Years of classical music training at Detroit's Cass Technical High School and the Eastman School of Music put bassist Ron Carter on track for a life of symphony work. But after moving to New York to study at the Manhattan School of Music in the late-1950s, Ron found his talents were in huge demand by jazz artists recording increasingly complex music. A torrent of gigs and record dates with Yusef Lateef, Don Ellis, Jaki Byard, Eric Dolphy and other leading jazz musicians starting in 1960 brought Ron to the attention of Miles Davis, who selected him for his second quintet in 1963.
Today, in Part 3 of our conversation, Ron talks about his years with the Miles Davis Quintet, the artistic importance of Wayne Shorter and his only regret while playing with Miles:
JazzWax: What impact did Miles have on you as an artist?
RC: Miles made me feel that every night he came to play—whatever shape he was in. In pain, late, scuffling. Wherever he was coming from outside the club, when he got to the bandstand I always thought he was playing the best he could at that moment.
JW: How did that affect you?
RC: That was important for me to see. Here was this giant who was going through his physical difficulties, going through his emotional transitions but none of it overcame the fact that he had to play the music with us and play the best he could every night. I feel the same way with my bands now.
JW: How did Miles affect your approach?
RC: It wasn’t Miles himself. It was the music. No one musician can affect four others no matter how well he plays, provided the other four are equally talented, and I believe we were. Miles simply provided us with a platform on which to experiment. We understood that, given his width and breadth of music. And he found a place where we were enjoying that interaction.
JW: What do you think made that group so special?
RC: I never go there. That’s for historians. Being in the sound, you don’t analyze the speakers. You just enjoy what’s going on. You just hope that historians will be honest enough, and put their biases aside about Miles’ later years, or what they feel about me personally, or Herbie’s success. I hope historians will put all that aside and look at the group as a literal scientific experiment and analyze it on that basis.
RC: They brought something to the music you can’t find anywhere else.
JW: What exactly in nonmusical terms?
RC: To do that makes it sound easy so let’s not go there. When you explain jazz to a stranger you make it sound like anybody can do it and understand the precepts and concepts. Really, that’s not the case. As soon as people believe they can do it, you feel insulted that they missed the point. So I try not to let them put me in that zone.
JW: Do you re-listen to your Miles Davis Quintet albums?
RC: Only when students ask me what’s going on with them. I avoid them for the most part because I hear choices that I could have made that I wasn’t able to make because I didn’t know what to do with the choices at the time. Now I see the choices more clearly, and I rue the fact that I missed them.
JW: Anything you’d do differently if done again?
RC: I think if I missed anything in those days, Marc, it was the fact that the bass was not amplified. If the bass had been amplified, I could have had more of an impact because I would have been more audible. We were playing in these big 2,000-seat halls with an M-mike and no monitors. I had no real chance to affect the band as much as I could have because we were not sonically equal.
JW: Yet you’re so present on the recordings.
RC: I wish it had been the same way live. But again, I don’t’ feel bent out of shape because the technology wasn’t available to me. I can live with that. The fact is that the guys in the band could hear me enough that I could have an impact. I just wished it had been a much broader reach of sound from the bass to the audiences to 25 or 55 rows back from where we were standing.
JW: Did all that acoustic work with the Quintet make you a stronger player?
JW: How important is Wayne Shorter?
RC: He brought a width and breadth of compositions to the band that we hadn’t played before. It made me feel that I could take a little more risk than I could take with someone else. That’s not to speak of George Coleman pejoratively at all. It’s just that Wayne plays different and in a way that let me try things that were different from the norm than someone else.
JW: Was working with Wayne separately from the Miles Davis Quintet a different feel?
RC: No, Wayne is Wayne. Wayne is going to play Wayne wherever he is—it doesn’t’ matter if he’s at my house, or a gymnasium or Shea Stadium. He plays Wayne. That’s why he’s consistently great and comfortable with his point of view. Wayne’s compositions for Miles and for Wayne weren’t very different.
Tomorrow, in the final part of our conversation, Ron talks about his work after 1970 with Antonio Carlos Jobim, his sessions for CTI Records and when he listens to Oscar Pettiford and other bass masters.
JazzWax tracks: Ron's first album with Miles Davis was Seven Steps to Heaven, recorded in April 1963 with George Coleman on alto sax, Victor Feldman on piano and Frank Butler on drums. Ron then spent then next year touring and recording live with Miles and various combinations of the quintet that included Coleman or Sam Rivers on tenor, Herbie Hancock on piano and Tony Williams on drums.
After Ron recorded with Wayne Shorter on Speak No Evil in December 1964, the classic second quintet was in place—Miles, Shorter, Hancock, Carter and Williams. Their first studio date, E.S.P., was recorded in January 1965. Ron's other studio dates with this quintet were Miles Smiles in October 1966, Sorcerer in May 1967, Nefertiti in June 1967, Miles in the Sky in January 1968 (with guitarist George Benson added on a track), and Filles de Kilimanjaro, recorded in June 1968 with Chick Corea on piano. Ron plays bass on Miles' Big Fun from November 1969, which included a larger ensemble.
If you listen carefully to Ron's bass work on these Miles Davis albums, you'll hear that his playing is inventive, groundbreaking, flexible, supportive and fiercely independent. If all he recorded during his amazing career were these albums, Ron would qualify for being jazz's most significant force on bass in the 1960s.
But during this period—between April 1963 and January 1970—Ron also recorded with artists on an astonishing number of classics. These essential recordings include Herbie Hancock's Empyrean Isles, Maiden Voyage, Blow-Up and Speak Like a Child; Wayne Shorter's The Soothsayer, The All-Seeing Eye and Schizophrenia; Bobby Hutcherson's Components; Joe Henderson's Mode for Joe and The Kicker; Wes Montgomery's Tequila, A Day in the Life and Down Here on the Ground; Stan Getz's Voices; Lee Morgan's Standards, Sonic Boom and The Procrastinator; McCoy Tyner's The Real McCoy; Paul Desmond's From the Hot Afternoon and Bridge Over Troubled Water; and Freddie Hubbard's Red Clay.
JazzWax quote: I'll let Miles have the last word on Ron during this period, from Quincy Troupe's Miles: The Autobiography (1989):
"When we were up on the bandstand I always stood next to Ron because I wanted to hear what he was playing. Before, I used to always stand next to the drummer, but now I didn't worry about what Tony was playing because you could hear everything he was playing; same thing with Herbie. But back then they didn't have amplifiers and so it was hard sometimes to hear Ron. Also I stood next to him to give him my support.
"Every night Herbie, Tony and Ron would sit around back in their hotel rooms talking about what they had played until this morning came. Every night they would come back and play something different. And every night I would have to react.
"The music we did together changed every fucking night; if you heard it yesterday, it was different tonight. Man, it was something how the shit changed from night to night after a while. Even we didn't know where it was all going to. But we did know it was going somewhere else and that it was probably going to be hip, and that was enough to keep everyone excited while it lasted."