Bill Carrothers: Content in his Corner of the Jazz World
"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."