To create one of the most storied careers in jazz, a good recipe might be equal parts innate talent, hard work and the karma of being as stand-up a person as the bass you play.
Ron Carter's gigging and recording career spans half a century and 100s of albums, including having anchored one of the most esteemed rhythm sections in jazz history; his name is practically synonymous with his instrument. Some might consider that having reached the pinnacle.
"Well, I'm kind of like Martin Luther King, but I haven't been to the mountaintop yet , said Carter. "I'm trying to find out what the top of the mountain looks like and the only way to get there is by playing every night like it's my last chance to get this right. I think I've come close several times and the view, I would imagine, is spectacular. I'm about at the tree line right now - but I'm getting there.
The boldface items on Carter's resume are well known, one of the most prominent being his stint in the Miles Davis Quintet from 1963 to 1968, where alongside Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams and Wayne Shorter he contributed to landmark and widely influential albums like E.S.P.
, Miles Smiles
and Filles de Kilimanjaro
. The list of other jazz luminaries who've sought his talents over the years is like a portrait gallery of the music's greats.
Perhaps not as well known is the deep and thorough preparation Carter, now 68, had leading up to that period with Miles, starting with his study of cello from the age of ten and continuing through his Bachelor's degree from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York and his Master's in double bass performance from the Manhattan School of Music. It was preparation that provided a foundation for Carter to proceed with confidence out into the world of the working jazz musician.
"I never questioned my ability to find work in New York, said Carter. "When I was in school in Rochester, I met Sam Jones and the late bassist Ike Isaacs, who was with Carmen McRae at the time, and they assured me that a good bassist could always work in New York and that was enough for me. I had no specific focus on being a 'famous jazz player', but I felt I had a great classical background, I knew the literature, I was learning the jazz library by working these gigs and I felt that if I could be a complete bassist, I could find work and support a family.
Carter's education has also enabled him to create some superb, if under-appreciated, music as a leader, such as his nonet recording Eight Plus
(Dreyfus). It includes a cello quartet and Carter on piccolo bass. Who would have thought a string section could play such a stomping blues, as on Carter's arrangement of "A Song for You ? "I've studied composition and arranging skills, and I'm using my classical experience as another tool to make my jazz work better, he said. Though recorded in 1990 by Rudy Van Gelder, Eight Plus
wasn't released in the U.S. until 2003. "I'm sorry that it didn't get more attention that I thought it deserved, said Carter. "What's lovely to me about that record is it's 15 years later and it sounds like it was recorded yesterday.
Another lesser-known aspect to Carter's life, though not surprising given his own schooling, has been his career as an educator. He recently retired after 18 years on the music faculty at City College of New York, though not before being honored with the title of Distinguished Professor Emeritus.
"That's not something that the College bestows, said Barbara Hanning, Professor of Music at City College and chair of the music department during much of Carter's time there. "It has to be applied for and then Ron had to go up before the Board of Trustees and be voted on by people outside of our little club! It was a very rigorous procedure that involved scrutinizing his work. He was a stellar and sterling colleague and one of the last things I did as chair was to be in charge of the search that hired his replacement.
That replacement happens to be John Patitucci, a formidable bassist in his own right and, like Carter once was, a collaborator with Wayne Shorter. "Ron is one of the primary reasons that I started playing the acoustic bass, said Patitucci. "His amazing sound, the architecture of his bass lines and his impeccable time feel, among other things, have made him one of the most influential bass players in the history of jazz. He continues to inspire us all.