Jazz Professional               



John Altman—a personal reminiscence

Jazz historian Harry Francis writing in 1974
John Altman - a personal reminiscence
George Chisholm - Hand over Mouth

Photo by Howard Lucraft

Benny Carter passed away on Saturday at the grand age of 95. Although he had a serious heart attack in 1957, I for one thought he was indestructible. Sadly a bout of bronchitis weakened him considerably, and I believe he just decided to go.

I’m not one to believe in Ouija boards and signs from above, but I had a strong premonition that Benny would leave us this weekend. And I am so glad I made some friends sit and watch the 1989 documentary Benny Carter — Symphony in Riffs on Friday night, since it reaffirmed in my mind (not that it needed much reaffirming) what a giant of 20th Century music he in fact was or rather is, since his musical contribution will live on for ever.

Many scribes far more eloquent than I will detail the mind-boggling list of achievements in jazz, concert music, film and television of this true Renaissance Man. Not forgetting the pioneering and often unheralded work in breaking the colour barriers still so prevalent in the music and film scene of the 1950s and 60s.

I would like to focus on a remarkable friendship that endured between us from 1977 to the present day. I last spoke with him a week ago and, though physically weak from the nagging bronchitis, he was still completely on the ball, regretting he had been unable to attend my big band concert the previous Monday. In the last five years, we either spoke or met frequently for lunches, dinners, or just to while away the afternoons listening to records and tapes. And it was in these incredibly privileged and precious moments that I learnt so much of his philosophy and musical knowledge, and garnered so much inside information that I have never seen published—some of which I would love to share, with no comment of my own, and in no particular order, as a remarkable piece of history which I was proud to have been, however indirectly, associated with.

I do not feel I am breaking any confidences—Benny was critical and honest, but never malicious, and his praise was genuine and heartfelt, like his music. So I present, as I remember them, some random observations of a modest genius.

“I always loved to play trombone, but I could only play lead!”

“I always wanted to play trumpet in a Dixieland band but I was never asked”

“Nobody has ever sounded like Johnny Hodges!”

“Mark Nightingale is the finest trombonist I have ever heard.”

About a well known self publicizing trumpeter

“The thing is he’s not as good as he thinks he is!”

“Charlie Parker was the last significant major advance in jazz. That’s not to say that there haven’t been great players since.”

“ Among my favourite musicians—Cannonball Adderley, Phil Woods, Herb Geller.”

“Favourite British musicians include Kenny Baker, George Chisholm, Itchy Fingers, Brian Dee, Duncan Lamont.”

“If someone had told me that the quiet, shy young man playing fourth trumpet in my big band would change the course of jazz history with his genius I’d have laughed in their face (Benny on Miles Davis—whom he admired tremendously.)”

“These young kids today have tremendous techniques , ranges and facility—yet none of them are a Teagarden or a Hawkins or an Armstrong.”

“I had to give up the clarinet when I started playing the trumpet—I always regretted that I stopped but it was too difficult.”

And finally, his sign-off whenever we spoke

“I’m still retired!!”

Goodbye Benny—we’ll miss you.

John Altman

 Copyright © 2003 John Altman. All Rights Reserved.