Compay Segundo And Benny Carter

by Louis Proyect

July 21, 2003


African-American Jazz legend Benny Carter died on July 12, 2003 at the age of 95. Two days later Afro-Cuban musician Compay Segundo, of Buena Vista Social Club fame, died -- he too was 95. They both remained active musically into their 80s and 90s and some critics believe that their greatest work came in those years.

Carter's obituaries were filled with praise for his musicianship and his regal manner. John S. Wilson characterized his career as "remarkable for both its length and its consistently high musical achievement, from his first recordings in the 1920's to his youthful-sounding improvisations in the 1990's." But his achievements as civil rights activist were just as important. The Washington Post filled in some of the details:
Starting in 1943, when he moved to Los Angeles from New York, he was breaking down racial barriers in Hollywood, becoming the first black musician to write and arrange film scores (and television scores, once that medium emerged), in the process opening the doors for people like Quincy Jones and Isaac Hayes. Like King, Benny Carter was a peaceful but effective civil rights warrior. In the mid '40s, he won a legal battle against restrictive covenants that had prohibited blacks from owning homes in certain parts of Los Angeles. Carter was also a major force in merging the previously segregated American Federation of Musicians locals, which helped increase the presence of black musicians in studio orchestras.
While The Los Angeles Times added others:
Although first and foremost a musician, and a man not given to crusading, Carter was one of the first blacks to succeed in the musical side of the film industry.

His view was that race should have nothing to do with a person's acceptance. Once, according to an anecdote related by a biographer, a woman asked Carter: "Is your piano player white or black?" Carter replied: "I don't know -- I never asked him."

In 1945, Carter fought and won a legal battle against the then-common restrictive covenants that prohibited blacks from owning homes in some areas of Los Angeles. He also played a strong role in the early 1950s in uniting the separate black and white American Federation of Musicians' locals in Los Angeles. And while the consolidation of the two unions didn't fully open all the doors for blacks to do studio work, it did eliminate the exclusionary excuse that "you don't belong to the union."
We should be grateful to Carter biographers Lawrence and Edward Berger who assembled an excellent website, bennycarter.com. There you will find an extensive discography, biographical information and selected performances. You can hear Benny Carter and Phil Woods trade licks from a March 15, 1996 gig at the Regattabar in Cambridge. Considering the fact that Carter was 88 years old at the time, the vigor and freshness of his performance are awe-inspiring.

Over a 75 year career, Benny Carter wore many hats. He played saxophone and trumpet as a soloist with the kind of lyricism found in Johnny Hodges or Cannonball Adderly. He was also a gifted bandleader, arranger and composer. To see all of these talents on display, one should buy the CD "Further Definitions," originally recorded on November 13, 1961 and a record that I would include as one of the 25 greatest jazz recordings ever made. It includes his lovely composition "Blue Star" as well as other jazz standards. With Phil Woods, Coleman Hawkins and Monk regular Charlie Rouse joining him on sax and a rhythm section anchored by Basie legend Jo Jones, it simply doesn't get any better.


Compay Segundo was born Máximo Francisco Repilado Muñoz in Oriente Province, a stronghold of Cuban music and revolutionary struggle. In 1942, he was part of the Cuban duo Los Compadres. After becoming famous as the second (Segundo) Compadre, he adopted the stage name -- Compay was shortened from Compadre.

He was a guitar-playing master of the 'son' (song), a Cuban musical form that is in the 'trova' (troubadour) tradition. It arose in the second half of the nineteenth century in Segundo's home province of Oriente. It combines Spanish elements of the Canción style and instruments with African rhythm and percussion.

In the 1960s Segundo retired from the music scene and began rolling cigars for a living. In the mid-1980s, the Santiago guitarist Eliades Ochoa lured him out of retirement and he joined Cuarteto Patria, which performed in the 'son' style. In 1989, they visited the Smithsonian Institute in Washington. Later on the two men became part of the famed group of musicians assembled by US guitarist Ry Cooder as the Buena Vista Social Club -- the eponymous subject of Wim Wenders' celebrated documentary.

In the film, Segundo admits to being the proud father of five and still hopes to sire a sixth child, he tells the interviewer with a gleam in his eye. The Guardian obituary has an interesting take on his early life and his longevity:
Compay attributed his longevity to cigars, flowers, rum and women. His grandmother Ma Regina, a freed slave who lived to the age of 115, was herself a cigar-smoker, and her grandson was rarely seen without one. He emphasised the importance of love and dancing on his life, and relished rumours of his incredible virility. His railway worker father was an Andalucian, his mother an Afro-Cuban, and the young Compay started rolling tobacco leaves as a 14-year-old. Their home, in the small town of Siboney, in south-eastern Cuba, was open house for musicians, like the pioneering Sindo Garay, who sang revolutionary songs. In 1916, the family moved to the former capital, Santiago, and Compay, along with his cousin Lorenzo Hierrezuelo, learned from established groups like Trio Matamoros, whose early recordings propelled the now world-famous son repertoire around the island.
While the Buena Vista Social Club musicians were not given to public pronouncements about world or Cuban politics, it would be clear to any viewer of Wenders that they were patriots and humanitarians.

In a July 17 Guardian article in which Ry Cooder reminisces on his departed associate, the question of politics does come up:
I once asked him about politics, which isn't something you do lightly with Cubans. He looked at me and said: "Politics? This new guy is good. The 1930s were rough. That's when we had the really bad times." That's how old he was. He had seen dictators and revolutions come and go in his life and to him Castro was "the new guy."
That is all that needed to be said.

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Louis Proyect is a computer programmer at Columbia University and a long-time peace activist and socialist. He is also the moderator of the Marxism mailing list at www.marxmail.org. He writes a bi-monthly book review for Swans.

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Published July 21, 2003
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