Best known for his work as principal bassist in the ensembles of Steve Lacy between 1965 and 1982, Kent Carter has worked squarely within the annals of the 'new thing' almost since its inception. However, most of his career has been as an expatriate - and it is something rare to have a foothold in both European improvised music and the revolutionary New York New Thing. Carter is deeply involved in the possibility for not only the bass, but string writing and improvising in general, something which he has expanded upon in his string trios and the occasional solo project. Here is his story.
All About Jazz: I've seen your birthdate as both June 12, 1939 and 1932. Which is correct?
Kent Carter: It's '39; I just turned 65.
AAJ: Happy birthday... you were born in New Hampshire, right?
KC: Yes, that's because it was the nearest hospital, but we lived in Vermont.
AAJ: And your family was somewhat musical; your father was a conductor, right?
KC: He was the conductor of the Vermont State Symphony Orchestra. Actually, he built the orchestra; it was one of the first state orchestras.
AAJ: How did your path as a musician form?
KC: My father was a viola player, and so I studied cello and bassoon, and had a good contact with these two instruments. Then I started doing stuff on my own, playing guitar and banjo and country music, all of that stuff, and it was all about strings - I liked that string feeling. After this period of doing square dances and stuff, I picked up a bass guitar, and then I had to help out in a dance band playing college campuses and stuff like that. In the old days, the sorority houses used to hire bands for the weekend parties, and this was a dance band doing stock arrangements. It was very exciting and my first exposure to playing something in the jazz world. From there, I wanted to get a good bass and study.
AAJ: Who were some of the jazz musicians that you came into contact with after that?
KC: I wasn't really on any scene, you know, as this was Vermont. But some of the local guys were great musicians. There was a really great alto player whose name I can't remember, who was the main soloist in this dance band I played in. This experience got me started seriously listening to jazz.
AAJ: You eventually moved on to Boston, though.
KC: Yes, I was living in Vermont - I was married and had a family - so I was doing day jobs at this point. I was gigging around and studying with a fantastic local bassist; they had a trio that played in Burlington, Vermont, and it was really happening. I got turned on to piano-bass-drum trio music through that.
I went down to Boston to go to one of those IBM technical schools for two months and ended up working at a bank, so I moved my family down there and so forth. I started studying at the Berklee School of Music, and Herb Pomeroy ran the recording band. He asked me if I would like to play in the band, and he arranged that I could take all the courses that I wanted to for a year if I did all the recordings and rehearsals with the band. So I did that, and that's where I met people like Keith Jarrett, Byard Lancaster, Gene Perla and a bunch of people.
AAJ: And not long after that, you started making your way to New York in the early '60s.
KC: That's right, I met Michael Mantler through [pianist] Lowell Davidson, who was playing a lot with [drummer] Billy Elgart. That was very exciting, and Lowell knew Ornette. So we used to go down to New York and play with either Paul Motian or Milford Graves, just do a session and record it. Things led one to another, and then we went to do the opening of the October Revolution up in Harlem. Cecil and Alan Silva had a lot to with that, too, [and Amiri Baraka] with the Black Arts Cultural Center.
AAJ: But it sounds like Lowell was your first exposure to free playing.
KC: Exactly, he opened up a larger world for me. This was the beginning of a new period in my life. There was so much going on.
AAJ: How did the Revolution go for you? How did it look from your perspective?
KC: It was very exciting, just really something. There was so much shit going on in New York at that time, it was terrifying. It got to the point where we were commuting from Boston once a week. I got to meet some great people and started participating in some sessions over at the Vanguard with Carla [Bley] and Mike Mantler. This was the beginning of the Jazz Composers' Guild, and that's where I met Archie [Shepp], Roswell [Rudd], Paul [Bley], Steve Lacy.
AAJ: That was my next question. How did you get involved with Steve Lacy?
KC: Well, just by hearing that sound in the orchestra; we just sort of gravitated towards one another. He had some things going and he asked me to participate.
AAJ: He wasn't playing really 'free' at that point, either.
KC: He was playing very creatively like everybody at this time. He had this incredible sound, more lyric in a way, but very, very hip. It stood out and could burn through the biggest sound you could believe - it's like gold.