Saxophonist Paul Carr: DC's Mister PC
“ So from a very young age it was important to have a good sound ”
Paul Carr is a saxophone and flautist deeply rooted in the hard-bop and blues tradition of jazz. He has a guttural “Texas Tenor” sound which stems from his childhood years growing up in Houston, Texas. While he has a stunning jazz improvisatory vocabulary, his ability to move an audience is his greatest asset. Arriving in the nation’s capital on a full merit scholarship to Howard University, Carr has been a presence on the DC jazz scene for just over twenty years. He has played with all the best local players as well as several national acts passing through such as flutist Kent Jordan, saxophonist Tim Warfield, and Wynton and Branford Marsalis. Also known for his knowledge of hundreds of tunes in many genres, he has a knack for playing being able to play any tune in the jazz canon in virtually any key. The first time I saw Paul Carr live was at a concert which was part of a jazz series at Dumbarton Church in Georgetown, a well-known affluent neighborhood in Northwest DC. The event was billed in the Washington Post as a “Battle of the Saxophones,” featuring Carr, Ron Holloway and a much too often underappreciated tenor and clarinetist named Buck Hill. Here is Paul Carr in his own words.
All About Jazz: What are your first musical memories?
Paul Carr: Probably growing up in Houston listening to records that my mom had. She liked jazz. So it would be Lou Donaldson, Jimmy Smith, all kinds of stuff...blues, Muddy Waters, Stanley Turrentine. You know, she liked jazz and I grew up with it so I always knew that I was gonna play. She was really instrumental in getting me started and getting my interest in it.
AAJ: And you were playing alto as a youngster?
PC: Alto, yeah. I played alto through high school until...well actually I started playing some tenor in high school. Anyways, I went to a high school that had a very famous stage band. We called ‘em stage bands in that day - not jazz ensembles. Conrad Johnson was our director and the name of the school was Kashmere Senior High School. It was an award-winning program. The school had had a great jazz band for years and years. So when I started playing that’s what I really wanted – to go to that high school and be in that stage band. So I didn’t actually get into that jazz band because it was so competitive, you know, and he had a seniority type of thing goin on. And he had guys that had been there for all this time ahead of me so I didn’t actually get into that band until the 12th grade. So when I got in that band I played the tenor.
AAJ: What kind of tunes were you playing in that band?
PC: He actually wrote a lot of originals for that band. We called him Prof. He’s still around and he’s great for the kids. So anyways he wrote a lot of originals and did all the arranging. Whatever the weak point of that band was – he would arrange around that. So if the trumpets were weak, he would just write tunes that had a lot of ( scatting ) “Daht, daht! Uh, uh. Daht...Daht!"
AAJ: A lot of hits.
PC: Exactly. Like them punch chords and stuff. And if the saxophones were good then he’d tunes with du-buh-dah-bee-oo-nn-ata. You know...real fast. He had a tune called “Zero Point” (scats again – this time along the lines of a ridiculously fast Thad Jones arrangement). It had a lot of diminished lines. That’s – I mean, as soon as I realized I wanted to play, I knew I wanted to be in that Kashmere High School stage band.
AAJ: I know you talk about Arnett Cobb as a major factor in your development as a saxophonist. Tall a little bit about Arnett.
PC: Well you see, the thing with Arnett was – he was the man in town. You know? So I would go out to hear him play.
AAJ: What were some of the local clubs around back then?
PC: Oh, the Laba Steel was still around. They were downtown. There was a place called Peco’s, which was just totally in the heart of the ghetto. There were a couple of other places around that I can’t recall right now. And so Prof – Conrad Johnson – would have Arnett come in to the school sometimes and play. We would do a concert with the band and feature him. So from a very young age it was important to have a good sound – a nice big sound, good feel – stuff like that. Arnett could just play one note or phrase one little line and he would have the whole audience going nuts.
AAJ: And did you guys have his records? Or was it like everyone was listening to him anyways so you didn’t need the records?
PC: Yeah I heard him all the time. Whenever there was a big jazz concert in town he was always on it. Headlining or playing with the lineup at some point in the show. There was another tenor player too back then that used to play with Ray Charles. He was from Houston. His name was Don Wilkerson. He and Arnett used to have concerts together. Don Wilkerson was another great saxophonist but he had more dexterity. So it was cool to go up to their gigs and hear them play together because Arnett was a swinger and a feeler and Don Wilkerson – I mean, he had it all. He could do the feel thing plus everything else. His tone wasn’t as big as Arnett’s but he could really play changes and he had that dexterity.