visit with Bill and the memory of it also served to remind me that I had been remiss about not honoring Benny Carter – one of the Founding Fathers of Jazz - and his eight-decade contributions to its development with a piece on JazzProfiles plus a tribute video.

What follows is the editorial staff at JazzProfiles efforts to remedy this oversight.

The audio track to this video is Benny Carter’s arrangement of June is Busting Out All Over which features solos by trumpeter Joe Gordon, Frank Rosolino on trombone, Benny on alto saxophone and Shelly Manne on drums.

And here are the insert notes that Ed Berger of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University prepared for the CD release of this recording. Ed is also the author of Benny Carter: A Life in American Music.

© -Ed Berger, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“In a seven-decade recording career as notable for its sustained creativity as for its unprece­dented longevity, Benny Carter has created master­pieces in several eras and many different genres. Yet even amidst this monumental body of work, Aspects is a landmark. Apart from its considerable intrinsic musical value. Aspects attests to Carter's continued mastery of a genre he helped pioneer: big band Jazz. Carter, of course, was a prime architect of the swing era through his prescient arrangements for Fletcher Henderson and others in the late 1920s and earlv 1930s. as well as for his own legendary orchestras beginning in 1933.

By 1958, when Aspects was recorded. Carter was deeply ensconced in the Hollywood stu­dios as an arranger, composer, and player, dividing his time between many diverse film and television assignments and occasional Jazz recordings. The latter included several memorable small group ses­sions but, apart from a few isolated tracks. Aspects was the only big band recording by Carter as leader from 1946 (when he disbanded his last regular orchestra) to 1987 (the year of his epic encounter with the American Jazz Orchestra).

Despite this four-decade hiatus, Carter had by no means divorced himself from big band arranging and composing. In addition to jazz-influenced film and television scores, he wrote material for two Basie albums, Kansas City Suite (1960) and The Legend (1961), which became milestones of the "New Testament" Basie orchestra.

Carter's activities as arranger/conductor for many top vocalists yielded big band gems for Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, and Louis Armstrong, among others. But Aspects stands virtually alone as documentation of his unique orchestral approach during a transitional period for jazz in general and for Carter in particular.

The "jazz calendar" concept might at first glance seem a contrived and limiting marketing department gimmick. Indeed, when the album was repackaged only a couple of years after its release, its title was changed from Aspects to Jazz Calendar to further underscore the theme. But the idea yield­ed some fine material, and for those months for which no appropriate pieces existed Carter (and in one case Hal Schaefer) provided attractive originals.

The musicians Carter assembled for Aspects included many big band veterans who formed the pool of versatile Hollywood studio play­ers. While not a working band, they played togeth­er on a daily basis in various combinations and per­mutations in the exacting world of studio work, often under Carter's baton. What the band may have lacked in individual character it more than made up for in precision and polish.

Furthermore. Carter's writing is so distinctive that any orchestra performing his work—from a college stage band to top-flight professionals such as these — immediately takes on some of the musical character of the arranger.

The reed section is the signature of any Carter-led orchestra, and Aspects is no excep­tion. The saxes serve as a cushion for the soloists, provide melodic counterpoint to the brass, and leap to the fore in the patented solo passages for which Carter is famous. But here Carter achieves a bal­ance among the sections which was not always pre­sent on his early arrangements. Although this orchestral symmetry is evident throughout, it is per­haps best demonstrated by the remarkable "June Is Bustin' Out All Over" where Carter ingeniously alternates melodic, harmonic, and even rhythmic roles among the saxes, trumpets, and trombones.

The unifying clement throughout is Carter's sublime alto. While Carter shines on every track, high points include his two quintessential choruses on his own "March Wind," the way he integrates his solo work into his arrangement on "June Is Bustin...", his brief melody statement and solo on -September Song," and his work on the two small group performances: "One Morning In May" and "August Moon." (Incidentally, some 35 years later Carter incorporated the latter's haunting theme into his Tales Of The Rising Sun suite.)

Among the other fine soloists, Frank Rosolino and the underrated Joe Gordon stand out. The spark supplied by Shelly Manne must also be noted. His swing, drive, and taste show why he was so in demand as a big band drummer before con­centrating on small group settings.

The discovery that the mono and stereo issues of Aspects contain different takes for four tracks is a fascinating discographical anomaly. In the early days of stereo, separate recording setups were used for the stereo and mono versions. Apparently, during mastering, different takes were inadvertently used. Although the routines arc the same, there are slight differences in the perfor­mances. For example, the tempos are faster on the stereo versions of "June Is Bustin..." and "Swingin" In November." Another discographical oddity: Leonard Feather, who wrote the original liner notes, points out that it is Carter who plays the sleigh bells that open and close "Sleigh Ride In July" — yet another double for the multi-instrumentalist!

Almost forty years have passed since the recording of Aspects. By 1958, at age 51, Benny Carter was already being viewed as a historic figure if not an elder statesman of jazz. Incredibly, in 1996, as this album is being prepared for reissue, Carter has just completed two major commissions: one for the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and one for the Library of Congress. Both involved extend­ed works, with Carter himself as the featured soloist. With a constant flow of classic reissues such as Aspects and ambitious new recording pro­jects, this is indeed a fortuitous time for Benny Carter fans.

- Ed Berger

Institute of Jazz Studies, Rutgers University (Co-author, Benny Carter: A Life in American Music)”