Ron Carter is among the most original, prolific, and influential bassists in jazz. With more than 2,000 albums to his credit, he has recorded with many of music’s greats: Tommy Flanagan, Gil Evans, Lena Horne, Bill Evans, B.B. King, the Kronos Quartet, Dexter Gordon, Wes Montgomery and Bobby Timmons. In the early 1960s, he performed throughout the United States with Jaki Byard and Eric Dolphy. He later toured Europe with Cannonball Adderley. From 1963 to 1968, he was a member of the classic and acclaimed Miles Davis Quintet. He was named Outstanding Bassist of the Decade by the Detroit News, Jazz Bassist of the Year by Downbeat magazine and Most Valuable Player by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. Ron Carter earned a Grammy for Best Jazz Instrumental Group in 1993 and another Grammy in 1998 for a composition from the film “Round Midnight.”
Carter earned his undergraduate degree in music from Eastman and a master’s from the Manhattan School of Music. He has also received two honorary doctorates and was the 2002 recipient of the prestigious Hutchinson Award from Eastman. Most recently, he was honored by the French minister of culture with France’s premier cultural award – the medallion and title of Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters.
Carter has lectured, conducted and performed at clinics and master classes, instructing jazz ensembles and teaching the business of music at numerous universities. He was artistic director of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Studies while it was located in Boston and, after 18 years on the faculty of the music department at CUNY, he is now a distinguished professor emeritus. As a performer, he remains as active as ever. His latest recording from this year (called “Chemistry”) is a duet with Houston Person, and his web site is www.RonCarter.net.
Ron Carter has been a member of Local 802 since 1959 and was one of the panelists at the union’s Jazz Mentors forum in May. Bob Pawlo recently sat down with Carter to hear his stories, his insights and his advice to young musicians.
Bob Pawlo: How and when did your incredible journey in music begin?
Ron Carter: When I was 11, my middle school teacher put a bunch of instruments on the table and said that she was going to start an orchestra. I chose the cello. Later on, I went to Cass Tech High School in Detroit, a top school that has a great music program. The bass player in the orchestra was graduating. I decided to switch to bass, because I would be the only bass player and they would have to call me for any outside gigs! But I was strictly a classical player until I went to Eastman. Then I started playing jazz in a local band.
Bob Pawlo: What were things that you learned at Eastman that helped you have such an incredible career?
Ron Carter: I learned how to practice productively. I learned how to be honest with my choices of notes. I came to trust my instinct. Playing in an orchestra, I learned how to play with other players and how to play with a section. That’s also very important in jazz. I was actually a very good classical bass player and I intended on being a classical performer. But a conductor told me that the world’s orchestras were not ready to have an African American as part of their group. And that influenced me. That was in 1958, but I’m not sure things are that much different now. Look at the pictures of orchestras from the past 50 years to today. They have not included a great number of minorities. Certainly African Americans are not a major portion of most orchestra personnel.
Bob Pawlo: So you moved more into the direction of jazz?
Ron Carter: I was encouraged by the bass players in Rochester. I was told that New York wanted good bass players. So I graduated in June from Eastman and moved to New York in August. I joined the Chico Hamilton band and played with Eric Dolphy.
Bob Pawlo: What was it like to work with Dolphy?
Ron Carter: Interesting. He had great sound. He had great instrumental control and knew how to practice. He made practice time very valuable. I started playing with Randy Weston, Herbie Mann, Bobby Timmons, Duke Pearson and Benny Carter around that time. I even played with the Austrian pianist and composer Friedrich Gulda, who was a Beethoven expert. I recorded with Oliver Nelson. He was a consummate writer who knew exactly what he wanted. He knew how to write for all the instruments. He was honest in his playing and was a wonderful soloist.
Bob Pawlo: As a young player who was playing with these great musicians, what musical skills do you think you brought to the table?
Ron Carter: I had a great ear. I had great discipline. I was on time for the gigs. I was determined to get better after every night. And I got some talent along the way.
Bob Pawlo: Well, let’s get to the big question. What was it like playing with Miles Davis?
Ron Carter: I started playing with Miles in 1963. What I remember about Miles as a bandleader is that he never said specifically do this or specifically do that. He trusted us to make it happen. I think one of the good things about that band was we had enough maturity to understand that while we were on our own individually, we were also on our own collectively. And it worked out really well, I think. What I learned from him is that every night is a great chance to play some wonderful music. Don’t miss it. Every night was chance to play better, to make new discoveries. We were trying to experiment with different sounds, different changes, different rhythms, a different dynamic and a different presentation of the same library as the night before. We weren’t trying to re-invent the wheel. We were trying to make the wheel in different sizes.
Bob Pawlo: How did you create chemistry between yourself and the rest of the rhythm section?
Ron Carter: Both then and now, it’s understanding how the drums are fitting in, it’s being comfortable with my concept of what the form is, and it’s certainly my sense of being able to lead in the direction I think is more musically productive. And it’s realizing that if my way is not the best way – it certainly can’t be the only way – then I need to be open to suggestions. Bass players play the changes. They play the beat. They influence the dynamic of the band. They play the form. They play the intonations. There’s not anything they don’t do all the time. Every note.
Bob Pawlo: What was it like making an album with Johnny Hodges (“Rippin’ & Runnin,’” 1969)?
Ron Carter: Just amazing. This is a person who had been the core of Duke Ellington’s band for all those years. He set the tone for saxophone playing and he set the tone for section leading. Just to be a part of that arrangement was a great thrill for me. All of my collaborations are great. It’s like going to school for free. For instance, Jaki Byard and Charlie Persip and I did a record called “How Time Passes,” which was one of the early avant-garde records. For me, it was really an experience to have the time all over the place, and this guy playing in quarter tones, which was not new to my ear but new to my hands. I didn’t quite know how to adjust to those in-between notes that were clearly necessary to that music and part of the concept. But Charlie and I worked it out among the two of us how to play the music, and I had a great time. Again, it was like going to school for free.
Bob Pawlo: I have to ask about one of my heroes, if you could indulge me. I know that you recorded with the legendary Coleman Hawkins.
Ron Carter: Yes. Night Hawk. Once, he picked me up in his car. He had a Chrysler 300C, which was one of the luxury models back in the early 60s, and he came by my house – I lived on Riverside Drive. He told me, “We’re gonna make some music today. Don’t worry about it. We have everything covered.” What a fun time that was. What a real gentleman.
Bob Pawlo: How did you approach playing one day with Coleman Hawkins and the next day with Oliver Nelson and the day after that doing a jingle?
Ron Carter: I tried to remember that they had each called me because I could add something to their concept. Perhaps I could make the music do something that maybe someone else wasn’t able to do or didn’t feel necessary. I was being allowed to be a major contributor to the sound they had in their minds. Knowing that they had confidence in me allowed me to trust my instinct and figure out how I could do this music. Could I make the music have another life and still be true to the intent the composer had in mind for his music? And I still do that every day.
Bob Pawlo: How has bass playing changed over the years?
Ron Carter: I think it has changed in specific ways. The engineers learned how to record the bass better. Bass players got better pickups to make recording a little more even. There are even different kinds of bass strings now. The field of bass repair got better. Nightclubs began to use sound technicians and the bass became more audible. Bass solos became louder and easier to hear. Styles began to be more and more obvious as the bass simply became more audible in the mix.
Bob Pawlo: As the years have gone by, how has the business changed?
Ron Carter: Well, there are fewer recording studios, which is a shame, because I think recording live music in the studio is the best way to make a presentation of your concept. They’ve turned studios into parking lots or office buildings. Recording was always a deep experience in New York and I miss that kind of intensity. I miss the camaraderie that we had in those days. I’m thinking of big band dates with Ernie Royal and Snooky Young and Grady Tate and Frank Wess. I miss playing with these guys, and I miss hearing them talk about music and the scene. Today there are still gigs and there are even recording sessions, but that kind of camaraderie and that kind of broad talent is sorely missing today, and I’m sorry that the folks who are coming up now don’t have the chance to experience that.
Bob Pawlo: I know you’re a supporter of the union’s Justice for Jazz Artists campaign.
Ron Carter: Yeah, I get dismayed that club owners never really understand the needs of musicians as they get older. They refuse to be a part of musicians’ longevity. Older musicians don’t want to worry about their next meal. Club owners have a major chance to fix that. I can’t understand why they still refuse to accept responsibility and put into their budget a contribution to the musicians’ pension fund. Musicians should be able to retire and get a pension check when they decide they’ve had enough of this stuff. I don’t quite understand the minds of the club owners for not wanting to do that.
Bob Pawlo: What advice would you give to musicians starting out their careers now, especially young bassists?
Ron Carter: Get a teacher. Music’s getting much too complicated. The demands are bigger. There’s more freelancing. There are fewer bands. Bass players are still in need – yay! – but projects require more of you. You need to play keyboards and you need to know how to write an arrangement. If you can do those two things, it’ll give you a head start on having a productive musical career in New York City, I think.
Bob Pawlo: What would you like to say in closing to Local 802 members and to union members and musicians around the world?
Ron Carter: Unions are critical these days. Unions are our only voice to get a fair shake with wages, pension and health insurance. Unions are our survival, and unions have always been in the forefront of helping musicians. We work for these things, and those who don’t want to join the union are making a huge mistake.