Updated May 5, 2019
American jazz composer and bandleader Benny Carter had many firsts. He was one of the first great lead alto sax players in big bands, one of the principal architects of the big band swing style, and the first black composer to write film and TV soundtracks in Hollywood. His career lasted more than 70 years. When he was in his late 80s, he was still releasing records, and performed a brand-new composition with the Lincoln Centre Jazz Orchestra in 1996..

Sandy Gordon ©Brett Delmage, 2019
Sandy Gordon will evoke Benny Carter's solos on alto sax in the Ottawa Jazz Orchestra's tribute to Carter ©Brett Delmage, 2019

As Duke Ellington once wrote, "the problem of expressing the contributions that Benny Carter has made to popular music is so tremendous, it completely fazes me."

Carter is “really a huge, huge giant in the jazz world that not enough people know about and appreciate,” says Ottawa Jazz Orchestra (OJO) director Adrian Cho. On Saturday, the OJO will bring an 18-piece big band at the National Arts Centre to pay tribute to Carter's music.

The music will range from swing compositions to more modern pieces. Most of the pieces will be by Carter, although they will also include his arrangement of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”.

“Carter’s music is always groovy with so much for the listener and musicians to grab on to and enjoy. His compositions and arrangements were always very innovative and he was able to cover a very wide range,” Cho said. “In his music, including some of what we’ll play at the concert, you can hear that evolution from the sounds of the 40s all the way through to the more modern sounds of 1990s.”

From 1920s to 1940s, Carter played in big bands – and led them, starting at only 21 years old. He was a “big innovator” as an alto saxophonist: “He and Johnny Hodges [from Duke Ellington's band] were arguably the greatest alto players or at least certainly had the most distinctive and beautiful ways of playing the instrument,” Cho said. As an arranger with Fletcher Henderson and Chick Webb early in his career, Carter helped define the big band swing style; he also wrote for Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, and Count Basie.

In 1946, he settled in Los Angeles, becoming the first black jazz composer for films and TV, as well as a valued arranger for vocalists including Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Ray Charles, Peggy Lee, and Louis Armstrong. He reemerged into the public eye as a full-time jazz musician in the 1970s, with new compositions and albums, and toured the U.S., Europe, and Japan through the 1990s.

But those decades behind the scenes meant that Carter's music is better known than Carter himself, Sandy Gordon, who will play first alto saxophone in most of Saturday's concert, said that when he first played through the set list, he recognized pieces he hadn't realized were by Carter.

“I played through everything once. I recognize this tune! Oh, it's a Benny Carter tune. So I've played that in other bands, even without even realizing.”

Gordon is an original member of the OJO since it began in 2006, and had a long career playing in the Central Band of the Canadian Armed Forces as well as other bands. This is the first time the OJO has paid tribute to Carter, and there were several pieces he didn't know. “One of the things I like about Adrian's band is that I get a chance to play music that I may not have come across before.”

The 18-piece Ottawa Jazz Orchestra “can be very powerful. It's really nice to hear that full section versus section, or all together, or contrapuntal. When the whole thing's going full tilt, it's a lot of fun!
– Sandy Gordon

The OJO has several times presented tribute concerts to Duke Ellington, with Gordon playing the alto sax parts first presented by Johnny Hodges.

“So when I listened to Benny Carter, I was surprised: it's similar to Johnny Hodges. [In this concert,] I'm going to play a solo that's going to be kind of like a Johnny Hodges solo but it was a Benny Carter solo. But we're also going to be playing some of his newer music as well. He was playing when he was 85, in festivals, and writing music, which was kind of cool.”

The concert is called “Symphony in Riffs”, after one of Carter's 1930s compositions. The OJO had played that tune frequently at swing dances, Cho said, and its saxophone soli make you smile whenever you hear them. [A soli consists of a soloist performing a passage along with an entire section of an ensemble, as opposed to "solo" where only one member of the section performs alone.]

The music in the first set will be played by five saxophonists plus a four-piece rhythm section. “This is a smaller sound that showcases how Carter could make just five saxophones sound like a lot more and gives us plenty of solo opportunities for the great saxophone players we have in the band,” Cho said.

In the second set, the NAC Fourth Stage will overflow with 18 musicians: 6 saxophonists, four trombonists, four trumpeters, and piano, guitar, bass, and drums. It's the largest ensemble the OJO has presented this season, and one of its largest in the last few years.

At the full band's first rehearsal last week, Gordon said, they agreed to “tone it down a little bit. Let's play this a little lighter” in order not to overwhelm the audience. “It can be very powerful. It's really nice to hear that full section versus section, or all together, or contrapuntal. When the whole thing's going full tilt, it's a lot of fun!”

Cho said he decided to add the sixth saxophonist because “Carter would often tour and play with jazz orchestras in various cities so he had arrangements that had parts of a standard five-piece saxophone section, as well as himself as a featured soloist. In our program that role will be taken on by various musicians, instead of just featuring one musician.”

Gordon said he noted that when he and David Renaud each have alto sax solos in the second set, “[we're] doing less work than the rest of the sax section!” Laughing, he said he figured Carter, when he was playing with other bands, would let the other saxophonists play everything, “and then I'll play a solo maybe!”

The focus of the second set will be Carter's “Central City Sketches”, a six-movement suite featuring sax, trumpet, and flute solos, which he wrote at age 80. His recording with the American Jazz Orchestra was nominated for a GRAMMY in 1988.

Cho said he chose the suite “because it has a wonderful variety of sounds and grooves and is a little challenging for the band and the audience but yet always totally groovy and easy to enjoy. Also, the suite recalls some of the sounds of Kansas City and that’s not something we’ve done a lot of in the OJO.”

The suite's movements range from blues to nostalgic to swinging, and reflect Carter's own experience.

“He was born in Harlem, and he lived in various places around the world, and he traveled and played a lot. Playing with a band like that in those days you're playing anywhere and everywhere but a lot of it is in cities,” Gordon said. One of the pieces, “Promenade”, reaches back to a time “before the advent of television, when people used to actually promenade. They'd go out and walk down the street just to be seen and to see.”

What beautiful compositions and arrangements! There is something magical that happens when a musician both composes and arranges their own scores. Saturday's audience will have the opportunity to enter into the mind of Carter, note for note, and I hope we as musicians will convey the essence behind his music.
–Zac Sedlar

The concert will conclude with “two particular challenging pieces that recall the heyday of the big bands when they regularly played for dancers,” Cho said. “I did program those pieces intentionally because I felt it was important to pay tribute to that time and that music.”

The OJO is noted for showcasing musicians with decades of experience. But, for this show, the full band will also include two student saxophonists: Leah Reavie, who has played with the Ottawa Junior Jazz Band for the last two years, and Zac Sedlar, who has played in the Capital Youth Jazz Orchestra, the Bytowne Big Band, and Carleton University ensembles. Neither was previously familiar with Carter's music.

Reavie will play the sixth saxophone in the second set, and said she had a great time learning Carter's compositions.

“My first reaction to looking at the pieces, was a mixture of relief and excitement,” she told OttawaJazzScene.ca. “It was encouraging to know that despite the level of the pieces, they were not impossible to play, and even though some of the parts were challenging, it was within my range of skill. It's been an honour to play with all of these experienced, seasoned musicians. They’ve been very welcoming.”

Sedlar agreed: “When I nervously opened up the bari book, I soon realized that I have been playing charts of this level for years! The main difference presented to me in rehearsal was the level of musicality coming from every member of OJO.”

“From the downbeat of the sax section's first soli in rehearsal, I could feel the security in that everybody was listening to each other, and we would come to an agreement as to how we were going to go about playing a line, all of this happening in a matter of milliseconds. It feels like we are all playing on the same sonic plane; 5 musicians crafting and gifting 1 sound to the audience, at every moment!"

“There is a level of trust I have in the other four saxophonists, not to mention in the rest of the band, that allows me to play without having to worry as much about their parts. There is no stress, just good times, and to me that's exactly what music is about.”

And he was impressed with Carter's tunes.

“What beautiful compositions and arrangements! There is something magical that happens when a musician both composes and arranges their own scores. Saturday's audience will have the opportunity to enter into the mind of Carter, note for note, and I hope we as musicians will convey the essence behind his music.”

The Ottawa Jazz Orchestra will present Symphony in Riffs at the National Arts Centre Fourth Stage on Saturday, May 4, 2019 at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $37.50, available from the NAC Box Office with no service charge, and via Ticketmaster with fees on the NAC website. The National Arts Centre is located at 1 Elgin Street in downtown Ottawa; all downtown-bound OC Transpo routes, including those on the Transitway, stop within two blocks of the NAC. Try the OC Transpo Trip Planner to find your trip to the show!

Updated May 5 to correct the definition of soli.