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JAZZ NOTES

After 60 Years, Benny Carter's Still King

October 21, 1994|ZAN STEWART | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Asked recently if he had any idols, alto sax great Phil Woods said without hesitation, "Benny Carter. The guys like him who keep going into their 70s and 80s are the true heroes of American society. The main lesson in life is instilled in Mr. Carter. They don't call him 'King' for nothing. To play for 60 years is a helluva accomplishment."

Carter, 87, one of the founders of the Swing Era big-band style and, along with Johnny Hodges, the most influential alto saxophonist of that period, has had an extraordinary career as a performer, composer and arranger, doing everything from playing at the White House--several times--to writing for films and television. Still, Carter doesn't take plaudits like Woods' lightly.

Carter was typically humble and gracious at the recent banquet of the Los Angeles Jazz Society, at the Biltmore Hotel, where he was given the society's annual Tribute award.

"I am very grateful and honored," said Carter, who has received honorary doctorates from Princeton, Harvard and Rutgers universities and is an Ellington Fellow at Yale. "They say, 'You're known by the company you keep.' That night, I was in such good company, and that includes the audience, the members of the Los Angeles Jazz Society and the other awardees. I hope I'm recognized by that."

Carter didn't perform at the society's bash, which also honored vibist Red Norvo, composer-arranger Lalo Schifrin, singer Ernie Andrews, pianist Donald Vega, retailer-aficionado Vicki Pedrini and this writer. (The performers at the event included Vega, a young and prodigiously talented Venezuelan pianist, the ever-stunning Andrews, pianists Roger Kellaway and Gerald Wiggins and a group of 11 saxophonists who played two Carter compositions.)

But Carter will play an extremely rare club date tonight through Sunday at Catalina Bar & Grill. Getting Carter to appear at the room was easy, said Catalina Popescu, the club's owner. "I saw he was getting this award, so I called him up and asked him and he said, 'Yes,' " said Popescu.

Carter will be backed by a solid rhythm section of Larry Nash (piano), Larry Gales (bass) and Larance Marable. He admitted that playing the alto can be a bit tough these days. "First, I have to massage my mouth a little," he said a little tongue-in-cheek. "There are no immediate results. Like anything else, you have to work at it."

The octogenarian says he's as active as he'd like to be at this stage of his life. He's performed several times this year--including a small band tour of Europe and a club date in the San Francisco Bay Area that spotlighted Kellaway--and he's at work on a new composition for large ensemble that will be recorded in January by MusicMasters Records, for whom he's made numerous albums.

"I have no complaints," Carter said, when asked to assess his career. "If I have any, they are with yours truly. Life has been good to me."

Information: (213) 466-2210.

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Festive Birthday: Gerald Wilson, another artist with a bountiful career in music, turned 76 on Sept. 4, and he found a dandy way to celebrate: by playing before a crowd of 65,000 at the Chicago Jazz Festival in Chicago. "It was really great to see all these people, and then they got up and sang 'Happy Birthday' to me," he says.

Wilson's All-Stars--with Teddy Edwards, Buddy Collette, Snooky Young, Marshall Royal and many others--is one of the headliners at the fourth annual "Jazz at Drew" Legacy Music Series, the two-day festival being held Saturday and Sunday from 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. on the campus of the Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science in Willowbrook.

Other notables in the lineup include Joe Henderson, Bobby Hutcherson, Cedar Walton, Jimmy Smith, Billy Childs, Ernie Andrews, Jimmy and Jeannie Cheatham, Patrice Rushen and Ndugu Chancler and the B Sharp Jazz Quartet.

Festival organizers say that with such a strong roster, they are expecting a much larger crowd than last year, when the festival drew only about 2,000 people. Perhaps that was due in part to the bash's unfamiliar location (take the 105 Freeway east to the Wilmington Avenue exit, then go south to the festival grounds at 1730 E. 120th St.) and its moderately high ticket prices--$28 at the gate, $25 in advance, per day. Ticket information: (213) 563-9396.

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No Cover: The Club Brasserie in the Bel Age Hotel has reverted to its original no cover/no minimum policy, dispensing with the $7.50 charge that had recently been in effect. Vibist-pianist Buddy Montgomery plays tonight and Saturday. Information: (310) 854-1111.

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