Ron Carter: The Right Notes, Alright

R.J. DeLuke By

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Carter's story is a varied one since coming to the Manhattan School of Music for his master's degree after graduating from Eastman in Rochester. He's been in the Big Apple ever since. He also lived through the beginning, and pretty much heyday, of jazz/rock fusion. That usually meant the electric bass. Carter played it a bit, but decided to remain with the upright instrument he had spent so many years studying and elevating.

He explains, "To be competitive with all those wonderful [electric bass] players who were already there before me, it would have taken more work than I really had the time to do. Those bass players put in a lot of time to make that right. To do what those guys were doing, I didn't have the time to develop that kind of wherewithal and those kinds of practice hours. I was comfortable enough to know maybe I had something here [with the acoustic] and let me see what I can do with this. I was always active. I was playing every day. I was playing gigs in the afternoon. I was practicing in the early afternoon. I was working at night. I was as busy as I ever wanted to be. So I wasn't looking for gigs to do. I was trying to find out if I could get something better going than what I had. To do that, it takes a focus. I knew I couldn't do that kind of intense focus to make the electric bass as much mine as I was trying to make the acoustic bass. I was comfortable to step back and let those electric players who already had a head start on me keep going.

"I appreciated them finding the direction they wanted to do to make their music successful," he says of the fusion breed like Joe Zawinul and new directions of Davis and Tony Williams. But, "I just didn't have the kind of interest to put into the development that those guys did. They put in a lot of time rehearsing and writing the arrangements. I had another sound in my ear and another set of notes that I could find more musical happiness with—that I had already worked toward doing."

He had already made the acoustic thing soar. With Davis from 1963-1968, the music grew, expanded, took on new faces and new places. Even the musicians in Davis' band, caught up in the middle of it, didn't know exactly where their daring-do would take them.

Ron Carter All Blues"Those guys were crazy," Carter says with an obvious sparkle filled with fondness for that groundbreaking time with brilliant musical minds and great friends. "Those guys were all nuts. They should've been locked up."

"There was so much stuff going on, it's hard to separate the events as they went down," he says. "At the time, no one, as far as I could tell, was thinking, 'Is this important music?' or 'Is this going to get famous?' We were really just looking every night to see what kind of music we could stir up and still have some validity with the original melody and the original changes. Miles didn't preach anything about the right notes. He trusted our sense of ... I guess being curious is a good word. Being curious to find out what kind of rhythms, what kind of changes we could put in to replace those already there, that would make the music have a different kind of life. Being in that laboratory, we had fun every night."

The more the band played together, "the more outrageous it got. Every night was a chance to play some new music. And some wonderful music. And if it didn't work, we knew we had one more chance to try and get it right. Tomorrow night's coming up. Let's worry about tomorrow night. None of us were thinking along the lines of the band having the reputation it ultimately got. I think we were all trying to find a way to make the notes we heard function. Can we make this music have a life? [Davis] was as surprised as we were with the results. We took chances. We took turns steering him somewhere."

Carter is quick to state that Davis was excellent to work for and a good friend, "and I miss him dearly." Stories of the "evil" Davis don't resonate with Carter. "I never saw those events take place. So I'm kind of out of the loop as far as a person who can say this happened or that happened. I don't know those situations people talk about." And silly criticisms, like Miles turning his back to the audience, "That's so he could hear the band better. That seems like a reasonable way to do it."

The bassist is comfortable that the stint with Davis solidified the careers of those in the band. He also knows his talents brought him there and his talents have sustained a superior career beyond that time. "Yes, I was there. Yes, I had a great time. I look forward to seeing Miles upstairs in the sky, trying it again."

After that gig ended, Carter's phone was ever ringing. He has done countless studio sessions and appeared in nightclubs in innumerable settings. It could seem, for a time, that he was in a constant rush from one session to another. "But it was all fun. I got a chance to play some wonderful music with some strangers and wonderful music with some people I was familiar with. I was always surprised that people in different industries would know that I existed. When you're making music, you're just kind of making the music. I wasn't keeping track of the records I made or who I made them with. Just a chance for me to find out how this bass worked. I'd find a set of notes that would attract attention in a positive way ... I thought I had the right kind of sound in my ear. My job was to try to make that sucker work, man."

Carter has never hurt for work. It's not because he feels he is in some upper echelon. But he understands his abilities and is confident in himself and what he has to offer. Carter is realistic when he looks at where he fits on the scene and he stands by his beliefs.

"I always felt that given the choices that these producers and bandleaders had to assemble a group, they would feel my input would make their project successful. That was enough for me. I didn't worry about not getting called or someone else getting a gig. I'm still not there. I trust that I played the best I could and if it wasn't satisfactory enough for whoever the bandleader was to call me back a second time, I feel good I played the best I can do. If it wasn't what he's looking for, that's his choice. I never got bent out of shape or envious or jealous [losing a gig] because I knew I was going to practice, to try to find something else to do. I never got to that zone. I never got bitter or hostile or mad. I knew I had some notes that were waiting to be discovered. My job is to see if I can find them. You can't find them if you're angry, man."

Ron Carter Dear MilesCarter has been involved in jazz education for many years and it still gives him great pleasure. He's taught at other major jazz schools besides Julliard and was artistic director of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Studies at one time. He realizes that the changes in the music industry are drastic, but isn't sounding any alarms. The young men and women coming out today are familiar with the Internet. They know social media like Facebook and Twitter. They can produce their own CDs. They know about operations like Kickstarter or ArtistShare, where artists get the public to help them raise money for their productions. All those things are alien to a great many older musicians, but not to those coming onto the scene. "So they're not so much in the wind as people would like to think. They aren't at so much at a loss as to what to do," says Carter.

One thing remains the same as it did 50 years ago and more.

"They got to play," states Carter. "The issue is: Can they find someplace to make some gigs? That's still paramount to me. You got to find somewhere to play, man, to figure out what notes don't work. There was a time you could go from New York to Philadelphia, to Washington, DC, to Boston. Those circuits are gone. I'm concerned the players will not have the wherewithal to be able to make those gigs that are now available. I tell my students I used to play three sets a night and they are stunned by that possibility. But that's how we developed our own sound and our own vocabulary and figured out the best set of these notes to play, or those notes to play. I think they need to get that kind of brass-knuckle playing."

He says his best advice for students is "get on the bandstand and work it out for as long as the club will stay open. You got to get those miles on you, brother. There's not a shortcut for that." Jazz schools are thriving, which is a good thing, but "it's not the same as being in a nightclub being forced to be able to perform to a certain level night in and night out. Schools do what they do and that's not to say they are not productive and turning out some productive players. But they got to be in the pits, man, to find out what it's like to try to make a course and maintain an audience's attention while you're moving up there. It's a whole other mindset. Musicians today miss that pressure to have to deliver night in and night out. You got to do it every night, man, to try to find out what notes don't work. Can you find a better set and maintain the audience's interest in what you're trying to get across to them?"

Carter says the best musicians working today face difficulties. But challenges have to be met head-on. "It's hard for all of us. The industry is changing. The access to the music is changing. The places to play are changing. The internet has changed the way people get a chance to hear music. We're all facing those kinds of difficult times. If you want to survive, they've got to find ways to make it work for them. Look around and don't look for anyone to hand it to you."

Meanwhile, Carter himself continues to look for projects that can stimulate him. He has a working trio and quartet. He still gets called for major sideman gigs.
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