A conversation with Ron Carter, history’s most recorded jazz bassist

Thanks to Detroit Jazz Festival, metro Detroiters are fortunate enough for the opportunity to see renowned double bassist Ron Carter perform four times in four different settings over Labor Day weekend. This year, the festival has an even more concentrated focus on honoring Detroit natives. Carter, who was born in Ferndale, later moved to Detroit, and eventually graduated from Cass Technical High School, is not only the perfect candidate to be showcased by the Homecoming Series, but also a thoroughly apt choice for this year’s artist-in-residence.

Carter’s musical studies eventually led him to New York, where he obtained a bachelor’s degree in music from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester and a master’s in double bass from the Manhattan School of Music. Throughout his lengthy career, Carter has played double bass, electric bass, piccolo bass, and cello in numerous styles, culminating in his current recognition by the Guinness Book of World Records as the most recorded jazz bassist in history, with 2,221 sessions under his belt.

Carter’s discography as stated leader is almost as varied as his entire catalog; early releases like 1969’s Uptown Conversation showcase his inventive original compositions, while 1973’s Blues Farm features his experimentation with stringing the bass in a higher, or piccolo, tuning (in fact, Carter is cited as one of the inventors of the piccolo bass). More recently, in 2011, he led Ron Carter’s Great Big Band, featuring a 17-piece ensemble, new to his recorded repertoire at the time, and now one of the four performances Jazz Fest audiences can witness this year.

After 18 years on the faculty of the Music Department at the City College of New York, Carter has also achieved the status of distinguished professor emeritus, a worthy distinction for a man so accomplished in education and music. And he continues to perform, as active as ever, with a frequency surely unmatched by many players far younger than his 79 years.

In advance of his headlining appearance and nightly performances at Detroit Jazz Fest, we had a brief conversation with Carter. Deliberate and diplomatic in his responses, he was a delight to talk to about his Detroit roots, role as an educator, and approaches to performing, among other things.

Metro Times: Cass Tech has an impressive roster of jazz alumni. What do you remember about that time and any of the people you may have played with? I did read that Kirk Lightsey played in the school band with you. Ron Carter: At the time I was at Cass Tech, I was not a jazz player — I was a classical cellist. I knew those people because they were classmates, but not as fellow jazz performers. There was Ira Jackson, a wonderful alto player who ended up playing with Barry Harris’ group later on, and I knew Paul Chambers, but again, we were not playing friends nor in the same social circles, because I was not into the jazz scene by any means. I was a classical player who went to all the rehearsals with quartets and quintets, those kinds of ensembles, but [I was] not a jazz player at all until I came back to Detroit after my first year away at school in 1957 ... I played two jazz gigs then, but I was not a jazz player at Cass Tech.

MT: You started on cello, but switched to double bass. What does each instrument bring to your work? Carter: They’re both so different. A commonality would be how to practice skills, [such as] playing in tune and knowing the importance of playing with other people in your group, whether it’s a cello section or a rhythm section, but other than that, the instruments are pretty far different. Of course, the bass is three or four times the cello [in size], the fingerings are different, they read different kinds of clefs, but the commonality is that musicianship is necessary to make them both work.

MT: In terms of when you’re playing as leader versus sideman, how does that affect your performance? Carter: I think I’m always the leader. The bassist is always the leader. The only difference is my paycheck [laughs]. The bassist is always the quarterback of all the groups, so I play [with that in mind].

MT: There’s a strong history of music, jazz and otherwise, in Detroit. What does the city mean to you and how does that legacy come through in your work? Carter: It’s always nice to know there’s an audience that recognizes Detroit was a very fertile ground for jazz musicians in the early ’50s up to the ’70s, and it just points out how important music is in the public schools, which unfortunately has [gone] the way of ghosts and budget cuts. I cannot imagine, if Detroit had no music program when I was in high school, that it would have turned out such great players and musicians that it ultimately turned out in both the jazz and classical fields. Again, it’s nice to know that the history is there despite the budget cuts in the arts programs in schools … It’s nice to know that jazz alumni are able to carry that memory, not just with them, but when they play up the results of having [access to] music in elementary schools.

MT: How does your role as an educator connect with your role as a musician? Carter: They’re the same. I try to have my students understand their responsibility to the jazz community … and their local communities. I’m not sure the phrase “give back” fits my vocabulary, but I want [my students] to share in community events, be available for musical performances, be able to share their expertise in how to set a stage, [or] how to know what microphones are necessary, so that organizers and young kids who don’t have these experiences will get a head start on another way of being productive in society as well as the music community.

MT: You’ve played Jazz Fest numerous times, is that correct? Carter: Four or five times, yes … I’ve played with a classical jazz quartet, with Pat Metheny last year, [and] a couple times with different groups. But it’s fun for me to come home, see friends … and shake some hands of people I grew up with who I haven’t seen since the ’40s and ’50s. MT: It’s very fitting that they call it the Homecoming Series. Carter: For me it certainly is.

MT: You are playing four different times this year. Carter: Yes!

MT: Which is pretty exciting — Carter: For me too [laughs].

MT: Besides the obvious fact that each selection has a different number of musicians playing, how do you approach each style differently? Carter: I’m a composer/writer, [so] each group shows my writing skills for a different dimension. The first group, a nonet with four cellos and jazz quintet, shows my interest in trying to combine the classical sound in terms of four cellos with the jazz mentality of the quintet. The second group is a jazz quartet, which allows me to segway between songs with the bass player (in this case, me) being the deciding factor in what the next tune is, how fast it is, those kind of details. The third group is a trio with no drums, which is kind of unusual these days given how many great drummers there are, and I hope I don’t offend any of them by not having them as part of this trio. The last group [the big band] is a bunch of guys from New York who I owe this trip to, who have been with me for two of the records I have made, and given their rehearsal [and soundcheck] time free. They owe the audience a chance to hear what New York guys sound like, and I owe them the honor of having [them] play with [me] at my Detroit Jazz Festival [appearances].

MT: You’ve played with such a diverse group of musicians on many recordings. How does it feel to have appeared on such varied types of releases? Carter: Given the producer’s and leader’s choices of those sessions I’m on, they thought that [among] the choices they had, I’d be the choice for the moment to maybe help their music go to the level they wanted to go. I am honored, pleased, and always amazed that my history has gone past the jazz community.

MT: Is there a memorable or notable performance or session in Detroit that stands out in your mind? Carter: If I answer that question, it will preclude me from saying one of the four days of [this year’s jazz fest], so ask me next year and I’ll tell you! [Laughs.]

MT: Your work with the Miles Davis Quintet is one of the most famous things you’re known for. What was being part of such a seminal jazz group like? Carter: At the time we were just five guys hanging out, playing some good music … We were having a great time experimenting with different rhythms, different chords, and we had such a love for each other on the bandstand that it transcended music and went to somewhere else with it.

10 albums you probably didn’t know Ron Carter played on
1. Randy Weston, Uhuru Afrika (1960) One of the earliest records to unify African rhythms with complex jazz, Weston (also playing jazz fest this year) utilized a 24-piece big band that featured Carter as well as several other Detroit players, including Kenny Burrell and Yusef Lateef.
2. Eric Dolphy, Out There (1960) Carter is on cello for this recording, Dolphy’s second as leader; admire his sound throughout, but especially the brisk, almost wild solo on “The Baron.”
3. Charles Tolliver, Paper Man (1968) Carter’s rhythms are strong on this very solid, explorative hard bop album, the first release from Tolliver, who is also playing jazz fest this year with Stanley Cowell and Billy Harper.
4. Donald Byrd, Kofi (1969-70) This album is understated greatness from fellow Cass Tech alumni Byrd. Carter’s bass on “Elmina” in particular brings subtle funk that virtually sneaks up on you.
5. Alice Coltrane, Ptah, The El Daoud (1970) Coltrane’s underrated third album is masterfully spiritual and introspective; Carter’s subdued, yet stirring solo on “Turiya and Ramakrishna” is a highlight.
6. Gary Bartz NTU Troop, Harlem Bush Music - Uhuru (1971) A musical testament to black consciousness of the ‘70s, Carter’s bass is both strong and lovely on this adventurous, spiritual album.
7. Paul Simon, Paul Simon (“Run That Body Down”) (1972) A perfect example of Carter’s skills in the studio; his bass does what it needs to do without overstepping, further confirmation of his ability to be thorough yet restrained.
8. Grace Slick, Manhole (“Theme from the Movie Manhole”) (1973) Although no movie was actually made, this 15-minute song sees Carter’s bass alongside Slick’s powerful voice and the swoops and swells of the London Symphony Orchestra.
9. Billy Joel, The Bridge (“Big Man on Mulberry Street”) (1986) Carter on acoustic bass contributes to the jazzy spirit of this big-band-style song, oft-cited as one of the best tracks on the album.
10. A Tribe Called Quest, The Low End Theory (“Verses From the Abstract”) (1991) It only makes sense that Carter would appear on one of the first records to pair hip-hop with the atmosphere of jazz, an apt modern setting for Carter’s prodigious bass.

The Detroit Jazz Festival takes place Sept. 2-5 on four stages in Hart Plaza and Campus Martius; detroitjazzfest.com; free.
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