Jazz lion Benny Carter dies at 95. The alto sax legend played with nearly every big name in jazz over the last 70 years

By Gary Susman
July 14, 2003 at 04:00 AM EDT

Benny Carter, the alto saxophone player and arranger who worked with seemingly every major jazz figure of the last 70 years, died Saturday at 95, his website reported. He had checked into Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles two weeks ago with bronchitis but had been ailing for some time.

A self-taught prodigy who also played piano, trumpet, clarinet, and many other instruments, Carter was considered by his fellow musicians to be one of the outstanding alto sax players in every decade from the ’30s through the ’90s. He was a contemporary of Duke Ellington and Count Basie, but he himself was crowned ”King” in the 1930s by no less an expert than tenor-sax giant (and one-time roommate) Ben Webster. He worked as a performer or an arranger with figures from early big-band leader Fletcher Henderson in the late 1920s to current piano darling Diana Krall. Along the way, he worked with Ellington, Basie, Webster, Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Benny Goodman, Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Nat King Cole, Lionel Hampton, Art Tatum, Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae, and many others. He was credited with giving Ella Fitzgerald her first big break after watching the young singer win an Amateur Night contest at the Apollo Theater in the 1930s.

Carter had a barrier-breaking career in Hollywood from the 1940s through the ’70s as a composer and arranger, becoming one of the first African-Americans to get big jobs scoring movies (”Stormy Weather”) and TV series (”M Squad,” ”Ironside,” ”It Takes a Thief”). Other jazz players performed the standards he composed, including, ”Key Largo,” ”’Fresh Out of Love,” ”Doozy,” ”Keep a Song in Your Soul,” ”Blues in My Heart,” and ”When Lights Are Low.” In the ’80s, he was rediscovered by academia, teaching at Princeton and Harvard, and relaunched his career as a touring and recording bandleader. He won a lifetime achievement Grammy in 1987, two years after winning a competitive one at age 87. In 1996, Entertainment Weekly’s Chip Deffaa wrote of the still-going-strong octogenarian, ”No living jazz artist is more accomplished than Carter.”