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ron carter

Ron Carter: Jazz’s Elder Statesman

ron carter

Ron Carter

“I’m a reluctant star,” says Ron Carter, humbly. “I’m always surprised when projects are offered to me by strangers, even pop singers, whom I don’t know. I’m taken aback that they’ve heard of me and know enough about my integrity and professionalism to approach me.”

Then, somewhat surprisingly for a musician of Carter’s stature, he adds, “I always blush a little when I get those phone calls.”

One reason that so many young musicians, in and out of the jazz world, know Carter, a member of Local 802 (New York City), is that he is incredibly prolific. To date, he has recorded on more than 2,500 albums.

The Sideman

Another reason is that the roll call of front men and women Carter has played for includes some of jazz’s greatest legends: Miles Davis, Lena Horne, Wes Montgomery, McCoy Tyner, Stanley Turrentine, Stan Getz, and Milt Jackson, to name a few. A good website helps, too: at www.roncarter.net, fans young and old can listen to his work directly.

Then there is the fact that over the years Carter has built a reputation for lending his wisdom to projects outside of the jazz genre. He has played blues with BB King of Local 71 (Memphis, TN), funk with James Brown, soul with Aretha Franklin and Roberta Flack of Local 161-710 (Washington, DC), and even modern classical with the Kronos Quartet. “I’m always happy to broaden my horizons,” he says, “and people call me because they seem to trust my judgment.”

“I’ve played as a sideman all the way,” explains Carter, looking back on his 50-year career. “My job has always been to make the musicians around me sound much better. I have not minded subjugating my ego eight bars back if I know that I can contribute to a successful project.”

As an example of how he fulfills the role of sideman, Carter recalls one project with Stanley Turrentine when the group was searching for numbers to fill out an album. “At that point, someone had to step forward and make suggestions about tunes and arrangements, and I’ve been known to do that.” Carter then puts his role in military terms: “The frontman is like a general sitting at the desk, while I’m an officer in the field.”

Stepping Out

But everyone at some point wants to be a band leader, admits Carter, and in this latest stage of his storied career, he has decided to see if some of his own ideas about how to lead a band, learned by watching jazz’s greatest leaders at work, can come to fruition. Carter has recorded several albums recently as a bandleader, including The Golden Striker for Blue Note Records.

“I’m absolutely pleased with what I’ve done as a leader,” he says, adding that it’s still frustrating when club managers want to book bands that have a trumpet player or singer out front. “But I’m comfortable that my approach is the correct one,” Carter asserts.

In a way, fronting his own jazz combos–either a trio, quartet, or nonet–is a return to Carter’s earliest days as a jazz bassist, when he started up a quartet with like-minded musicians in his neighborhood, having left behind the cello as an 18-year-old in Ferndale, Michigan.

New Skills

After high school Carter attended Wayne State University, near Detroit, and soon heard about an audition for the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. “I auditioned in 1955 while the recruiters were in my area,” recalls Carter.

Carter remembers his time at Eastman as a fabulous experience that gave him many chances to perform and gain valuable experience as a sideman. Eastman also gave the jazz player a classical music education (he played in the Eastman Philharmonic Orchestra), which extended his range. “Eastman’s classical music education gave me new skills and helped me become a more diverse musician,” Carter explains.

After earning his bachelor’s degree in music at Eastman, Carter went on to earn a masters degree in double bass at the Manhattan School of Music. Today, those two diplomas are joined by honorary doctorates from the New England Conservatory and the Manhattan School of Music, and in 2002 his alma mater recognized him with its prestigious Hutchinson Award.

Miles of Smiles

In 1960 Carter joined the all-union Randy Weston Quartet and began his professional career. After leaving Weston, he freelanced in New York City, where his reputation grew enough for Miles Davis to take notice. “In those day, Miles’ concerts were one night gigs for me,” Carter remembers. “Whenever Miles had gigs though, I’d be performing.”

The call from Davis proved fortuitous when Carter’s became one element of the latest sound the great trumpet player was experimenting with. “When I played with Miles, it was like having five men in a laboratory with the same goal,” he explains. Those five men came to be known as one of most legendary groups in jazz history: along with Davis and Carter, it featured George Coleman on tenor sax and Herbie Hancock on piano, both of Local 802, and Tony Williams on drums.

When asked what it was like when these musicians got together to rehearse, Carter replies, remarkably, that “we only had two rehearsals during my five years with the group.” What made it work, he says, is that there was absolute trust between the musicians. “It was a collective,” Carter continues. “The sidemen were all equal and Miles allowed us to be equal with him.”

While Carter was working at the Half Note in March 1963, Davis was reorganizing his road band and asked Carter if he’d like to join full-time. He agreed and began a new chapter of his life as a traveling musician, playing with Davis all over the country, as well as on the classic albums Four & More, Miles Smiles, Sorcerer, and others.

Life on the road proved challenging, though, especially when Carter became a father. “I truly enjoyed working with Miles, but I had two sons born in 1962 and 1965, and playing in the band made me feel as if they were growing up without me,” he admits, “so I left the band.”

Sonic Presence

Today, Carter is recognized as a legend in his own right, a status measured to some degree by awards bestowed on him. He has been named Outstanding Bassist of the Decade by the Detroit News, Jazz Bassist of the Year by Downbeat magazine, Most Valuable Player by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, and he received Grammys in 1993 for Best Jazz Instrumental Group and in 1998 for the Best Instrumental Composition.

The elder statesman is well-positioned to comment on the contemporary jazz scene. “There’s more of a responsibility put on vocalists and the media these days,” Carter observes. “In the past, when I was growing up, there were more clubs, radio stations, and more jazz in movies as well.” In other words, says Carter, jazz was more accessible in the ’50s and ’60s.

But that doesn’t mean jazz is a dying art. In fact, Carter is still busy mentoring the next generation of jazz bassists, previously as the Artistic Director of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Studies and these days as Distinguished Professor Emeritus of The City College of New York.

“Be prepared for anything that may come your way,” is Carter’s advice to his students, “then you can always find work playing music.” At the same time, Carter warns young musicians that the industry is a different game then when he got his start. Today, for instance, the need to make your name visible is crucial in a world flooded with new artists and new forms of media.

Talking about the technical side of his art, Carter explains that the situation for a bass player has changed in the past few decades. “One reason for this that is overlooked is the influence of electric basses and amplifiers,” says Carter, who experimented with the electric bass in the ’60s and ’70s before concentrating on the upright. “Now, a bass player has the same what I call “sonic presence’ as other members of a group. They can be heard equally, and with that a bass player can become more comfortable with the idea that his or her intent will get attention.” Through this, a modern bass player is given the courage to try new things, he adds.

As if to lead the way for his students, Carter is still trying new things, and dismissing any talk of retirement. “I’m continually performing,” he concludes, “I played both at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center recently. I’m getting better everyday, and I’m still growing in my career.”

oscar peterson

Oscar Peterson: The Life & Times of a Jazz Legend

Last year, Exhibition Hall A in Ottawa’s National Library of Canada featured a technologically impressive display devoted entirely to the country’s ambassador of jazz, Oscar Peterson, Local 406-119 (Montreal, Quebec) and Local 149 (Toronto, Ontario). The exhibit showcased the Montreal native’s impact on six decades of jazz music. Historic programs and photographs of early concerts shared space with computerized displays. Interactive CD-ROMs performed rapid-fire real-time transcriptions of Peterson’s improvisations, while Yamaha digital pianos offered a virtual over-the-shoulder view of his phenomenal keyboard technique.

No small tribute, all of this, for a jazz pianist who might easily have never even become one. Oscar Peterson’s career actually started off radically different from where it eventually led, beginning firmly in the classics: Beethoven, Bach, and all those endless technical finger exercises, under the tutelage of Hungarian classical pianist Paul deMarky.

Classical Foundations

“I only first really heard jazz somewhere between the ages of seven and 10,” explains Peterson, who was born in 1925 into a musical home. “My older brother Fred, who was actually a better pianist than I was, started playing various new tunes–well, they were new for me, anyway–and I didn’t know what they were at first, but I knew I liked them. They turned out to be jazz tunes that were popular at the time: Duke Ellington and Art Tatum, who frightened me to death with his technique. So, there really wasn’t a classic ‘defining moment;’ I just got into it the more I listened to the likes these performers, and decided that was what I wanted to do.”

Peterson feels quite strongly that his background of classical training was invaluable in helping his jazz technique and interpretation skill.” “Harmonically and rhythmically, it’s indispensable. I recommend it today any time I hold a seminar.” At York University–one of 16 institutions which have bestowed upon Peterson honorary degrees, and of which he is currently chancellor–he encouraged all the pianists to study classically first. “It gives you a much better insight into the instrument,” he says.

The early classical training also aids another facet of Peterson’s career, which he says is growing in importance as he gets older. “Traveling by air these days is just so stressful,” he explains. “I’m interested in doing more music writing, and I’m devoting more time to that than I have before.”

This, of course, is not meant to imply a new development: Oscar Peterson the pianist has long been known to his fans as Oscar Peterson the composer. His countless waltzes and ballads have become the staple of pianists everywhere; he has undertaken commissions for ballet scores and televised productions; and “Trail of Dreams Suite,” a musical depiction of the coast-to-coast Trans-Canada Trail, was premiered in April 2000. An earlier composition, “Hymn to Freedom,” became an anthem for the US civil rights movement in the 1960s, to which Peterson admits no conscious effort on his part.

Changing Times

“I wrote ‘Hymn to Freedom’ because my then dear friend and manager Norman Granz wanted something for a record date that had a true blues feeling. I sat down, started to play, and we recorded it with the trio. The lyrics were only added later. So, at the time, it wasn’t intended to be an anthem. After it was adopted by the civil rights movement, I felt very honored–and I’m still very honored and moved every time I hear it.”

The situation in Canada for African-Canadian performers in the 50s and 60s had many parallels with the situation south of the border. “There were certain closed doors, let’s put it that way,” Peterson says. “I was bothered particularly by the fact that I didn’t see many nonwhite performers on television and in commercials. I undertook to speak with Roy McMurtry, who is now Chief Justice of Ontario. He called the heads of various companies together, and we worked to resolve the problem.”

Downplaying his own role as a prominent performer, Peterson defers with typical modesty the suggestion that he was a key influence in helping resolve racial problems in Canada. “Oh, I wouldn’t take any bow for that alone,” he laughs. “I just did my best.”


In doing his best over several decades of music making, Oscar Peterson has also been largely responsible for the enduring appeal of jazz. He attributes the staying power of jazz as a musical language to one simple word: honesty. “I think when a musician plays jazz, you’re hearing the honest insides of that person. I’m not being critical of any other form of music, but some of today’s music is so patented and predetermined by people who are not really musicians.” Is there a definite difference, then, between the listening experience of a jazz concert and that of a rock concert? “By all means,” Peterson says. “Not to throw stones, but when listeners go to a jazz concert, they know they’re going to hear the musician, and what he or she is thinking and feeling at that particular time.”

Since his “discovery” in 1947 by Norman Granz, Oscar Peterson has amassed an incredible legacy of recorded work with Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Fred Astaire, Dizzy Gillespie, Coleman Hawkins, and Charlie Parker, among countless other greats. His recordings have been lauded with awards for decades, as has his solo career. Past albums have earned him eight GRAMMYs, seven Hall of Fame Awards, and the Downbeat Award for Best Jazz Pianist 13 times–and this is barely scratching the surface. But it is with his trio–and, more lately, quartet–that he feels he has expressed his musical personality best.

“The jazz trio is my lifeline, and always has been,” he declares without hesitation, citing the satisfaction that comes from communication among members of a smaller group. “I think the smaller format works best for me, and probably also shows me in my best light. I enjoy solo piano, but I still prefer to work with a group because it’s exhilarating and challenging at the same time.”

Think of the word museum and the typical mental picture is a musty, dusty hall filled with relics of things long gone: dinosaurs, or King Tut. It therefore speaks volumes of Oscar Peterson that an entire museum exhibit was dedicated to his life and workwhile he is not only very much alive, but actively making music.

New Challenges

The technical wonders that comprised the Library of Canada exhibit reflect the fact that Peterson, while firmly part of jazz’s “old school,” nevertheless has a firm grasp on the value of technology–and he delights in the opportunities it presents him in his work. He recently introduced a CD-ROM containing a wealth of biographical information and photos, and his Web site, www.oscarpeterson.com, illustrates his willingness to embrace the latest advances.

These same technologies aid him in his composition: he boasts a home studio filled with the latest synthesizers, sequencers, and computers. “All these tools represent a stupendous advantage over how people used to write,” he asserts. “For example, I’m not an orchestrator, but when I write something which will be for orchestra, I don’t have to wonder how a tune is going to hold up in the orchestra as opposed to a jazz quartet. Electronic keyboards can also help me figure out different voicings: I can hear exactly how a particular passage would sound when played by a muted trumpet or a saxophone, and I can hear the difference between the two.”

Technology ends where performance begins, however, and Peterson draws the line at the door of the recording studio. “I don’t mind editing so far as improving on the sound from a technological standpoint, but I think there’s definitely a point beyond which you should not go,” he states firmly. “This thing about making recordings in segments and putting them together? That I don’t buy. After all, you don’t get a chance to do that in a concert, you can’t take one part and say this is better than that part, and do it over 15 times. It’s a performance. A recording is also a performance, so I don’t think it’s fair to do that on recordings, either.”

Becoming a recent father, relatively late in life presented Peterson with very different challenges, but ones he feels have changed him for the better. “I’m a more concerned parent now than I may have been years ago; I’m also very much helped by the fact that my daughter is such a congenial young lady.” Not surprisingly, Celine, now 10, is discovering an interest in all types of music, studying flute and piano. Peterson handily anticipates the obvious question: “No, I haven’t influenced her. I try to stay out of the educational end of it, and be only a listener.”

The Gold Card

Peterson believes his daughter, like her father before her, should be allowed the freedom to discover her own path. Having said that, he also points out that good guidance is a valuable element in anyone’s life. Perhaps this is one of the reasons he has steadfastly remained a member of the AFM, when so many other big names in the business have let their union membership lapse.

“When I was just starting out back in the 40s, the Montreal union made it possible for me to earn a decent living. There were certain rules the union would not back down on, and the nightclubs had to adhere to them. Some nightclubs were actually trying to get away with not paying the musicians what they should have been paying, which was union scale.”

Peterson says he has always had the solid support of Montreal Local 406-119, and he is also a longtime member of Local 149 in Toronto. “The Montreal union was very good to me; as a matter of fact, they made me a lifetime memberyou know, giving me the “gold card!” And I’ve always respected that. The Federation is something musicians should use for their own protection, but also, almost selfishly, for their own benefit. We as performers should have a voice, because there are enough of us around, and we’re doing all the work!”


Supportand friendshipcame also in immeasurable strength from Norman Granz, who recently passed away, and who Peterson calls his greatest influence. “Norman not only guided my career in the jazz world, but was more importantly a very close friend. It was through him that I got the opportunity to work with some of the greatest names in music. He was a man with many facets, and he had great respect for any kind of talent.”

It was Granz, in fact, who took Peterson to his first Vladimir Horowitz concert. “Norman always took the jazz element very seriously, and wanted it to be on a par with classical music.”

At the suggestion that he has contributed to this elevation of jazz into a serious form of artistic expression, Peterson once again modestly deflects the lion’s share of the credit. “I have been very honored to receive the recognition of various classical societies,” he acknowledges. “It would have given my late teacher, Mr. Paul deMarky, great satisfaction. As for my part,” he laughs, “I’ve just tried my best.”

les paul

Les Paul: The Wizard of Guitar Strings & Gizmos

les paulFrom the time he was a young boy and his mother would let him “take something apart” if he got all his chores done on time, Les Paul has had a drive to learn what makes something work. The family piano, the radio, and various household appliances — Paul took apart whatever he could get his hands on. And invariably it worked better when he was done with it. When he was about nine years old, he got his hands on a guitar, and the world has never been the same. Over the years he tinkered and toyed, figuring out how to get his guitar to play through his radio. And this was just the beginning. He didn’t just want to change the way his instrument sounded live; he wanted to change the way live music sounded when it was recorded.

Paul lives and breathes through his guitar, even at 86. Every Monday night at the Iridium in Manhattan, the Les Paul Trio performs to a packed house. But his playing, which defines his life to this day (despite his fairly severe arthritis), is only a part of what makes Paul the living icon that he is. He is the inventor of the solid body electric guitar — which exists today as Gibson’s most popular Les Paul model — almost unchanged from when it was first introduced in 1952. He also introduced the world to multitrack recording with his 1948 hit “Brazil.” The song featured six guitar parts, all played by Paul. The pioneer of overdubbing and electronic reverb didn’t stop there. He fashioned the first 8-track by stacking eight tape machines on top of one another and synchronizing them to play perfectly together. Virtually all of modern music, whether recorded in the world’s most technologically advanced studios or by someone working with a home-recording system in their basement, is made using innovations sparked by the inventions of Les Paul.

A lifetime member of both Local 802 in New York and Local 47 in Los Angeles, Paul will always be grateful to the union for the assistance given to him when he was in a devastating car accident in 1948 that shattered his right arm and elbow. At Paul’s insistence, the doctors set his arm at an angle that would allow him to cradle a guitar and pick at the strings.

As a musician, Paul soared to popularity in the ’50s with his late wife, Mary Ford. The combination of Ford on vocals, Paul on guitar — along with Paul’s cutting edge re-cording skills — sold millions of records, including such hits as “How High the Moon,” and “Vaya Con Dios.” He has influenced almost all genres of music since the ’50s, especially blues, jazz, country, and southern rock. Today his music of choice is jazz, although he won a GRAMMY in 1977 for Best Country Instrumental Award Performance with the late Chet Atkins for their “Chester and Lester” album. In 2001, Paul received a Technical GRAMMY award.

Paul continues to absorb knowledge like a sponge. “You would think that a person would say ‘Well, I’ve retired, I’m going to go on a boat and just drop a line and wait for that cork to go down,'” says Paul. “Instead, in my case, it’s just a constant learning, a constant curiosity, to see what’s going on — the great steps forward, along with the obstacles that come with progress.

“We have mono, and we’ll get our music to where we’re very proud of it. And then we make it stereo, and the problem becomes twice as tricky. And so then you go to surround sound, and it just goes deeper, deeper, deeper. And then you get to digital and from digital, it goes on and on. It just never ends. It’s amusing, it’s interesting, and it’s scary — it’s just something. It’s a wonderful time with the way we’re progressing, when we think of where we were a couple of hundred years ago. But I’m not sure that we’re not getting to a point where we’re outsmarting ourselves!”

Les Paul is just as likely to tell you about his need for speed as he is to share his passion
for music and the manipulation of sound. But even those stories eventually come around to music.

“This one state trooper pulled me over, and I told him ‘I’m Les Paul, I’m a musician, a guitar-player,’ and he says, ‘Well, I hate music.’ Now how do you hate music? So I thought I might be in trouble, but then I told him that his radar was off. I offered to drive by again at exactly 70. He liked the idea, and since I helped him calibrate his radar gun, he let me go!

“Usually they see the license and say something like, ‘The Les Paul?’ Sometimes he’ll say, ‘I play guitar,’ and I’ll say, ‘Yeah? You any good?’ Now I’ve always got my guitar in the trunk, so I’ll get it out and hand him the guitar and he’ll start to play, and I’ll show him how he could be better if he did it this way or that way, and here I am with this police officer with his left foot up on the bumper …”

Usually the officer is so ecstatic about getting an impromptu lesson from a guitar legend that he forgets why he pulled him over in the first place.

les paul oldPaul is the first to admit that life as a professional musician has its perks. But he’s not going to tell anyone that it’s easy. “Once in a while someone will come up and tell me that they bought their son a guitar, and I’m tempted to say ‘Why?!'” laughs Paul. “No, that’s terrible advice to give,” he went on, serious. “The guitar is a wonderful, wonderful instrument; it does so much for a person. It solves a lot of problems, helps you put up with the world. I guess this applies to music all around the board; you can always turn to your guitar and shut the world off temporarily.”

For those who don’t play, the guitar has a way of getting under your skin. Which would be the only way to explain why someone suffering from painful arthritis in his hands still shows up to the club every Monday evening to jam. “It’s something musicians can do, which probably most other people can’t, and that is to go to such a ripe old age and continue be able to communicate through your instrument with other people, young, old, it doesn’t matter.” He also feels a responsibility to continue to entertain people for as long as he can. “There’s a thing about jazz; it’s serious, generally speaking,” explains Paul. “I have a whole different approach to it. To me there’s a lot of laughs, lot of humor. Put it this way: people pay to come in, and they probably come with one thought in mind, and that is to be really turned on with a lot playing. Music, music, music. They come in here to get their mind off of their problems and to be entertained; that’s what we do. And when they leave they say, ‘Jeez, I’ve had a wonderful time!’

“I have three other players; they’re all great. There’s Nicki Parrott on bass, she’s just great. There’s Lou Pallo, who has been with me many years. He’s the foundation, he plays the rhythm and the background and he sings. Then I have Frank Vignola, who is a very fine technical guitar player. It’s great to have the three of them up there with me, because there’s a lot of things that I would put on a record — where I could put down multiple tracks — but when I come out on stage I can only do one. With my hands and the arthritis, I’m lucky if I get one-tenth of what I’d like to do. So having these other three musicians with me, we work around it. They just give me great support. That’s where it really shines, the mix of all of us. They work hard!”

And Paul has no intention of slowing down any time soon. In addition to playing every Monday, there are several books that he’s “threatening” to write, as well as several other archival and museum projects he’s involved in. “Every once in while I’ll take on a fistful and go for it,” he says. “It’s like there’s always more, and more, and more.”

Although his one-night-a-week gig is just about all his hands can deal with nowadays, Paul cannot stress enough the importance of practice to an aspiring professional.

“Practice. That’s the thing,” he asserts. “You need to practice all the time. If you really want to be with it, you have to just absolutely, constantly keep on your playing. My advice to anyone is that there just aren’t enough hours in a day; be religious about it. That’s the key.”

The thing about practicing is that playing also breeds creation. With a constant flow of music from your head right out of your fingertips, you never know what you may end up with. “If you spend enough time with it, you can really communicate with that guitar,” says Paul. “You surprise yourself. Before you can think of it, you’ve already played it.”

While the life of a professional musician has got to be one of the most enjoyable careers, it’s also probably one of the most difficult in the sheer amount of time it takes to maintain your craft. “It’s a lot different than being a plumber,” laughs Paul. “But I’ll tell you what, that plumber isn’t jamming at midnight, either! He doesn’t come home and say to his wife, ‘Hey, put your clothes on, I want to take you over and show you this job I just did!’

“Here’s another little bit of wisdom that runs across my mind,” muses Paul, “It’s not so much the intro as it is the ending. It’s easy to walk out on the stage, but you better have something to get the hell off! That’s where you get caught. You get out there and it doesn’t matter — you could be up, down, in the middle, whatever — but when it’s time to leave, you better have something up your sleeve, to be able to give it your best shot!”