WICN Artist of the Month, November 2021: Ron Carter
Written by Doug Hall on November 1, 2021
As you look at all the seminal legends and stars of jazz that have performed and recorded for over 60 years, there are only a few currently active. An even shorter list, indeed, if you consider the list of performers still alive today who have intersected with jazz leaders from the 1940s and participated in the recording of some seminal jazz sessions. As a singular distinction, Ron Carter is now the most recorded jazz bassist in history. His resume includes Lena Horne, Bill Evans, B.B. King, Dexter Gordon, Wes Montgomery, Bobby Timmons, Eric Dolphy, Cannonball Adderley, and Worcester’s own Jaki Byard. Carter was also the bassist for the seminal Miles Davis reincarnation of the Miles Davis Quartet. Beyond being an integral instrumental part of many jazz bands, Carter has formed and led many of his own, including The Ron Carter Trio, The Ron Carter Quartet, the Ron Carter Nonet and Ron Carter’s Great Big Band. In his own words, he frames his terms as a musician, still vital as a mentor and performing worldwide, “My responsibility as a bassist and bandleader is using every opportunity to create spectacular music.”
Ron Carter, legendary double bassist, bandleader, sideman with the acclaimed Miles Davis Quintet in the ‘60s; composer, arranger, teacher, Distinguished Emeritus Professor (City College of New York), Juilliard School faculty member, DownBeat Jazz Hall of Fame alumnus, Grammy- award winner, author of several books on bass methods & techniques and, at 84, still performing around the world – is deserving of all accolades in jazz.
As a bassist’s equivalent to Duke Ellington in style, sophistication, and poise — on stage and off – Carter has remained a traditionalist in instrument, as almost exclusively an acoustic bass and cello player. In addition to the legendary resume, performances, and recordings as sideman and band leader, Carter is acclaimed for his range and technique, as stated by AllMusic critic Ron Wynn, “a brilliant rhythmic and melodic player who uses everything in his bass and cello arsenal; walking lines; thick full, prominent notes and tones; drones and strumming effects; and melody snippets.”
Carter, at 11, would discover the cello as his first instrument in the Detroit public school district band, with his focus and ear for classical symphonic music. Carter relates his first experience hearing a classical performance and its impact thusly: “I went to a Detroit Symphony concert and heard Georges Miquelle play a Saint-Saëns cello concerto—I can still hear it in my ear right now.” Switching to the stand-up bass, Carter relates the circumstance, “We (family) had moved to Detroit when I was in high school, and at a time in Detroit when they weren’t giving me the opportunities to play that they were giving the white kids. When I started playing the bass, they had to let me, because I was the only one playing. In about 1954 or ’55, around my last year of high school, I started playing jazz gigs to pay for a bass and lessons.”
(The Juilliard Journal, December 2010/ January 2011).
Having earned a B.A. in music from the Eastman School of Music (1959) and a master’s degree in music from the Manhattan School of Music (1961), Carter had already landed his first job as a jazz musician, in New York City, playing with famed American jazz drummer “Chico” Hamilton’s quintet with free-jazz pioneer, multi-instrumentalist, alto-saxophone and bass clarinetist, Eric Dolphy.
This point of trajectory, in the hotbed of emerging post-bop jazz in New York City, would lead Carter to musical associations, performances, and recordings with seminal leaders in the modern jazz movement of the early 1960s. His credits would include playing on Dolphy’s “Far Cry” (1960), and several other seminal “free jazz” recordings during this period with both Dolphy and the highly experimental jazz trumpeter, Don Ellis. He would also work with band leader and post-bop jazz pianist Randy Weston and the master and key influencer of modern jazz: pianist, composer and bandleader, Thelonious Monk.
In 1964,Carter would become a member of the leading edge and direction in modern jazz: the Miles Davis’Second Great Quintet, which included Herbie Hancock on piano and Tony Williams on drums, and later Wayne Shorter on saxophone. Moving away from a harder-bop group style than the First Great Quintet, Davis’ second quintet had incorporated a performance technique that Davis referred to as “time, no changes.” This experimental jazz time signature blended “elements of free jazz without completely surrendering the approach.” (Wikipedia.org/wiki/Miles_DavisQuintet).
As related by Davis, in jazz journalist Dan Oulelette’s 2008 biography of Carter, Ron Carter: Finding the Right Notes, his players in the Second Great Quintet each served distinctive roles: “If I was the inspiration and wisdom and link for this band, Tony (Williams) was the fire, the creative spark; Wayne (Shorter) was the idea person, the conceptualizer of a lot of things we did; and Ron (Carter) and Herbie (Hancock) were the anchors. Those were all the young guys and although they were learning from me, I was learning from them too.”
As Davis moved in the direction of jazz fusion, Carter was not interested in transitioning to an electric jazz bass, and the other members were already heading in their own directions, forming seminal jazz-rock fusion bands that would drive this period of jazz in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.
However, Carter maintained a close personal relationship with Davis, but also felt it was necessary to keep a separation between professional work and social relationships. “I felt it was good to keep a distance from the bandleader…I never saw it personally, but I had heard all the stories about Miles being discourteous and trying to dominate people. I didn’t want him to feel like I was dependent on his presence and existence.” (Oulelette, pg. 354)
Though not a convert to the direction in jazz fusion, nonetheless Carter would play acoustic and electric bass on several 1970s standout examples, including Freddie Hubbard’s Red Clay (1970), Billy Cobham’s Spectrum (1973) and Hubert Laws’ In The Beginning (1974). Included in this period is also the post-bop, acoustic jazz trio masterpiece Trident (1976) with Carter on acoustic bass and Elvin Jones on drums, composed by the brilliant jazz pianist and former Coltrane sideman, McCoy Tyner.
Moving on to form and play in a wide variety of other bands in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Carter would make notable partnerships with leading instrumentalists in jazz. Recording with CTI and other jazz labels and artists including Joe Henderson, Houston Page, Hank Jones, Gabor Szabo, Jim Hall, and Cedar Walton, he maintained a busy live performance schedule, including membership with the New York Jazz Quartet. During this period Carter would also lead his own bands, allowing him more freedom to solo.
Joining former Davis Group Quintet member Herbie Hancock, Carter would participate in the 1977 V.S.O.P. (Very Special Onetime-Only Performance) live recording and reformation of bandmates that would “buck the fusion tide” by playing an all-acoustic set, that was so successful in audience response that they toured 16 U.S. cities and several international locations as well. Carter spoke about his personal feelings for a non-electric musical expression: “The V.S.O.P. tour was the first major indication that people are willing and eager to investigate acoustic jazz…I feel a definite responsibility to present a musically viable alternative. I listen to and enjoy all kinds of music, from the top popular stations to the symphonies. But my heart is right here with acoustic jazz.” (Ouellette, pg. 363)
Also, receiving more commercial recognition at this time, Carter would earn a Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Composition for the song “Call Sheet Blues,” from the soundtrack album The Other Side of Midnight (1985) that featured tenor saxophone legend Dexter Gordon, both as actor and musician.A second Grammy Award would be earned for his contributions to the reunion album A Tribute to Miles (1994), which included former Second Great Quintet personnel, Herbie Hancock and Tony Williams.
Between 2000-2010, Carter remained in steady demand as a sideman and recording artist, making a multitude of albums with varying jazz artists, including When Skies Are Grey (2001), Stardust (2002), Dialogues (2002), Dear Miles (2006) and international recordings including 2007’s Japan-only It’s the Time and Jazz and Bossa (2008).
In 2006, Hancock would step in again to organize a reunion named “Herbie’s World,” performing at Carnegie Hall with familiar musicians and friends including Carter and drummer Jack DeJohnette, nicknamed the “Herbie-Ron-Jack” trio. The performance was also to be a vehicle for the ailing saxophonist Michael Brecker, to have one last performance before cancer would end his life. Carter reflected on the moment that evening. “It was one of the most memorable days of musical history…Like what happened when Hank Aaron hit his 715th home run, more people will say they were there than the auditorium could actually fill.” (Ouellette, pg. 382)
The success of “Herbie’s World” would lead to the JVC Festival “presenting Ron the next year at Carnegie Hall with his four-set affair,” again partnering with Hancock and Cobham. The evening tribute, as stated by Hancock, “was on-time but overdue…it was not waiting until it’s too late. Ron is an inspiration. It’s an outgrowth of those moments we had together and the appreciation we have for one another.” (Ouellette, pg. 382)
Throughout 2010 and to the present, Carter has remained constantly active in the recording studio and at all major jazz festivals and concert halls. In 2011, he formed Ron Carter’s Great Big Band, and the following year was inducted into the DownBeat Jazz Hall of Fame.
In my 2019 interview for Glidemagazine.com, Mr. Carter shared some thoughts about performing, music and musicianship. As a veteran performer at large outdoor venues, he pointed out that maintaining the “focus” as a bandleader is required, to keep his musicians engaged from audience distractions. With that “focus,” Carter explained, there is a specific composition he wants to deliver or, in his own words, “our story, to convey to the audience” for each performance, including and in particular when he performs at the Newport Jazz Festival. Carter’s construction of the “contained idea” of his compositions is not to be confused with an extended improvisational number, as he elaborated, “all my performances are constructed – we do not just go out there to jam all night.”
Carter, like many jazz musicians of his generation, has shared his gift and lifelong passion for his instrument through teaching. A distinguished professor emeritus at City College and former faculty member at the Manhattan School of Music, Carter has been on the Juilliard Jazz faculty since 2008. In a 2011 interview with The Juilliard Journal, Carter shared his intimate advice to all music students. “I want them to remember how important it is to practice with an honest ear. I think in general, students need to listen more productively, whether they’re playing a scale or a phrase for an étude (short musical composition). Not listening with a self-critical ear makes their progress slower – they don’t make strides honestly enough.”
As an author of several instructional books, including The Art of Ron Carter and Ron Carter Meets Bach and a bass note transcription series, Ron Carter Bass Lines, Carter has created a rich library of resources for the amateur and professional bassist. His web site, roncarter.net, offers these and other publications online and holds a personal quote that speaks to the heart of Carter’s philosophy about the instrument he loves: “I think that the bassist is the quarterback in any group, and he must find a sound that he is willing to be responsible for.”With an extraordinary career, spanning decades, Mr. Carter, in the 2019 Glide Magazine interview, also talked about relationships with other musicians, particularly over time, that become family – both on and off the stage, “jazz is personal – whether it’s me and Jim Hall, Art Farmer, Kenny Barron, Billy Higgins, or the current trio – band members are my choosing – it’s all personal.” With so many intersections in his life with jazz musicians as both colleagues and friends all over the world, each festival and concert is a gathering of relationships and interconnections– both young and old. In keeping with the “family” association in the jazz community, I asked Mr. Carter who he would most like to see perform at the next Newport Jazz Festival and he reflected, “whoever is there (Newport Jazz Festival) that I don’t get to see in Europe, all I have to say is ‘we’ve got to stop meeting like this!’”