Hear the Kids Play Live!

April 8, 2016

by Christian Wissmuller

JAZZedMARCH2016_Bluelines-DONE-23Recently named the “most recorded jazz bassist in history” by the good folks at Guinness World Records (2,221 individual recording credits as of September 15, 2015), Ron Carter isn’t merely prolific – he’s a legitimate living legend and unparalleled master of his craft.

Having started out on the cello at the age of 10, Carter was subject to the racial prejudices of the early ‘50s and, feeling that he was not welcome in the classical music community, switched to double bass and eventually found his way to jazz. After studying at the Eastman School of Music and performing in the school’s orchestra he earned a master’s degree in double bass performance from Manhattan School of Music – but not before landing his first significant gig, playing with Chico Hamilton.

He came to prominence in the early ‘60s as part of the Miles Davis Quintet, alongside Tony Williams and Wayne Shorter. Among his many subsequent collaborations, in the studio and onstage, include partnerships with Freddie Hubbard, McCoy Tyner, Andrew Hill, Hank Jones, Cedar Walton, and even Billy Joel and A Tribe Called Quest.

A professor emeritus of The City College of New York, where he taught for twenty years, Carter is currently a member of the faculty at Juilliard.

Recently, Ron Carter was kind enough to make the time to have a brief chat with JAZZed to discuss his life, his thoughts on the state of jazz music and culture today, and the most effective ways of teaching.

JAZZed: Thanks for taking the time to chat, Mr. Carter.

Ron Carter: My pleasure.

Can you tell me perhaps who first got you interested in music?

My first cello lesson was at 10 years old with a local junior high school teacher.

JAZZedMARCH2016_Bluelines-DONE-22Prior to that had you been particularly interested in music as a fan, or did you have aspirations to become a performer?

At 10 years old that was probably not my focus. [laughs]

Can you talk about transitioning from cello to bass?

Well, the better I played cello the more it appeared to me that white society wasn’t ready to accept a talented African American player in their presence.

Were there any high school influences, either specific instructors or folks you played with?

At that time, I was a classical player in an orchestra. We were all kind of equal and they were all amazing to me.

With respect to jazz was there a particular artist, or a particular band that served as the primary catalyst that got you really interested in that type of music?

Mostly it was in order to be able to afford to stay in school. As I played more gigs with the local house band, and then in New York, musicians among the bass players told me that a good player could earn a living in New York, so that was my first situation which I travelled to New York.

Can you talk about your time in Eastman? Were there any instructors there who are particularly significant in terms of your development?

Eastman was and is a great school. My bass teacher was a big influence on how well I learned to do the bass, of course. In general, my teachers were all about the same in that respect, you know.

Were there any approaches to teaching or any particular teaching styles that particularly resonated with you and helped you advance at the time?

At the time teaching wasn’t part of my process although I have a degree in it. I wasn’t looking forward to teaching for a living, so I wasn’t looking to any of teachers as an example or sample of what to do when I got to the teaching stage.

Irene Rosnes, Ron Carter, Payton Crossley, and Rolando Morales-Matos.

Irene Rosnes, Ron Carter, Payton Crossley, and Rolando Morales-Matos.

Ok, but while you were at Eastman or Manhattan School of Music were there folks who connected with you more than others, as a student, as a young player?

There were none. I was a black kid in a white society, so they weren’t looking to help me out any more than a normal student and I wasn’t looking at them for any kind of inspiration to further my carrier in music. It’s just not what it was back in the day – the ‘50s and ‘60s.

So after Eastman what was it that drew you to Manhattan School of Music?

I had a scholarship to Manhattan as a master’s student. I graduated Eastman in 1959 and I got a scholarship to go to Manhattan starting in September, but I came to New York and joinedChico Hamilton’s band in August of ’59, so I didn’t get back to Manhattan till spring of 1960.

Actually, that brings up an interesting question. Some of your early gigs involved playing with Chico Hamilton, Jacki Byard, and the like – that’s a pretty great start; Can you talk about those experiences and how it influenced you development as a player?

It was great, yes indeed, and of course it was an important time. I don’t know those feelings from 50 years ago, though  I mean, I’m going on to 80, man. When I came up I was 21 years old and that’s almost 60 years ago. I don’t have a recollection of, for example, teachers whose style of teaching impressed me, so that I also wanted to teach, or teachers who took me under their wing. Again, you have to understand that was not the case back in those days. I was a student in school, I was a black kid and primarily had to develop my own musical and social environment kind of on my own. I didn’t have those kinds of mentors or people who were saying,” Do this and you’ll get better.” I didn’t have those kinds of experiences, man, so I can’t answer those kinds of questions.

Completely understood. How about this: Can you talk about what do you find to be more effective or more enjoyable in terms of advancing your own art – actually playing out and learning from other players or in a classroom setting?

Where I am now, 60 years later, I enjoy both environments: the classroom, which is where I get a chance to propagate my propaganda on how the instrument should work, and music, and musicianship, and I also enjoy playing on night on gigs where I can find a number of guys who are interested in finding out how the bass affects what they do, how they respond to my level of my musicianship, how we can make music together with no rehearsal. So both environments are fun for me and I think they’re necessary for someone like me to keep doing.

Can you describe your duties at Juilliard? 

Right now, I have three advanced bass students, two master students, and two seniors. Last year I had two Artist diploma students and a senior, so I have three top-graded bassists in the school and we have lessons once a week.

Do you prefer a particular format: one-on-one lessons, master classes, typical classroom formats? Do you find that one format works better than another and if so why?

Well no one has ever designed master class for me so I kind of avoid those things like the plague. [laughs] To do a master class, I’ll say, “Well, what do you want?” and [the school] say to me, “Well, you know,” and well, no I don’t – that’s why I’m asking you! One-on-one depends on lot of factors: how good the student is, what his level of performance is when I see him, what is his goal – does he want to be a weekend bass player or does he want to be professional? So classroom and private lessons can be productive for me to help the group or single person, or single player, understand my point of view of how the bass functions and getting them to trust my judgment that these ways can be helpful for them. So all environments are good, too, except for the master class, which is a little more problematic because no one has known how to define that to me yet.

What do you as a music teacher find to be most rewarding about that job?

To hear a bass player finally play a scale in tune. As easy as that sounds, it’s very difficult and I have some guys who struggle to understand what intonation is and how it affects basic sound. So one of my most rewarding times is when one of my students comes in and plays a scale perfectly in tune the first time.

What do you find to be most frustrating as a music teacher?

When they don’t put the time and the practice with the discipline. I hate to have the same lesson two times in a row because then the student is playing by rote and not looking for the best possible way to play the exercise.I don’t want them to memorize it, necessarily, or play like a robot. I want them to find out what’s the best musically, what’s the best alternate fingerings, what’s the best tempo for these pieces. Sometimes I find that the student doesn’t look at these things as a stepping-stone to get better at the instrument, rather than just some assignment I’ve given them. That kind of drives me a little bit crazy.

You don’t hear jazz on the radio or in movies or television that much. It is a concern for a lot of people that jazz is seemingly sort of being pushed more and more to the margins, as opposed to being embraced my mainstream society.

I think it’s getting more pushed aside to the United States. It’s not getting pushed to the same extent in Europe or Japan or South America or Australia. I mean, the United States is where jazz is getting pushed to the side, to use your expression.

Yes, you’re correct in that there’s not the exposure that there was when I was 20 years old, when I was 30 years old, when I was 40 years old, and the question is: How can we remedy that? Well, my solution is that the black press has to become more active and more involved in the music. The black radio stations, black TV stations – they’re kind of giving the jazz musicians, the music, a hard time to even exist. Until the black press, the black media jumps on board to take this music to another level, it’s going to have a difficult time. I think the jazz community, as I speak to them, are not so involved in trying to get the New York Times to give them a review – they want the [New York] Amsterdam News and the LA Sentinel to come out and hear their music. Until that happens, this music will have a difficult time in the States.

The New York Times has a mast that says, “All the News That’s Fit to Print” – that’s their logo. We had this gig in New York City for six nights and not one review took place. Does that mean that my music’s not fit to report? I resent that. But they would review an orchestra who plays in New York on Tuesday or Wednesday and goes out of town that same night? So I don’t get that.

It’s a good point, yeah, absolutely. As an educator yourself, do you have any words of advice to your fellow jazz educators out there?

I think what they should do is go out and hear their kids play live! They can try in more ways to help them once they see the kids in an environment that’s competitive rather than necessarily one-on-one instruction. I think the student is going to respond differently to other people he’s playing with than to the things he’s learning in the classroom lesson. He may not have learned how to apply lessons because he’s doing it one-on-one and now he’s doing it with other players who are equally aggressive in their point of views, so learning just gets washed aside and the student doesn’t get the kind of help he needs within the group to get better at what he’s doing. I think it behooves the teacher to attend some of these jam sessions and some of these off the beaten path types of gigs that their students play in to find out how they’re functioning in a real playing environment, then they’ll pick up on how they can help the student get better.

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