A Conversation with Jazz Legend Ron Carter

Listen to legendary jazz bass player Ron Carter, his words or his music, and you get a sense of humanity and fairness, of an individual who has defined his craft through decency, an incredible work ethic, and a quest for excellence, a quest for the right notes.

At 82, he continues to record, earning his way into the Guinness Book of World Records as the most recorded jazz bassist in history, with more than 2,200 individual recording credits. He’s busy touring, spanning the globe, playing with his trio, quartet, and 16-piece big-band that he refers to as a “16 piece quartet.” 

This is a remarkable musician, and he’ll be on the venue with his trio at the Newport Jazz Festival on Saturday, August 3.

Carter, perhaps the most influential bassists in jazz history, was a member of the Miles Davis Quintet for five years. He was named Outstanding Bassist of the Decade by the Detroit News, Jazz Bassist of the Year by Downbeat magazine, has earned two Grammy awards, and received five honorary doctorates. Winner of numerous other awards, he’s composed music for the classic films A Gathering of Old Men, The Passion of Beatrice and Blind Faith, and is a best-selling author. His books include Building Jazz Bass Lines and his autobiography, Finding The Right Notes.

We recently had an opportunity to talk with Ron. Here’s what he had to say:

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Question:  You’re in the Guinness Book of World Records for recording more than 2,200 albums (over 2,500 now), 18 as a leader. How does that happen?

Carter: “I was available man.”

Question: When did you first get interested in music?

Carter: “My first musical experience was playing cello at 11-years-old at the junior high school until my senior year at Cass Tech (Cass Technical High School) in Detroit and then I switched to bass in January of 1955.”

Question: When did you start playing jazz?

Carter: “I went away to Eastland for my first year of school, so probably 1956. I came back and needed money to go back to school. My friend, my neighbor, a real fan of Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond, was putting together a band to do the summer park festivals in Detroit at the time, and he said do I know any of the tunes. I said no but give me some records and I’ll learn them between now and the gig time, and that’s how I got started.”

Question: You played with Miles Davis from 1963 to 1968. Tell us about that experience.

Carter: “Loving. There was a period of necessary growth. He put together a band of guys who were interested in how things could work and how they could not work — four fellow experimenters in the  laboratory – me (bass), Wayne (Shorter – saxophone), Herbie (Hancock – piano), Tony (Williams – drums), and he (Miles) was the head chemist and we had some fantastic moments.”

Question: What’s your current group?

Carter: “I’m still running around with three different groups … a big band, 16 pieces, I call it our 16-piece quartet, a trio with Russell Malone and Donald Vega, guitar and piano respectively” …and a quartet.

Question: You’ll be playing Newport with Russell and Donald. What do they bring to the group?

Carter: “They bring ideas. They’re interested in my leadership, they trust my judgement, they’re mature, they’re lovely guys, and they trust my sense of order. That’s why they’re playing in my band.”

Question: Since you began playing jazz, have things changed?

Carter: “Absolutely.” He talked about fewer jazz radio stations, “maybe four or five in the country.” He said there’s no jazz on television, few jazz videos. “The whole thing has changed since I came up in 1956 through 1970. It’s a whole new platform out there. A couple of things have happened in the positive. There are schools that are teaching this as part of the curriculum. It has allowed jazz players to not need to travel to work A lot of my friends are part of jazz faculties. They’re doing a great way to spread the word and stay in shape.”

Question: Where are you teaching? And what do you hope your students take from your teaching?

Carter: “Manhattan School of Music. One of the things I hope the students get from me as a person – I’m concerned with humanity; I’m concerned with the next guy getting a fair shot at whatever the apple is; I’m concerned about the status of our country today and I hope that they pick that up in our lessons that I do not just cover bass, but our living in general. I hope they pick up my dedication through all this time and my continued search for a set of better notes.

I hope they pick up from my lessons how I’m prepared for the gigs I do nightly and I hope I pick up from them how sympathetic I am to their causes and I’ll help them however possible to make their career and this life a little less fraught with events that maybe shouldn’t be there.” 

Question: What do you hope audiences take from your performances?

Carter: “They’ll see the results of a program that has been well planned, they’ll see the results of a group that’s really a group performance, they’ll see some spectacular playing and individual players, in this case Russell, and Donald, and I’m not too far behind.”

And what they’ll hear are musicians who blend together at the direction of a legendary jazz musician, whose influence continues to be felt throughout the music and by those who encounter him. They’ll hear from a musician who has his “own personal love for honesty and morality.” 

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