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Bill Carrothers: Content in his Corner of the Jazz World

By Published: March 1, 2004
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.


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