Benny’s Birthday

As readers of Rifftides already know, yesterday was the 100th anniversary of the birth of Bennett Carter. (If you missed the Rifftides postings go here and here.) Benny lived to see 95, and according to Quincy Jones, host of last night’s tribute at the Hollywood Bowl, Benny had a blast at his 95th birthday party.

Overall, it was an excellent concert featuring The Benny Carter Trio (Chris Neville, Steve LaSpina and Steve Johns) and the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra with many spectacular soloists, plus several special guests. For me the high-note was Russell Malone‘s most beautiful solo guitar rendition of a Carter original titled “All About You.” Backstage, during intermission, Russell told me that he was visiting Benny’s home one day and Benny played it for him. “I asked him if he wrote it and he said ‘yes, yesterday’ and gave it to me.” Other moments of great beauty included the contributions of James Moody (who now drives Benny’s Rolls Royce with a license plate that reads: “Benny’s”) and Roy Hargrove (with whom Benny alternated sets during a week at the Blue Note in New York in 1994) — both played with great sensitivity and beautiful tone.

Less pleasing were the vocalists. Roberta Gambarini, may have great chops but to my ears she has no soul, no feeling whatsoever. And Marlena Shaw hit the most sour note of the night, complete destroying “Here’s to Life.” Both Joe Williams and Shirley Horn have recorded definitive versions of that song, each plumbing the depths of the song’s lyric and harmonic intent. I am not adverse to an artist refashioning a song, infusing it with their unique interpretation, but Marlena chose to disregard both the meaning of the words and the melodic and harmonic integrity of the composition, offering instead some pseudo-hip “jazzy” arrangement. I should have been forewarned when Quincy introduced the segment with a scripted story about Benny telling Marlena that lyrics don’t matter in jazz, it’s all about the improv. Having known Benny, I have my doubts about that story, or at least about what he meant by whatever it is that he actually said. It may be relevant that the tune in question during that discussion was “Cottontail.” I am aware of only two sets of lyrics for this song, the original being about how Easter bunny Peter Cottontail brings a basket full of goodies for children on Easter morning:

Here comes Peter Cottontail,
Hopping’ down the bunny trail,
Hippity, hoppity,
Easter’s on its way.

and Ella Fitzgerald’s version:

Come on, Wail
Wail, Cotton Tail
Benny Webster, come on and blow for me

hardly in the same league as Here’s To Life ( lyrics by Phyllis Molinary, music by Artie Butler):

No complaints and no regrets
I still believe in chasing dreams and placing bets
And I have learned that all you give is all you get
So give it all you’ve got

I had my share, I drank my fill
And even though I’m satisfied, I’m hungry still
To see what’s down another road, beyond a hill
And do it all again……….

Also on point, not to mention speaking of Ben Webster, my husband has often told a story about Ben opining that you can’t really do justice to a song unless you know the lyrics. This is something I’ve heard many jazz musicians say. Luther Henderson (whose bio I am in he process of writing) used to go so far as write in the lyrics on the orchestral charts he was arranging so that the classical musicians might have a deeper understanding of the music.

Low-notes not withstanding, it was a lovely evening and, in these days prone to commercial pandering, I was especially heartened to see such a big turn-out to celebrate the music of Benny Carter. Those who miss him most will speak first of the classy guy whose style as a man was understated but whose friendship was fiercely loyal, and then they will regale you with stories of his prodigious talents.

4 thoughts on “Benny’s Birthday”

  1. it was overall a lovely evening but i have to disagree with you about roberta. she has lots of soul, just ask folks like jimmy heath, james moody, slide hampton, hank jones and, if it were only possible to ask benny, i’m sure he’d agree also.

    and, thankfully, marlena did a much better job on her second tune, “brothers under the skin”. the choice of singing “here’s to life” was obviously a huge mistake!

    personally, i think the biggest mistake of the evening was having quincy jones host. but that’s another story!!

  2. I’m a Benny Carter fan, and I enjoyed reading what you had to say. I’m curious, though: what about Jon Hendricks’ lyrics for “Cottontail,” the ones that LH&R used to perform? You know, the ones that begin “Way back in my childhood …”

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