As a Michigan teenager studying classical music, Ron Carter abandoned cello training and switched to double bass. Following a mere half year of intensive work, he managed to win a scholarship to the prestigious Eastman School of Music in New York. Carter had planned on a classical music career, only vaguely aware of jazz, but in 1958 a conductor visiting the school, Leopold Stokowski of the Houston Symphony, admired his work. However, Stokowski readily admitted that the South, at least, wasn’t ready for black musicians in their orchestras. Hearing this, Carter abruptly realized that racism had permeated the entire U.S. orchestral world—a state of affairs that, he would note in the late 1980s, really hadn’t changed much.
Carter finished his Eastman studies in 1959 and took off for the New York jazz scene. He immediately secured a gig with the well-known Chico Hamilton Quintet, featuring saxophonist Eric Dolphy. The group cut a record for Warner Bros, that was deemed too experimental and never released. After several months of touring, Carter settled down in New York for further training at the Manhattan School of Music.
For the next few years Carter did session work with a great number of musicians, including Cannonball Adder-ley, Randy Weston, and Jaki Byard. He also earned a master’s degree in music. But it was not until 1963 that Carter garnered national—and even international—attention, when he began his five-year stint with the now-legendary Miles Davis Quintet. With Carter on bass, a 17-year-old Tony Williams drumming, and Herbie Hancock playing piano, the quintet possessed “what has been called perhaps the greatest jazz-time-playing rhythm section ever,” according to Jazz —The Essential Companion.
If not for his commitment to acoustic bass, Carter might have remained with this extraordinary group for several more years. In 1968 the Davis quintet completed an important album, Filles de Kilimanjaro, which hinted at an abandonment of past practice: Davis required Carter to play an electric bass in the performance. This electrification was a step toward Davis’s famous 1969 jazz-rock fusion release Bitches Brew. Carter apparently wanted no part of the fusion trend and in 1968 departed the group.
Not long after this, in a 1972 Down Beat interview with bass master Richard Davis, Carter explained his attachment to the acoustic bass: he said he feels it has a unique sound, one that the electric bass could never
For the Record…
Born May 4, 1937, in Ferndale, MI. Education: Received bachelor’s degree from the Eastman School of Music, 1959; further study at the Manhattan School of Music.
Bass player, music teacher, recording artist. Trained from youth as a classical musician but pursued career in jazz. Moved to New York City, early 1960s, and began playing with Chico Hamilton, Eric Dolphy, and others; joined the Miles Davis Quintet, 1963; played with Herbie Hancock, Sonny Rollins, and others, beginning in the 1970s; signed with Milestone Records, late 1970s; began teaching music at the City College of the City University of New York, 1980s.
Awards: Grammy Award for best individual or group jazz instrumental performance, 1995, for A Tribute to Miles.
Addresses: Record company —Blue Note, 810 Seventh Ave., New York, NY 10019.
replace. Even hard-boiled session men prone to seeing the giant instrument as an antique enjoyed it when Carter showed up with his 70-year-old instrument. (He once boasted that his favorite bass had a sound that rivaled an antique one he owned made in 1734.) Nonetheless, Carter admitted that he always allocated the electric bass an hour or so of practice time a week in order to remain versatile.
Record-industry racism and a lack of commercial interest in jazz have concerned Ron Carter his whole career. In the Down Beat interview with Davis, Carter railed against suggestions that jazz help sell itself by going pop. “Why should jazz groups play the Beatles’ music?” he demanded. “Why not propagate … Herbie Hancock’s music … or Thad Jones’ music. Why propagate music that was stolen from us anyway?” Carter also decried the music business claim that jazz doesn’t sell; record company executives, he argued, make no effort to sell it. “They spent $80,000 or so for a sign on Broadway for a rock group that can’t play, so why can’t they spend a third of that for a group that can play—and make some money while they’re at it. Things are all backwards.”
In the early 1970s Carter worked with various artists, including immortal songstress Lena Home during her New York appearances, flutist Hubert Laws, and jazz guitarist George Benson. He also recorded with Art Farmer, saxophonist Joe Henderson, Horace Silver, and others. Later in the 1970s Carter was signed by the Milestone label, which issued many of his records, including 1977’s Piccolo, featuring the bassist’s early efforts at piccolo playing;1+3, a live Tokyo album from 1978—essentially a Miles Davis Quintet rhythm section reunion with Tony Williams and Herbie Hancock; and Patrao, recorded two years later with Chet Baker.
The Davis rhythm section reunion played for some time under the name VSOP and, along with Hancock and Williams, included saxophonist Wayne Shorter and trumpeter Freddie Hubbard. Two albums and a worldwide tour later, Carter was with another outfit, this one led by tenor sax player Sonny Rollins. He further built his list of all-star associations with the Rollins group, since it afforded him the opportunity to play with pianist McCoy Tyner. In 1981 some VSOP members regrouped as the Hancock Quartet, featuring the addition of trumpeter Wynton Marsalis; this new quartet embarked on an international tour and released a double album. Later in the 1980s, jazz saxophonist Branford Marsalis, future bandleader for The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, appeared for a time in the Hancock Quartet.
Around the same time, Carter began a serious teaching career at City College of the City University of New York, handling practical courses as well as an authoritative examination of post-World War II jazz history. Carter’s music also appeared on film soundtracks, one ambitious project being Bertrand Tavernier’e 1988 motion picture Beatrice. The music for this film was made using only medieval instruments, including the vielle, sack-butt, hurdy gurdy, and string bass. The project required intense research and challenged Carter’s limits.
The Beatrice film score project resurrected Carter’s lifelong interest in classical music, an echo of boyhood training. In the late 1980s he voiced a desire to compose for string orchestras and quartets. Having already successfully recorded Bach cello music on Nippon/Poly-dor, Carter worked through the early 1990s on an album eventually released as Ron Carter Meets Bach. The classical music world resisted the project, however; after major classical labels rejected Bach, it wound up on the jazz label Blue Note. Hearing the finished album, a Musician magazine contributor hailed “the autumnal richness of the low-end colors [and] the surprising malleability of [Carter’s] dancing, singing bass parts.”
Not all listeners shared the Musician reviewer’s enthusiasm. Kevin Whitehead, a National Public Radio (NPR) jazz critic, wrote in the pages of Pulse! that the album might be classified as comedy; he further lamented an inappropriate jazz trill, out-of-tune playing, and multi-tracking that seemed to emphasize a lack of time sense. Still, the album was generally well reviewed, at least in jazz publications. The Bach album reflects Carter’s willingness to venture beyond safe country—that country being jazz of the last several decades. After appearing on over 1,000 albums and authoring multiple volumes on jazz-craft, teaching, and playing around the world, Ron Carter has built his own kingdom in the music world.
My Funny Valentine, CBS, 1964.
Miles Smiles, CBS, 1966.
Filles de Kilimanjaro, Columbia, 1968.
VSOP Live under the Sky, CBS, 1977.
Piccolo, Milestone, 1977.
1+3, Milestone, 1978.
Patrao, Milestone, 1980.
Herbie Hancock Quartet, CBS, 1981.
Etudes, Elektra Musician, 1983.
Ron Carter Meets Bach, Blue Note, 1993.
Jazz—The Essential Companion, edited by Ian Carr, Prentice Hall, 1988.
Down Beat, May 11, 1972.
Musician, February 1988; February 1993.
Pulse!, June 1993.
—Joseph M. Reiner