Skip to main content

Carter, James

James Carter


Childhood Beginnings

A Virtuoso with Spirit

Appeared in Kansas City

Selected discography


Many up-and-coming jazz players in the nineties fall into one of two major movements: the conservative neo-traditionalists or the innovative avant-gardists. Saxophone player James Carter has been claimed by spokesmen from both camps. Art Ensemble of Chicago member Lester Bowie, speaking for the avantgarde, told Down Beat, Hes the tenor player of the future. I havent heard anyone who can touch him. He can do just about anything he wants to do. He goes all the way back to the old swing, so hes very well versed. In the same Down Beat article, neo-traditionalist Wynton Marsalis enthused, I think that James is a tremendous musician. Id have to say that in terms of talent, hes one of the top three or four kids that Ive run across.

James Carter was born on January 3, 1969, in Detroit, Michigan. Music surrounded the Carter household; his mother played piano and violin, his brother Kevin was a guitarist with Parliament-Funkadelic, his oldest brother Robert was the lead vocalist for the soul band Natures Divine, and his father listened to a wide variety of music. Carter told Option, My father was a very stern critic on what was being played in the house radio-wise. B. B. King was his main cat, but I could wake up on any given day and hear all facets of musicBarry Manilow, Sly Stone, or Parliament-Funkadelic.

Childhood Beginnings

The first saxophone young Carter played was one owned by a boarder his family took in, Charles Green, who played with the group War. Jamess mother bought him an antique model, and his brother introduced him to Donald Washington, a private tutor whom Carter refers to as his musical father. In addition to teaching James to play the saxophone, Washington exposed him to artists spanning the history of jazz, as well as other genres of music.

As a teenager, Carter honed his craft at the Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp and the Interlachen classical music camp. He toured Scandinavia in 1985 as a member of the Blue Lake Jazz Ensemble student band, then returned to Europe with the faculty band the Blue Lake Monster. That year, he met Wynton Marsalis and impressed him with the ability to recognize complex chords by ear with his back turned.

Carter met Lester Bowie in 1988 at a Detroit Institute of Arts event. A lack of musical opportunity in Detroit prompted Carter to move to New York, where Bowie was his first employer. In New York, James was noticed by bandleader Julius Hemphill, who was organizing a sextet of saxophonists. In addition to playing on Hemphills

For the Record

Born James Carter, January 3, 1969, in Detroit, MI; married Tevis Williams, August 31, 1996.

Began playing saxophone c. 1980; recorded and toured with Lester Bowie Organ Ensemble, Julius Hemphill Sextet, and Mingus Big Band, c. 1990-1992; toured and recorded with his quartet, c. 1993-1996; appeared in film Kansas City with other jazz musicians, c. 1996.

Addresses: Record company Atlantic Records, 75 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY 10019.

1990 work Long Tongues: A Saxophone Opera, Carter played on two sextet albums, Fat Man and the Hard Blues and Five Chord Stud. Reviewing the former, Down Beat commented: The group plays the tar out of Hemphills thick compositions, uniquely arranged with middle-rich (but never muddy) songs.

In 1993, following a year with Lester Bowies Organ Ensemble, James Carter recorded his debut as a leader J.C. On the Set. This album featured bassist Jaribu Shahid and drummer Tani Tabbal, with whom Carter had played in high school. On the basis of that disc, The Penguin Guide To Jazz characterized Carter as an accomplished multi-instrumentalist. Whats striking, on the strength of the three deployed here, is how much he sounds like himself on all of them, even when hes explicitly paying homage to saxophonists of the past.

A Virtuoso with Spirit

Carters mastery of several reed instruments, as well as his ability to filter numerous influences through an individual voice, earned him a comparison to multi-reed player Roland Kirk. Columnist Gary Giddins wrote in the Village Voice: In James Carter, we have at long last something of an heir to Kirks scholastic understanding of the instruments history, as well as virtuoso exuberance and capricious spirit. Carter is neither afraid to play to the gallery nor confound its assumptions. He can apparently play anything, projecting himself in timbres that range from plummy to guttural, from arch ripeness to unholy shrieking.

The 1995 ballad album The Real Quietstorm was followed by Conversin With the Elders, on which Carters quartet is joined by diverse guests. Among the contributors were traditionalist Count Basie Orchestra veterans Harry Sweets Edison and Buddy Tate, as well as avant-gardists Lester Bowie, Hamiet Bluiett, and Detroit-based Larry Smith. The musicians reinterpret standards from the history of jazz, from big band classics Moten Swing and Lester Leaps In to Charlie Parker and John Coltrane standards, as well as a piece by composer Anthony Braxton. Buddy Tate commented about the recording sessions in The Washington Post: Years ago, everybody wanted to be identified as himself. [Thats] what James has gothis own style, his own thing. He doesnt copy off anybody. Hes going to go a long, long way.

Appeared in Kansas City

Carters latest projects include his screen debut in Robert Altmans film Kansas City alongside many leading jazz players of the nineties. The film is set in 1934 during the swing era in Kansas Citys jazz clubs, and the characters are modeled after musicians of that era. Carters was inspired by Duke Ellingtons tenor player Ben Webster. He commented on the sense of history in the film in The Washington Post: The whole vibe was still there. Its like everything came full circle, being involved with a project thats about Kansas City at a particular time that fostered the music that I have grown up listening tofrom Jay McShann and Count Basie to Bird ad infinitumand being part of something that will basically last foreverthis gathering of musicians.

Carter is living up to the mountain of hype associated with his work. He summed up his philosophy to Option: You can play all the right notes but you have to cultivate the spirit so the music grooves with some kind of nobility. If youre not going to take the music anywhere new you might as well stay home and listen to old records.

Selected discography

(With others), Tough Young Tenors, Antilles, 1991.

(With Julius Hemphill Sextet), Fat Man and the Hard Blues, Black Saint, 1991.

(With Lester Bowie), The Organizer, DIW, 1991.

(With Lester Bowie), Funky T, Cool T, DIW, 1992.

(With Julius Hemphill Sextet), Five Chord Stud, Black Saint, 1994.

J.C. On the Set, DIW, 1994.

Jurassic Classics, DIW, 1995.

The Real Quietstorm, Atlantic, 1995.

Conversin With The Elders, Atlantic, 1996.

(With others), Kansas City Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, Verve, 1996.

(With Saxemble), Saxemble, Qwest, 1996.



The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, LP, and Cassette, edited by Richard Cook and Brian Morton, Penguin, 1994.


Billboard, June 1, 1996.

Buffalo News, June 28, 1996.

Chicago Sun-Times, April 7, 1996; April 15, 1996.

Down Beat, December, 1992; November, 1994; April, 1995; September, 1995.

Entertainment, June 14, 1996.

Jazz Notes, Summer, 1996.

Minneapolis Star Tribune, April 11, 1996.

Option, May/June, 1996.

Rolling Stone, December 1, 1994; August 24, 1995.

St. Paul Pioneer Press, April 10, 1996.

Spin, April, 1996.

Village Voice, January 25, 1994; May 16, 1995; July 18, 1995.

Washington Post, June 30, 1996; July 3, 1996.

James Powers

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Carter, James." Contemporary Musicians. . 15 Feb. 2019 <>.

"Carter, James." Contemporary Musicians. . (February 15, 2019).

"Carter, James." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved February 15, 2019 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.