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Saxophonist Paul Carr: DC's Mister PC

Matt Merewitz By

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So from a very young age it was important to have a good sound —Paul Carr
Paul Carr is a saxophone and flautist deeply rooted in the hard-bop and blues tradition of jazz. He has a guttural “Texas Tenor” sound which stems from his childhood years growing up in Houston, Texas. While he has a stunning jazz improvisatory vocabulary, his ability to move an audience is his greatest asset. Arriving in the nation’s capital on a full merit scholarship to Howard University, Carr has been a presence on the DC jazz scene for just over twenty years. He has played with all the best local players as well as several national acts passing through such as flutist Kent Jordan, saxophonist Tim Warfield, and Wynton and Branford Marsalis. Also known for his knowledge of hundreds of tunes in many genres, he has a knack for playing being able to play any tune in the jazz canon in virtually any key. The first time I saw Paul Carr live was at a concert which was part of a jazz series at Dumbarton Church in Georgetown, a well-known affluent neighborhood in Northwest DC. The event was billed in the Washington Post as a “Battle of the Saxophones,” featuring Carr, Ron Holloway and a much too often underappreciated tenor and clarinetist named Buck Hill. Here is Paul Carr in his own words.

All About Jazz: What are your first musical memories?

Paul Carr: Probably growing up in Houston listening to records that my mom had. She liked jazz. So it would be Lou Donaldson, Jimmy Smith, all kinds of stuff...blues, Muddy Waters, Stanley Turrentine. You know, she liked jazz and I grew up with it so I always knew that I was gonna play. She was really instrumental in getting me started and getting my interest in it.

AAJ: And you were playing alto as a youngster?

PC: Alto, yeah. I played alto through high school until...well actually I started playing some tenor in high school. Anyways, I went to a high school that had a very famous stage band. We called ‘em stage bands in that day - not jazz ensembles. Conrad Johnson was our director and the name of the school was Kashmere Senior High School. It was an award-winning program. The school had had a great jazz band for years and years. So when I started playing that’s what I really wanted – to go to that high school and be in that stage band. So I didn’t actually get into that jazz band because it was so competitive, you know, and he had a seniority type of thing goin on. And he had guys that had been there for all this time ahead of me so I didn’t actually get into that band until the 12th grade. So when I got in that band I played the tenor.

AAJ: What kind of tunes were you playing in that band?

PC: He actually wrote a lot of originals for that band. We called him Prof. He’s still around and he’s great for the kids. So anyways he wrote a lot of originals and did all the arranging. Whatever the weak point of that band was – he would arrange around that. So if the trumpets were weak, he would just write tunes that had a lot of ( scatting ) “Daht, daht! Uh, uh. Daht...Daht!"

AAJ: A lot of hits.

PC: Exactly. Like them punch chords and stuff. And if the saxophones were good then he’d tunes with du-buh-dah-bee-oo-nn-ata. You know...real fast. He had a tune called “Zero Point” (scats again – this time along the lines of a ridiculously fast Thad Jones arrangement). It had a lot of diminished lines. That’s – I mean, as soon as I realized I wanted to play, I knew I wanted to be in that Kashmere High School stage band.

AAJ: I know you talk about Arnett Cobb as a major factor in your development as a saxophonist. Tall a little bit about Arnett.

PC: Well you see, the thing with Arnett was – he was the man in town. You know? So I would go out to hear him play.

AAJ: What were some of the local clubs around back then?

PC: Oh, the Laba Steel was still around. They were downtown. There was a place called Peco’s, which was just totally in the heart of the ghetto. There were a couple of other places around that I can’t recall right now. And so Prof – Conrad Johnson – would have Arnett come in to the school sometimes and play. We would do a concert with the band and feature him. So from a very young age it was important to have a good sound – a nice big sound, good feel – stuff like that. Arnett could just play one note or phrase one little line and he would have the whole audience going nuts.

AAJ: And did you guys have his records? Or was it like everyone was listening to him anyways so you didn’t need the records?

PC: Yeah I heard him all the time. Whenever there was a big jazz concert in town he was always on it. Headlining or playing with the lineup at some point in the show. There was another tenor player too back then that used to play with Ray Charles. He was from Houston. His name was Don Wilkerson. He and Arnett used to have concerts together. Don Wilkerson was another great saxophonist but he had more dexterity. So it was cool to go up to their gigs and hear them play together because Arnett was a swinger and a feeler and Don Wilkerson – I mean, he had it all. He could do the feel thing plus everything else. His tone wasn’t as big as Arnett’s but he could really play changes and he had that dexterity.

AAJ: What made you decide to come to Washington?

PC: Well, I knew I wanted to be on the East Coast. DC was just supposed to be a stopping point on the way to New York. I had heard the Howard University Jazz Band (HUJE) when I was at Texas Christian, which was another historically black college and they were amazing. I said "Wow! This is great – here’s a college group that does a record and goes on tour every year. So I sent them a tape and I got a full merit scholarship. Meanwhile, my girlfriend at the time, who is now my wife, she came up here with me on a lark, and just got a job. We were just here visiting her brother as a short trip and she got a job - just like that. So we said why don’t we just move to DC? And you know, BOOM, that’s what we did.

AAJ: Who were some of the people who helped you feel your way around when you arrived in DC?

PC: There was an alto player named Roger Woods. We were at Howard together and he was playing around town while we were in school. He was playing jam sessions at the One Step Down (a now-defunct DC club). So I would go down there with him. Also, a guy named Larry Seals was around then, playing with his band LSQ. He showed me around a bit.

AAJ: And when you were done with Howard did you just start gigging?

PC: Yeah, see, that’s the thing about DC. When I got out of Howard, first I was on the road with a Haitian band. And we would go up to New York all the time. And I’d go and listen to cats and stuff like that. Then I started playing with another band in town here, uh, Visions. And we were playing like four or five nights a week.

AAJ: Who was in that band?

PC: It was Ron Compton on drums, Cheney Thomas on bass – pianist was...hmmm...Wade Beach played piano with us sometimes. Cameron Brown, a trumpet player, was the leader of the band. We played at this place called Takoma Station. And it was just amazing, because the place was always packed and I said to myself, you know, “Wow, this is great!”

Then, maybe a year later, Cameron Brown said his time was up. He had to get outta town for some reason or another, so the club owner looked at me and said, “Alright, you take over the band.” And that was cool because I had been thinking about starting my own band anyways.

After a while leading this group four nights a week, I was said to myself, “Why go to New York when I can stay here, picking the best guys in town to play with, learn music, write tunes and live affordably? So I decided to stay in DC. While I was doing the run at Takoma Station, everyone would come through and sit in. Wynton and his band sat in, Kenny Garrett, Joey DeFrancesco. Joey would come in and kill on organ and then he’d get up and play trumpet. (laughs). In fact there’s still a big picture of Wynton and I behind the stage there. It was so happenin’ when that was goin’ on, we’d often be playin’ till 3 or 4 in the morning. Actually, when I was leading that band at Takoma Station, I gave George Colligan his first gig in DC. He came down from Baltimore and played with us. That might have been his first professional jazz gig. So I stayed in DC.

AAJ: What have you been up to since then?

PC: Well, you know I’ve played regularly at Twins and the One Step Down for years. In 1993 I came out with my first CD as a leader, PC 10. That was when I led my first group at Blues Alley with James King on bass, Lenny Robinson on drums and Bob Butta on piano. I took that group on tour with a grant from the DC Commission on the Arts. We played the San Remo Jazz Festival. That was like ’89. That’s when I should’ve left DC. No actually – make that ‘90. That’s when I should have left DC and gone on to New York if I was gonna go.

That was the year I won the Hennessy Jazz Search. Back then they had this jazz search for young artists. So I won the one for Washington and then the same year I won the one for Baltimore. If I had wanted to get bigger, I should have gone to New York right then. But after winning that kind of recognition, I got even more gigs around town. I was playing four, five, six nights a week. The next thing I knew – ten years had passed by. So obviously I have no regrets. I know I could have done well in New York like I did here, so it’s not a big deal.

Also back then, things economically, at least for music, were much better. I was playin’ all these social gigs. People were throwing these huge big parties often for no particular reason and I got to play all the time. I don’t know why people don’t throw big parties like they used to.

AAJ: Can you comment on how much of a factor money is a for you as a jazz musician.

PC: Money is just a byproduct. You see, I love to play. Money is just a byproduct. It’s not the driving force for me. I mean, this past weekend I played a not-so-well-paying gig at The Haven over in Baltimore but it was great. The music was there, everybody was in the moment. It was killin’. So when I take one of those gigs, I’m gonna make the best of it because I love to play. It’s an added bonus when it’s with the organ player Greg Hatza (Many of you likely know Hatza from his ongoing project – The ORGANization). Just unbelievable. I mean this cat plays with so much fire and soul. He just had the people grooving. We were playin’ soul, groove, funk, everything. And that’s what I love about bein’ a musician because I can play “society gigs” and then turn around and do a club date at Blues Alley or Twins or the Haven. This summer I have some dates with a blues singer, Sister Monica. So I like it all – if its good. Someone said “there are only two types of music – good and bad.” So if it’s good, I’m down with it.

AAJ: To piggyback on what you were talking about a moment ago, what do you think about the reemergence of the organ trio? I know you said you listened to soul jazz coming up? Would you like you be in one on a more regular basis.

PC: I would love to get into that. This weekend was the first organ gig I’ve had in a while. The thing is that it’s just so based in the groove. You know, sometimes we can get so complicated in playing this note against this change and think about music in so many complex ways. When you play with a good organ player, the groove is right here ( motions with hands ). You can be wherever you wanna be, but the groove is right here. You gotta play inside that groove. You can choose to play the most difficult, harmonically complex things you wanna play but if it’s not groovin’ it doesn’t sound good.

The other thing I like about the organ trio format is that’s it’s usually in 4/4 – common time. So it exposes you. If you can’t put your solos together, if you can’t build a solo to a climax, if your ideas are only based in technique and how much you’re stretching the harmony, you can really get exposed by an organ trio. The first set, we were kind of finding our way, but by the second set it was just starting to cook.

AAJ: And he was playing bass with his feet right?

PC: Yeah I was watching that cause it’s pretty amazing. He would do certain things with his left hand too but mostly the foot. He was playing on a big old B-3, with two cabinets. It took three guys to get the thing in and out.

When he got there, he asks me “Did you bring a mic for your horn?”

And since the Haven is such a small intimate venue, I don’t usually use a microphone there so I said “No, I’d don’t use one.”

And he said “You might wanna use a mic.” When he fired the thing up and started playing, the sound that he got outta that thing was just incredible. So I was like, “Yeah, where’s that mic at?”

AAJ: When did you meet your good friend Tim Warfield?

PC: Wow, that was back at Howard. He was a student. Now he wasn’t actually a music major. He was an architecture student. And so I heard him one day playing in one of the practice rooms and I said to myself, “Who is that? What’s goin’ on?” So I looked in the window and here was this little skinny kid with a black leather hat on. (Laughs) And I said “Wow man. You sound pretty good.” He was actually with a friend of mine – a brother named Gerald Pennington, trombonist.

And We just kinda hit it off from there. And I was still playin a lot of alto in those days so we had a little front line with Tim on tenor, myself on alto, and Gerald playin’ trombone. We’ve all been friends ever since.

AAJ: Can you talk about some of the people in DC who deserve wider recognition?

PC: Besides myself? (We both laugh) Ummm, I’d say, Charlie Young, an alto player. He’s been an inspiration to me. I think he spent some time at North Texas and he was from Texas. Back when I got here he was playin’ in the Navy Commodores (the Navy’s premier jazz ensemble). Back then I was living in Landover, a suburb a ways from the city and the clubs. But I used to catch a lot of buses towards DC and go down to One Step Down and listen to Charlie. More recently I’ve been playing a lot with Steve Novosel, who I used to see at the One Step Down with just about everybody that came through. Steve plays bass in Maurice Lowes’ band now, which I play in and he is just killin’. I mean when he plays my ears are just – open – because I know I’m gonna hear something that’s great. And there’s a lot of younger players in town that I respect and like listening to such as Eric Byrd. I went to Bolivia with his trio in September. We did a festival and a couple concerts and clinics with his band which is Al Young on drums and Bhagwan Khalsa on bass. I also play with bassist Pepe Gonzalez and his wife, a vocalist who goes by the name Imani, and a killer painist - Jon Ozment. We went to the Curacao International Jazz Festival a couple years ago. So I’m really lucky and blessed to play with the best players in town and be called on to do projects and go on tour with them. I really couldn’t ask for more. Well, I could but nobody would really care. ( laughter )

AAJ: The biggest thing about you which we haven’t really talked about yet is your teaching. I mean, you coached me from being a mediocre player to the point where I was in all-county and all-state jazz bands. And you’ve done the same for countless others; cats who people are gonna be hearing about in the coming few years.

PC: I’m gonna tell you Matt, like I said earlier, I like to play and I like to hear other people that can play. So when I’m teaching, I sort of look at it as an extension of me playing. And of course I love to see someone get better. Start at a certain level and then reach a whole other level. You know – they blossom. So that brings me a lot of satisfaction. And it’s not like I’m looking for any recognition because there’s a lot of guys – that you know Matt, that record and they don’t acknowledge it. And that’s ok. I didn’t do it for their recognition. I get to toot along with ‘em in lessons and play tunes and teach improvisation, which I love doing. So for me and for my students it’s a lot of fun.

I have them listen to all the masters of the instrument – Trane, Sonny, Wayne Shorter, Stan Getz, Bird, Cannonball, Dexter Gordon, Hank Mobley. Because the thing is – jazz is such.....it’s like a foreign language in this country - even though it was created here. To find jazz is a chore in itself. You have to go all the way to the left side of the dial and then you gotta figure out when the so-called “jazz station” is gonna have jazz on.

AAJ: Yeah.

PC: Yeah. (In a mocking voice) “Yeah., we play jazz but it’s between 1 and 3 am in the morning.” “Ok so I’ll set my radio tiVo to try to catch some of that.” They haven’t invented that yet. For someone to play in this environment even though there are a lot more training tools around and we know a lot more about jazz education, it still takes quite a commitment for a young person to play jazz today. You could be very informed culturally and never know about it, never see it. There are people in this town who play music and haven’t ever been to Blues Alley.

AAJ: Speaking of Blues Alley, I know you’re about to lead a group of four of your best students there next weekend. These are high school kids who have each been members of all-state jazz groups and have won numerous awards regionally for their playing. Two of them have even won critical acclaim at the national level while being merely high school students. Talk a little about it.

PC: I created an organization called the Jazz Academy which was originally all of my students from my studio. Then shortly after that, the idea became to have a summer combo and big band camp where we would bring kids in on all different instruments and teach the music in a very informal relaxed setting. So for the past two summers, we’ve been doing a three-week-long camp. And so I thought we would kick off the camp season by doing something with my best students. So its gonna be Tommy Gardner, Alex Hoffman and a pair of saxophone-playing twins - Pete and Will Reardon-Anderson. I got the idea from another concert I saw called “Too Much Sax” with about six saxophones and a rhythm section. So why don’t we just do something along those lines with these four “young lions.”

AAJ: What’s in store as far as a program is concerned?

PC: We’re probably gonna lean towards saxophone players’ compositions. But there’s gonna be some other stuff thrown in as well. I was telling the guys that we’re not gonna play high and fast all night we’re gonna play with emotion and like I always say, "We’re gonna just keep it simple and see where we can go from there."

AAJ: Alright Paul, thanks a lot for your time. I enjoyed it quite a bit.

PC: Yeah, thanks man. That was fun.

For more on Paul Carr and the summer Jazz Academy Camp, visit www.jazzacademy.org

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