Sax in the City: Connecting the Musical Dots

The Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra connect the musical dots, from saxophonist Benny Carter to the Sex and the City theme, at its Oct. 13 concert

Benny Carter at the Apollo Theater in Harlem circa 1946. Photo by William Gottlieb. Courtesy the Library of Congress

Joann Stevens is the program manager for Jazz Appreciation Month and a regular contributor to Around the Mall.

NEA Jazz Master Benny Carter knew how to play to a crowd.  Throughout his 80-year career, Carter won fans worldwide with his sexy, dulcet tones and innovative arrangements, some created on the spot. Musicians from classical music to big band and bebop respected his artistry. His musical reach extended from recordings, jazz clubs, world concert stages and academia to Hollywood, where he has a walk of fame star and became one of the first African Americans to score films.

He made “fun, happy music” that swung, says Leigh Pilzer, saxophonist with the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra (SJMO).  “His music was also very melodic. Even when you listen to the solos in the recordings, you can sing them. The melody and rhythm is that strong.”

Today, nearly a decade after his death, Carter’s reach if not his name is strong as ever.  The influence of the composer, arranger and largely self-taught multi-instrumentalist (clarinet, alto sax, trumpet, trombone and piano) is heard in the compositions of popular artists noted for their eclectic sound, like Sex in the City theme composer Douglas J. Cuomo. And Carter is appreciated by the seemingly jazz-averse Millennials unaware of the jazz roots in their generation’s music.  But that’s the beauty of jazz, said Pilzer.  The music can be timeless, genderless, nostalgic, current and even unobtrusive.

Helping audiences connect the musical dots in jazz history is part of the mission of SJMO and musicians like Pilzer who are bridging the gaps between jazz and current music. Created by Congressional appropriation “as the nation’s jazz orchestra,” the 21-piece big band (and smaller ensembles) performs annually, exposing audiences of all ages to American jazz music history and culture. “Benny Carter unquestionably is one of America’s greatest 20th-century alto saxophonist, arranger and composer,” says Ken Kimery, executive producer of SJMO. “Of his many compositions, the saxophone feature “Blue Star” is as fresh today as the day it was written. The work will be highlighted by SJMO’s sax section in this Saturday’s performance at Baird Auditorium.”

Jazz performances may offer music from Carter and Duke Ellington’s era to that of more contemporary artists like Quincy Jones. And though Jones is better known for film scores and collaborations with pop stars like Michael Jackson, his award-winning jazz chops have influenced music for more than six decades and earned him the nation’s highest jazz honor—NEA Jazz Master.

For those familiar with Carter’s music, his influence can be heard in the music of Pink Martini and Cuomo says Pilzer.  Cuomo, a musician and ethnomusicologist, trained with jazz luminaries Max Roach and Archie Shepp, and toured with soulful jazz vocalist Arthur Prysock  before launching a composing career in theater and television.

The sass and rhythm he put into the popular Sex in the City theme compelled New Yorker magazine to cite the tune’s “unusual, edgy salsa flavor.”  With Arjuna’s Dilemma, a newer project, he pushes the envelope further, mixing jazz, classical Indian music and classical western music in a haunting opera.  And while young fans might not connect Sex in the City to Benny Carter’s music, they will respond to the similar feel good rhythms provided in the music, said Pilzer.

Pilzer said young concertgoers will be “surprised at how familiar this sounds to them,” while older fans will bask in the nostalgic warmth of music they know was created in their generation but still swings today.

This timeless creativity of jazz was what Pilzer and band mate Scott Silbert (tenor sax) reached for to create “Four Brothers,” a concert the SJMO will present October 13 at Baird Auditorum, in the National Museum of American History. The concert will showcase the music of saxophonists Benny “King” Carter, Gerry “Jeru” Mulligan, and Lester “Prez” Young. Tunes like Carter’s “Blue Star” and Mulligan’s “Disc Jockey Jump” will be featured. JAM is celebrated in every state in the U.S. and the District of Columbia and some 40 countries every April.

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