Ron Carter sometimes thinks of himself as a scientist and an explorer. The legendary bassist, cellist, and composer is always questioning the limits of his music and testing the boundaries of the jazz genre — part of the reason why he’s considered one of the most innovative jazz bassists today.
This year, the Ferndale native will serve as the Artist-in-Residence for the 2016 Detroit Jazz Festival on Labor Day weekend (Sept. 2-5). He’s slated to perform four times during the weekend, including a nonet, trio, quartet, and big band sets.
Even those unacquainted with jazz might recognize an original Carter bass rhythm from his library of over 2,000 recordings. He’s the most recorded bassist in music history. Off the stage and outside of the studio, Carter is a Distinguished Professor Emeritus of the Music Department at the City College of New York. We caught up with the artist to talk about performing, recording, and evolving as a lifelong musician.
Hour Detroit: What is the importance of jazz to Detroit? Does jazz mean anything specifically to this city?
Ron Carter: Man, a lot of guys come out of here. I’m happy to be one of them. I can name 15 or 20. I think the jazz players have kept Detroit on the music scene in an important place where this music was developed. Because those guys are still active, very visible, playing very well, and they are maintaining the idea that Detroit was and still is a very important hotbed for the development of music.
As someone who has recorded so many different things with so many different groups of people, what is the ideal environment and energy for recording a good album?
It isn’t just the energy, it’s how prepared the leader is. Has he thought about a concept? Has he booked enough time for us to make the recording comfortably within the budget? Does he have the right complement of players? Everyone doesn’t play good together despite rumors to the contrary.
So what is an example of one that was particularly great to work on?
They all were because it’s like going to school for free. I see different leaders, different libraries, different choices of songs. This all offers me a chance to see how various leaders deal with various problems and how quickly they resolve them for the sake of the music. I can’t give you one particular date that stands out. I’m like a permanent student. I’ve been a student for over 2,000 records, that’s a lot of class work. I love that stuff.
How do you progress from where you are now? As someone who is seen as an influential and innovative person, how can you get better and set goals for yourself?
I like to go to work. I like playing the bass. After all this time, I’m still having great fun. The second thing is I’m kind of like a scientist. I’m curious as to what notes make certain things happen harmonically. How can I get the band’s attention other than shouting at them? Can I find the right note at the right moment to make the kind of impact to leave my stamp on the recording session in context of that music? These things are waiting for someone to discover them and I’m trying to get in line so I can be one of those discoverers.
Do you ever feel stuck, musically?
I do a lot of different projects. Students come to me and say, “I had a terrible gig last night.” The first thing I tell them is, no the gig wasn’t terrible, you didn’t find anything to make the gig better. That’s what I try to do. Whatever the music is — whether it’s Aretha Franklin, Billy Joel, or Eddie Harris, or Shirley Horn — my job is to find a way to make this music do what that band leader hopes it can do. Because the types of music are so varied, I don’t get stuck in that rut.
Originally you played the cello, but you switched to the bass because of racial stereotyping of classical musicians. Can you elaborate on that?
At the time white orchestras, white management, white boards of directors of classical orchestras were not interested in having anyone who wasn’t white to be a part of the classical orchestral scene. There were people that were as talented as I was — or more talented — who didn’t get the opportunity or chance to add their musical interpretation to Beethoven and Mozart. They were told this is not for you. Some of them got jobs at the post office some went somewhere else. I was making gigs when I was still in college and the jazz community said, “New York always wants a good bass player. You should come to New York.” And here I am.
Do you think you would have started playing bass and jazz music naturally without racial pressures?
I don’t worry about that. I’m happy where I am. I’m still making friends; I’m having a great time learning how to play the bass every night. My discoveries keep me thirsting for tomorrow. … So I don’t think about that. It’s not part of my process. I’m more concerned with if my shoe lace is tied correctly than that.
Name: Ron Carter
• Distinguished Professor Emeritus, The City College of New York
• Founder, Finding the Right Notes Foundation
• Bachelor’s degree in music from the Eastman School of Music (New York)
• Master’s degree in double bass from the Manhattan School of Music (New York)
• Grammy Award, Best Jazz Instrumental Group (1993)
• Grammy Award, instrumental composition for the film Round Midnight (1998)
• Seven Steps to Heaven (1963) — As bassist with Miles Davis
• E.S.P. (1965) — As bassist with Miles Davis
• All Blues (1973) — Carter’s solo album named for a Miles Davis-written tune
• The Low End Theory (1991) — As double bassist for hip hop group A Tribe Called Quest. He’s featured on the track “Verses From the Abstract.”