Following a rigorous music education at Cass Technical High School in Detroit and the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y. in the mid-1950s, Ron Carter set his sights on graduate studies in New York. Trained as a classical musician, the bassist had already begun playing jazz gigs, and the pace picked up significantly soon after his arrival in the city. [photo by Judy Kirtley]
Today, in Part 2 of our conversation, Ron talks about his move to New York, his early recordings in 1960 with Ernie Wilkins and Yusef Lateef, the Out There session with Eric Dolphy, and the Miles Davis Quintet (1963-1968):
JazzWax: Why did you go on to study at the Manhattan School of Music?
Ron Carter: They had auditions for their masters program. I knew the school was in New York, where I wanted to be. I didn’t know much about Juilliard at the time. I thought it was kind of an upper class classical school. I knew from the Manhattan School of Music’s brochure that its format was less rigid. Continuing with my education at the school seemed to be the best choice if I was going to come to New York and try to earn a living playing jazz bass.
JW: Did you face similar hurdles at the Manhattan School of Music that you did at Eastman?
RC: The Manhattan School of Music was different, but at first, I was concerned. I had to take the school’s music theory exam because Eastman and the Manhattan School of Music used different symbols and a different language to recognize different chords and progressions. After the test, they put me in Music Theory 1, which was a sock in the head. But I said to myself, "Wait a minute—if this is the only way I can get to go to this school, maybe I need to learn another language." I didn’t care. The only thing that mattered to me was, what does it take to get this done.
JW: How was the experience?
RC: It turned out beautifully. I made some lovely people there, I made some great friends, the faculty was warm and appreciative of my talent. I played the first chair in the Manhattan Symphony Orchestra, which gave me an outside endorsement of the talent level I had achieved.
JW: You had a great love of classical music…
RC: Still do.
JW: This love dated back to your early teens?
RC: Again, I’m not sure if schools during that era thought that African-Americans could cut the classical orchestra circuit. There weren’t a lot of them playing in orchestras at the time, there weren’t many of them going into classic conservatories. My concern today is that the schools are turning out kids, both black and white, to play in orchestras but there are no jobs for them. Those guys who already have chairs aren’t retiring. They have great pension plans, vacations, health plans, and so on. Where are the kids going to go? You all can’t form your own orchestra. This is an important concern of mine.
JW: How did you come to classical music?
RC: We played it in school. In classical orchestras, classical string quartets, clarinet quintets. That’s the kind of music I played in those years. I wasn’t the only one. Many kids my age had same passion for classical. Cass Tech was a great program. A classical training gave me a bigger palette on which to work and more experienced people around me to learn the music better.
JW: One of your first jazz recordings was The Big New Band of the 60’s—Ernie Wilkins [pictured below] and his orchestra in April 1960. All the musicians on that date were giants.
RC: Oh, wow, somebody just sent me that album. I hadn't heard it before. That was a great record. I look back at that date and I’m quite surprised, given the status of all those players around me, that they decided that this person who was new to New York basically could have an impact on this recording. I can’t remember the feeling of the date or who brought me in. But looking at the personnel I remain stunned that they considered me capable enough to contribute to the music of the band.
JW: You also recorded Three Faces of Yusef Lateef in May 1960. What did you learn from Yusef?
RC: Oh yes—Hugh Lawson on piano, Herman Wright, Lex Humphries on drums and Yusef [pictured] on tenor and oboe. I had already heard these guys from afar at nightclubs in New York. Playing with Yusef made me realize just how big his sound was. I also learned how intense he was about the music. And everyone followed that level of intensity. Yusef had a way of getting everyone up to that level.
JW: Was it liberating to play on Eric Dolphy’s album Out There in August 1960?
RC: I was already playing music like that with Don Ellis and Jaki Byard. I was already familiar with the avant-garde scene. Eric’s record wasn’t my first encounter. I wasn’t stunned by it.
JW: But you came out of a classical background, where playing music requires certain rigidity. How did you make the switch to a form that was so free?
RC: Ask the creator. I have no answer to that other than it’s out of my hands, so to speak.
JW: You were with the Miles Davis Quintet steadily from April 1963 to June 1968—an incredible period of turmoil in this country. You saw America change through the music.
RC: We weren’t living in vacuum but I don’t know what impact society had on us individually. I think the guys in the group were fortunate to have been picked by a person [Miles] who was able to see individuals who could take the music where he wanted to go. I can remember when JFK got assassinated, when the Birmingham church was bombed—I remember all those things. But saying that events back then had an impact on how the music sounded would be kind of a stretch for the other four guys.
JW: What about for you?
RC: I never try use the bandstand for a political platform. I’m pretty verbal, and if you ask me a question I’m happy to tell you off the bandstand. I’m not sure I agree that you can listen to a band and interpret their motives during the fact and certainly after the fact. People can analyze all they want to, but I’m not sure I buy that concept that music is an international language. I’m not there yet. For me, I like to think I’m able to separate the politics of life from the ongoing conflict from the bandstand. By conflict, I mean we all have ways to hear a tune. We have to decide whose view is most relevant and whose view is going to take us someplace else. So did external events affect my music at that time? I like to think, broadly, no. But realistically we live in a society where we play what we feel. Broadly speaking, again, I’m sure it had an impact. But I don’t think JFK’s assassination made me play the blues any more seriously.
Tomorrow, Ron talks about his years with the Miles Davis Quintet, his one regret, why he rarely listens to his own music, and Wayne Shorter's influence on jazz.
His first major session was Ernie Wilkins: The Big New Band of the 60's, a strong outing recorded in March and April 1960. The Wilkins arrangements remain strong and are so skillfully written that the band sounds three times larger than it is. Given who was on the date, it's no wonder: Clark Terry, Richard Williams, Charlie Shavers on trumpets; Henderson Chambers on trombone; Earle Warren on alto sax; Zoot Sims, Seldon Powell and Yusef Lateef on tenor sax; Eddie Costa on vibes; Walter Bishop, Jr. on piano; Kenny Burrell on guitar; Ron on bass; and Charlie Persip on drums.
This recording appears on Ernie Wilkins: The Everest Years, which combines The Big New Band of the 60's with Here Comes the Swingin' Mr. Wilkins. The CD can be downloaded at iTunes or purchased here. It's one of my favorite big band albums from the period. Listen as Ron, just 23, keeps huge time for some of the best jazz players of the day.
After a record date with Charlie Persip in April (Charles Persip and the Jazz Statesmen) that included Freddie Hubbard, Art Blakey and Philly Joe Jones, Ron recorded Three Faces of Yusef Lateef in May, a powerfully spiritual album for Riverside. Next came Howard McGhee's Dusty Blue in June and Eric Dolphy's Out There in August.
Ron's 1961 album Where? for Prestige with Eric Dolphy, Mal Waldron, George Duvivier and Charlie Persip is being released by Concord Records as part of its Rudy Van Gelder remaster series on April 1. The CD will be available here.
From that date forward until his first date as a member of the Miles Davis Quintet in April 1963, Ron recorded almost monthly with virtually every jazz great of the period, including Johnny Griffin, Kenny Dorham, Milt Jackson, Wes Montgomery, Benny Golson, Gil Evans, Bobby Timmons, Bill Evans and Cannonball Adderley.