Archives Center, National Museum of American History

Guide to the Benny Carter Collection, 1928-2000


Collection ID:
Carter, Benny, 1907-2003
Collection is in
. Some materials in
Physical Description:
67.5 Cubic feet
182 boxes, 3 oversize folders

Scope and Contents

Scope and Contents
The majority of the material in the Benny Carter Collection is dated from the late 1920s through the later half of the 1990s. Donated to the Smithsonian Institution in December, 2000, the bulk of the collection is comprised of original music manuscripts (full scores and parts), band books, and published sheet music from Benny Carter's prolific career as a jazz composer and musician. The collection also contains newspaper clippings, correspondence, photographs, scrapbooks, awards, posters, commercial sound recordings, a few jazz related journals and some personal ephemera documenting Benny Carter's personal life and career as a composer, arranger, bandleader, trumpeter and alto saxophonist.


The collection is organized into six series
Series 1: Music Manuscripts, 1928-1990s
Series 2: Newspaper Clippings and Magazine Clippings, 1928-2000
Series 3: Photographs, 1928-1998
Series 4: Awards and Proclamations, 1961-1999
Series 5: Sound Recordings, 1958-1989
Series 6: Ephemera, 1952-2000
Series 7: 2004 Photographs Addenda
Series 8: 2004 Ephemera Addenda
Series 9: 2004 Magazine and Newsclippings Addenda
Series 10: 2004 Awards and Proclamations Addenda


Bennett Lester Carter, better known as "Benny," was born on August 8, 1907 in New York City. The Carter's were quite a musical family - - Benny's father played guitar, his mother played piano, and a cousin, Theodore ("Cuban") Bennett, played the trumpet professionally - - so it was no surprise that Benny also became a musician, beginning his musical training at the age of ten. He first played the trumpet and then C-melody saxophone before changing to alto saxophone, which became his chief instrument.
Benny Carter began his professional career around the young age of seventeen, when he joined a local group as an alto saxophonist. He subsequently played with various other groups, including Billy Paige and Louis Deppe, until attending Wilberforce College in Ohio to study seminary in 1925. Finding music more enticing than theology, Carter left college and instead toured with Horace Henderson's Wilberforce Collegians intermittently between 1925 and 1928.
Carter's musical talents began attracting widespread attention in 1930 during a year-long stint with Fletcher Henderson's orchestra, to which he contributed many important arrangements. As word of his talent continued to spread, Carter played with such notables as William "Chick" Webb (1931) and served as musical director of William McKinney's Cotton Pickers (1931-1932) in Detroit. Upon returning to New York in 1932, Carter formed his own highly-respected orchestra. In its two years of existence, the Benny Carter Orchestra included several major pioneers in early swing style, such as Bill Coleman, Dicky Wells, Ben Webster, Chu Berry, Teddy Wilson, and Sid Catlett. Months after playing the inaugural show in New York City at Harlem's Apollo Theater in 1934, Carter disbanded the orchestra and, one year later, sailed to Europe to spread jazz across the globe.
After arriving in Europe, Carter first performed with Willie Lewis in Paris, France, and then, during 1936 -1938, served as staff arranger for the BBC Dance Orchestra in London, England. As he continued to tour throughout his stay in Europe (even leading his own interracial band in the Netherlands in 1937), he met with even greater success than in the United States. By this point, Carter was well-known for his arrangements and for his alto saxophone and clarinet playing. He was also recognized for his talented singing and tenor saxophone, trumpet, and piano playing.
In 1938, Carter sailed back to the United States and formed a new orchestra which regularly played at Harlem's Savoy Theater until 1940. He toured the United States during the next few years, both with small groups and with his big band, finally settling in Los Angeles in 1945. There he continued to lead his band (band members included modern jazz greats such as Miles Davis and J. J. Johnson), but turned increasingly to writing and arranging music for films and television productions. His film scores include Stormy Weather (1943), A Man Called Adam (1966), Red Sky at Morning(1970), and Buck and the Preacher (1972). "Ironside," "Bob Hope Presents," and the Alfred Hitchcock show were among the television programs for which he wrote music.
Carter had stopped performing with a regular orchestra by 1946, but he remained active up through the 1960s both by playing at Norman Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic shows and with Duke Ellington, among others. He also continued to arrange music for various singers, including Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles, Peggy Lee, and Louis Armstrong. During the 1970s he began performing again, touring in Europe, Asia and Australia; in 1976 he toured the Middle East under sponsorship of the U.S. Department of State. Carter also became involved with academia, serving as visiting professor or workshop consultant at universities such as Yale, Cornell, Princeton, and Duke. He remained active in the music business well into the 1990s and still resides in California.
Benny Carter is regarded as "one of the most versatile musicians of his time." As a musician, he made major contributions to several areas of jazz and, as an arranger, he helped to construct the big-band swing style. He has received many awards throughout his career. The more prestigious honors included a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences and a 1994 Grammy Award for the album "Elegy in Blue."
Footnotes [1 ] Biographical note derived from Benny Carter: A Life in American Music, by Monroe and Edward Berger, and James Patrick (New York: Scarecrow Press and the Institute of Jazz Studies, Rutgers University, 1982).
[2] J. Bradford Robinson, "John Kirby," The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, vol 1, 1986: 653-54.


Will Crafton, Sara Cromwell, Courtney Egan, Pam Kirby, Nic Netzel, Ben Pubols, Scott Schwartz, and Charissa Threat
Processing Information
Collection processed by Austin Arminio (intern), Will Crafton, Sara Cromwell, Courtney Egan, Thomas Espe (intern), Alexandra Henry (intern), Lesley Hill (intern), Pam Kirby, Nic Netzel, Ben Pubols, Scott Schwartz (archivist), Evelyn Strope (intern), and Charissa Threat.
Immediate Source of Acquisition
The Benny Carter Collection was donated by Bennett Carter in December 2000.
Approximately 26 cubic feet of material was received in 2004 by Hilma Carter.

Using the Collection

Preferred Citation
Benny Carter Collection, 1928-2000, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.
Conditions Governing Use
Reproduction restricted due to copyright.
Conditions Governing Access
Collection is open for research.


Keywords table of terms and types.
Keyword Terms Keyword Types
African American musicians Topical Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Awards Genre Form Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Clippings -- 20th century Genre Form Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Jazz -- 20th century -- United States Topical Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Scrapbooks -- 20th century Genre Form Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Scores Genre Form Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Posters -- 20th century Genre Form Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Photographs -- 20th century Genre Form Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Music -- Manuscripts Genre Form Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Manuscripts -- Music -- 20th century Genre Form Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid

Archives Center, National Museum of American History
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