“Malibu” (1945) Benny Carter; Glen Gray with Skeets Herfurt (1958)


Composed and arranged by Benny Carter.

Recorded by Benny Carter and His Orchestra for Capitol on April 9, 1945 in Los Angeles.

Benny Carter, alto saxophone, directing: Paul Cohen, first trumpet; Gerald Wilson, Emmett Berry, Irving Lewis and Fred Trainer, trumpets; Henry Coker, Alton Moore, George Washington, Lewis Taylor, trombones; Jewel Grant, first alto saxophone; Porter Kilbert, alto saxophone; Hubert M. “Bumps” Myers, and Harold Clark,tenor saxophones; John Taylor, baritone saxophone; Rufus Webster, piano; Herman Mitchell, guitar; Charles Drayton, bass; Max Roach, drums.

The story: Bennett Lester Carter (1907-2003) was a jazz saxophonist, clarinetist, trumpeter, composer, arranger, and bandleader. With Johnny Hodges, he was a pioneer performer on the alto saxophone in jazz. From the beginning of his career in the 1920s he was also a successful arranger, having written charts for Fletcher Henderson‘s big band that helped to shape what eventually became the swing style. He had an unusually long career, which also included several decades of him writing music for Hollywood films and television, that lasted into the 1990s. During the 1980s and ’90s, he was nominated for eight Grammy Awards, which included receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award.

Born in New York City into a loving, nurturing family, he was as a child given piano lessons by his mother and others in his neighborhood. As a boy, he played trumpet and experimented briefly with C-melody saxophone before settling on alto saxophone. In the 1920s, he performed with June Clark, Billy Paige, and Earl Hines, then toured as a member of the Wilberforce Collegians led by Fletcher Henderson’s younger brother Horace Henderson. He appeared on record for the first time in 1927 as a member of the Paradise Ten led by Charlie Johnson. He returned to the Collegians and became their bandleader through 1929, including a performance at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, New York City.

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Carter worked as arranger for Fletcher Henderson after that position was vacated by pioneering jazz arranger Don Redman. He had no formal education in arranging, so he learned by trial and error. “I started off by writing saxophone choruses along the chord structures I knew the rhythm section would be playing. From there, I would take each part from an orchestration, put them on the floor, and study them, part-by-part.” (1)

Carter left Henderson to take Redman’s former job as leader of McKinney’s Cotton Pickers (a very good band despite the degrading name),in Detroit. In 1932 he formed a band in New York City that included a number of young men who soon would make reputations for themselves as jazz players: Chu BerrySid CatlettCozy ColeBill ColemanBen WebsterDicky Wells, and Teddy Wilson. Carter’s arrangements were often complex. Among the most significant were “Keep a Song in Your Soul,” written for Henderson in 1930, “Lonesome Nights,” “Symphony in Riffs,” and “Devil’s Holiday,” which demonstrate Carter’s exceptional writing for saxophones.

By the early 1930s, Carter and Johnny Hodges were considered the leading alto saxophonists in jazz. Carter also became a fine trumpet soloist during this time. He recorded extensively on trumpet in the 1930s. His short-lived Orchestra played the Harlem Club in New York, but regrettably made only a handful of records for ColumbiaOKeh and Vocalion. The OKeh sides were issued under the name The Chocolate Dandies, yet another name that today makes one cringe.

In 1933 Carter participated in recording sessions with British band leader Spike Hughes, who visited New York City then to organize recordings with prominent African American musicians. These 14 sides plus four by Carter’s big band, titled at the time Spike Hughes and His Negro Orchestra, were initially issued only in England. The musicians on these recordings were from Carter’s band,and included Red Allen, Dicky Wells, Wayman CarverColeman HawkinsJ. C. Higginbotham, and Chu Berry.

Benny Carter (at the microphone in front) leads his European band in The Hague, Netherlands in 1937. To Carter’s left (seated) is Coleman Hawkins, who is the saxophonist at the far end of the five-man saxophone section. It is notable that this band had six saxophones and four brass in addition to a regular rhythm section.

Carter moved to London and spent two years as arranger for the BBC Big Band. In England, France, and Scandinavia he recorded with local musicians, and he took his band to the Netherlands. In these settings Carter played trumpet, clarinet, piano, alto and tenor saxophone, and provided occasional vocals. (At right Carter is shown in Decca’s London recording studio on June 20, 1936, the day he recorded “Waltzing the Blues.”)

In 1938 he returned to America. He found regular work leading his band at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem through 1941. This Carter band included Shad CollinsSidney De ParisVic Dickenson, and Freddie Webster. After this he led a seven-piece band which included Eddie BarefieldKenny Clarke, and Dizzy Gillespie.

In 1945, Carter moved to Los Angeles and formed another big band, which at times included J. J. JohnsonMax Roach, and Miles Davis. But this would be his last big band. With the exception of occasional concerts, performing with Jazz at the Philharmonic, and recording, he ceased working as a touring bandleader in 1948. (Carter is shown below with black troops in 1944. He entertained at many military bases during World War II, when the U.S. military was racially segregated.)
Los Angeles provided Carter many opportunities for studio work. It must be noted that Carter was a pioneer in breaking down barriers of racial discrimination in the recording studios of Los Angeles. He accomplished this basically with his iron willpower, and superb all-around mucicianship. Studio work dominated Carter’s time from the late 1940s through the 1970s. He wrote much music for television and films during this period. Also, in the 1950s and ’60s, he wrote arrangements for vocalists including Louis ArmstrongRay CharlesElla FitzgeraldPeggy Lee, and Sarah Vaughan. 
Carter returned to performing on alto saxophone again in the late 1960s, and toured the Middle East courtesy of the U.S. State Department. He then began making annual visits to Europe and Japan. (At right Carter is shown performing with guitarist Barney Kessel.)

In 1969, Carter was persuaded to spend a weekend at Princeton University by Morroe Berger, a sociology professor at Princeton who wrote about jazz. This led to a new outlet for Carter’s talent: teaching. For the next nine years he visited Princeton five times, most of them brief stays except for one in 1973 when he spent a semester there as a visiting professor. In 1974 Princeton gave him an honorary doctorate. He conducted teaching at workshops and seminars at several other universities and was a visiting lecturer at Harvard for a week in 1987. In 1982, Morroe Burger published Morroe Berger published Benny Carter – A Life in American Music, a two-volume work about Carter’s career.

Time had little effect on Carter’s musical abilities. During the 1980s he wrote the long composition Central City Sketches which was performed at Cooper Union in Manhattan by the American Jazz Orchestra. Another long composition, Glasgow Suite, was performed in Scotland. Lincoln Center commission him to write “Good Vibes” in 1990. The National Endowment for the Arts gave him a grant that led Tales of the Rising Sun Suite and Harlem Renaissance Suite. This music was performed in 1992 when he was 85 years old. (Carter is shown at left at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1971. Behind him is guitarist Mundell Lowe.)

Carter had an unusually long career. He was perhaps the only musician to have recorded in eight different decades. Another characteristic of his career was its versatility as musician, bandleader, arranger, and composer. He helped define the sound of alto saxophone in jazz, but he also performed and recorded on soprano saxophone, tenor saxophone, trumpet, trombone, clarinet, and piano. He helped establish a foundation for jazz arranging as far back as 1930 when he arranged “Keep a Song in Your Soul” for Fletcher Henderson’s big band. His compositions, in addition to “Malibu,” include “Blues in My Heart,” “When Lights Are Low,” “Melancholy Lullaby,” and the novelty tune “Cow-Cow Boogie,” which as recorded by Ella Mae Morse, was a big hit in the early 1940s. 

Carter died at the age of 95 in Los Angeles at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center on July 12, 2003 from complications of bronchitis.

The music: Benny Carter himself, in 1970, remembered how unexpectedly well-known “Malibu” had become: “When I’m playing somewhere, somebody always comes up and says, play ‘Maibu.’ I’m always so surprised. I recently walked into a club in Japan–it was in Osaka–and the band started to play ‘Malibu.’  I wrote ‘Malibu’ almost as a throwaway. I needed a tune in 1945 to fill out a recording session, and I didn’t even make a score, only parts.I gave it the title because I had spent a couple of unforgettable weekends there on the beach. (Above right – Zuma Beach, Malibu, California.) What I remember most about that recording is the perfectly wonderful trombone solo played by Henry Coker.” (2)

“Malibu” begins with an eerie sounding saxophone blend in its eight bar introduction. Benny Carter sets forth the melancholy melody on his alto saxophone through the first sixteen bars of the first chorus. At places during this exposition there is a haunting background figure played by a cup muted trumpet. (See below.) The five cup muted trumpets then play the tune’s bridge, after which Carter returns for a reprise of the melody.Trombonist Henry Coker then plays the marvelous open trombone solo Carter later recalled. Carter returns with his alto saxophone to conclude this melodic, evocative performance.

It is apparent to me that the young trumpeter Paul Cohen was a “ringer” on this recording. Cohen was then splitting the first trumpet book in the Artie Shaw band with another prodigious lead player, Bernie Glow. In April of 1945,Cohen was in Hollywood with the Shaw band, and somehow got called by Benny Carter to make this recording with the Carter band. Cohen was then what he would remain for decades after, a superb lead trumpet player. (Indeed, Mr. Cohen, now 96 years old, is still with us, living in Florida.) It is my informed speculation that the muted trumpet obbligati we hear behind Benny Carter’s alto saxophone solos on this recording were played by Paul Cohen.


Composed and arranged by Benny Carter.

Recorded by Glen Gray and the Casa Loma Orchestra for Capitol, fall 1958 in Hollywood.

Glen Gray, directing: Conrad Gozzo, first trumpet; Walter “Pete” Candoli, Clarence “Shorty” Sherock, Uan Rasey and Mannie Klein, trumpets; Simon “Si” Zentner, first trombone; Francis “Joe” Howard, Pullman “Tommy” Peterson, Milt Bernhart, tenor trombones; George Roberts, bass trombone; Arthur “Skeets” Herfurt, first alto saxophone; Arcuiso “Gus” Bivona and Wilbur Schwartz, alto saxophones; Irving “Babe” Russin, tenor saxophone; Charles “Chuck” Gentry, baritone saxophone; Ray Sherman, piano; George Van Eps, guitar; Meyer “Mike” Rubin, bass; Nick Fatool, drums.

The Music: Here is a lovely performance of “Malibu” by Glen Gray and the Casa Loma Orchestra, featuring the superb alto saxophone playing of Skeets Herfurt. The trumpet obbligati I think were played by first trumpeter Conrad Gozzo; the trombone solo is by Joe Howard. The scintillating piano accompaniment is by Ray Sherman.

Most if not all of the musicians in this band of heavyweight Hollywood studio performers had worked with Benny Carter at one time or another. They undoubtedly were also aware of his long career in jazz before he began working in the Hollywood studios in the 1940s. I am certain that they respected him as a musician. This performance is a tribute from them to Carter. Skeets Herfurt’s playing is especially felicitous and affecting, showing his great regard for Carter as an alto saxophonist. (Glen Gray is shown above right in 1958 in the Capitol recording studio sharing a joke with L-R: Gus Bivona and Skeets Herfurt.)

This post was written utilizing  Ed Berger’s succinct biography of Benny Carter that appears in The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz1 (2nd ed-2002.) 172; The Swing Era–One More Time, biographical essay by Timothy Foote, (1972) 29-39; and Giants of Jazz – Benny Carter, biographical essay by Morroe Burger, (1980).

(1) Giants of Jazz – Benny Carter, biographical sketch by Morroe Berger, (1980) 12.

(2) The Swing Era 1944-1945, Time-Life Books (1970), 59.

The recordings presented in this post were digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.

For an extra added treat, here is a clip from the 1952 Twentieth Century Fox film The Snows of Kilimanjaro, which was based on Ernest Hemingway’s short story of the same name. The melody Carter is playing has two titles: “Blue Mountain” and “Love is Cynthia.” This snippet features, in addition to the lovely alto saxophone playing of Benny Carter, two of my favorite actors: Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner. In addition to their clever, flirtatious dialogue, and Ava’s great beauty, I am struck by how the people in the venue where Carter is playing are listening raptly to his playing. Whenever that happens when musicians are playing, it is a wonderful thing.

I thank DannyMaz for posting this film clip.


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