Jazz bassist Ron Carter talks about his iconic career ahead of the 85th anniversary concert at Carnegie Hall

In his 1989 autobiography, 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. The two jazz musicians knew each other in Paul Chambers, who played bass for Davis’ first major quintet at the time. “Paul had already told me that Ron was a [expletive] of a bassist,” Davis wrote. “So when Paul was about to leave and I heard Ron was playing, I went to see him and loved what he was doing. So I asked him if he wanted to join the band.

Carter became a member of Davis’ famous Second Great Quintet in the 1960s with pianist Herbie Hancock, saxophonist Wayne Shorter and drummer Tony Williams. But Carter’s esteemed tenure with that band is just one chapter in an extraordinary career that has now spanned more than 60 years. During this time, he collaborated with many music personalities 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 bass guitar dexterity and harmonic sophistication have few rivals in jazz history” – while AllMusic’s Ron Wynn described the bassist as “a brilliant rhythm player and melodic that uses everything in its bass and cello”. arsenal: marching lines; thick, full and prominent notes and tones; drones and strumming effects; and melody excerpts.

Today, Carter is 85 years old. To mark the milestone, Carnegie Hall in New York will hold an anniversary concert in his honor on May 10 with the award-winning bassist himself playing with and leading a trio, quartet and octet. As the subject of this celebration, the maestro laughed at himself in a recent phone conversation in April: “I’m trying to get used to it right now.”

Among the guest speakers announced for the evening are fellow jazz bass luminaries Stanley Clarke and Buster Williams, with whom Carter had previously worked. “Buster was in my first quartet,” 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 1963-1964. He was the bass player of choice when I was trying to put him together to put together the band ‘piccolo’, and he’s been my friend over the years and we’ve stayed in touch. We are having a good time. He’s a terrific player. »

“CTI Records has had great success [with “Also Sprach Zarathustra (2001)”] by Deodato many years ago, and Stanley and I shared the bass [on the Prelude album]. It’s my connection to Stanley. Other than that, I’ve always admired his game. I’ve always been amazed at how he does what he does and what it took to get to this stage in his life. He’s an incredible 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 total of over 2,200 recording credits, the most ever for a bassist . “I just took the dates as they came in,” Carter says. “I didn’t know how many there were until my friend decided he was going to make me famous. I said, ‘What do you mean by that? He said, ‘I I’m going to sit down with my other friend, who has a lot of patience, and figure out how many records you’re on.” I said, ‘Why do you want to do this?’ He said because it’s an important thing to have. So I said, ‘Okay, don’t call me too often at night. I’m busy working. He’s been working. I’m just a little amazed at this kind of work history.

A native of Ferndale, Michigan, Carter started the cello at age 10, then switched to bass in high school. “I thought that as long as I played the cello, I didn’t get the kind of calls I thought I should get. I guess at the time, African Americans weren’t seen as having much of a chance or a future in classical music. I looked around one day and the bassist had graduated [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. That’s why I always play bass.

Carter was cited as an influential artist by subsequent generations of musicians. But he says he had no models for this instrument when he started. “My parents raised eight children. And given the tenor of the times, it was not a productive time for African Americans. [My parents] gave me a sense of moral values, a sense of discipline, to become a productive person in society. They were my role models, not bass players.

In the early 1960s, before working with Miles Davis, Carter had already collaborated and recorded with jazz musicians like 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’s done some homework, but I’m not sure my previous story is so well known to him because we never talked about stuff like that when we were in the band. But again, I was active. I was really involved in the recording scene in New York. I’m sure he may have heard some of these records that I was on and wanted to give me a chance.

From 1964 to 1968, the Miles Davis Quintet recorded several groundbreaking albums, including ESP, miles in the sky, Milestones, Wizard and Nefertiti. “I know I had a lot of fun playing with them,” Carter recalled of the legendary quintet. “I thought that every night I go to work with Miles, Wayne, Herbie and Tony, I have the chance to play good music. And the more I think about it, the more important it was for me to have that kind of concept that every night is a chance to learn more about bass, to learn more about leading a band, to learn more about productivity in a band of like-minded people ideas. I don’t know if any of us had a vision that this band would hold that band chart. No one thought about it until the band moved somewhere else.

Although he was the leader of the quintet, Davis allowed the members to bring something to the table and contribute ideas. “He understood that something was going on in the group,” says Carter. “I don’t know if he could define it, and I don’t know if he understood what it was going to do. He said to himself: “I am in the right place at the right time”. Let these guys do what they do and see what happens. He was always surprised like us. Our ability to experiment every night and not lose the structure of the room, to maintain the integrity of the song – we loved doing that stuff and we were pretty good at it.

After his tenure with Davis, Carter became a bandleader and composer in his own right as well as a sideman to others. His albums for CTI Records in the 1970s—Blues Closed, all the blues and spanish blue— further expanded his musical vocabulary by incorporating pop and R&B elements. “We were making Creed records [Taylor, the founder of CTI] was the best way to get more visibility for the label and of course to increase sales. I never knew what song we were going to play until I got in the studio with Grady Tate, Herbie Hancock, Billy Cobham. These guys were always into the current sounds of the day, and my duty was to put the radio on – the AM stations – to find out what was going on because I’d probably see the same kind of tune on the next CTI date. And I was right most of the time.

Over time, Carter embraced other genres in his discography, including classical music (Ron Carter meets Bach), Latin (Orfeu), large orchestra (Ron Carter’s Great Big Band), and rapping, particularly with his appearance on the hip-hop group’s classic album A Tribe Called Quest in 1991 The low-end theory. “He [Tribe member Q-Tip] called me one and told me he was doing a project. And not knowing who he was, I said, ‘Well, I’m busy right now. Call me back in about half an hour. So that gave me time to call my son, who was much more aware of this scene. I asked him, ‘Who is this Q-Tip guy from A Tribe Called Quest.’ He said, ‘Well, they’re the most musical of all the rap groups right now. If you have the opportunity to play with them, you should take advantage of it. So Q-Tip called back and we made a deal. I had a great time playing with these kids.

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

Further boosting his profile and engagement with his fans, particularly during the pandemic lockdown period, Carter has been active on social media such as Facebook and Twitter. Besides sharing articles about his music career and bass playing, he has recorded online videos and conducted interviews with other artists like Diana Krall, Herbie Hancock and Pat Metheney. “I have people who work with me who are really on top of this social game,” Carter says. “Without [them], I would not be as visible on the social media platform. It was a way to stay visible, to stay on stage.

A longtime jazz teacher and faculty member at the Manhattan School of Music who has written instructional manuals on bass playing, Carter offers this basic advice to aspiring students: “Find a good teacher. Play as often as you can. And when you get those gigs, leave your ego at home and grab a spare pair of ears to understand the environment you’re walking in. That’s probably what I tell them all.

As the 85th birthday celebration nears at Carnegie Hall, Carter was asked what still motivates him to play music. His response was indicative of someone who is still learning and dedicated to the craft: “I’ve always thought of going to a concert as a free class: ‘What can these musicians offer me that I don’t know not already ?’ And at each concert where I am there, I am never surprised by what I pick up. And these people that I work with trust me to help share this thing that we discovered together. I have always been surprised to receive these calls from non-jazz people to help their projects. I think [it] testifies to my open ear and my open mind to music with a capital M.

For the Love of Ron—Ron Carter and Friends: 85th Anniversary Celebration will take place at Carnegie Hall on Tuesday, May 10. For more information on Ron Carter, visit his website.

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