Such dedication by Carter to the musical development of younger students is something that Barbara Hanning witnessed time and again. "Ron would often, after being away, come back and land in New York at six o'clock in the morning and be at his nine o'clock class, said Hanning. "You can imagine that everybody wanted to study with him, she continued, "and he would fight with me, in a good natured way, about being able to teach a student who I didn't feel was deserving, because that student may not have passed the audition or who by choice didn't want to make performance their main thing. He kept saying to me, 'they're not going to get better if you don't give them lessons,' and I would say, 'yes, but we can't afford to give everybody lessons.' I was looking at it from a practical point of view, and he was looking at it from an educational point of view.
If Carter believes in formal classroom study of harmony and composition, he also stresses the importance for young bassists to seek out private instruction on the instrument. "I tell all bass players, get a teacher, said Carter. "It seems to me that the bassist, generally speaking, is the last guy to have had lessons on his instrument. And he's behind everyone else's skill level in harmony, theory, composition and arranging skills. So it's invaluable. I can't tell you how many bass players I've spoken with who have said, 'if I'd had a teacher long ago, dot-dot-dot,' and I say, 'well, we can still do this, give me a call.' And we get together! Unfortunately for aspiring bassists, there aren't any openings at the moment. "I have four private students, said Carter, "and that's plenty right now!
Though Carter may have left City College, his days don't seem to be slowing down that much. "I thought that when I retired from school I'd have less work, but I find now that I'm more available I'm getting more calls, he said. "So I haven't gotten to that stage in my head yet where I think scaling back is part of my plan for the future.
Indeed, Carter recently returned from a European tour with his quartet (including musical equipment and luggage lost by the airlines, an unfortunate additional stressor to being a leader) and in December plays Carnegie's Zankel Hall with his trio featuring pianist Mulgrew Miller and guitarist Russell Malone. It's not the first time Carter has used a piano-guitar-bass triohis outstanding 1994 album Jazz, My Romance (Blue Note) has Kenny Barron and Herb Ellis - and it's a format he's attracted to for several reasons.
"First, there's not another rhythmic voice involved, in terms of pure rhythm, as a drummer would be, said Carter. "Second, it increases the range of the bass for me. People don't think of drums as having pitches or definite tones, but they clearly do, he explains. "Occasionally you'll find a drum cymbal that kind of rings through and it's the wrong pitch for the tune or the bass drum or the floor tom aren't tuned correctly, and they make the bass notes just disappear. So without this sonic problem that the drums can sometimes present, it's a nice change to have the bass range fully available to me.
As close to the mountaintop as Carter is at this point in his career, he still looks across the valley to other peaks - like learning to play guitar. Of course, he can empathize with students who sometimes don't feel up to practicing. "I have one here in my apartment that's probably got cobwebs on it, he said, laughing. "I look at it and say, nah, not today. Soft-spoken, articulate, and good-humored, Carter knows that his legacy lies elsewhere. "What I'd like when they put that R.I.P. on my tombstone is for it to say, 'he was a wonderful bassist and a great friend.'
Ron Carter (with Eric Dolphy & Mal Waldron), Where? (New Jazz-OJC, 1961)
Herbie Hancock, Empyrean Isles (Blue Note, 1964)
Miles Davis, Miles Smiles (Columbia/Legacy, 1966)
Archie Shepp, The Way Ahead (Impulse!/GRP, 1968)
The Great Jazz Trio, At the Village Vanguard (East Wind/Test of Time, 1977)
The Great Jazz Trio, At the Village Vanguard Vol. 2 (East Wind/Test of Time, 1977)
Joe Henderson, The State of the Tenor: Vol. 1 & 2 (Blue Note, 1985)
C. Andrew Hovan