By Greg Cahill | From the May-June 2022 issue of Strings magazine
“You can hear [pianist] Herbie [Hancock] being so comfortable with my bass line,” Ron Carter recounted to author Dan Ouellette in the 2009 biography Ron Carter: Finding the Right Notes, about recording 1968’s innovative Nefertiti as a member of Miles Davis’ groundbreaking Second Great Quintet. “You can hear my single notes that he then uses to comp. He trusts the melody and my single-note time. All I have to do is play one note to get that trust to let him know that all my notes will be OK. Rather than ignore my bass line—go over it or through it or play in spite of it—Herbie uses it. In fact, he’s relying on it. When a piano player is comfortable developing an accompanying figure around the bass player’s bass line, then you have a chance to play some good music.”
Carter has been playing “some good music”—actually quite a bit of really, really great music—for more than six decades. The authoritative Penguin Jazz Encyclopedia has hailed Carter for his ability “to cope with any playing situation… to respond quickly and creatively to the high-level dialogues that Davis was instigating… mixing and moving between different jazz bass methods so smoothly that he was able to transcend the obvious roles of timekeeper and harmonic floor. And it was all done so adroitly that he never drew unnecessary attention to himself.”
His contributions to the jazz world—as an influential double bassist, but also as the innovator of the piccolo bass and a pioneering jazz cellist—will be feted May 10, when Carnegie Hall presents For the Love of Ron Carter and Friends: 85th Birthday Celebration. Carter (whose birthday falls six days before the tribute) will ascend the Perelman stage, along with fellow jazz bassists Buster Williams and Stanley Clarke, and other artists, performing in a trio, quartet, and octet (featuring four cellos), playing both a 3/4-size double bass and an acoustic piccolo bass, an instrument first built for Carter in the 1970s by New Jersey bass luthier Fred Lyman and one that since has been embraced by Clarke and other jazz bassists. “I was the first person to use that term,” the soft-spoken, six-foot, three-inch Carter says of the piccolo bass. “I wanted whoever walked into the room with my group to see me as the bandleader. That might not happen if I were just the bass player in the band because often the person with the horn is perceived as the front man. I wanted an instrument that I could play that would clearly put me in front of the band physically—visually as well as musically. So I came up with this small-sized bass, a half-size string bass, tuned like a bass, only up a fourth—C-G-D-A—and that would physically put me in charge of the band, just like a horn player.”
Carter spotlighted the instrument on his 1977 album Piccolo and has returned to it many times throughout his career. But the piccolo bass is just one small aspect of Carter’s illustrious kit bag. “I have some nice cello quartet pieces,” he says. “It will be an interesting concert in that it will show me in various moods, various skill levels, and various compositional interests. I think the audience will be surprised that the string that really ties all these groups together is me.”
Certainly, Carter deserves this high-profile tribute. Jazz writer Ron Wynn has lauded Carter as “the epitome of class and elegance without the stuffiness… He’s among the greatest accompanists of all time… a brilliant rhythmic and melodic player who uses everything in his bass and cello arsenal: walking lines; thick, full, prominent notes and tones; drones and strumming effects; and melody snippets. His bowed solos are almost as impressive as those done with his fingers.”
Those dulcet tones have put Carter in great demand. A plaque from Guinness World Records hanging on the back wall of his bedroom at his tenth-floor apartment on New York’s Upper West Side, Jazz Times reported, certifies that Carter is the most recorded jazz bassist in history, with 2,221 individual recording credits to his name. Unofficially, a friend of Carter’s places that number at over 2,400 recordings. “I told him to stop counting,” the soft-spoken Carter says with a slight laugh.
His most recent album, Skyline, released in 2021, teams Carter with Cuban pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba and drummer Jack DeJohnette.
Carter’s bio is a testament to his skills as a musician, composer, and educator. From 1963 to 1968, he was a member of the celebrated Miles Davis Quintet, also known as the Second Great Quintet, which featured Davis, Carter, Hancock (piano), and Tony Williams (drums), as well as saxophonist Wayne Shorter (who replaced Sam Rivers and George Coleman, respectively). Carter also has recorded with Kronos Quartet (on 1985’s Monk Suite: Kronos Quartet Plays Music of Thelonious Monk), Wes Montgomery, B.B. King, Lena Horne, Eric Dolphy, and Dexter Gordon, to name a few. But his credits also range to 1994’s “Un Ange en Danger,” a collaboration with French rapper MC Solaar on the AIDS benefit album Stolen Moments: Red Hot + Cool, and Aaron Neville’s 2003 release Nature Boy: The Standards Album. As a bandleader, he has recorded such acclaimed albums as 1972’s Alone Together (with jazz guitar great Jim Hall), 1973’s newly reissued classic All Blues, 1984’s Telephone, 1989’s Duets (with jazz singer Helen Merrill), 1997’s The Bass and I, and 2016’s Chemistry (with saxophonist Houston Person). He also was a member of the short-lived V.S.O.P, an American jazz quintet featuring Carter, Hancock, Shorter, Williams, and trumpeter Freddie Hubbard—all former members of Davis’ bands.
Carter has been named Outstanding Bassist of the Decade by the Detroit News, Jazz Bassist of the Year by Downbeat magazine, and Most Valuable Player by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. In 1993, Carter earned a Grammy Award for Best Jazz Instrumental Group with the Miles Davis Tribute Band. He was also awarded a 1998 Grammy for “Call Sheet Blues,” an instrumental composition from the 1986 film ’Round Midnight, director Bertrand Tavernier’s sensitive portrait of ex-pat American jazz players living in Paris (Carter also appeared in the film).
He has received five honorary doctorates, most recently from the Juilliard School. The French Minister of Culture has awarded Carter with the medallion and title of Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters. He has lectured, conducted, and performed at clinics and master classes, instructing jazz ensembles and teaching the business of music at numerous universities. He is the former artistic director of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Studies, served 18 years on the faculty of the music department of the City College of New York (where he holds the position of distinguished professor emeritus), and is a faculty member at Manhattan School of Music.
Carter was born during the Great Depression to a close-knit family on the outskirts of Detroit in Ferndale, Michigan, a community known for dusty, unpaved streets and no shortage of racial enmity. He started playing cello at age ten (his sister Sandy played bass) but switched to double bass in high school. “I had good teachers along the way,” he told the Smithsonian Jazz Oral History Program in 2011. “They were encouraging of my ability and made sure they assigned the kind of music exercises and études that would increase my skill level. And my job, if you call it that, was to take advantage of this learning opportunity. I had a paper route, so I went out and peddled papers in the morning and with that money I bought my own instrument and paid for most of my own lessons.”
At 15, he attended Interlochen Music Camp in upstate Michigan. “I was one of—probably the first—African American to be a part of that group,” he told the Smithsonian. “I was representing my school, not me or the music. And that was OK. We were coming from a small community, a small African American community, an all African American school, so I was representing the school and the African American community rather than my family or the music or the instrument. So, you get to that kind of physical environment where you see what’s going on around you, and you know what level is possible to either reach… if you think you’re not there, or get better than them [by] practicing long hours as part of the process.”
He praised the orchestral program at Cass Technical High School for building his musical foundation. “The orchestra was fabulous, like junior college on the high-school level. Again, all the players were great, they all went on to do major things in the music world. While that wasn’t necessarily my goal, to be competitive enough to fit in that spectrum of musicians and music, I thought I could play as good as them, but to do that, it takes some extra work. Okay, let’s get this done.”
That sense of determination carried over throughout his career. Carter credits his father with first instilling a commitment to excellence. “My father let us know that just being good wasn’t good enough, given the tenor of the times,” he says. “We learned to accept nothing but our best; second best was never going to be good enough. I was born in 1937, and those times did not favor anyone who was not Caucasian and successful at anything except those things that Caucasians wanted you to be successful at. My father let us know that wasn’t the name of our game. Our rules led me to believe that we could be as good as anybody, and to be better was definitely a possibility. It all depended on our values, our discipline, our honesty, our love for our fellow man, our desire to play what our ears were telling us what
Carter has been playing jazz for a living since 1957, when he landed a gig as a sideman for a house band in Rochester, New York. Two years later, he joined the Chico Hamilton band, after earning a B.A. at the Eastman School of Music (in 1961, he earned a master’s degree at Manhattan School of Music). He established himself throughout the 1960s and early ’70s as a go-to sideman and session player before assuming the additional roles of bandleader and composer.
At a time when many jazz players were going electric, in the wake of Miles Davis’ pioneering 1969 fusion album In a Silent Way, Carter doubled down on acoustic jazz. The release of Carter’s 1977 album Piccolo “proved to be a heads-up experience for listeners and critics because of Ron’s expansive perspective on jazz at the time,” Ouellette wrote in his biography. After the release of Piccolo, press accolades poured in. Downbeat magazine raved that, “not unlike Muhammad Ali or Sir Laurence Olivier, [Carter] is superior not so much because he tries to be, but because what he is demands a certain level of permanence. Study, practice, and application are indispensable to anyone who would succeed, but his success flows from a richer, deeper source.”
The title of Ouellette’s book Finding the Right Notes is derived from Carter’s approach to playing bass lines. “My job is to give the information I hear in my head to the musicians in my group,” he says. “My choice of notes, I like to think, gives them another thought about what kind of chord they can play or that they shouldn’t play. So, my note choices tell them what the chord is, what the form of the song is, what the tempo is, what the groove is, whether they’re intuiting my notes so I can have a real presence there to make the bass a part of the band dynamic. It does all of that. One note does all of that. If I have time to write those single notes, I can monitor a band and make them do whatever I want.
“If I get a call for a job, it means that someone thinks my presence increases the likelihood of success for this one tune or one album, whatever it may be,” he adds. “So, when I get to the studio, I do what I’ve always done—I’ve left my ego at home and brought an extra pair of ears.”
Does the upcoming Carnegie Hall tribute lead Carter to consider his legacy? “You’re not asking the right person,” he says, his voice lowering to a near-whisper. “You need to ask someone who’s not as shy as I am. Maybe someone like Muhammad Ali, who could blast his plaudits aloud. I’m not quite there yet. It makes me blush that I’m in that kind of iconic territory. I can’t say that I don’t deserve it, because my mind doesn’t analyze things about my time on this precious earth. That’s up to other people to judge and say things that I’m not really comfortable discussing.
“I think the tribute is a great chance to get out and see other people and to thank someone who throughout their lifetime has been important to their survival. I’m glad that people place me in that category. All I can do is thank them by playing the best as I can play, as I’ve always done.”
For the Love of Ron Carter and Friends: 85th Birthday Celebration will be held May 10 at 8 pm at Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, 57th Street and Seventh Avenue in New York City. NBC news anchor and bass player Lester Holt will serve as emcee. Tickets are $20–$200.