Both John Wilson in the New York Times and Jon Thurber in the Los Angeles Times wrote ample and thoughtful obituaries of Benny Carter after he died July 12 at the age of 95, and there is no need here for me to try to embellish their accounts of his long and incredibly versatile musical career. But I have a few memories of Benny as a gentle and gracious man, and I would like to set them down. Wilson and Thurber caught this side of him a little, but it was overwhelmed, of course, by their first-rate accounts of his greatness as a musician, composer, arranger and bandleader.
I first met Benny Carter and his wife Hilma in the late 1970s when I was the correspondent of the Los Angeles Times in Toronto. Benny was on tour, playing in a small club in Toronto, and an old classmate of mine, John Moen, a professor of English at Eisenhower College in upstate New York, phoned and suggested that we meet and listen to Benny. John and I had taken a graduate fiction writing course together at the University of California in Berkeley, and John had later written several lyrics that Benny had set to music, one of the songs recorded by Dean Martin. To be honest, although I knew a good deal about early jazz in America, especially from New Orleans, I was ignorant about much of what came later, and the name Benny Carter was not a very familiar one to me. I did not show up at the Toronto club as a star struck fan. But I became one rather quickly.
What impressed me first, when he joined us after a set, was his self-confident graciousness. He may have been a great figure in American music, but he made no attempt to lord it over us. He seemed truly interested in everything we had to say. I was also astounded by his prodigious memory, especially about anything related to music. Perhaps five years earlier, I had written a feature article about Portuguese fado music, and somehow that subject slipped into our conversation. Benny, a resident of Los Angeles and a reader of the Times, recalled the article. He seemed to remember every fact set down in the piece - except the by-line. He seemed pleased to discover that I had written it.
Over the years we developed a friendship. He and Hilma would propose dinner whenever they showed up in my later postings, first Paris and then Washington. I would do the same whenever I showed up in Los Angeles. If we were lucky, and he was performing, my wife and I would join Hilma at some nightclub to listen to him play. I always had to smile about these dinner invitations. Whether he was proposing dinner or accepting it, Benny always sounded surprised and pleased that I would have the time to see him - as if it were a far greater privilege for him than me. I did not believe for a minute that this honored and revered musician believed that. He was just a very kind and gentle and thoughtful man.
He never forgot to inquire after the well-being of my children, whom he had met at one time or another over the years. In 1982, I took my 18-year-old son Sam to hear Benny play at Sweet Basil in New York. I introduced Sam to Benny before the show, and Benny gave me an inscribed copy of the new biography of him by Morroe Berger, Edward Berger and James Patrick, published by the Rutgers University Institute of Jazz Studies. During a break later in the evening, while Sam waited at the door, I approached the stage to tell Benny that we had to leave. Surrounded by friends and fans, Benny thanked me for showing up and then suddenly caught himself. “Oh, my,” he said, “I haven’t said good night to Sam.” He walked away from the crowd of well-wishers, crossed the club to reach the door, shook the hand of a surprised Sam, and told him that it was a great pleasure to meet him. Benny had slipped away from a circle of adulation to make a young man feel good.
Despite his graciousness, Benny was not guilty of false modesty. When my stepson Jenaro was a student at Princeton University, he decided to write a paper about Benny Carter in Paris for a class in jazz studies. Jenaro called Benny but was so nervous that he failed to ask the right questions. Benny suggested that he try again. The second call worked a few days later, and Jenaro received an “A” for his paper. Later, when I told Benny that Jenaro had received the “A,” Benny told me, “Of course, he did.” Jenaro, after all, had gathered his information from an impeccable source.
Benny tried hard not to overplay the significance of his race. The obituaries describe him as a pioneer paving the way for other black composers and arrangers in Hollywood. He was a member of the Black Film Makers Hall of Fame. But he did not like too much talk about race. At a Library of Congress jazz seminar a few years ago, a member of the audience asked Benny if had left the United States for Europe in the 1930s because of the oppression of the blacks in America in those days. “No,” Benny replied, “I left for Europe to make money.”
Yet he was no fool. The problem of race discrimination in the United States was very real to him. Several New Yorkers, including me, were sitting with Benny one evening discussing our old-time baseball allegiances. We exchanged stories about which of the three teams we had rooted for - the Brooklyn Dodgers, the New York Giants or the New York Yankees. “Benny, you grew up in New York,” said one of our group. “Which team did you root for?” “Since I knew in those days that I could not play for any of them,” Benny replied, “I did not root for any of them.”
Benny came to Paris for a couple of weeks of shows during the period when Hollywood producer-director Irwin Winkler was making Paris his headquarters. Irwin had just produced a movie, ‘Round Midnight, directed by the French master filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier and starring American jazz saxophonist Dexter Gordon. The movie was a sensitive portrayal of a jazz musician succumbing to his drug addiction. Irwin was very proud of the movie, which had not yet opened in the United States, and I suggested to Benny that he catch it while in Paris. But Benny refused.
“I’m tired of all these movies perpetuating the cliché about musicians and their drugs,” he said, “and I won’t see it.”
A couple of months ago, I managed to purchase two CDs in the European Chronological Classics series: Benny Carter and his Orchestra 1937-1939 and Benny Carter and his Orchestra 1940-1941. His orchestras included Django Reinhardt and Coleman Hawkins in those days, and the music included such nostalgic pieces as “There’s a Small Hotel,” “What a Difference a Day Makes,” “The Very Thought of You,” and “Nagasaki.” His music in that era was so wonderful and joyful that I could not resist phoning Benny to tell him how happy he had just made me feel.
Benny sounded pleased at the call and said he knew the series. But he added that he was sure I would enjoy some of his later recordings even more. Although I protested that I thought I had most of his latest work, Benny promised to send me a few of his most recent CDs.
The records never came. Benny soon weakened, found himself racked by bronchitis, entered the hospital, and slipped away. The world is emptier without him.
see also: BennyCarter.com
Author's Note: Larry Berger, the webmaster of BennyCarter.com and the brother of Ed Berger, writes: "We (Ed and Larry) both felt that there might be a misunderstanding about Benny's comment about Jenaro's grade; we thought Benny must have meant that it was Jenaro's effort, not Benny as a source, that surely would net the 'A' grade." Since the Bergers, of course, knew Benny very well, I trust their judgment; there is a strong possibility that I did misunderstand the comment.