Throughout much of the 20th century, Benny Carter was an accomplished composer, arranger, leader, sideman, and multi-instrumentalist. In 2004 the U.K.'s Proper label served his memory well with Proper Box 68 which carefully examines a 22-year segment from his unusually lengthy career. If a reasonably priced 88-track, four-CD set of swing and early modern mainstream jazz dating from 1930-1952 seems like too much of a good thing, maybe you really need to hear more jazz and not less, for here in the land of its birth we still have a lot of catching up to do in order to better comprehend this important part of our cultural heritage. A sensible two-CD equivalent would be Living Era's 51-track compilation When Lights Are Low, which has 31 tracks in common with Proper Box 68 and includes examples of Carter with Fletcher Henderson's Orchestra and McKinney's Cotton Pickers. Proper focuses more closely on bands which operated under Carter's direct leadership or influence. Although Carter is most often pictured holding an alto saxophone, he played a lot of trumpet as well as clarinet, tenor sax, and even a bit of drums. As an altoist he resembled Hilton Jefferson, Willie Smith, Johnny Hodges, and the young Pete Brown. For all his expertise as a reedman, Carter blows plenty of fine trumpet on Music Master.
Most of the first disc is devoted to the early '30s. Carter is heard leading his own bands, sitting in with visiting Englishman Spike Hughes & His Negro Orchestra, and with the Chocolate Dandies, a recurrent all-star swing band with varying personnel. Four different Chocolate Dandies sessions are represented on this collection. The first of these, recorded in December 1930, was essentially a condensed version of the Fletcher Henderson orchestra with Horace Henderson at the piano. The December 1933 Chocolate Dandies were racially mixed, which was a significant accomplishment back then. Carter revived the Dandies in the '40s with powerful improvisers like Roy Eldridge, Coleman Hawkins, Buck Clayton, and Ben Webster. Carter's productive adventures in Europe during the late '30s are well represented on this collection, appearing near the end of the first disc and occupying more than half of the second. Starting in London, the tour takes you through Copenhagen, Laren, Den Haag, and finally Paris, where he recorded "Farewell Blues" and "Blue Light Blues" with an octet that included tenor man Alix Combelle and guitarist Django Reinhardt. For thrilling examples of Carter's handling of the tenor saxophone during his London sessions, you might want to hunt down his 1936-1937 recordings as reissued in chronological sequence by Classics, as well as his alternate takes on Neatwork 2063.
Throughout the '40s, Carter recorded with many of the best jazz musicians on the scene, and Proper provides an excellent overview of his work during this period. The inclusion of two Keynote sessions from 1946 is a real treat, with Carter leading his own quartet and guesting with a small combo led by pianist Arnold Ross. The big surprise on Disc Four is the vocal on "Out of My Way" by drummer Sid Catlett: this may well be the only time he ever used his voice on a recording. Proper's Benny Carter edition finishes with seven examples of Carter as an early modern mainstream jazzman in groups assembled by producer Norman Granz. First comes the historic blowing session with the one-time-only combination of Charlie Parker, Johnny Hodges, Benny Carter, and Ben Webster. The closing tracks feature Carter backed by Oscar Peterson's quartet, with strings added on "Isn't It Romantic?" and "Key Largo."