Archive for March, 2010

Cindy Scott Interviews Ron Carter

Wednesday, March 17th, 2010

Interview with NEA Jazz Master Ron Carter
January 20, 2010
by Cindy Scott

Ron Carter is among the most original, prolific, and¬†influential bassists in jazz. With more than 2,000 albums to his credit, he has recorded with many of music’s greats: Tommy Flanagan, Gil Evans, Lena Horne, Bill Evans, B.B. King, the Kronos Quartet, Dexter Gordon, Wes Montgomery, and Bobby Timmons. In the early 1960s he performed throughout the United States in concert halls and nightclubs with Jaki Byard and Eric Dolphy. He later toured Europe with Cannonball Adderley. From 1963 to 1968, he was a member of the classic and acclaimed Miles Davis Quintet. He was 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 (from

I had the privilege of interviewing Mr. Carter in anticipation of a workshop he did at the University of New Orleans on Friday, January 22, 2010.  Following is a transcription of our talk. My questions are in boldface, and his answers are in italics.

When you think about the future of jazz, do you go dark, or do you get excited? Where is this music going to end up, do you think?

Every bandleader hopes that they know where jazz is headed, and they hope that their band is leading in that direction. Jazz will always be around. It doesn’t have the level of encouragement that other genres have, for whatever reason.

I’m never discouraged when I hear young people [play jazz]. I just did a master class at the Berklee School of Music in Boston for a bunch of 10 to 14-year-old kids. They were enthusiastic about the music and knew the names of some important jazz musicians. They were really involved in trying to learn how this music works for them. If we can keep this kind of youthful activity and interest in this music, it’s going be around forever.

You’ve played a fair amount of “free” jazz. Do you recommend
exploring that style of playing to your students? Why or why not?

You mean not getting paid, or “free jazz”?

Oh, no, I mean “free” jazz. It’s often the same thing, though, isn’t it?

(Laughs) It seems to be the same. I encourage students that any job is a free lesson for them. I’ve heard them say that the music isn’t hip enough for them or it didn’t maintain their focus. I tell them this is a chance to work on other avenues of playing their instruments. If you want to find a better half note, or a better sound for the notes, better intonation, or maybe you want to find a better way to play the parts every night, use that gig to work on those things. So, every instrument, every [type of] music, every musician who plays a job that’s not his favorite kind of job can find musical value in these situations. I’ve encouraged my students to look at that as free school.

What are the most important tools for young bassists to have
together on the bandstand?

Actually, the getting it together part starts way before the bandstand. They have to have a teacher. Music’s going too fast and it’s too complicated to continue to play it by ear and rely on pure instinct and talent. Musicians write parts for bass players, now, and they want to have the parts played. Well, if you can’t read it, you’re going to have a tough time. So my first recommendation to any bass player is to get a teacher. They’ll help you learn the instrument, help you find out how to get a better instrument, show you how to read music, show you how to practice. Show you how to develop a discipline on the instrument, and those are all things that are very critical — before you get to the bandstand.

Many of us who study jazz end up teaching jazz. What do you think makes a great jazz educator?

That’s a pretty easy question. Those educators whose classes I’ve enjoyed the most have been those who have actually been in the field, and who’ve played lots of gigs, and have sometimes NOT found the best bands to play in. They’ve traveled and gone through the hardships of transportation difficulties. They’ve also played in GREAT bands, and have enjoyed their success and have enjoyed the camaraderie.

How does a drummer’s playing style affect your own playing? How do you reach rhythmic agreement, when you work with so many different kinds of drummers?

Well, I’m taller than most drummers, so I kind of have a head start. (Laughs) Secondly, if a bass player brings a point of view to the bandstand of where he thinks the time is and is verbal enough to explain to the drummer where he thinks the time is, should they not be in the same place, they can work it out. One of the problems is that this music has no specific language. A word that means something to Person A means something completely different to Person B. So you have to find a kind of common verbal language with this drummer to try to help them find the right musical time path, as it were.

A good bass player should know how the drums operate. If he knows that the drums are pitched a certain way that is blocking out certain notes on the bass, he should be comfortable enough to tell the drummer, ask him, if he would change the pitch of this drum or change the tone of that drum. That’s something that’s really not that complicated for drummers to do. And I’ve found drummers look for advice, they look for recommendations, because they want to have a good time playing. They want to have a good sound. They want to have a good time feeling with the bass player, and they’re open to most suggestions. The bass player must, however, know to make the suggestions.

You have spoken in other interviews about New Orleans-style
drumming. Have you played with many drummers from here? In your opinion, what makes New Orleans drummers unique?

As far as the New Orleans drum style is concerned, my first exposure to the New Orleans drum sounds were with Billy Higgins and Ed Blackwell. It took me a while to feel where they were playing the beat. They played, if this makes sense, more straight up and down rather than slanted like Tony Williams or Billy Cobham. One thing that caught my attention was the beautiful sound they got on the snare. New Orleans drummers get a great, great snare drum sound. And anytime I find a drummer with that kind of snare drum sound, we can find something to do together. I heard Herlin the other day on a recording, and boy, what a great sound on the snare!

You work with many great jazz musicians all over the world. How is it different working with, say, Milton Nascimento, i.e., playing Brazilian music with Brazilians, versus playing Brazilian music with Americans?

Well, the natives always do what the natives do best. The Brazilian musicians have a different sound on the guitar. The drum rhythms are a little more complicated than the way Americans typically play Brazilian styles. I have had the pleasure of playing with some fabulous Brazilian drummers. And I enjoy playing Brazilian music with American drummers. The feel is not quite the same, but equally enjoyable with an American drummer playing Brazilian music.

If you find the rhythms more complicated, do you find it challenging to rhythmically agree with Brazilian musicians?

The sound is an important factor, because the Brazilian drums are pitched differently. And certainly, their rhythms are a little more complicated. They’ve kind of gotten a little “freer” than the records we heard with Stan Getz when he first brought Brazilian music to the States in the 60s. The drummers down there are much more aggressive than the kind of conservative Brazilian approach by most American drummers.

I see. And you just figure out how to make that work and have a great time because you’re such a fantastic musician with so much experience in doing that?

You can say all that again, I don’t care. (Laughs)

Well you know it’s true.

Ok. (Laughs)

Thank you so much for spending time with me today. I’m really looking forward to the workshop at UNO.

Me, too. See you Friday at 1:00!


The workshop was presented Friday, January 22, 2010 at the University of New Orleans courtesy of the National Endowment of the Arts, the Theloneious Monk Institute of Jazz, and the University of New Orleans Jazz Studies Program.

Carter also has a new authorized (and collaborative) biography written by Dan Ouellette called Finding the Right Notes. The 435-page book chronicles the artist’s colorful life from his first days as a musician until early 2007. It is only available online through