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Why Ron Carter is the Ace of Bass

The legendary bassist Ron Carter

As a cultural institution, the Blue Note in NYC's Greenwich Village is surprisingly small. It’s a long, shotgun room with a snug stage set midway down against the left wall - the jazz club’s glowing blue neon logo centered as a backdrop. Tables line up front in tight formation and fan out to the left and right with as many patrons squeezed into place as the room can hold.

Since it's always about the music, there’s a collective understanding why you’re there. And last February, it was all about the man of the hour—the one and only, bassist Ron Carter.

The buzzing you heard from the sold-out room was amped-up anticipation. And as Carter and his band took to the stage, it was if they were pushed into place by waves of applause. The bassist, 77, is among the preeminent musicians of our time, credited with well over 2,000 recordings as a sideman, which is an impressive output for anyone.

Yet Carter’s impact on jazz is definitive, measured not only by his five-year tenure with Miles Davis—the galvanizing quintet that included Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams and Wayne Shorter—or his collaborations with guitarist Jim Hall, but as a recording artist, composer, arranger, educator and author.

This video is from 1983, a performance in Lugano, Switzerland:


As a player, Carter swings with a resoundingly melodic flair that you can hear on more than 40 solo albums. As a leader, he radiates a calm, assertive charisma, playing with a deep emotional resolve that makes his bass notes soar. Despite a busy itinerary that often keeps him on the road, I got to sit down with Carter at his NYC apartment one afternoon while he was preparing to head to Japan.

Bassist Ron Carter, 77, is among the preeminent musicians of our time, credited with well over 2,000 recordings as a sideman...and more than 40 solo albums.

Nick Bewsey: At your Blue Note gig you seemed more like a director than a bandleader. Your set is one continuous string of tunes, like a suite. How did this concept come about?
Ron Carter: I made a record around 1962 called Uptown Conversation, and I decided that I wanted the music to flow from the outside of the vinyl all the way to the spindle. The problem with that was that disc jockeys couldn’t see where to put the needle where songs started or stopped, so they couldn’t really program a song. But I thought the process was a good one -- segueing from tune A to tune B, without the pause or silence between tracks – the musical transition is more clear. I have a band now that understands and trusts wherever I put the key or the tempo. One thing I like about this is that it doesn’t allow the audience’s thoughts to get in the way of my thoughts. Or as near as we can control their experience in a club.
NB: What was the first instrument that first caught your attention?

RC: The cello. I started playing that at ten years old and switched to the bass at 17 or 19...this was around January 1955. My parents scraped by and got me a cello and encouraged me. Then I traded in my cello and got a bass from the local music store downtown and had a paper route to pay it off.
I got the bass I have now in 1959 and borrowed money to pay for it since I didn’t have enough when I moved to NY. I’ve been playing this bass for all these years. Bass players I think look for a second fiddle and assists look for secondary instruments and I have three or four that didn’t quite pan out. But I have a second one I’ve made some adjustments to and it’s coming together. What’s happening now is that airlines won’t let you take your instrument on board – and it’s forced us to play whatever instrument is at the gig. We call that a “bass du jour.”
NB: When you were growing up it wasn’t possible for an African-American to join an orchestra. Knowing that, were you crushed or was that just a fact of life?
RC: Both. You practice your brains out and all these people who are knowledgeable about talent encourage you. You think about opportunities and feel you have the skill level to take these opportunities. But then they tell you that someone with your skin tone can’t do it – and I didn’t quite get that. Racism was rampant before Rosa Parks, so it wasn’t completely unexpected—we were living this through the '40s and '50s. My thought was that if I didn’t emotionally crash, it wouldn’t be the end of me. That’s their view, not my view and here I am.
NB: During your years with Miles, you spent a lot of time with Herbie, Wayne, and Tony. It sounds like a great fraternity—was it?

Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, Miles Davis, Tony Williams

RC: We all had different interests. Herbie was always into electronics and gadgets and Tony was leaning that way, too. Wayne was interested in opera and a film buff. I was into sports cars. I had two kids at the time, too. Once the gigs were over, we went our own way, but always maintained a connection. To this day I still speak with Herbie and Wayne on their birthdays and special occasions. So while we aren’t playing together, the relationship is as strong as if we were.
NB: When you record albums like Herbie Hancock’s Maiden Voyage, Freddie Hubbard’s Red Clay, Wayne Shorter’s Speak No Evil or Jobim’s Wave, do you have a sense of its commercial value or that something special is being created?
RC: I like to think that anything I play on will be commercially viable and I’m not afraid to say that. When musicians get together, whatever their level, something special can come out. I think if you’re looking for it, you’re not going to find it. As it turns out, those records you mentioned happen to be important ones, whether it pertains to the advancement of sound or concept. We weren’t looking to make a famous record, only to have a great time playing and making as good a recording as possible.
In the ‘80s, how bass was or wasn’t recorded changed. The “dreaded bass direct” is first specifically referenced in the liner notes on a Branford Marsalis record (Renaissance, 1987) and many subsequent Columbia/Sony releases.
Their idea was that the bass didn’t need a microphone—didn’t need a pick up. They were wrong, every last one of them. If you listen to those recorded dates at Lincoln Center, you can’t hear the bass. Everyone on the bandstand has a microphone except the bass player who has the softest instrument on stage. The drummer has sticks the size of Hank Aaron’s baseball bat, the trumpets are playing into the microphone and the bassist is exhausted by playing so hard with nothing but calluses to show for it. What’s wrong with this picture?
Some of these young players are missing the boat and hearing the wrong advice. When someone is playing a note you have to be able to hear it. If no one hears it but you, it doesn’t come together. I want the guy who’s sitting 25 rows back from the stage to hear me. I’m sorry that guys think that if bass players have a microphone, they’re cheating somehow. That’s nonsense.
NB: What’s it like getting the Ron Carter Big Band together again?

RC: I was just in London and working through some new material for that. It’s my chance to see if I can carry 16 people all night in a club. I love that kind of stuff. I’ve always wanted to do a big band and perform once a year at least, but it’s always tough to pull it together. I would like to go on tour with that band because they’re great people, they love the music and playing with me, and they’re sensitive to what it takes to bring it together.
NB: You still offer private lessons to musicians. As a leader and instructor, can you teach leadership?
RC: You can show them what it takes. Whether they come along that way is up to them. You can show them how to be responsible, disciplined, professional. You can aid their process as they move ahead. Don’t trust your instincts, write it down! You write the charts. What’s the drummer going to play? What’s the pianist going to do?
As long as you have musicians who want to study with Kenny Washington, Kenny Barron or me, the core lesson we teach is how to be a leader. You can’t help what goes on in the club or out in the audience. But you can do your best to plan your program on stage, how your band is dressed and what your set list is. Once you start, it’s all about the moment. It’s all about the music.

This article is from the November 2014 edition of ICON Magazine, the only publication in the Greater Delaware Valley and beyond solely devoted to coverage of music, fine and performing arts, pop culture, and entertainment. More Information.