Photo by Tom Pich
NEA Jazz Master Ron Carter, bassist/cellist/educator extraordinaire, talks about his career playing jazz and classical music. [25:21]
Jo Reed: Â That was bassist and NEA Jazz master Ron Carter playing, âReceipt, Please.â Welcome to Art Works, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works. I'm your host, Josephine Reed
Ron Carter is among the most influential and prolific bassists in jazz as well as one of the first jazz cellists. To list all the accomplishments of his 45 year career would require much more time than I have. So here are some highlights: he has performed with many jazz legends, including, Chico Hamilton, Randy Weston, Dexter Gordon, Thelonious Monk, and Art Farmer. He was a member of Miles Davis's second great quintet that included Wayne Shorter, Tony Williams, and Herbie Hancock. He is one of the outstanding studio musicians with well over 2000 albums to his credit. He's a composer, in fact he wrote the tune we just heard âReceipt, Please,â and has scored and arranged music for many films. He's won a Grammy Award, received two honorary doctorates and in 1998 was named an NEA Jazz Master.
Ron Carter was born in Michigan in 1937, and grew up in Detroit, where he played classical music. He was classically trained in both cello and bass, graduating from the Eastman School in Rochester, and getting a Master's degree at the Manhattan School of Music.
I recently spoke to Ron Carter in his New York City apartment (you'll hear the traffic). I began our conversation by asking him why, if he was classically-did he begin to play jazz.
Ron Carter: Well, I was playing jazz all along to stay in school. On my summer vacations, I would go back to Detroit and I'd either work during the day as a parks and recreation person- personnel or at the amusement park. But at night, I was playing these little gigs for the sororities and fraternities that had these weekend parties in Detroit.
Jo Reed: What about when you were getting your Master's degree at the Manhattan School of Music. Were you playing jazz then, too?
Ron Carter: A couple of things. One, I enrolled in school a semester late because I had joined
Â Hamilton's Quintet for Â six months. So I didn't start my scholarship of that one until six months la-- a semester later. But when I got to school, alotta- lotta jazz players were playing in the orchestra. They were already taking classes, and Donald Byrd was there, Larry Willis was there, MS Mikala was there, Lisle Atkinson was there. The conductor had a stroke so he had an assistant Pirkinson was there. So there were people there who were already involved in playing jazz, or they were studying a classical harmony or keyboard or whatever they were studying at the Manhattan School of Music. So I was already in a different kind of environment that encouraged you to play whatever you could play.
Jo Reed: Do you remember your first jazz gig in New York?
Ron Carter: With Chico Hamilton at Birdland. I came to New York 'cause Chico had- was- had seen me in Rochester the summer or the fall of fifty '58. And at the time, the cello player, Nat Gershwin, was gonna leave the band and was to go back to California, and Chico was looking for a cello player. So I went to the theater where they were working and I played the book and he said âOkay. When you come to New York, I'm in town, look me.â So I was ex- expecting him in New York and work with Chico's band as a cello player. Well, when I got here, the cello player decided to stay and the bass player decided he wanted to go back to Seattle. So I ended up by playing cello-- playing bass in that band for six months.
Jo Reed: How's it playing with Chico Hamilton?
Ron Carter: My first experience on the road with anyone was with him and I couldn't have thought of a better person to show me how to function on the road, where to eat, how to eat, a lotta rest, paying taxes, claiming your income. So it was an educational event for me all the way around.
Jo Reed: You also, pretty early on, I think it was in 1960, you played with Yusef Lateef.
Ron Carter: Yeah. He's my friend from Detroit. Again, in Detroit, I wasn't on the jazz scene at all. I wasn't going to clubs. I wasn't hanging out with the guys. I wasn't part of any storefront kinda jazz school. I was just trying to find out how this music worked. To this day don't hang out. But I did go back to him and played certain-- occasional concerts in the parks. And Yusef was playing music, using all the percussion that guys use today. So he created it 40 years ahead of his time. So I got a chance to listen to him play, listen to his interpretation of melodies, listen to a great sound. So I was very pleased to have the chance when he called me to make a date with him for Atlantic Records in the early '60s.
Jo Reed: Your first record was Stompin' at the Savoy out of the thousands that you've made.
Ron Carter:Â That's pretty far back. But go ahead.
Jo Reed: I'm just wondering, the difference between performing live and performing in a studio for recording.
Ron Carter: Well, I think the difference is really- really clear. When you're playing live, theoretically the notes are gone. You never hear them in that order again and neither does anybody else. In the studio, that's a log of your presence. It's an auditory carbon copy of what you hear that someone else shares with you. It's a historical marker that on this day, on this date, on this song, at this speed, at this tempo, in this key, with these players you tried out these notes. And that's what that is. When you're playing live, you aren't so concerned with preservation of an idea. It's gone, and try again tomorrow night.
Jo Reed: How has the bass changed during the 40 years you've been playing?
Ron Carter: Well, it's probably made the most drastic change of any instrument. Several things have happened. One, the bass is now has a pickup, which is a enclosed microphone on the bass. So the bass, first of all, is a lot more present. Everybody can hear it. So he can no longer hide behind the loud drum sounds or the loud piano chords. He is as present sonically as everybody else is. And I think because he is now more he's- more easily heard, it's forced the bass player to be more cautious about building a line, to understand harmony more thoroughly, to be able to experiment with different kinds of strings that make the bass sound better, or certainly different than the set that he now has. And with the audio files, everybody hears what the bass player is playing now. And I think all these factors have made the bass players think differently and play differently on the bass than they did 40 years ago, when they were hardly heard no matter how hard they played.
Jo Reed: Right. It was hard to get past the 10th row.
Ron Carter: Yeah.
Jo Reed: You were with the Miles Davis Quintet for five years.
Ron Carter: Sixty-three to sixty-eight.
Jo Reed: You were still pretty young at that point.
Ron Carter: We were all kinda young chickens at that time. So we were kinda all a pretty young band.
Jo Reed: And one of the great bands.
Ron Carter: Well, that's what they say.
Jo Reed: Yes. What was it like being part of that?
Ron Carter: Well, I'm not sure any of us thought we were a part of anything in terms of defining a part of something. I think we enjoyed going to work every night, playing with our friends. And we were going into a laboratory every night and Miles had these chemicals spread out along the wall or on the desk, and it was our job, Herbie, Tony and myself, to arrange these chemicals so something happened with 'em that didn't happen the night before and might not happen again tomorrow.
Jo Reed: Did Miles Davis have an impact on you?
Ron Carter: All leaders have impact on me.
Jo Reed: Yeah. What did you learn from him?
Ron Carter: Every night's a great chance to play great music with some wonderful players, every night, any night. Take advantage of it.
Jo Reed: You've been a player in a lot of different groups, but you've also been a leader. What's the difference? What do you have to bring to the table when you're leading the group?
Ron Carter: You have to let the band know, I think, if you're a leader that you are, in fact, the leader. That means you make decisions that may not be popular with everybody, but they're the decisions leaders have to make. You decide who- who's in the band. You decide how much they get paid. You decide the library. You decide the solo order. You decide what kinda arrangements you're gonna play. You decide what key they're gonna be in. As a sideman, you just go to work and they do it-- and- and the guy who tells someone else he sings, he's not telling them to me. So it's- it's- it's different in that the line of responsibility is clearly marked and I think the dates where the leader is clearly in charge, they'll probably be more successful dates than when they go in and kinda let it fly and see what happens.
Jo Reed: You ended up deciding that you were tired of being on the road in 1968.
Ron Carter: Yeah. I- I- I'd been out for a while. M- Miles had bought these four and five week ventures and when Miles wasn't working, I was working with other people. I'd go to Europe with __________for three or four weeks, or whoever the job was. I was kinda always on the- on the go so that when I felt that I had enough of that kind of frequency to where I traveled, I told Miles I had enough and I wanted to stay home for a while.
Jo Reed: And you did a lot of studio work.
Ron Carter: Studio was big at the time, sixty- '63, '65, '75. There was a lot of commercial work going on. There were- there were a studio bands, studio orchestras, studio jazz bands. There were a lot of recordings being done on the jazz point of view. The Japanese people came in to record four or five records a week. There were at least 12 jazz labels that were actively recording jazz week in and week out, so it was a great time to be in New York.
Jo Reed: Great time to be in New York. Is there anyone you didn't work with?
Ron Carter: As far as recording sessions? Well, I missed John Coltrane because he was working at the same time Miles was. So I didn't get the chance to play with him. I would like a chance to hear him a couple of times. Ahmad Jamal was on my list to add to people who I wish I would play with and get him off my list.
Jo Reed: If you had to pick somebody you wished you had worked with but didn't, would it be John Coltrane?
Ron Carter: Well, I think I would like to talk to John find out how he views the role of the bass in his band. I wanna know do you listen to the bass player and if he plays this kinda note, are you gonna respond to that? That's a reasonable question for me And if I thought that it was a role I didn't wanna fulfill or was uncomfortable- uncomfortable fulfilling, I probably would say no just because I wanted my-- I wanted to be comfortable that my point of view was something that I can take the heat for, good or bad, you know. One other way the bass has changed â getting back with your other question, is that because it's now as loud as everybody else, which is a terrible way to say it. It's as loud as everybody else. The bass player was starting to ask the band leader âWait a minute, man. I played this set of notes. I played these changes. How come you didn't respond to that?Â You want this monotone all night? Well, I can't do that. I hear the notes. But listen to my notes and see if they help.â They're getting to that point of view now and- and I think that that's good for music, it's good for bass mu-- good for bass players, good for the history of the- history of the instrument.
Jo Reed: When you played with Miles, he responded to you?
Ron Carter: He trusted that I would find the right notes, and I found some good ones.
Jo Reed: Indeed you did. Three thousand albums? Is that possible?
Ron Carter: Thou-- It's closer to 25.
Jo Reed: But still, that's big.
Ron Carter: Well, I was busy, you know. I mean, at the time, there were like 10 to 12 labels in New York, in the States. They were recording records right and left 'cause they saw I was a, f- first of all, a moneymaker. And secondly, there was a lotta-- a large population clamoring for this music. It was on the radio. It's- it's on the- the television show. Steve Allen had jazz guys on his- on his program all the time. I mean, it was really an important music and the companies just took advantage of that kind of presence and need for an audience to make records. So it's very easy to be on that many records at that time because I was a pretty good player and- and I was kinda in demand. And- and as I wasn't traveling, I was home, available to make those records, you know. But it's not 3,000. I- I wish. That means I would've gotten John Coltrane, among other things, you know. Closer to 2,000. I think it was 2,006, something like that, you know. That's a lot of work.
Jo Reed: That's a lot of work. You have many, many people, it's impossible to list them all. But you've worked with Randy Weston and you also have recorded his music on your own. Talk about his music.
Ron Carter: Well, he was the first musician I heard live, who was playing out of the Duke Ellington and Thelonius Monk's school of music. I mean his percussive touch was kinda like Monk's. His harmony of his songs were kinda like Duke. He's very aware of African rhythms when he would comp and play melodies, uh.. and that influenced me to be aware of how important Duke Ellington was to the world of music in particular, and to Randy Weston uh.. specifically.
Jo Reed: How important is Duke Ellington to the world of music?
Ron Carter: Well, he's the first person who wrote charts for the personalities in his band, and in this writing some nice songs. He brought a level of e- elegance to big band writing that didn't exist before, I think. And of course, he had-- he was fortunate enough to pick great players to play his music, Cat Anderson, Harry Carney, Jimmy Blanton. I can't forget his name. I mean, he made- made Duke Ellington to think a whole different point of view of how to write a string bass player with four or five saxophones. So Duke was the first person to understand musical personalities and what they could bring to arrangement with a part written specifically for what they do.
Jo Reed: You play the cello as well as the bass, and you play jazz cello, which is quite unusual. Talk about the difference in playing those instruments.
Ron Carter: Well, just go back a paragraph. The cello I played was tuned like a cello, top string A, second string D, the third string G, and the fourth string C. And those bass players who are credited with playing cello are actually playing a ba- a- a cello-sized bass, tuned like a bass. So they're really not playing cello at all.
Jo Reed: That's probably because you started playing cello. The cello was your first instrument.
Ron Carter: Yeah, I- I knew- I knew that was â¦.Well, the difference, of course, is the size of the instrument and- and the ability to play a section- a segment of notes without having to move too far up or down the next of the instrument. It's a lot brighter sound and it's not as big as a string bass sound, an. there's some-- lot of, say, avant-garde cellists who I've heard who really have found new things on the cello that had not occurred to me. And I'm not sure that it would have occurred to me had I not been playing all this time. They have new sounds. They plug into these guitar-type devices and make the sound completely different, things that just aren't of my imagination, you know. And they do it really well. I kind of always thought that if I were gonna get me a good sound and a sound that I don't mind being irrresponsible for, I don't want some green and orange box making it sound different, you know. I found that- that as a bass player, I can kinda maintain that personality. I think the cello would be a lot more complicated 'cause I'm playing solo. It's not a sound-- I'm not playing all the time as the bass player in most bands would do- have to do.
Jo Reed: I don't know if this question will make sense, but what do you think that your background in classical music brought to your jazz playing.
Ron Carter: If it brought anything at all, it was how to practice. Uh.. At- at a conservatory, uh.. the competition is really high and it's always in your face. So when you have a lesson to prepare for a lesson, you have to figure out âHow can I concentrate given all my other activities?â Uh.. You- you have theory course. You have piano course. You have instrumental course. You have arranging. You have uh.. sight singing. You have listening exams. I mean, there's a full plate. So I think the most important thing I got from my classical experience was how to make my practice times more valuable and more conducive to getting better.
Ron Carter: I- I don't think so, other than perhaps the idea that- that uhm.. Here's the example. I recorded a Bach Brandenberg No. 3 with a string orchestra and I was playing the bass parts as I wanted to play them. And- and uh.. I- I think that showed me two things â one, that the music of that era was built great for- for improvisation on someone's part and two, given Bach's appearance on the scene, I can't help but believe that he would've appreciated my efforts to make his music sound different. Uh.. And I think that the classic players would sit down and- and serious take into consideration studying the art of improvising. They would play all those pieces and they'd play it much, much differently. They'd play them slower. They would understand what the chords are. They aren't just notes that are uh.. technical exercise. Uh.. It would help their interpretation of the piece of music. Now, I know that classical teachers are interested in propaganda, I think their view of their interpretation of the piece of music, and they won't let the student get out of the room until they've played it just so, as the professor/teacher wants that view to be had. In playing classical library, and working as a jazz musician, I found that the more I understand the piece from a jazz person's improvisational attitude, it makes the music have a whole 'nother kind of life, which kinda distresses classical players 'cause they don't want anyone to tamper with their view of how Debussy or how Bach or Hayden or Ralph Vaughan Williams-- They don't want that view tampered with, but take a jazz player's contribution to music among other things, his ability to read into music and translate into modern day's point of view.
Jo Reed: When you're playing classical music and when you're playing jazz, is the feeling that you have as player, is it different? Is it similar?
Ron Carter: Oh, it's different. When I'm playing a classical piece, I'm playing with somebody else's ideas and the history of classical music is, you keep playing this person's point of view until you get tired of it. In a jazz performance, whoever the composer is, alive or dead, he's written this piece for people to experiment with. Maybe they wanna change the form. Maybe they wanna change the changes. Maybe they wanna change the tempo, maybe the key. But it's written with these kinds of options in mind. So the feeling of playing the Beethoven 5th is not the same as playing All Blues. It can't be. Jazz players write their pieces based on somebody else interpreting it. I mean, they thrive on that. That's why it is what it is, you know. I've done some dates with some classical players who play jazz, but they're only able to get close enough because they understand the process. But I think that it will take a classical player some serious thinking and a real commitment to be able to play jazz violin, like Ray Nance, or Phil Smith, and then be able to go to Carnegie Hall and play in the Brahms Trio, or the Schubert Trout Quintet, you know. I did David Nigel Kennedy.
Jo Reed: Nigel Kennedy, the violinist.
Ron Carter:Â Great player and we had a great time with making a record together, me and Jackie Jeanette and an organ player he knew. But he spent the time to understand, as near as we can all understand, how jazz works. And he didn't feel like a traitor to the classical world, you know. He didn't feel like he was gonna turn the jazz world upside down. He just wanted to play his music. And I think that more classical players who have that attitude, they find much more fun playing their music, classical libraries as they would playing Duke Ellington's songbook. Got the same notes, just put âem in different order.
Jo Reed: Teaching. You spentâ¦
Ron Carter: A long time.
Jo Reed: ...a long time teaching. You're a distinguished professor of music emeritus at City College. What did you try to bring to the classroom?
Ron Carter: I tried to have them understand that if you're gonna be in this- in this profession and not a hobbyist, a weekender who works Friday at the local bar after working five days at your IBM job, you have to be willing to make some sacrifices. And that means practicing every day, no weekends off at Grandma's house, and no day off because it's Christmas. You have to be willing to understand that you gotta play with an intention of getting better every day.. If you have an assignment, you have to prepare the assignment like it's the best you can play it, but put the time in to get to that frame of mind.You may not get to be famous or however you define famous, but you'll certainly have fun playing this music. And if you're determined and dedicated, you'll get somewhere where somebody will hear you, maybe not make you famous but make you go up to a level of musician or player that you want to be aspiring toward. I- I tell them this is this is a job. We're really serious people here and take it-- take that to mean for you, when I give you an assignment, I don't want to hear any stories about you worked all night. I already did that, man, worked all night and all day and prepared the lesson that I felt was acceptable. You're not even close. So I try to make them understand that this is-- to play this music, it's a real serious and time-consuming event. I'm not asking you to expect to be poor. I'm asking you to learn to do it, learn the skill. Study keyboard. Study- study harmony. Study arranging. Play as often as you can so you can understand how this music works in a different environment. But it's a real job and, and I'm happy to go to work every night.
Jo Reed: And I'm so happy that you do, too. Ron Carter, thank you very much. I really appreciate you giving me your time during this busy period.
Ron Carter: Well, this is my first week off in a long time and I'm happy to have something to talk about, other than the B-flat-seven.
Jo Reed: Thank you. That was NEA jazz Master Ron Carter.
You've been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor.
Excerpts from "Receipt, Please" composed by Ron Carter and performed by Ron Carter and Jim Hall, from the album Alone Together, used courtesy of Concord Music Group.
Excerpt from"Brandenburg Concerto, No 3" composed by Johann Sebastian Bach and performed by Ron Carter from his album, Brandenburg Concerto, used courtesy of EMI Music.
The Art Works podcast is posted every Thursday at www.arts.gov. And now you subscribe to Art Works at iTunes Uâjust click on the iTunes link on the top of our podcast page. Next week, National Her itage Fellow and MacArthur Genius Award recipient Mary Jackson.
To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.