The history of the acoustic jazz bass starts in the hands of hard-charging 1930s swingers like Jimmy Blanton, John Kirby, Moses Allen and Walter Page. The band bassists were followed in the 1940s by boppers Oscar Pettiford, Curley Russell, Tommy Potter and Nelson Boyd. Next were the cooler, more "cerebral" 1950s bassists Ray Brown, Charles Mingus, Percy Heath, Paul Chambers, Milt Hinton, George Morrow, Doug Watkins and Scott LaFaro. Then in the early 1960s, Ron Carter transformed the upright instrument from metronome to equal creative partner.
Ron's discography is astonishing. Some estimates put his number of recording sessions at 3,500, though Ron playfully questions that number. Ron's range is equally impressive. He has been the rhythmic rock behind leading avant-garde artists such as Jaki Byard, Don Ellis, Eric Dolphy, Miles Davis and Wayne Shorter, and set the stage for the fusion bassists who followed. But Ron also has played on three Antonio Carlos Jobim albums, a majority of the polished CTI Records of the 1970s, and even albums by hip-hop artists.
Ron, 71, graciously made time in his busy schedule to chat with me about his formative years, his work with the Miles Davis Quintet between 1963 and 1968, and his many albums for CTI. In Part 1 today, Ron talks about growing up in Michigan, his love of classical music, and the challenges he faced during his early musical training:
JazzWax: I've read that you have appeared on 3,500 albums—many of them jazz classics. It may be easier for us to talk about the six albums you didn't record on.
Ron Carter: [Laughing] Six? I think it’s more like four. Seriously, though, I’m not so sure about 3,500 albums. Journalists like to blow that number up. It’s probably more like 2,007.
JW: Your range is amazing—from Eric Dolphy’s Out There to Astrud Gilberto’s Misty Roses.
RC: Wow, most people don’t know about that Gilberto record [Beach Samba (1967)]. That was a great date. There was a rumor that her boyfriend or husband at the time was working for the CIA, and a lot of the guys on the session were afraid that the CIA was monitoring them.
JW: What was it like growing up in Ferndale, Michigan, in the late 1940s, and why did your family move to Detroit when you were 12 years old?
RC: My father found a job as a bus driver in Detroit and the only way he could get the job was by moving to Detroit [pictured in the late 1940s]. It wasn’t a big move, though. There’s a street that separates the two cities. We were living in heart of Ferndale, two blocks from my high school. I had finished my first year of school in Ferndale and already had my entrance audition at Cass Technical High School. So I didn’t get too bent out of shape with the move.
JW: How was Cass Tech?
RC: Great. At Cass Tech, you could major in anything. You could major in music, mechanics, home economics, design or anything you wanted to. It was one of the earliest schools where you had to audition to get in. A lot of great musicians were there, and many continued in music. It was an environment that made growing essential if you wanted to stay in the school. I auditioned on the cello.
JW: Why did you pick the cello?
RC: The music teacher at Cass Tech had brought all these instruments out to the school in her car and said they were available to us to start a little orchestra and to take lessons. She said we should choose the instrument that would suit us as best as we could play it. She played the cello and I loved the sound of it. So I chose the cello.
JW: After Cass Tech, you enrolled at the Eastman School of Music. What was the most important lesson you learned there?
RC: Don’t let discouragement become your focus. At Eastman [pictured], I felt I wasn’t getting the kind of interest I should have been getting. I thought there were opportunities that should have been presented to me that weren’t because I was an African–American. Sometimes they’d put notices up on the board for auditions for major orchestras. It seemed to be common knowledge around the school that the openings were available and that auditions were taking place. But somehow no one got around to telling me to look at the bulletin board or that there was something there that I might be interested in.
JW: Were you good enough?
RC: At the time I was the best undergraduate student player in the school. I felt that given my unstated status, I should have been at least informed so I could decide whether or not I wanted to audition for different orchestras. I felt that because I wasn’t kept in that loop, it wasn’t the fair thing to do to me. I think if I had not maintained that focus, I wouldn’t have gotten out of that school in one piece.
JW: How did you change your feelings of resentment?
RC: It wasn’t resentment. I just couldn’t understand why fair wasn’t fair. I had followed all the rules. I practiced diligently. I got good grades. When the school formed the Eastman Philharmonia—a student-pro orchestra featuring the cream of the crop at the school—there were six or seven other bassists to choose from. They decided I would be first chair on bass. That certainly counted for something. I didn’t just take a chair and sit down. There was a process, and whatever that process was, it was decided that I would be first chair with the cream of the crop. I thought that would have been enough to get me in the loop. At the time, I thought everyone knew about the major opportunities but me, and I didn’t think that was OK.
JW: How did you keep this from overwhelming you?
RC: I thought I played well, and I didn’t care what they thought. I mean, of course, I cared, and it did matter. But I wasn’t going to let their view of my talent and my viability as a fulltime classical player affect me and my thoughts about what I could do on the instrument and what the instrument offered.
JW: But how did you change your thinking?
RC: I was comfortable with my view of myself, and I was making a few jazz gigs so I wasn’t actually starving. I just felt that their way of looking at me was their view, not mine. I have students who come in for lessons now, and the books they use have numbers under the notes. This is the editor’s view on the best way to play different passages. I tell my students to cross out the editor’s numbers and to find their own path through the passages. Now my students will learn to be confident in their view of the approach and their choices, not someone else's. Back then I simply told myself that the school had its view of my ability, but it was their view, not mine. So I was OK with that,.
Tomorrow, in Part 2, Ron talks about his move to New York, his recording sessions with Ernie Wilkins, Yusef Lateef and Eric Dolphy, and the impact of the 1960s on the Miles Davis Quintet.
JazzWax tracks: Ron has played with classical orchestras around the world and recorded several classical albums, including one featuring his own transcriptions and arrangements of Bach chorales and cantatas. His classical albums include Ron Carter Plays Bach here, Afro-Classic here. Brandenburg Concerto here, the Classical Jazz Quartet Play Rachmaninov here, Mouth Music here and Meets Bach here.