By Cristina Schreil
Ron Carter is telling me to put on slippers. I’ve stepped into the legendary bassist’s home on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
“No, put your boots there,” he instructs. “No, there.” I’m suddenly frozen onstage, overwhelmed by Carter’s whip-fast changes. Then he says, “Now, put those brown fuzzy things on.”
We move to his living room, a chic sanctuary adorned with large, vibrant artwork. As we chat, he offers incisive observations about his craft. It quickly begins to feel like a master class.
“Master” is the operative word. Carter turns 80 in May. He’s the most-recorded jazz bassist of all time with no signs of slowing. He’s no longer at the City College of New York, his post for 18 years, but teaches privately. In March, he toured Europe with accordionist Richard Galliano. He’s just restrung a cello with plans to revisit his first instrument. He’s exploring Bach’s cantatas, eyeing the tenor parts for bass. Even in his leisure time he investigates. His current listen: pianist Glenn Gould’s performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. “I’m amazed at how he articulates all the different voices that Bach has going,” Carter says.
When I ask about important moments, I expect an old anecdote—working with Miles Davis or on one of his Grammy Award–winning projects, for instance. He instead recalls something from mere months ago. He played with a quartet at the Blue Note in Greenwich Village. It’s something he does often, yet at that performance, he found himself afraid to exhale. Afterward, he told the crowd that they’d witnessed something great. “We all heard the changes coming, the time was perfect, the band wasn’t too loud, it wasn’t too soft,” he says. “Just perfect.”
Carter took some time from his busy schedule to reflect on his life and career.
“My job is to make the bass make the music do something that maybe nobody else thought of before.”
Let’s go back in time. When you were 11, why did you choose the cello?
[My teacher] just set them on the table. It just seemed to me that the cello was the nearest thing that I thought I would like to play. I said, “Well, let me try that one.” And that’s what I stuck with.
Do you come from a musical family?
My sisters all have great voices and one of my younger sisters has played piano, flute, and a little bass, and she has perfect pitch. One of my sisters played the viola, one played the violin, so we had our own little string quartet at the house . . . . My dad at the time liked Broadway show kind of tunes. Somehow they found the music for these tunes that were arranged for string orchestra. It was a real potpourri of options in the house.
Were your cello studies classically grounded?
Yes. My thought was to be an orchestral cello player.
You’ve spoken before about why you had to switch from cello to bass, and that it
had to do with being an African American player at that time. Can you speak about that?
The schools had PTA meetings, small conferences, and they wanted some background noise. It was great and I thought, “I want to know how that stuff works, too.” I thought that there were jobs that I should’ve been invited to play, and I didn’t get those options. I couldn’t understand why I didn’t, because I thought that I played as well as those two guys that were in front of me.
So, the bass player in the orchestra was graduating the spring of 1955 and he was the only bass player in the orchestra. My logic tells me that if I am the only bass player, as long as there are these small chamber groups they must call me to play. So, I sold my cello, got a bass, took lessons, and here I am.
Was it a happy transition?
It was a means to an end. It was to make them hire me. And for me that was fun. [Laughs.]
It’s one thing to see a practical strategy in switching. When did you start loving the bass?
I think given the competitive spirit at the schools where I attended as a bass player, it wasn’t a matter of necessarily loving the instrument. It was of a need to get better than everybody else so you can get the job, whatever the job happens to be. Competitiveness doesn’t replace the love of music; it just makes the importance of playing well critical.
Every day it’s an awakening to certain things that the bass can do that I haven’t quite figured out how to do yet. I go to work every night looking for this new way to rearrange the notes I heard last night—maybe a better order that I can find that makes me finally able to let you hear what I hear. That’s a challenge every night for me. Can I find these notes in a new order that makes that guy say, “Wow”? Can I find something so I can say, “How about that? I’ve finally got that right”?
When did you transition to jazz?
Before I went away to Eastman, my friend who lived down the street put together a little quartet for the summer, playing for fraternity and sorority parties at the University of Detroit or Wayne State University. He said, do I want to play with him? I said yeah, but I don’t know any of the songs. He said, “We’ll sit down with some tunes. I’ll show you basic, real general harmony and theory lessons.” I always had a pretty good ear. I could hear what was going on; I just had to understand how it got there.
I probably didn’t understand the power of the bass until I got to New York. In Rochester, I was playing with a house band. I got a chance to listen to bass players who came in this club and see how they manipulated the information . . . . The more I began to understand how important the role of the bass was—and, if you could make it affect the music to a great extent, how necessary it was—I said, “Wow, how about that ladies and gentlemen? I can make the bass do all these things. My job is to make the bass make the music do something that maybe nobody else thought of before.”
You’re taking all of this in like a fly on the wall?
Yeah. And I’m trying to be careful of the flyswatter.
You don’t seem like someone who suffers from stage fright.
No. I trust me to come up with something that’s going to work. [Laughs.] Actually, I trust that I belong there. And that makes me not nervous about being there.
When did that confidence that you belonged take root?
When my first stranger called me, [in New York]. He said, “I heard your name in town and heard you were a good player, I got this gig . . .” That meant I was supposed to be there.
When you perform overseas, you’re using others’ basses.
We call it the “Bass du Jour.”
How do you prepare for a concert?
On the road, I try to get the bass in my hand at least a half hour before the sound check, so I can see what it is. See if it’s big enough for me, see how it’s set up. If you’re a sports fan, there’s an expression: “This team takes what the defense gives them.” Well, I have to find out, what does this bass give me? How does this sound in the higher register? Is the curvature of the bridge too flat or too curved for me? Are the strings too close together for me, based on my instrument? Are they too high based on my instrument? What brand are these strings? Are they flat wound, are they round wound? Are they gut? What kind of harmonics do they have? If I hit a G harmonic, can I hear it? But one of the fun things is, when it’s all right: Perfect. Let’s go to work.
Technology like amps, pickups, and strings are better today. Has that changed how new students approach bass?
[New bass players today] are walking into a house that’s pretty much already built. All they’ve got to do is put the furniture in. That means find the right notes, be able to swing, be able to contribute a voice to the music you play at that time.
It takes a long time to get that kind of furniture.
Well, yeah! You’ve got to get the right wood, the right fabric, the right design. That’s your personality, you know? And I think that it’s easier for them, as difficult as it is, because these physical tools are much more bass friendly. Having said that, this is [also] a more difficult time for the bassist. [The bass is], I hate to say more loud, but it’s more present . . . . It’s a little more difficult now because they’re really able to be heard and you can’t shuck and jive anymore.
Students must note your career as a bandleader. Do they aspire to that?
I think every musician, whether you play bass or drums or guitar, wants to lead the band. Because they see what it looks like: the biggest name in the letters, theoretically the biggest check. Theoretically, the best rooms available. Stuff. I encourage them to think that’s possible, because it is possible. But with this possibility, there are a lot more things that you’re responsible for. First of all, you have to hire musicians who you think will help your music. You want to hire musicians who are respectful to what the bass can do in that performance.
How do you tell a story in a performance?
Depending on how the day goes, I plan a program the night before we go to work. That’s our weekly set. This is the story that I’m trying to get you to see—the story that happens to be what happened to me over the course of the day as I make this program. So what I’ve done for the side people is to not worry about the order of the tunes, not worry about the speed of the tunes, not worry about the tunes being in the same key back to back.
For as much as a democracy bands are supposed to be, someone in the band has to say no. And that’s the bandleader . . . . You have to be kind of assertive enough but not so dictatorial that they will be afraid to comment on the tempo or rearrange the order of the solos or be concerned about the volume of the band.
You’re featured in more than 2,200 recordings, around 40 with you as bandleader. Is it safe to say you’re at home in a recording studio?
Absolutely. Unfortunately, most of the studios in New York are gone because of higher rent. I miss these guys that I would only see then, that kind of camaraderie, exchange of ideas, and the warmth that people bring to that kind of group setting.
I thought at this stage of my career that I’d be doing more “studio work” but that’s not happening anymore. We’re working more gigs, we’re doing more traveling to Europe and Japan than we thought we would be doing at our age group.
You’re also a composer. How do you gauge the success of a composition?
The song that’s successful is a song of mine that someone can play without me being there to direct. If it’s a good song, man, everybody should be able to play it. They should want to play it.
[Saxophonist] Benny Golson is my friend, and we talked about this recently. He tells me, “I found out there are about 300 versions of ‘I Remember Clifford.’ That just amazes me. Not because of the number, but because so many different people recorded it and they’re not all jazz players [on the] saxophone. Someone thought that this song had enough melody, enough great changes that they wanted to record it.” I’d like to think that a good song has those qualities that makes them accessible to anybody.
What inspires you to compose?
What I try to do is if I hear a set of changes in my head, I’ll write down these changes and during the course of the next days, depending on what my schedule is and how my hands feel, [ask], “Can I find the melody that makes these changes reasonable?”
When you get a chance to attend a show, do you get new ideas as an audience member?
It’s different. I try to see how the bass player solves his problems: an amp, the microphone being too far from the bass, are the drums too loud? I want to see if these bass players have the same kinds of problems that I contend with. I’m an observer, like a scientist. A good scientist, I think, always picks up something from one experience to use in another, so he works better at what he does.
Do you ever wonder what would have happened if you’d hadn’t had to switch to the bass, or if your friend hadn’t introduced you to jazz?
I don’t think about that at all. I’ve been playing since 1955, you know? I don’t look back that far on that. I like where I am right now. I like that I’m trying to play well every night.
I like that I’m responsible for these five things for every note [intonation, quality, placement, timing, swing]. I’m looking forward to the excitement, going to work every night and discovering a different arrangement of these notes. And one of these nights, that moment is going to show up. I’m looking for it.