Archives Center, National Museum of American History

Archives Center Home  |  Collections Index

 

BENNY CARTER COLLECTION, 1928-2000
# 757

(67.5 cubic feet, 135 boxes and 3 oversize map folders)

By: Will Crafton, Sara Cromwell, Courtney Egan, Pam Kirby, Nic Netzel, Ben Pubols, Scott Schwartz, and Charissa Threat

Biography(1)

Bennett Lester Carter, better known as "Benny," was born on August 8, 1907 in New York City. The Carter's were quite a musical family - - Benny's father played guitar, his mother played piano, and a cousin, Theodore ("Cuban") Bennett, played the trumpet professionally - - so it was no surprise that Benny also became a musician, beginning his musical training at the age of ten. He first played the trumpet and then C-melody saxophone before changing to alto saxophone, which became his chief instrument.

Benny Carter began his professional career around the young age of seventeen, when he joined a local group as an alto saxophonist. He subsequently played with various other groups, including Billy Paige and Louis Deppe, until attending Wilberforce College in Ohio to study seminary in 1925. Finding music more enticing than theology, Carter left college and instead toured with Horace Henderson's Wilberforce Collegians intermittently between 1925 and 1928.

Carter's musical talents began attracting widespread attention in 1930 during a year-long stint with Fletcher Henderson's orchestra, to which he contributed many important arrangements. As word of his talent continued to spread, Carter played with such notables as William "Chick" Webb (1931) and served as musical director of William McKinney's Cotton Pickers (1931-1932) in Detroit. Upon returning to New York in 1932, Carter formed his own highly-respected orchestra. In its two years of existence, the Benny Carter Orchestra included several major pioneers in early swing style, such as Bill Coleman, Dicky Wells, Ben Webster, Chu Berry, Teddy Wilson, and Sid Catlett. Months after playing the inaugural show in New York City at Harlem's Apollo Theater in 1934, Carter disbanded the orchestra and, one year later, sailed to Europe to spread jazz across the globe.

After arriving in Europe, Carter first performed with Willie Lewis in Paris, France, and then, during 1936 -1938, served as staff arranger for the BBC Dance Orchestra in London, England. As he continued to tour throughout his stay in Europe (even leading his own interracial band in the Netherlands in 1937), he met with even greater success than in the United States. By this point, Carter was well-known for his arrangements and for his alto saxophone and clarinet playing. He was also recognized for his talented singing and tenor saxophone, trumpet, and piano playing.

In 1938, Carter sailed back to the United States and formed a new orchestra which regularly played at Harlem's Savoy Theater until 1940. He toured the United States during the next few years, both with small groups and with his big band, finally settling in Los Angeles in 1945. There he continued to lead his band (band members included modern jazz greats such as Miles Davis and J. J. Johnson), but turned increasingly to writing and arranging music for films and television productions. His film scores include Stormy Weather (1943), A Man Called Adam (1966), Red Sky at Morning (1970), and Buck and the Preacher (1972). "Ironside," "Bob Hope Presents," and the Alfred Hitchcock show were among the television programs for which he wrote music.

Carter had stopped performing with a regular orchestra by 1946, but he remained active up through the 1960s both by playing at Norman Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic shows and with Duke Ellington, among others. He also continued to arrange music for various singers, including Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles, Peggy Lee, and Louis Armstrong. During the 1970s he began performing again, touring in Europe, Asia and Australia; in 1976 he toured the Middle East under sponsorship of the U.S. Department of State. Carter also became involved with academia, serving as visiting professor or workshop consultant at universities such as Yale, Cornell, Princeton, and Duke. He remained active in the music business well into the 1990s and still resides in California.

Benny Carter is regarded as "one of the most versatile musicians of his time." As a musician, he made major contributions to several areas of jazz and, as an arranger, he helped to construct the big-band swing style. He has received many awards throughout his career. The more prestigious honors included a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences and a 1994 Grammy Award for the album "Elegy in Blue."

Scope and Content

The majority of the material in the Benny Carter Collection is dated from the late 1920s through the later half of the 1990s. Donated to the Smithsonian Institution in December, 2000, the bulk of the collection is comprised of original music manuscripts (full scores and parts), band books, and published sheet music from Benny Carter's prolific career as a jazz composer and musician. The collection also contains newspaper clippings, correspondence, photographs, scrapbooks, awards, posters, commercial sound recordings, a few jazz related journals and some personal ephemera documenting Benny Carter's personal life and career as a composer, arranger, bandleader, trumpeter and alto saxophonist.

The collection is organized into six series: Series 1: Music Manuscripts; Series 2: Newspaper Clippings and Magazine Articles; Series 3: Photographs, 1928-1998; Series 4: Awards; Series 5: Sound Recordings; and Series 6: Ephemera, including Posters and Printed Publications.

Series 1: Music Manuscripts, ca. 1930-1980s Boxes 1-101

Original music scores and parts and published music either created or used by Benny Carter during his career as a jazz musician, composer, arranger and band leader.

The series is organized in six subseries: Subseries 1A: Original manuscripts (scores and parts); Subseries 1B: Music for film and television productions; Subseries 1C: Band books; Subseries 1D: John Kirby Band Books; Subseries 1E: Published sheet music; and Subseries 1F: Unidentified and Miscellaneous music.

Subseries 1A, boxes 1-61. Full scores, piano scores and parts arranged and composed by Benny Carter and others, including Bob Graettinger, Frank Comstock, Frank Nelson, and Dave Appell. Music is arranged alphabetically by tune title. The exceptions are sets of music written for specific musicians: Irma Curry, Lou Rawls, and Sarah Vaughan. These are filed by the musician's last name. Included in bold is the material we have for each tune: FS-Full Score, PS-Piano Score, and P-Parts. "See also" denotes a cross-reference with another subseries.

Subseries 1B, boxes 62-75. Scores Benny Carter composed for television and film productions, including "The Mod Squad," "The Chrysler Theatre," "Ironside,"a Louis Armstrong biography and "Buck and the Preacher." Arranged alphabetically by title, and by production number within each title. When the title for a television or film production could not be identified, it was labeled as "Untitled." When several pieces for a single television production number were originally foldered together and labeled with that number the arrangement was maintained. Otherwise individual pieces for the same production number were foldered separately. "Buck and the Preacher" folder labels include initials as they appeared on the outside of their original folders.

Subseries 1C, boxes 76-83. Three different Carter Band Books. Arranged by instrument and alphabetically within each band book.

Subseries 1D, boxes 84-85. John Kirby Band Books. Arranged by instrument and alphabetically within each band book. Born in 1908, Kirby began his musical career in New York playing the trombone. After this instrument was stolen he settled on the tuba and soon afterwards played the string bass. In 1930 he joined Fletcher Henderson and later joined Chick Webb. In 1937 he formed his own band and earned residency at New York's Onyx Club. At a time when the Big Band Orchestra dominated the swing scene, Kirby "settled on a six-piece band." The popularity of his Sextet, known as 'The Biggest Little Band In The Land,' later became the measurement for all future sextets.(2) Kirby's group disbanded at the onset of World War II and was reformed after the war but never achieved the popularity of the pre-war period. While planning his comeback in June 1952, John Kirby died at age 44. Access to this subseries is unavailable until after the donor's death.

Subseries 1E, boxes 86-98. Published Music, including a personal library of various tune titles and individual pieces of published music. Arranged by title after the listing of the library.

Subseries 1F, boxes 99-101. Unidentified and Miscelanneous music. Also includes a short biography of Pierre de Caillaux, accompanied by a set of his own tunes that he gave to Benny Carter.

Series 2: Newspaper and Magazine Clippings, 1928 - 2000 Boxes 102-110

Clippings from national and international publications document Carter's life through the eye of the mass media. In addition, the series contains three scrapbooks. The material is arranged into three subseries. 

Subseries 2A (boxes 102-106) consists of newspaper clippings, reviews and profiles of Benny Carter. 

Subseries 2B (boxes 107-109) consists of programs, brochures and advertisements. There is also extensive information about Benny Carter's State Department and Middle East tours. 

Subseries 2C (box 110) contains national and international publications about Benny Carter.

Series 3: Photographs, 1928-1998 Boxes 111-126

Photographs spanning Benny Carter's professional career from 1928 to1998. The photographs are arranged by the categories: Band Performing, Benny Performing, Benny with Presidents, Candids of Benny Alone, Candids with Friends and Family, Dizzy Gillespie and Benny, Domestic Festivals and Events, International Tours and Festivals, Movie Scenes, Photo book - Family, Publicity Photos of Friends, Photobook - 1928-1949, Photo book - 1950-1970, Photo book - 1970-1975, Photo book 1975 - 1980, Photocopies of Photographs, Portraits of Benny, Pro-shots and Autographs of Celebrities, Recording Sessions and Rehearsals, and Sketches. The photo books were originally assembled by Mr. and Mrs. Carter, but they have been re-housed in mylar sleeves to insure their long-term preservation. The original order of these images have maintained.

Series 4: Awards and Proclamations, 1949-1999 Boxes 132- 135

This series consists of three boxes of framed and unframed awards and proclamations presented to Benny Carter in honor of his accomplishments, as well as correspondence regarding awards and proclamations. Among them are the James Smithson award, achievement awards from the National Academy of the Recording Arts and Sciences, several proclamations from the City of Los Angeles and the City of New York, and Grammy nominations. Arranged chronologically by date.

Series 5: Sound Recordings, 1958-1989 Boxes 127-129

This series consists of eighteen LPs, three multi-disc sets and fourteen 45rpm (four of which are duplicates) recordings of Benny Carter's music. The recorded material includes Carter's music from the 1940s to the 1980s. It also documents the jazz greats, such as Dizzy Gillespie, Red Norvo and Nat Adderly, with whom Carter recorded. They include commercially available recordings and compilations, as well as recordings that were not produced for commercial publication (e.g., the 1973 rough-dub copy of Satin Latin). Arranged Alphabetically by title. Finding aid notes date, record label and format of recording. Access to unduplicated original recordings is restricted.

Series 6: Ephemera, 1952-2000  Boxes 130-131, and 3 oversized map folders

This series consists of four boxes and one oversized folder containing correspondence, postcards, and a guest book from Carter's 80th birthday party. Also includes posters and printed publications. Arranged alphabetically by type of material and then chronologically.

Provenance

The Benny Carter Collection was acquired by museum in December, 2000, from Bennett Carter.


1Biographical note derived from Benny Carter: A Life in American Music, by Monroe and Edward Berger, and James Patrick (New York: Scarecrow Press and the Institute of Jazz Studies, Rutgers University, 1982).
2J. Bradford Robinson, "John Kirby," The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, vol 1, 1986: 653-54.

 

TOP

E-mail: archivescenter@si.edu
Revised: October 9, 2002