In the fall of his freshman year, Glenn Dryfoos ’83 paid $3, filed into Alexander Hall, and watched one of the greatest alto saxophonists of all time perform: Benny Carter, then 72.
“I was kind of expecting him to sound like an old guy,” says Dryfoos, a jazz enthusiast who in high school had seen Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton, and some of Carter’s other contemporaries perform live. Those musicians, while great, had sounded like “time capsules” to his ears; Carter was a different story. “It was just a damn good jazz concert. It was vibrant. It was alive. It was modern.”Carter never achieved the mainstream celebrity of artists like Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, or Louis Armstrong, but he was known among other jazz artists as “The King.” He won multiple Grammys, the National Medal of the Arts, and the Kennedy Center Award, and after he died in 2003 at 95, the American jazz critic Gary Giddens wrote that “no one in jazz history … was more universally admired by his brethren.” Now, thanks in part to Dryfoos, the last of Carter’s unreleased recordings — made in Alexander Hall — are available to the world.
Between 1973 and 1997, Carter performed eight times in Alexander Hall, usually accompanied by other renowned jazz artists, including Dizzy Gillespie, Clark Terry, and Hank Jones. At the invitation of Professor Morrow Berger, Carter also taught classes in the sociology and American studies departments. Berger’s sons — Ken, Larry, and Ed — recorded the Princeton concerts with Carter’s blessing, but for decades, the records collected dust.In 2017, after Berger’s son Ed — who had gone on to serve as Carter’s record producer — died, Ken and Larry enlisted Dryfoos to help release the recordings. By then, Dryfoos was an accomplished lawyer, having helped Carter set up his record label in the mid ’90s. With the support of Carter’s wife, Hilma Carter, as well as the National Jazz Museum in Harlem — especially Loren Schoenberg, a senior scholar at the museum who also played with Carter — Dryfoos and the Bergers worked to release the “Princeton Concerts,” now available on Spotify, Apple Music, and other streaming platforms.
“As far as anybody knows, these are the last unreleased recordings of Benny Carter,” says Dryfoos. “They will also be perhaps the last unreleased recordings of Dizzy Gillespie, Clark Terry, Hank Jones, Barry Harris, and many, many other legendary jazz musicians who joined Benny for these Princeton concerts.”
Aside from being one of the two great alto saxophonists of pre-bop jazz, Carter was also an accomplished composer and arranger. Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, and Ray Charles all performed music he wrote, and he scouted Ella Fitzgerald and gave an early break to a young Miles Davis. In a genre known for its fast-living, fast-dying artists, Carter stood out for his longevity.
“Jazz musicians just didn’t live to 70, never mind be fantastic at that age,” says Dryfoos. “Never mind live to 90 and be fantastic.” In a tribute to Carter after his death, Dryfoos wrote:
“He was renowned on two continents at a time that Ruth and Gehrig were playing for the Yankees, and still … at the top of his craft when New York was winning championships with Derek Jeter and Bernie Williams.”
Carter was also a civil rights leader, playing a key role in integrating the Black and white musicians’ union in Los Angeles in the ’50s. He successfully challenged restrictive housing covenants to buy a home in a white neighborhood, and he was the first Black composer and arranger in Hollywood, writing for TV and movies. According to Quincy Jones, Carter showed producers and studios that they “could go to Blacks for other things outside of blues and barbecue … He was the pioneer, he was the foundation.”“His fame never matched his accomplishments,” says Dryfoos, who attended dozens of Carter’s live performances, including his last, at the age of 90. Now, Dryfoos hopes that the Princeton Concerts recordings will draw attention to Carter’s achievements, including within the Princeton community.
“We do a great job of extolling our Nobel winners and scholars, and we should do that,” says Dryfoos. “But Benny — he is the Joyce Carol Oates, the Arthur Lewis, the John Nash of jazz. And his time at Princeton was incredibly meaningful to him.”