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.



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