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Ron Carter: The Paragon of Bass Virtuosity

Jim Worsley By

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No matter where the listener put the needle, it would not sound like the last tune or next tune. I wanted each track to have its own story. —Ron Carter
Some half a century ago, iconic bassist Ron Carter had already dynamically impacted the jazz world with his advanced rhythmic cadences and his artistic vision with the second great Miles Davis quintet. The sumptuous and indelible mark that Carter and his bandmates left on jazz history is well-documented. An educated, articulate and determined man, Carter's journey led to countless groundbreaking recordings and live performances. His intuitive and brilliantly conceived projects as a leader have paved a career that has enlightened and delighted music fans all over the world. His many collaborations are diverse and memorable, perhaps none more so than his entrancing sessions with guitarist Jim Hall.

Now 81-years-young, Carter is enjoying the fruits of his labor in a most befitting manner. His trio is playing many gigs this year, his big band is about to embark on another European tour and he is currently enjoying a nice run with his quartet. Jazz fans worldwide can be thankful that this living legend is still performing, still searching for the right notes and still pursuing excellence in all that he does.

It was, of course, an honor and a privilege to have the following conversation with Ron Carter. A most genuine man, he spoke openly about racism, family, education, childhood, disappointments, triumphs and the many facets of his vast and substantial musical odyssey.

All About Jazz: In your biography, Finding The Right Notes, you talk about the injustices of racism in the '50's and the impact it had on your life. That is an important story to tell, so perhaps you could tell our readers a bit about your experience and that time in our history.

Ron Carter: At one time, when I was ten or eleven-years-old, I was a cellist. I got better and better, and by junior high school they could see that I had some talent to develop. They sent me to a teacher that was at the next level that they thought I needed. I played cello for a few years on into high school. The high school musicians were often called upon to perform at professional events for music in the background: PTA meetings, dinners, concerts and those type of events. I noticed that all the non-Black kids were getting the call to play even though I played as well as they did. I didn't understand why I wasn't eligible or called on to do these jobs.

One day in 1954, I saw that the only bassist in the orchestra was graduating. I decided to take up the bass. I figured that if I'm the only bassist in the chamber orchestra then they were going to have to call me for these gigs. So as a senior, I switched to bass and received a full scholarship to the Eastman School of Music when I auditioned in the summer of 1955. At Eastman they would select certain prize students to fill out the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra. One of the guest conductors that year was Leopold Stokowski. He came up to me during one of the rehearsals and told me that he thought I was a quality player and a fine person and that he would love to have me in his orchestra, but also that he was down in Texas and that they weren't ready for a colored guy playing in the orchestra. So, I did freelance work to pay for my schooling and started playing at a jazz spot called The Red Creek Inn, just outside Rochester. All the jazz bands playing in upstate New York and Canada were coming through there. I was told that they needed good bass players in New York.

AAJ: You most admirably came out of that racial travesty with the adage of, and I quote, "Don't let discouragement be your focus." Is this an inner strength attributable to your upbringing, to your mom and dad, or was it born out of necessity?

RC: Yes, you get these kinds of concepts and feelings early on in your life. You see your parents fighting through the clear sting of racism in the '40s and '50s. My parents had eight kids: six girls and two boys. My mother did laundry. She found work doing something when she wasn't allowed to be hired as a teacher. My father wouldn't get hired as a fireman in Detroit because of his race. He kept finding jobs, little odds and ends. He ultimately got hired by the Detroit railways in the early '50s. He was one of the first Black guys to be hired, work for the bus company and work as a driver. You pay attention and watch how your parents made due and made it work, despite the odds being clearly against them. They provided everything they could for their children despite that circle. You take note of that and put it away for use at another time.

AAJ: How far do you think we have come regarding race relations? Given a similar circumstance, would the same thing happen today?

RC: I'm often asked that question. My answer is to—we used to say go to the library, but now to the internet—and pull up the orchestral pictures of the top five or six orchestras over the past fifteen years and see how the minority and racial profile has changed. Based on the growth of minority kids graduating from the major schools, see how the proportions of minorities, including women, has changed over the past fifteen years. If you look, and you are really being honest, you will see that the numbers have not changed proportionately.

AAJ: Wow, that is just crazy.

RC: Yes, it's nuts. In the meantime, there have been groups that have been spotted up in the New York area whose foundation is the organization of primarily minority students playing together. There is a group in London as well. That solves part of the issue, but it doesn't solve the problem. I admire these two groups that have made great headway in encouraging and developing African American and minority players to fulfill and make their own orchestras. I admire the tenacity and willingness to succeed, all because they still can't get hired to play in the white group. Their solution was to make their own group. I'm okay with that, but it doesn't solve the issue that we talked about in the bigger picture.

AAJ: Not by a long shot. Although indeed admirable, as you said, they should not have to do that. Do you ever think about the career you might have had if things had been as they rightfully should have been?

RC: Yes. Very much so. It makes me very upset. In fact, I have been known to speak out at both ears when asked this question in a less gentlemanly fashion in which you have proposed it to me. I get upset. I get very upset. I was not allowed to be a classical player and the numbers are still disproportioned today. Yes, I get upset. It's very upsetting. [It should be noted that Mr. Carter spoke calmly and honestly without ever raising his voice.]

AAJ: I mentioned your parents. You grew up with seven siblings, all of whom played musical instruments. It would be interesting to know what that was like, maybe from the perspective of a typical day.

RC: My dad would come home from work after driving the bus all day. On Sundays, after church services in the morning, we would come home and all have dinner together. My father would then sit down and it was time for music to take place. We would take our music stands. My sister played piano, another played viola, and I played the cello. We had arrangements of Broadway tunes and Tin Pan Alley tunes that were popular at the time. Songs by the Mills Brothers and some pop tunes. We didn't have any classical arrangements at that time. We would then retire to our rooms and practice for our lessons the next day, classical exercises, classical melodies and classical tunes. That would be our Sunday.

AAJ: That is terrific. Playing Mills Brothers and all that sounds like fun.

RC: It was.

AAJ: As a young man, you and your bride set sail for the bright lights of New York City with hopes of making a living playing in jazz bands. Was that scary, thrilling, or a bit of both?

RC: Well, since classical was not an option, if I wanted to play music it was decided that New York represented the best opportunity. New York was available to me, so it seemed like a good choice. I had gone as far as I could after graduating from Eastman. I had received a lot of encouragement from jazz players who had come through Rochester.

AAJ: How did you career-launching gigs with Chico Hamilton and Art Farmer come about?

RC: Fortunately, they heard me play in Rochester. I called Chico when I got to New York and it turned out his bassist was leaving town. The bass chair was open, so I took the bass chair. Eric Dolphy was also in that band.

AAJ: Then it was on to playing with Miles Davis as part of his second great quintet. Was there any notion in your mind that you all were making jazz history, or were you so locked into the music and creativity that it didn't register at the time?

RC: I can't speak for those guys. We never really discussed it. From my point of view, we never realized that it would be analyzed and have that effect. Every night we were going to work, experimenting with rhythms, experimenting with forms, experimenting with different dynamics, different intensities, different patterns. For us it was like an experiment every night. Back then, did we ever think it would get this famous? The answer is no. Our question was, "how can we get better? We did something last night that was cool. What can we do with that? Can we improve on it? Can we make that happen again? What's our hand in this?"

AAJ: All that creativity with fertile and equally bright minds had to be fun. Brainstorming with Davis, Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams, and Wayne Shorter had to be really something special.

RC: Every night was like bingo, man. [We both chuckled at that reference.] I certainly enjoyed playing with these guys night in and night out and seeing what we could come up with, seeing what I could come up with. What is my nickel in this dime?

AAJ: "What is my nickel in this dime?" That is great, I like that phrase! I referenced your late wife Janet earlier. Could you tell us a little bit about her and your sons Ron, Jr. and Myles? She was quite involved in African American arts and education, correct?

RC: Yes, and she was one of the founding members of the pacesetting Studio Museum in Harlem. Janet was one of the original board members. At the time she was a student at City College, a double major in Art and English Literature. She had the sense that people didn't believe African American artists had value. Janet found that there were other people in New York who felt the same way. They worked together for the betterment of Black artists. At one time she had her own gallery on the Upper West Side over on Green Street and a gallery in her home.

Janet was very encouraging to her fellow students at City College. She encouraged the young African American kids to look around and see what was available to them. Further, to look at how they could affect the situation. Can they become artists? Can they become promoters? Can they have a voice that raises African American awareness? Several of these students went on to become curators and to be involved in the management of art museums. My son Myles became the painter in the family. He went on to be a world class painter. He had several shows in Europe, South America, and New York City. Ron, Jr. was the bassist of the bunch. He ended up being a pretty good bassist.

AAJ: Teaching has also been a hallmark of your career, having taught at many of the finest universities around the world. What have you enjoyed most or found to be the most rewarding aspects of teaching?

RC: That I discover more about music. When you are playing things for the kids, you have to demonstrate. It increases my verbal and language skills. It also increases my understanding of this music we call jazz. It makes me understand that every night and every day, there is something that you can learn to do better. I encourage them to come hear me play just so that they can see how I try to use the skills we talk about in class, how I apply this ability to play the instrument better each night to develop new ideas and concepts. When I realize a kid understands the "Xs" and "Os" of playing this music, I know that I have done my job.

AAJ: It's interesting that you have essentially become the student at times and are learning and growing along the way.

RC: Every night the students offer me a chance to get better and I'm happy to take advantage of it.

AAJ: Finding The Right Notes is the name of your biography and also the foundation of your musical presence. How do you approach each night in a manner to keep it fresh, find those notes and fuel the band?

RC: I try to remember the last night's experience the best that the mind can tolerate. I try to take what idea that I stumbled on and develop it for the second night. I am playing with people right now that are sensitive to my proclivities in doing this. They expect to hear an idea from Tuesday night on Friday night and see what I can do with that. It's that kind of challenge. One of my jobs, Jim, is to make bands better because I am standing there playing with them. That means I need to find the notes that night, that I need to find a different order, a little bit different tempo. I need to bring together an attitude for them that this is a chance for us to get better every night starting last night. If I continue to bring forth that presentation of my concepts, then it kind of bleeds out through the band. I get really proud to see them understanding that this is my intent.

AAJ: There is a stylish interplay with your current trio including Russell Malone and Donald Vega. They seem to be properly invested in finding those notes as well. Is that the sense of camaraderie that you have with them? You seem to be having a really good time playing together.

RC: It's a trust that I need those notes, and to try and make them work for the band playing in that moment. The point is for them to be able to express these notes in their groups. They become responsible for spreading this kind of information that you can't find anywhere else. My hope is that they will be able to understand what they just did and be able to translate that to a language that their band members will understand. That they will develop it and always try to make it better.

AAJ: I had the pleasure of seeing and hearing your trio live two or three years ago at the Catalina Jazz Club in Hollywood. In addition to a stellar evening of jazz, I appreciated the tuxedo attire. In an era where casual—and sometimes less than casual—has become the norm, it was refreshing to see a professional jazz trio look the part. How important do you feel this aspect is on the mood and vibe that you are trying to create?

RC: Well, people dress casual in jeans and deck shoes at the clubs and that's okay, I suppose. But I want people to know that we are coming in to go to work and that this is our work attire. Once they see how elegantly we are dressed and how nice that look is, it sets a tone for them to be prepared to accept the kind of music we are going to play for them. I feel that a jazz player who is not dressed like that is not giving themselves a chance to immediately command their visual attention.

AAJ: It no doubt raises the bar. For many years, you have mostly played without a drummer. Is this primarily about creating space or more about putting the brunt, and therefore the challenge, of the rhythm on your shoulders?

RC: I just like the sound of a drummerless trio, man. It's a little more transparent because you don't have the sound of the drums. It does make me more responsible for where the beat is and what kind of time we are playing in. The drummer makes it a lot more obvious. I always caution drummers not to get mad at me for not having them. I'm just going through this phase of my life.

AAJ: What do you find to be the most challenging: the interactions and interplay as a group, or playing a solo?

RC: As a bassist, it is much more challenging to play a song with no help from another musician. It's really an amazing thing to do. I've been doing this for a while and it is a challenge to hold someone's attention with an instrument that isn't generally associated with solos and usually only playing two or three notes at a time. It's more challenging to be responsible for all of it: the rhythm, the notes, the tune, the tempo, the development of ideas and all of it. Playing together as a band has its own set of complexities that I enjoy being part of as well.

AAJ: As the most recorded bassist in history, there are hundreds of your records we could discuss. One that is particularly fascinating is Pastels (Fantasy, 1976). It is a wonderfully vibrant record very much with a full array of colors. It is complex yet washes over you like gentle rain. I was hoping that you could talk about the process and mindset of putting together that masterpiece.

RC: That was the first record I did where the company allowed my input to be at the top of the priority list. I thought it would be nice to have the bass featured at the bottom of the chord with an orchestra and still have it be important to the top of the chord. I needed to find an arranger who understood that option and would trust my judgement to make some changes to their notes. If I could find an arranger who would trust my judgment and allow me the latitude to work with the harmonies and the chords and manipulate the structures, I thought we would have a chance to make a pretty nice record. Don Sebesky, (who was a man I didn't really know) and I sat down together and had a conversation. I told him what I had in mind. He had never really done a record like this before. I asked him to trust me that I had a sound in mind, the notes in mind, and just needed the liberty to do it. I explained that if I could reshuffle some of things that were on the chart, we could have a nice duo accomplishment. It was him doing it for the first time and me doing it for the first time and I think the record turned out very well.

AAJ: That it did. Quite an accomplishment. Going in just the opposite direction of a record that required the large ensemble, your solo epic All Alone (EmArcy, 1988) is an acute blend of composition and artistry that keenly expresses story and mood. It's the kind of record that reaches you on a one- to-one basis, as if you are speaking directly to that one listener. Did this record feel that personal when you were working on it? Was there an intent to reach the listener in such a way?

RC: You know, I don't always recommend my records for students to hear because a lot of factors are involved. I don't want those factors to get in the way of my point. Having said that, one record I do recommend is All Alone. That day that we recorded the bass sound was so exceptional, and the recorded sound was so exceptional, that I could play anything I wanted to play and know that it would work very well. I wanted it to be free of all sound effects and plug- in machines. Just me and the instrument. The sound, a good engineer, and a great microphone. I wanted it to be that no matter where the listener put the needle on the record, it would not sound like the last tune or the next tune. I wanted each track to have its own story. My bass was using the same voice but with different vocabulary. I'm very happy that it struck you as a very nice record to listen to.

AAJ: Very much so. I don't want to overstate it, but sometimes it feels as if I am at one with you when I listen to it. I guess I just get where you are coming from, if that makes any sense.

RC: Good. Yes, it does. Thank you for that.

AAJ: It must be flattering to hear from the likes of Lena Horne and Bette Midler. How do you go about preparing for a performance with a vocalist as opposed to an instrumental gig?

RC: By and large, Jimmie, there is no special preparation for any band that calls me. I try to understand and appreciate the fact that this person who has called is not from the jazz community. It always amazes me how wide the world of music really is. Just how much every aspect, every concept, every sound is available to anyone who has the interest to find out what I do. Whether it is Lena Horne, Bette Midler, Paul Simon or others who call me to be a part of a project, my general attitude is that I am pleased that they believe that I can help them take that project to a different level. Hopefully, to the level they are looking for. I'll ask myself, "Can I make this record better because I am playing the bass? "

AAJ: Within the past couple of years you recorded "Nature Boy" as a duet with a lovely singer named Douyé. There are some exquisite note selections on display there. How did that arrangement come together?

RC: I had a great time with her. She is really a nice lady. She was very shy, and she found herself in this room with two great players. She found out how sympathetic great players are to someone who is trying to find their way. I had a great time with her.

AAJ: Legend has it that you once played hoops with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. I believe you also played some basketball in college. How did it come to be that you shared a court with then "Lew Alcindor?"

RC: He was friends with the drummer from my original quintet, Ben Riley. I was hanging out with Ben and Kareem came by. We were shooting around, I made some and I missed some. Then Ben tells me that I had to leave. I told him that I thought I was doing "pretty good, man." He says "no man, your wife is having a baby!" So, I told Kareem good-bye, rushed to the hospital and Ron, Jr. was born about two hours later. Oh, and I did play a year of ball at the University of Rochester.

AAJ: Thank you for sharing that story.

RC: My pleasure. I really enjoyed talking with you today, Jimmie.

AAJ: In closing, you have said that some day you will find that perfect note and that you will enjoy the spectacular view from the top. If I may be so bold as to put a spin on that, you have been enjoying and blessedly sharing that view over a long and storied career. It most assuredly has been spectacular. Thank you for all the music, all the notes, all the grooves and most certainly all your time today.

Photo credit: Mark Robbins
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