Ron Carter: Always at the Center of the Action

Victor L. Schermer By

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Great jazz bassists can always be identified by the fact that you really listen to them! A good jazz bassist keeps good time and gets the chords right, but a great bassist, going as far back as Jimmy Blanton, Scott LaFaro, Charlie Haden, or Jimmy Garrison, catches your ear because you're surprised and moved by what they do. They aren't just keeping time but creating new music. They are at the center of the action.

Ron Carter is such a bassist. More important than his reputation as a jazz legend and an NEA Jazz Master who has appeared on more recordings than any other bassist, are his enormous creative contributions and his participation in many jazz groups that have changed the music. His stint with the second Miles Davis Quintet, considered by some to have been the greatest of all time, is but one of the many times over six decades that he has been present "at the creation." More than that, Carter early recognized the key role of the bassist in the ensemble. For him, the bassist has always been the one who coordinates and brings out the best in all the musicians on the gig. As he has said, the bass player is the group's quarterback.

Dan Quellette's biography, Ron Carter: Finding the Right Notes (Retrac Productions, 2013) covers the gamut of Carter's life and career from his Detroit origins through his 2007 Carnegie Hall JVC Jazz Festival debut as a leader. In between, if you name a jazz ensemble or musician, the chances are pretty good that Carter has worked with them. You've probably heard Carter on recordings countless times without necessarily knowing it. But who is he? This interview is a down to earth glimpse of Carter candidly holding forth on a few aspects of his legendary life.

All About Jazz: Let's start with the desert island question. Which recordings would you take with you?

Ron Carter: Glenn Gould playing the Bach Goldberg Piano Variations. Bach's Brandenberg Concertos 1 through 6. Miles Davis' Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959). My own recording called All Alone (EmArcy, 1988). Any record by Johnny "Guitar" Watson.

AAJ: Reflecting back over the many years of your illustrious career, what, for you personally have been the major highlights?

RC: For me it's a highlight anytime someone calls me to make a recording with them, when any artist not only in New York but in the world, calls me to make a recording. To bring the music to the highest level: that's always my greatest moment. Any really good record date gives me another chance to make the music work. That's what I do.

AAJ: You're famous for the phrase "finding the right notes." It's the subtitle of your biography. It also sounds like finding the right musicians is what you crave in life.

RC: Actually, I often have to trust that when musicians call me, that I'm the right person for this specific project. They are often the ones who find me!

AAJ: Of all the groups you've worked with, which have you found the most challenging?

RC: That's not a hole I'm going to step in, because if I say that one group is special, it means the others were less special, and I don't want to give that impression. I approach every gig, every musician and group, the same way. I try to find how best to make it work. Each gig offers me a kind of laboratory experience. My goal is always to help the music reach the highest level possible, whomever it's with. So there's no particular group that I allow the euphoria to take over beyond the other groups.

AAJ: Sounds like you don't judge groups the way the critics do. You take each moment and situation and do your very best.

RC: What's important to me is that for each event I'm involved in, I want to make this concert or recording musically successful. My name will be listed on that album or concert. And not only can I fill their expectations, but can I fulfill what I'm expecting. Can I help to make another level of musicality or professionalism for all of us? That's my goal.

Origins and Early Career

AAJ: Let's go back to your beginnings. What first got you interested in music?

RC: When I was 11 or 12, the music teacher in grade school came and said, "We're going to start an orchestra here. So pick out an instrument you want to play to make this orchestra happen." Of all the instruments she demonstrated, the one that had the sound I loved was the cello.

AAJ: Your bio tells us that you wanted to be a classical musician, but racial discrimination made it virtually impossible for black instrumentalists to have a career in classical music. So, while at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY, you studied classical music, but, finding out that you would be most likely be locked out of a symphony orchestra, etc, on account of your race, you made a transition to jazz. Obviously, you've had an exceptional career as a jazz artist. Looking back, what are your feelings today about what happened then?

RC: My feelings haven't changed in that regard. I feel it was unfair, unnecessary. I feel like I earned the right to play in any environment that was available, and to be told that I could not is as hurtful now as it was then. How could you not resent that? People have said I hold a grudge. No, I don't hold a grudge. But I do have strong feelings about it even now. Why should I have been deprived of a chance to play on account of the color of my skin? I don't understand that. I'm getting to be 80 years old, and still nobody's ever explained to me, "Why?" They tell me they've made a lot of progress, but I don't see enough change that I can feel OK about it.

AAJ: I think you're right. There are still very few African American musicians in classical symphony orchestras. Have you ever been given an opportunity to play in classical ensembles?

RC: Yes, I have. Four years ago, I did a concert in Wroclaw, Poland. I requested to do Schubert's Trout Quintet. I wanted to play the double bass part, and they said "OK," and they were stunned how well I could play it. I said, "Why are you stunned? I grew up playing this stuff, man." As I'm talking to you now, I'm loving that experience. It was great!

AAJ: You grew up partly in Detroit. I understand you moved there around age 14.

RC: Yes. When my father was hired there as a bus driver, we moved to Detroit.

AAJ: At that time, in the 1950s, Detroit was an exciting city for both jazz and soul music.

RC: I wasn't yet a jazz player when the scene was that hot in Detroit. My jazz interests didn't really start until I went to the Eastman School of Music in Rochester when I was 18. So I didn't interact with the jazz scene in Detroit at the time. But I did go to high school at Cass Tech, which turned out some wonderful jazz players. Ira Jackson was an alto player there, and pianist Kirk Lightsey was my classmate, so I was aware they were playing the music, but I wasn't involved as a performer. I didn't hear a lot of the jazz musicians because I was studying classical music exclusively at the time.

AAJ: So, was your interest in jazz established when you studied at Eastman?

RC: I was studying to be a classical bassist, but when I was a senior, I was working weekends in the house band at a place called the Ridge Crest Inn. We fronted for a number of bands that came in on the train lines that intersected in Rochester on the way to New York City. So I was on the same bandstand as Dizzy Gillespie's band, Horace Silver's band, Carmen McRae and her trio, as well as Sonny Stitt. So I had a chance not only to hear them play but to talk with them, and then when they came in town without a band, like Sonny Stitt did, we played with him for a week. I hung withChuck Mangione, Pee Wee Ellis, Roy McCurdy, and others who were young jazz players at the time I was a student at Eastman. And those guys suggested that I move to New York. That's how I got to be a jazz player.

AAJ: Your early gigs in New York intrigue me. Many fans might typify you as mainstream, but before you joined Miles Davis, you did work with some musicians, for example Eric Dolphy and Thelonious Monk, who were considered outside the mainstream at the time.

RC: I made a couple of recordings with Eric Dolphy, but I was not part of his live performance groups. He often used Richard Davis as his bassist. Thelonious Monk used Sam Jones as his bassist at the time, and one night when Monk was playing at a place called The Circle in the Square in Greenwich Village, Sam got very sick and asked me if I could sub for him. So I gladly agreed, and then the week after that Monk hired me to work with him at a place in Philadelphia called Peps. He had a six night gig there, and I had to commute back and forth from New York because I was in school at the time. I worked at Peps with Monk, Specs Wright, and Charlie Rouse. That was a great time in my life.

AAJ: How did you relate to the avant-garde scene at the time?

RC: I worked with Don Ellis, Jackie Byard, and Steve Harris Zaum, who was really into a group called the 360 Degree Musical Experience, which included the groundbreaking pianist, Dave Burrell and Beaver Harris, a wonderful drummer in that style of music. I also played with drummerAndrew Cyrille. I played in that scene, so I knew all those guys. I loved the experience of hearing those guys make music in their own style and their own fashion.

AAJ: So you really liked the experimentation.

RC: Of course! You have to find the notes wherever you find them. There's no one set way to play.

The Miles Davis Quintet and Beyond

AAJ: OK. So then, somewhere along the line you were working with Art Farmer at the Half Note in Greenwich Village, and Miles Davis, as he states in his autobiography, came there specifically to steal you away from Farmer for his quintet that was changing personnel, but you respectfully asked Davis to get permission from Farmer to leave his group, to which Farmer graciously agreed, saying "It's your time."

RC: I was with Farmer's group with Jim Hall on guitar and Walter Perkins on drums. So when Art approved it, I went to California with Miles for the next six weeks.
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