Bass maestro Ron Carter turns 77 today. For the occasion, I’m posting a feature piece that DownBeat assigned me to write two years ago in response to his entry into the DB Hall of Fame.
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Near twilight on the first Sunday of September at the south corner of 27th Street and Park Avenue, a tall, eagle-necked African-American gentleman with perfect posture and a salt-and-pepper beard, a pressed white dress shirt, black tie, black pants, and mirror-shined black shoes, stood at the curb by a late-model black Audi, tapping his right index finger on the bowl of his pipe as he spoke quietly into a cell phone. A passerby’s first instinct was to look for a photographer and klieg lights, but both the location and the hour seemed odd for a fashion shoot. Then it clicked that this elegant figure was Ron Carter, the 2012 inductee into the DownBeat Hall of Fame, taking care of business before descending into the Jazz Standard, halfway down the block, for the fourth and final night of his big band’s inaugural engagement.
About an hour later, after a crisp reading of “Caravan,” highlighted by Jerry Dodgion’s soaring soprano saxophone solo, Carter introduced his own “Loose Change” as “my personal commentary on the Republican Medicare plan.” He made his point with a long rubato meditation, teasing “You Are The Sunshine Of My Life” out of the harmonies, interpolating the motif of “All Blues,” transitioning to an orotund passage from Bach, then introducing the melody and stating an insistent 6/4 vamp that propelled the funky theme. On “Con Alma,” in lock-step with drummer Kenny Washington, he smoothly propelled his breathe-as-one ensemble through stop-on-a-dime shifts of meter and tempo; soloing on “St. Louis Blues,” which moved from march to swing to stride sections, he signified with various Charlie Parker quotes; in duet with pianist Donald Vega on “My Funny Valentine,” he played the verse unembellished, caressed the melody, then complemented Vega’s inventions—which included a lengthy interpolation of Ellington’s “Single Petal Of A Rose”—with the customized attention of a Savile Row tailor.
On each tune save the latter, Carter fleshed out the versions that appear on the Robert Freedman-arranged 2011 CD Ron Carter’s Great Big Band [Sunnyside] with extra choruses and backgrounds, changing the bass part at will. This is one reason why, after just six sets over three nights, the new ensemble embodied the leader’s tonal personality—no-nonsense and expansive; informed by the notion that virtuoso execution, spot-on intonation, and exacting attention to the minutest details are merely a starting point; telling stories of his own or complementing those of his bandmates with vocabulary and syntax drawn from an encyclopedic database of the jazz and classical canons, with the blues as a default basis of operations.
A few days later, in the public area of his massive Upper West Side apartment, which spans almost half a city block, Carter recalled that he was initially reluctant to embrace the project, due in part to the logistical complexities involved in maintaining and adequately paying a large ensemble. Also, he stated, “I haven’t been interested in playing in the rhythm section of a big band—though I had great times subbing with Thad Jones and Mel Lewis when Richard Davis got busy. You get ignored all the time, and you’re at the mercy of the arranger.” In contrast, he said, “the studio is fun—you’ve got very little time and they don’t fool around; you just play the best you can.”
Therefore, Carter added, he decided to treat this orchestra “as a very large trio,” built around Vega and guitarist Russell Malone, his bandmates in the Golden Striker Trio. He does the preponderance of his touring with this group and in a quartet comprising pianist Renee Rosnes, drummer Peyton Crossley, and percussionist Rolando Morales-Matos.
“In a lot of big band arrangements, the bass parts aren’t so critical to the survival of the piece,” Carter said. “At one rehearsal, I told them, ‘All that changed when you walked in the door. I’m going to make sure the bass part sounds interesting every night. But for you to work from it, I have to have your utter focus.’ That’s my role with this 16-piece band. By Sunday, I thought I’d found enough things to hold their interest—16 points of view, 16 different concepts, 16 different events. My feature is to be playing every chorus of every song. It’s about my desire to let the soloists play something different every night, making the backgrounds feel different every night by my notes and rhythms. I’d much rather be known as the bass player who made the band sound great, but different, every night.”
In a Blindfold Test several years ago, bassist Stanley Clarke commented on Carter’s duo performance of “Stardust” with pianist Roland Hanna (the title track of a well-wrought 2001 homage to Oscar Pettiford): “Ron is an innovator and, as this solo bore out, a great storyteller. Probably 99.9% of the bass players out here play stuff from Ron. There’s Paul Chambers, and you can go back to Pettiford, Blanton and Israel Crosby, and a few people after Chambers—but a lot of it culminated in Ron, and then after Ron it’s all of us. Ron to me is the most important bass player of the last fifty years. He defined the role of the bass player.”
This remark summarizes the general consensus among Clarke’s instrumental brothers and sisters. For example, on other Blindfold Tests, John Patitucci praised the “the architecture of his lines,” “blended sound,” and “great sense of humor when he plays”; William Parker mentioned Carter’s penchant for “not playing a lot of notes” and “keeping a bass sound on his bass”; Andy Gonzalez noted his “shameless quotes of tiny pieces of melody from all kinds of obscure songs, which you have to know a lot of music to do”; and Eric Revis stated, “He’s gotten to the place where there’s Ronisms that you expect, and only he can do them.”
Per Clarke’s remark, these bassists and their cohort—indeed, several generations of musicians—have closely analyzed Carter’s ingenious walking basslines on the studio albums and live recordings he made between 1963 and 1968 with Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, and Tony Williams, who considered it their mandate to relax the rules of the 32-bar song form as far as possible while still maintaining the integrity of the tune in question. They’ve paid equivalent attention to the several dozen iconic Blue Note and CTI dates on which Carter sidemanned for the likes of Shorter, Joe Henderson, McCoy Tyner, Freddie Hubbard, Stanley Turrentine, Milt Jackson, and Antonio Carlos Jobim. They’re on intimate terms with Carter’s creative, definitive playing with a host of trios—grounding Bobby Timmons’ soul unit in the early ‘60s; performing the equilateral triangle function with Williams and Hancock or Hank Jones, and with Billy Higgins and Cedar Walton; or navigating the wide-open spaces with Bill Frisell and Paul Motian—on which he incorporates a host of extended techniques into the flow with a tone that has been described as “glowing in the dark.” They’re cognizant of Carter’s ability to shape-shift between soloistic and complementary functions with such rarefied duo partners as Walton and Jim Hall, and, more recently, Richard Galliano, Rosa Passos, and Houston Person. They respect his extraordinarily focused contributions to hundreds of commercial studio dates on which, as Carter puts it, “I maintain my musical curiosity about the best notes while being able to deliver up the product for this music as they expected to hear it in the 30 seconds I have to make this part work.”
Not least, Carter’s admirers know his work as a leader, with a corpus of more than 30 recordings in a host of configurations, including a half-dozen between 1975 and 1990 by a two-bass quartet in which either Buster Williams or Leon Maleson executed the double bass function, allowing Carter to function as a front line horn with the piccolo bass, which is tuned in the cello register.
Carter first deployed this concept on his debut recording in 1961, entitled Where, with a quintet including Eric Dolphy, Mal Waldron and Charlie Persip on which he played cello next to bassist George Duvivier, A son of Detroit, he played cello exclusively from 10 to 17, exhibiting sufficient talent to be “the first black kid” in the orchestra at Interlochen Music Camp, then burnishing his skills at Cass Tech, the elite arts-oriented high school that produced so many of the Motor City’s most distinguished musicians.
“Jazz was always in the air at school, but it wasn’t my primary listening,” Carter said. “I had other responsibilities—the concert band, the marching band, the orchestra, my chores at home, and maintaining a straight-A average. We were playing huge orchestrations of Strauss and Beethoven and Brahms, and the Bach Cantatas with all these voices moving in and out.” Midway through Carter’s senior year, it became clear to him that more employment would accrue if he learned to play the bass, a decision reinforced when he heard “Blue Haze,” a blues in F on which Miles Davis’ solo unfolds over a suave Percy Heath bassline and Art Blakey’s elemental beat on the hi-hat, ride cymbal, and bass drum. “I was fascinated to hear them making their choices sound superb with the bare essentials,” Carter said. “These three people were generating as much musical logic in six to eight choruses as a 25-minute symphony with 102 players.”
During the summer after high school, Carter became a gigging bassist in Detroit, where he states, the local players were so highly accomplished that, “if they had all come to New York, New York would have sunk.” That fall, he matriculated at Rochester’s Eastman Conservatory on scholarship, where, for the next four years, he fulfilled academic responsibilities during the day, worked as a waiter, and attended “jazz school from 9 p.m. to 4 a.m.” in local clubs, where he had the opportunity to back artists like Sonny Stitt and Slim Gaillard, and to be heard, he recalls, by “Dizzy Gillespie’s band with Sam Jones, or Carmen McRae’s band with Ike Isaacs, or Horace Silver’s band with Teddy Kotick and Art Farmer.” He also earned a position with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra (“I was again the only African-American in this group”), which, towards the end of his senior year performed in New York City for Leopold Stokowki, who, after rehearsal, told him, “I’d like to have you in my orchestra in Houston, but I’m afraid that the Board of Directors are not prepared to accept an African-American musician.”
“I thought, ‘Shit, man, when are you going to be ready?’” Carter recalls. “The jazz community who came through Rochester said, ‘Look, in New York everyone likes a good bass player.’ They had no idea about my classical background, that I’d been turned away. They thought here’s this tall kid from Detroit who has the potential to be a good bass player and he could only do that if he comes to New York.”
A few days after arriving in August 1959, Carter went to Birdland, where he encountered Chico Hamilton, who had auditioned him the previous fall in Rochester, and needed a new cellist who could play his difficult book. After a three-month tour, he settled into a Harlem apartment and enrolled at Manhattan School of Music for a masters degree. Before long, he’d earned respect from a community of bassists whose focus was less on “soloing or playing unaccompanied—although they could do it” and more on “can we make the band swing?” He admired Gene Taylor’s commitment to play Horace Silver’s written basslines, Doug Watkins’ “fabulous tonal quality,” the versatility of Milt Hinton and Joe Benjamin. He reveled in the challenge of analyzing “why Sam Jones’ sound was physically different than George Duvivier’s, or Scott LaFaro’s, or Richard Davis’.” Part of the craft was to use any bandstand performance—most consequentially during his half-decade with Miles Davis—as a laboratory in which to experiment and research alternate changes, “to think through the possibilities,” in his ongoing quest “to find the right notes” for any situation he might encounter.
“I tried to find changes—not from the original chord progression—that would fit if the bandleader or the soloist decided to put the melody over what I was playing,” Carter said. “If the changes worked, that meant there must be another sub-set that would make the melody sound the same, but feel different because of the harmonic underpinnings. When I play these notes that seem pretty far removed from the melody, they aren’t random choices. I’m still playing the melody in my head. They don’t always work, but I’m OK with that. That’s one choice I don’t worry about tomorrow night. That’s off my list. We’ve got five more tunes; maybe we’ll work with them.”
Asked to express his feelings about the Hall of Fame honorific, Carter replied with characteristic briskness. “To get this award means that there are enough readers of the magazine who have done some homework and some history, and know I’ve been playing this music for a very long time,” he said. “And, as they’ve listened, over time, they’ve found a level of consistency that appeals to them, not just in my performance, but my integrity and my sound. I’d like to thank them for deeming me worthy of a lifetime achievement, but to know that my lifetime is still here. If they have a Part Two, maybe I’ll be up for that.”
His manner was somewhat less composed as he formulated a response to Stanley Clarke’s aforementioned comments on his impact on bass lineage. “I’m embarrassed, actually,” Carter said. He bent his head, contemplating his cupped hands in silence for several seconds before resuming. “I’m from a time when one of the effects of society on African-Americans, especially African-American males, was to not acknowledge your success. Not that you couldn’t be successful, but when you were, you were kind of told not to ‘groove,’ so to speak, on that level of achievement. It’s taken me a while to get past that. African-Americans in my age group will tell you about someone telling them, ‘you can’t do this or that.’ For example, I remember my math teacher in junior high school told the class, ‘Don’t worry about studying Latin, because you’ll never need it—you’ll be digging a ditch.’ I told my mom, and she wigged out. All of us got that kind of response in these situations sixty years ago.
“So when I hear comments like Stanley’s, it floors me that I’ve had that kind of impact on an industry. I say, ‘Wow, I did that? All these guys do this because of my presence?’ It throws me a curve. There’s a list of what they call ten records that are milestones of the music, all different, and I’m on eight of them. When I hear people talk about that, I have to tiptoe out of the room, because it embarrasses me to hear that my impact has been rated as such. I had my hopes crushed at a very early age. I had peeks of what it’s like to play in a great orchestra, and to not be allowed to do that for the simple reason that I’m black … to this day I don’t understand that fuckin’ mindset, man. I don’t know what that’s got to do with playing a B-flat blues, man, or playing the Bach Chorale, or Beethoven, or playing an Oliver Nelson arrangement. But my family went to church every Sunday. We understood that there is somebody upstairs who is really in charge of the ballgame, so to speak. I’ve always thought that I was directed to do this because the Creator thought that I could be important in this industry. And I have to trust that he allows me to go out every night and try to find the best notes I can find. When he tells me, ‘Ok, you’ve had enough,’ then I’ll stop.”
That time hardly seems imminent. Carter has done stretching and free weights with a trainer three mornings a week for the last thirty years, seems not to have lost an inch from his six-and-a-half foot frame, can still palm a basketball, and looks more like a youthful 60 than 75. “Because I’ve found other ways to play the notes I’ve been finding and learned the science of how the bass works even more specifically, it’s less physically demanding to cover the bass than it was ten years ago,” he says. “One of my lessons is to assign students a blues and have them build a bassline out of the changes I give them. I’ve been playing the blues a very long time, and these guys come up with lines that stun me—not because they’re so great, but that I hadn’t thought about those lines! Seeing this kind of awareness makes 75 feel like 15, when you’re just discovering what the world is like. It makes me feel that I’m just starting to learn the instrument.
“I try not to do stuff just because I can do it—because it doesn’t impact anybody. It doesn’t make a flower that opens. If I can make that flower open, that’s my night. I will go home and watch CNN and have my yogurt.”