Ron Carter: The Paragon of Bass Virtuosity

Jim Worsley By

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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.
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