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Bill Carrothers: Content in his Corner of the Jazz World

By Published: March 1, 2004

For me it's not a question of pick and choose. For me, it what makes me feel good and what I was put here to do. I'm convinced of that. I guess it's true what they say about artists, it's ultimately a very selfish thing.

Pianist Bill Carrothers is a realist.

Don't look for him to pine away for the "good old days" in jazz. Those are days he never saw anyway. Only 34, he grew up outside Minneapolis, Minn., with rock music and the period that punished us with Disco. Don't expect him to foretell the next great wave of jazz resurgence because, in fact, Carrothers doesn't believe it's going to happen. Jazz, like everything else, he will tell you, has a beginning, middle and an end.

Agree with him or not, he's comfortable with it. He's content to create art and be happy in his corner of the world and in his time. That neighborhood doesn't include the buzz of the city, the parade of taxicabs, the serenade of traffic or the siren song of fast-paced nightlife. It includes mountains and trees and snow. Lots of snow.

If it's sounding like Carrothers eschews the traditions or sanctity of jazz music, he doesn't. He's just different. He loves America, but finds more work in Europe and feels the attitude there is better about the music. (An opinion shared by many). He's also likes when jazz is passed down aurally, by listening to the music and the people, and not by sitting in a classroom, going through lessons and exercises. (At North Texas State University, renowned for its jazz program, "I got decent grades. I did OK, but I couldn't get out of there fast enough," he said, explaining his departure after just one year).

Carrothers is an artist, to be sure. He has vision and despite his stance that jazz music is never going to get any great popularity, he's committed to it, "because I love it. I can't help it. For me it's not a question of pick and choose. For me, it what makes me feel good and what I was put here to do."

"I guess it's true what they say about artists, it's ultimately a very selfish thing. You do it because it makes you feel good. And it beats heroin," he said, chuckling. "It's easier on your body than heroin and it makes you feel just as good. If I can go through my life and maybe make some other people feel good along the way, and make myself feel good, and maybe I don't change the world. And maybe I'm not instrumental in the renaissance and resurgence of jazz. But maybe I just change a little corner of the world. That's enough for me."

Carrothers has played with the likes of Billy Higgins, Gary Peacock, James Moody, Curtis Fuller, Dewey Redman, Buddy DeFranco and others, but has been doing his own projects in recent years, including music tied to American history, and even electric music. His latest CD Duets with Bill Stewart just came out in the U.S. (It was recorded a while ago and released in Europe last year). As the title suggests, it's just the pianist with the well-regarded drummer. "Bill and I like to converse. The whole record is really just a series of conversations," Carrothers said.

Some tunes, like "Vito's Dream World" are somber and mysterious. "A Nightingale Sang in Berkley Square," is slow and reflective. "Taking a Chance On Love" has Bill Evans-like cool and harmonic devices over Stewart's soft, yet thoughtful polyrhythms. "Death of a Cigarette" is a slow blues with a behind-the-beat phrasing that has more mystery in it than BB King. It's not a swing session, but conversations that cover a variety of topics. It was released in France in 1999 on Birdology, It sold well in France and won Diapason d'Orde l'année (2000) award, as well as the Schallplatten Preis award in Germany. Throughout he shows a deft touch and strong sound, and the interplay with Stewart's shifting, subtle and adventurous rhythms is outstanding. They're interesting conversations.

The relationship with Stewart goes back over several years, to a group called A Band in All Hope that produced a CD of the same name. "We did some gigs. And we toured in the Midwest a little bit," he said. "That record's done really well over the years. That's the Bridge Boy release. That's just one of my own we just screwed around with. The other record, Duets, is kind of the next step."

His next project Electric Bill , featuring electric instruments and some different musical approaches, was to be released in February in France, and perhaps in the United States toward the end of the year. Then it's off on another project linked to America's history. So for this Excelsior, Minn., lad, things are going OK.

He tried the New York City scene and it didn't work out for him. So now he's now tucked away in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and that's where life is good, for now. "If it doesn't snow, I don't trust it," he said, at least half jokingly. "Up here in the UP we get 300 inches of it, annually." It's a long way from cities where the action might be, but who cares? Carrothers is going to lead his own life at his own pace and be in control as much as possible.

Is that suicide in the push-push-push, promote-promote-promote world of the music industry? Only if you let it. Carrothers isn't about to let that happen, because he's at peace with the reality of it all. He's not going to try and change things he can't, and that, ultimately, is healthy.

"I live up here in the UP with my wife, two cats and a dog and a baby on the way, and it's really, really cheap. I mean, it's so reasonable to live here that I don't have to care, the way I used to have to care," he said with certainty. "Of course, I want my music to succeed and that would bring me a great deal of joy. But, I've just been so frustrated over the years. My success now has been in Europe. And I tour over there several times a year. That, along with some computer work, and some picture framing that my wife and I do — mostly my wife — that's how we make ends meet.

"Making a career? I don't think one exists. If it does exist, it's like winning the lottery. It's like being the millionth customer that crosses the George Washington Bridge gets to shake hands with the governor. It's random. I don't think there's any pattern to it. I spent a long time trying to figure that pattern out and I came to the conclusion there is no pattern. One guy gets picked and gets to tour the world for five years and be famous, and another guy doesn't. And it has very little to do with how you play or what you look like or anything else. It's really pretty random. One guy gets the nod and another guy doesn't. I got really tired of trying to make some sense of that. So I'm trying now to put myself in a position where I can make the music I want to make and I don't have to answer that question anymore, because I don't have an answer for it."

Simple philosophy. So he steps out of the rate race and goes on. The rural life comes naturally anyway. Carrothers has always been a small-town boy, not cut out to be a city slicker. Growing up near Minneapolis was fine because the city itself had its share of jazz talent, albeit few clubs to play in. "I met a lot of great players, but eventually it's not a place you can really stay and make a go of it from a financial standpoint. You can make a go of it musically," he said.

Some musicians from large cities say they thrived on being able to hear a variety of musical styles and influences. Carrothers' take on that issue is the opposite. But again, it works for him.

"I thought it was a little nicer to grow up in a smaller place like that, than say, if I'd grown up in New York City. Because in New York City, you get so many influences as a musician. Maybe you're a little narrower in what you know, if you come from a small town, but what you know, you really know," he said. "Maybe you're only red, but you're really red, as opposed to New York. You hear a lot of saxophone players who grew up in New York or on the East Coast, places where they have tons of influences, hearing everybody all the time. You end up with all the colors mixed together. And what do you get when you do that? Brown. It all kind of comes out somewhat the same. In other words, it's not always great to have a million influences. Sometimes it's great to have one really good one. I think in a smaller town, you can be allowed to develop more organically along your own lines without having all that history heaped on you, where you have to sound like everybody. So that was what I found beneficial about Minneapolis. A great place to grow as a musician, undisturbed."

As a child in rural Minnesota, Carrothers wasn't exactly drawn to the piano, he admits. "I hated the piano. My mom made me play. She was determined that all her children would at least have a working knowledge of the piano. I don't know why she felt that way, particularly. I think she regrets it now," he chuckles, "wishes I'd become a doctor or something. She used to set the oven timer for a half-hour and I'd have to just sit there, even if I didn't play, I had to just sit there and stare at the keys and I just hated it. I wanted to play baseball."

But he stuck with it and, thanks to a local jazz pianist who began teaching him, Carrothers progressed. It was easy because of the approach the teacher took, which wasn't all scales and exercises. "It was all passed on very much like a tribe. No booklets and workbooks and shit like that. It was all sitting down and listening to records, playing along with them, or turning the stereo off and playing duets. He played some soprano saxophone. It worked. It's a nice way to learn that way."

Carrothers parents were musical. His father played records like Dixieland music and Gerry Mulligan and popular old jazz vocalists. His mother played some piano and used to sing the old standards around the house. So even though rock music was what was heard on the radio in the 1970s and 1980s, the sounds from home were jazz and that's where he gravitated. Peterson started telling him what records to get, like Bill Evans, Sunday at the Village Vanguard, "which would be an all-time desert island disc for me. It's just perfect interplay between the three guys. It's no accident that Bobby picked that one. It's all right here. He hipped me to some Art Farmer. And he hipped me to Moon Germs. I love that record. Joe Farrell. Killer record. Herbie Hancock plays his ass off on that record. It probably affected some of the electric stuff I just did last year, so that was one of the first ones he hipped me to."

And then there was Miles.

Peterson "told me to go get that Greatest Hits one, the one with Miles on the cover with the turtleneck looking all pissed off. That was one of the first Miles Davis records I ever owned. And I remember putting that on my parents' record player. I couldn't get enough of it. I wore it out. I listened to it 100 times. I'd never heard anything like that before. My dad's stuff that he played was all a lot bouncier and kind bop-oriented, and Dixieland oriented, and then you hear Miles playing 'My Funny Valentine' and I just didn't know what to make of it. But I loved it. I remember the feeling. I remember exactly where I was sitting and how I felt as a 14-year-old listening to that shit. That record was a real eye-opener to me. I went out after that and bought the two concerts that made up some of that stuff. Four And More and My Funny Valentine and I wore those out. Tony Williams' playing on that stuff is just unbelievable. I could listen to Tony play all day, every day. I have a drum set in my basement. If I could just tap into one-tenth of one percent of what that guys does with the drums, I would be a happy man"

His high school also had a good jazz program, particularly for Big Bands, and Carrothers was given a lot of solo space by band director Dan Gelder. That took him to his frustrating stint at North Texas State.

"It wasn't the school's fault. All schools are that way. It's the nature of the beast. There's no way that you can teach this stuff without inducing a lot of formality and a lot of rigidity to it. It should be handed down in an aural tradition. When it isn't, the further away you get from handing it down that way, in my opinion, the more stilted and stunted and petrified it becomes," he said. That sent him off to woodshed. But again, no running scales. No practicing riffs and runs.

"I decided that the best way to learn it was to start buying every kind of jazz music I could find and start listening to it. I never transcribed, really. I had to do it twice in college for assignments. The only two times I ever did it. I don't believe in it. I just bought a bunch of CDs and listened to them over and over and over," he said. "I had a train set that I worked on. And I just sat down there listening to tunes. I went to work, but when I wasn't doing that or doing gigs, I would just sit down there with my stereo and train set and listen to records a million times. There's a whole body of music I had memorized. That really helps. It kind of creeps into your playing. It's not something that's learned and crammed like a test. It becomes part of the way you speak."

As professionals came through town, like Billy Higgins and James Moody, Carrothers would get gigs and jump in with both feet. "I really wasn't ready for any of them, but wow, what a great learning experience," he noted. But that experience didn't open doors in the way one might expect.

"Musical doors. None of it's ever really opened up too many financial doors, doors that would further my career. I did a recording with Gary Peacock — it was Bill Stewart and Gary. After I got it all mastered, I thought there's just no way this is going to fail. Somebody's going to want this. This is great stuff, all modesty aside," he said. But the stark reality: "It's sitting downstairs in my living room. This is 10 years ago. It's never come out. Never seen the light of day anywhere. Go figure. Opening doors? I don't know. But musically, it was great. I mean, playing with Gary Peacock? Shit. You're gonna learn some shit doing that."

At some point, aspiring musicians usually make the jump to New York or some other mecca, and Carrothers was no different. In 1988 he moved to the Big Apple, settling in Brooklyn. First, he got a band together and made a record of all-original music (The Artful Dodger) and armed with that, he was off to fame and fortune. Or at least semi-fame and quasi-fortune.

Didn't work. "I lived there five years. It was a disaster," he says, point-blank. "I was miserable the whole time. I hated New York. I'm just not a big city guy. Where I live now, it's nothing but trees and snow as far as you can see."

Carrothers said he worked a dozen, maybe 20 times, on good gigs. He met a lot of fine musicians — like Doug Weiss, Larry Grenadier, Gary Peacock, Marc Copeland, Scott Colley — but a lot of the playing wasn't in clubs, but in people's apartments, including the one he shared with Weiss. Good friendships developed, but career-wise, it wasn't working out. "The whole schmoozing, going to clubs, being seen and hanging out is not my thing at all. If I come to the club it's to listen to good music, or to play good music, or occasionally to just go get drunk. But it's definitely not to schmooze and talk about my latest project. It's not for me."

"It wasn't like it was just this unmitigated disaster, but personally, I had a lot of trouble living in that kind of tension all the time. The mugging and the violence and the smells and all that constant noise. I just couldn't deal. I got really kind of weird," he said. He then tried living in upstate New York, out of the hustle and bustle. But being two hours outside the city didn't bring enough gigs either. So he returned home.

If things didn't happen when he was two hours outside the big city, what bout now — halfway across the country?

"Well, now I don't care," he chuckles. "It doesn't have the same impetus."

Jazz popularity has run in cycles since it was the dominant American music. Currently, younger musicians are saying that it's the big names who are getting gigs, and most others struggle if they can't get hired as sidemen. To get a record deal or club date, they have to use other "names" and maybe not their own bands. That political side of the industry, and the fact that the machine that powers the recording industry shows little interest in jazz (one might argue little real interest in any real creative music) has no effect on Carrothers. He's not just keeping his head above water. He refuses to jump in the lake and be forced to try and swim with the rest.

"It's cyclical. But let's face it. We're not living in an Italian artistic renaissance here. I hate to say it, but jazz is finite. Everything is finite. It reminds me of the tune my wife turned me onto by David Byrne. There's a record called Feelings and the tune is called "Finite = Allright". That's just kind of how it is. It's all right, because it's all finite. And that's OK. Jazz is too. Jazz is finite. It has a beginning and a Golden Age and an end. And it's ridiculous of people to think and keep hoping that we're gong to go back to the 52nd Street of 1955 or that we're going to go back to the Blue Note of the 60s. It's not going to happen. It's gone. You can't get your dead grandmother back. She's dead. And that's OK. I'll never be 19 again. But that's OK. I don't mind not being 19. Life doesn't give us that kind of backward glance, the ability to go back and re-live stuff.

"To me, jazz is no different than that and I see jazz becoming kind of like the Japanese kabuki theater. It becomes this increasingly small fanatical following of people that really love it. We'll always have that. But as far as being some kind of Renaissance the way it was 50 years ago, I just don't think it's gonna happen. People aren't the same anymore. So many things have to come together for you to be able to make that kind of stuff happen. People don't think like that anymore. It's kind of why baseball doesn't make that much sense to people anymore. It's not quick enough. It's not really America's pastime anymore because it doesn't fit what America is anymore. America's much more closely aligned with basketball than baseball."

So Carrothers jumps over to Europe for the majority of his concert work. He finds that the culture there is much more accepting, but there is probably a limit to that too.

"Look at their culture. They don't have a TV culture the way we do. They don't have a computer culture the way we do. You turn on the TV, there's five or six channels and probably 80 percent of the population doesn't have a computer. Their whole culture is built around cafes and being out with other people, socializing. That's their fun. Because there's less TV and less distractions, there's a little more interest. A little more. It's changing there too. You see it coming. You see America and you see a whole influx of technology. You see it changing French culture too. It's slower. But it is happening. It's like the movie Network by Paddy Chayefsky. He says America is the most technologically advanced nation in the world, so we're getting to the end first," he laughs. "We're getting to the end quicker. But we're all getting to the end"

"I love America. I would never want to live in Europe. I love American culture. I love baseball. I love the quirky humanity and kind of that weird innocence that America has. But there's a nice thing about the whole European approach to art and sex and all sorts of stuff. They're a lot, I think, emotionally and societally, a little healthier than America. They're not quite as twisted by all that Victorian crap. All those various hard religious things that twist us," Carrothers opines. "But they were twisted. They had their time they were hanging people and burning people and that kind of stuff."

So Carrothers keeps moving, without regard for the Big (Jazz) Picture. He's high on his recent electric project, which he did with Minneapolis musicians. "I wrote this tune tracing the evolution of democracy. It traces the stages that happen for things to change, like, for instance, slavery. So I wrote this suite where things are kind of in a different place from where they started. The whole thing kind of moves harmonically. It starts from one tonal center and ends in another. It kind of has this whole feel to it. There's even a tune called "Mojo Clinton." I was so disappointed in him. I voted for him and he turned out to be such an asshole. I was so pissed. He was still a decent president, he's such a jerk you just want to pound him."

His next long-term project takes him back to doing music tied to American history. His The Blues and the Greys CD done a few years ago is solo piano improvisations linked to the Civil War period. The new project, the music of World War I, will be called Armistice 1918 .

"That's going to be a big project," he said. "I've got some funding for it now from the World War I museum in France that wants to underwrite a substantial portion of it. It'd be for narrator, wordless soprano, male chorus, percussion and piano, bass and drums. It's narrations of the poet Wilfred Owen. He was a first lieutenant in the British Army who was killed just before Armistice Day. And he wrote this incredible book of poetry, all dealing with the fighting on the western front. Not flag-wavy at all. But not somber either. Just really direct. So that's gonna be the thread that runs through it. It's going to be these poems narrated, with a kind of wordless soprano and a male chorus. The trio can kind of flow in and out of it

"It's something I've had working in my head now for a while. As soon as I get all my financing together. I've got a couple record companies interested in putting up the rest of the money that will be required to do it. It's kind of an expensive project. No one's ever done anything quite like it. I like to bring together history and music. My record Swing Sing Songs is a lot of the music of World War II.

Other than that, it's enjoying the great outdoors of the UP, his family and jazz, "enjoying it while it's here, rather than worrying that I'm not going to be part of the resurgence. Or worrying that it's dead and I'm just a skin being shed off a snake. I feel like: it is what it is," he said, then segued to sing the David Byrne lyric in a voice that won't make the Talking Head come looking for royalties, "It's all right, cause it's finite."

"People like to think life is limitless, but it's not. But it's OK," he chuckles, adding slyly, "I'm just on that kick lately, I apologize."

Visit Bill Carrothers on the web at www.bridgeboymusic.com .



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