If you are a jazz lover, you owe a debt to Ron Carter. He has recorded on over 2000 albums/CDs and counting. Chances are you have a number of Carter’s performances among your jazz collection. His fans appreciate his fluid, elegant and rich bass lines. This American bassist, cellist, and composer was born 04 May 1937 in Ferndale, Michigan. After fifty-plus years of performances Carter was elected to the DownBeat Jazz Hall of Fame in 2012.
While Carter has been playing music for 68 years, longevity is not the point, he is receiving Global Music Awards Odyssey Award for his deep contribution to jazz and the example he provides for younger artists through his willful and determined mastery of his craft. His gigging and recording spans half a century and he is recognized as one of the most recorded artists in music history. Carter earned our admiration and Lifetime Achievement in Music Award for his contribution to jazz, the depth to which he has developed his skills, and the manner in which he has lived his musical life.
As you read this article, please remember this is an artist who played alongside jazz greats like Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams, Tommy Flanagan, Gil Evans, Lena Horne, Bill Evans, B.B. King, the Kronos Quartet, Dexter Gordon, Wes Montgomery, and Bobby Timmons. And, don’t forget that Carter was Distinguished Professor Emeritus of the Music Department of The City College of New York, having taught there for eighteen years.
During a bass roundtable discussion, Carter was asked what advice he would give to aspiring bassists. He responded, “Off the top of my head, play in many environments. A lot of young bass players are just in one group. You only get a limited view. Second, bass players play awful notes. Your job is to try to play as few of those as possible. When you play in different bands, you can make a terrible sound one night that sounds good with some other band. Third, make sure your instrument is in good shape to play. I’ve seen some awful basses with cracks, the pickup wire broken, pegs squeaking. A bass needs a tune-up like a car. Fourth, go hear guys play live. Figure out how they get from point A to point B, what strings and pickups they use, how they hold the bass. You see those things and you can start getting a view of yourself with what works for you. And finally, enjoy playing time. That’s how we work.” This is advice from a master.
Carter has a date-filled international touring schedule; one might say he has reached the pinnacle. But Carter says, "Well, I'm kind of like Martin Luther King, but I haven't been to the mountaintop yet. I'm trying to find out what the top of the mountain looks like and the only way to get there is by playing every night like it's my last chance to get this right. I think I've come close several times and the view, I would imagine, is spectacular. I'm about at the tree line right now, but I'm getting there.”
Carter’s climb to the pinnacle was hendered. He was born a black man in 1937 in Jim Crow America. While Carter never allowed race to determined his life, it is difficult to appreciate now the willpower and determination required 50 years ago to overcome the racial discrimination thrown in his path. During his Detroit high school days he switched from cello to bass because he was not invited to perform at extracurricular functions. He gave up his goal of playing in a classical orchestra while at Eastman School of Music after world-class visiting conductor acknowledged his skills on the bass but explained that he would not be hired because he was an African American. This caused Carter to redirect his career from classical music to jazz.
In an article by writer Ted Panken commissioned by DownBeat Magazine at the time of his induction into the Jazz Hall of Fame, well-known bassist Stanley Clarke said of Carter, “Ron is an innovator … a great storyteller. Probably 99.9% of the bass players out here play stuff from Ron. … Ron to me is the most important bass player of the last fifty years. He defined the role of the bass player.”
In response to Stanley Clarke’s comments about his impact on bass lineage, Carter said, “I’m embarrassed, actually. 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 do not 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.”
Many things distinguish Ron Carter as pivotal artist in the history of jazz.
Obviously, among the top factors we admire most in honoring him with our life time achievement award is the depth to which he has developed his skill as a bassist. He has unmistakable tone and, as noted by Cliff Engel, “the inevitable quality of note choice and phrasing contained with his lines remains unprecedented.” John Patitucci observes, “He is an architect of the highest order on the bass. People don’t realize how deep an effect he has had on bass lines in music. He widened the boundaries.” Finding the best, the “right notes” has been Carter’s lifelong quest. Carter says, “Satisfied is not always the word that applies to me. Looking for the best set of notes with the best pitch and best sound, yes, I still try to do that.”
We also want to acknowledge his work ethic as a musician. Professionalism is Carter’s hallmark as a musician. In a DownBeat Magazine interview by Ed Williams, Carter said, “I’m on the time for the job. I am prepared musically and technically to meet the demands of the music.” He notes his goal is to contribute to “a positive frame of reference in terms of expecting to be musically delighted” about the job in which he is involved. It’s no small item that Carter has 68 years of being well-prepared, well-dressed, sober and letting others know they can count on him.
Ron Carter earns our admiration and our Odyssey Award for Lifetime Achievement in Music for his contribution to jazz, the depth to which he has developed his skills and the manner in which he has lived his musical life.
(Source: Information for this story and many of the quotes are from the excellent book by Dan Ouellette, Ron Carter: Finding the Right Notes, Retrack Publications, Inc., LINK)