Turns out he could make beautiful music without it.
As a stroke survivor, Carter spent the rest of his life playing his favorite instrument with only his left arm and inspiring others with his perseverance and passion as an American Heart Association spokesman.
Carter, 79, died last week in Hartford, Conn., after several months of deteriorating health, said his daughter, Pamela Carter. He is also survived by his wife, two sisters, a son and many other relatives.
“He wanted to show everyone that you can will yourself to do almost anything,” Pamela said. “He always pushed himself to be an example for other stroke victims.”
Kenneth was born in Pittsburgh in 1934. By the time he was 14 and acquired his first saxophone, music was already an important part of his life. His parents divorced and at age 20, he moved to Connecticut, working as a volunteer at local hospitals and performing music at nights and on the weekends with other local troubadors.
“He just loved everything. Blues, jazz, popular music, gospel,” Pamela said. “He played a large repertoire of music.”
Then on July 4, 1991, just minutes away from a hospital, Kenneth suffered a stroke. He survived, but lost the use of his right arm and had to wear a special brace on his right foot.
For a while, the music stopped.
But it only took a few months for Kenneth to start playing again. At first he thought he’d have to settle for an instrument that might be easier to play one-handed, like a trumpet. But while at a music store in Hartford, he learned about saxophones designed for one-handed play.
Just one year after his stroke, Kenneth was practicing on his new instrument—a specially-modified tenor sax he acquired from a music shop in Florida.
“I play with my left hand the way I normally would and the right-handed keys are played with the little finger of my left hand,” Carter told The Courant in Hartford in a 2003 interview. “They had to build a special key attachment not normally on the horn for sharps and flats. That special key I play with the side of my hand.”
It wasn’t long before he was playing “the same music he always loved,” Pamela said. And in 1995 he became a national spokesman for the American Heart Association, traveling across the country to show other stroke survivors how to overcome their disabilities.
His saxophone always came with him, leading to performances at venues of all sizes. He performed in front of small gatherings of stroke survivors and before groups of health professionals. He had a few stints playing the National Anthem at several Kansas City Royals baseball games.
“Once he got that horn, he willed himself to be good at it and to be able to continue to do something that he always enjoyed,” said Pamela, who often traveled with her father. “When others saw him perform, he gave them the joy of music.”
Pamela said her father was extremely proud of his work with the AHA because it provided him with a unique opportunity to reach out to others with stroke. The disease, which affects the arteries leading to and within the brain, is the No. 4 cause of death and a leading cause of disability in the United States.
“He did what he loved and the American Heart Association gave him an outlet to be a part of this great thing,” Pamela said. “He always felt that he could make a difference, overcome his handicap and still thrive.”
Funeral services for Kenneth are scheduled for Saturday at the D’Esposo Funeral Chapel in Wethersfield, Conn. Donations in Kenneth’s memory may be made to The University of Hartford Music Department.
All photos courtesy Pamela Carter