Carter was born Bennett Lester Carter, in the Bronx, N.Y. A cousin, Cuban Bennett, was a skilled trumpet player, and became one of young Carter's heroes. Carter bought a cornet from a pawnshop, hoping to emulate his cousin, but soon traded the difficult brass instrument for a C-melody saxophone.
"Carter was now the arranger everyone followed," music scholar Gunther Schuller said of Carter's time with [Fletcher Henderson]. By 1933, he formed his first big band and won considerable critical acclaim, but was not financially successful.
Carter disbanded in 1934 to join an orchestra as featured soloist in Paris. He became a huge success in Europe and virtually a cult figure in Denmark. With the help of a young critic named Leonard Feather, who years later became the jazz critic for The Times, Carter was hired as a $300-a-week arranger for the BBC dance band in London, where he also led a British band on several recording sessions. In 1937 he organized the world's first international and interracial jazz orchestra for a summer residency in the Netherlands. Carter returned to the U.S. in 1938 to resume his career as a recording artist, arranger and composer.