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.
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