June 21, 2024


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Ron Carter on his iconic career ahead of 85th birthday concert at Carnegie hall: Videos, Photo

In his 1989 autobiography, the legendary jazz trumpeter and composer Miles Davis recalled meeting an aspiring bassist named Ron Carter in 1958 in Rochester, New York, where Carter was studying at the Eastman School of Music. Both jazz musicians had a mutual acquaintance in Paul Chambers, who played bass for Davis’ first great quintet at the time. “Paul had already told me Ron was a [expletive] of a bass player,” Davis wrote. “So when Paul was about to leave and I heard Ron was playing, I went to check him out and loved what he was doing. So I asked him if he would join the band.”

Carter became a member of Davis’ famed second great quintet during the 1960s along with pianist Herbie Hancock, saxophonist Wayne Shorter and drummer Tony Williams. But Carter’s esteemed tenure with that group is just one chapter of an extraordinary career that has lasted now for over 60 years. During that time, he has collaborated with many music figures both in jazz (among them Chick Corea, Horace Silver, Jim Hall, McCoy Tyner and Chet Baker) and non-jazz (including Billy Joel, Aretha Franklin, Roberta Flack and Paul Simon). The National Endowment of the Arts said that Carter’s “dexterity and harmonic sophistication on the bass have few rivals in the history of jazz”—while AllMusic’s Ron Wynn described the bassist as “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.”

Among the announced guest speakers for the evening include fellow jazz bass luminaries Stanley Clarke and Buster Williams, both of whom Carter had previously worked with. “Buster was in my first quartet band,” he says. “I met Buster in Europe. He was with Sarah Vaughan and I had just joined Miles, so we’re talking about the spring of ’63-’64 or so. He was the bass player of choice when I was trying to put it to put together the ‘piccolo’ band, and he’s been my friend down through the years and we stayed in contact. We have a great time. He’s a wonderful player.”

“CTI Records had a big hit [with “Also Sprach Zarathustra (2001)”] by Deodato many years ago, and Stanley and I shared the bass [on the Prelude album]. That’s my connection with Stanley. Other than that, I’ve always admired his playing. I was always amazed at how he does what he does, and knowing what it took to get to that stage of his life. He’s an amazing player. Very, very good writer.”

The concert is a tribute to the life and career of a prolific musician who, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, has racked up a record-setting total of over 2,200 recording credits, the most ever for a bass player. “I just took the dates as they came in,” Carter says. “I wasn’t aware of how many there were until my friend decided that he was going to get me famous. I said, ‘What do you mean by that? He said, ‘I’m going to sit down with my other friend, who has a lot of patience, and just figure out how many records you’re on.’ I said, ‘Why do you want to do that?’ He said because it’s an important thing to have. So I said, ‘Okay, just don’t call me too many times at night. I’m busy working.’ He worked it out. I’m just kind of amazed at that kind of work history.”

Hailing from Ferndale, Michigan, Carter started out on cello when he was 10 years old and then later switched to the bass while in high school. “I thought that for as long as I was playing the cello, I wasn’t getting the kind of calls that I thought I was supposed to get. I guess back in the day African Americans weren’t thought of as having a great chance or a future in playing classical music. I looked around one day and the bass player was graduating [from school]. So if he was gone, there would be no bass player. I said, ‘Well, let me [sell] my cello, get some teachers, and I’ll be the bass player in the band.’ So that’s why I’m still playing bass.”

Carter has been cited as an influential artist to subsequent generations of musicians. But he says he didn’t have role models for that instrument when he started. “My parents raised eight kids. And given the tenor of the times, it was not a productive time for African Americans. [My parents] gave me the sense of moral values, a sense of discipline, to become a productive person in society. They were my models, not bass players.”

In the early 1960s, prior to working with Miles Davis, Carter had already been collaborating and recording with such jazz musicians as Eric Dolphy, Bobby Timmons and Randy Weston. “I don’t know what his listening experience was at the time,” Carter says of Davis. “I guess he did some homework, but I’m not so sure that my previous history was that well-known to him because we never talked about that stuff when we were in the band. But again, I was active. I was really getting involved in the recording scene in New York. I’m sure he may have heard some of those records I was on and wanted to give me a shot.”

From 1964 to 1968, the Miles Davis Quintet recorded several groundbreaking albums, including E.S.P.Miles in the SkyMilestonesSorcerer and Nefertiti. “I know I had great fun playing with them,” Carter reflects on the legendary quintet. “I thought that every night I’m going to work with Miles, Wayne, Herbie and Tony, I have a chance to play some good music. And the more I think about that, the more that was important to me is to have that kind of concept that every night is a chance to learn more about the bass, learn more about band leading, learn more about being productive in a group of people who are like-minded. I’m not sure if any of us had the vision that this band would hold that ranking of musical groups. No one thought about that until the band went somewhere else.”

Though he was the leader of the quintet, Davis allowed the members to bring something to the table and contribute ideas. “He understood that there was something going on in the band,” Carter says. “I’m not sure if he could define it, and I’m not sure if he understood what it was going to do. He thought, ‘I’m in the right place at the right time. Let these guys do what they do and see what happens.’ He was always surprised as we were. Our capacity to experiment every night and not lose to structure of the piece, maintain the integrity of the song—we loved doing that stuff and we were pretty good at it.”

After his tenure with Davis, Carter went on to become a bandleader and composer in his own right as well as a sideman for others. His albums for CTI Records in the 1970s—Blues FarmAll Blues and Spanish Blue—further broadened his musical vocabulary by incorporating pop and R&B elements. “We were doing records Creed [Taylor, the founder of CTI] thought was the best way to get the label more visibility and of course increase the sales. I never knew what song we were gonna play until I got to the studio with Grady Tate, Herbie Hancock, Billy Cobham. Those guys were always into the current sounds of the day, and my homework was to put the radio on—the AM stations—to find out what was going on because I would probably see that same kind of tune at the next CTI date. And I was right most of the time.”

Over time, Carter has embraced other genres in his discography, including classical music (Ron Carter Meets Bach), Latin (Orfeu), big band (Ron Carter’s Great Big Band), and rap—especially with his appearance on hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest’s 1991 classic album The Low End Theory. “He [Tribe member Q-Tip] called me one and said he was doing a project. And not knowing who he was, I said, ‘Well, I’m busy right now. Call me back in about a half-hour.’ So it gave me time to call my son, who was much more aware of that scene. I asked him, ‘Who’s this guy Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest.’ He said, ‘Well, they’re right now the most musical of all the rap groups. If you get a chance to play with them, you should take advantage of it.’ So Q-Tip called back, and we worked out a deal. I had a great time playing with those kids.”

Most recently, Carter’s collaborative album Skyline, with drummer Jack DeJohnette and pianist Gonsalvo Rubalcaba, won a Grammy for Best Jazz Instrumental Album. “Gonzalo was doing a different kind of project with his mentors,” the bassist says. “He had done some things with Jack and he had done some things with me and decided if we were available, ‘Let’s meet in the studio and see what kind of stew we could cook up – the three of us – with originals.’ He’s a wonderful piano player.”

Further heightening his profile and engagement with his fans, especially during the period of the pandemic lockdown, Carter has been active on social media such as on Facebook and Twitter. In addition to sharing posts about his musical career and bass playing, he has recorded online videos and conducted interviews with fellow artists like Diana Krall, Herbie Hancock and Pat Metheney. “I have some people who work with me who are really on top of that social game,” Carter explains. “Without [them], I would not be so visible on the social media platform. It was a way to kind of stay visible, to stay on the scene.”

A longtime jazz instructor and faculty member at the Manhattan School of Music who has written instructional books on bass playing, Carter gives this basic advice to aspiring students: “Get a good teacher. Play as often as you can. And when you get these gigs, leave your ego at home and take a spare pair of ears to understand the environment that you are walking into. That’s probably what I tell them all.”

With the 85th birthday celebration at Carnegie Hall approaching, Carter was asked what still motivates him to perform music. His response was indicative of someone who is still learning and dedicated to the craft: “I always thought of going to a gig as a free class: ‘What can these musicians offer me that I don’t already know?’ And every gig that I’m there, I’m never surprised at what I pick up. And these people I work with trust me to help share this thing that we discovered together. I’ve always been amazed that I get these calls from non-jazz people to help their projects. I think [it] is a testament to my open ear and open mind about music with a capital M.”

Jazz bassist Ron Carter, who will perform at Carnegie Hall on May 10 to mark his 85th birthday.

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