Ron Carter has played on over 2,500 albums and secured a spot in jazz history as one of the world's finest bassists. Doing much more than merely helping anchor the rhythm, Carter is quite the melodic master. In his five-decade-long career, he's played with countless jazz legends, including a five-year stint in Miles Davis's quintet that also included Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Tony Williams. We spoke with Carter about the evolution of jazz bass, how bass parts have gotten more complicated, the state of jazz today, and playing with Davis and guitarist Jim Hall.
Westword: How would you say the role of bass has changed in jazz over the last fifty years or so?
Ron Carter: I think with the advent of pick-ups and better sound-reproducing equipment -- amplifiers, more portable amplifiers, better pick-ups, more versatile pick-ups...because these possibilities are now real, it makes a bass player much more audible than he was fifty years ago. It forces them be more proactive.
The nightclubs have never had good gear, and they seldom have a soundman who is there for the full week. He may come in on Monday or the opening day of the gig -- it's a six-night gig -- and he might not come back until the last night and put the gear the away for the next band. So there's never been -- seldom has there been that kind of club help.
And the gear at the time was pretty low-quality stuff for amplifying a bass in a room that was 300 people. So that's never been an option. But now with the pick-ups being much more mature and the better quality of producing the sounds of the bass, bass players are now forced to pay attention to what they do really because everybody hears every note they play. So it's forced them to develop at maybe a little faster rate than they would have had they not this kind of additional sound enhancement of what they do.
People have better systems in their houses. They have better systems in their cars. People hear the bass on levels now rather than on a very expensive audiophile set or have to be sitting right next to the bass player in the nightclub. It's forced the bassists to develop maybe at a little faster rate than they would have had it not been for these sound advantages. It kind of makes the bass a little more important and hopefully bass players understand how much musical sway they have in jazz ensembles now.
Did you find yourself having to play a lot harder back in the early days just to compete to be heard?
Absolutely. I wouldn't want to go back.
I was reading that in the different groups you've played with you've talked about how it's free schooling for you. Can you expand on that?
Every group you play with has their own concepts, has their own idiosyncrasies, has their own high points and low points. They have their own view on how the music is going to sound. They have a view on whether the bass player has a solo. There are so many factors internally when you join a band even for a night or a recording session.
For me, to be in these different environments constantly is a chance for me to understand music from a lot of different points of view. If I'm doing two recordings this week and working a nightclub gig with my band and a set maybe somewhere else as a sub, that's four schools I'm going to. I'm able to look at how a bass player has to play this job. I'm able to see how during the course of playing at a nightclub, what it takes to make this band sound reasonable in a nightclub given where they don't have the...
At the recording session, you hear back right away what's going on, so that's a chance for me to expand my view of the bass's importance. It gives me a chance to pass that stuff on to my students so they bass as an instrument that plays all music, not just jazz.
You've also talked about bass has gotten a lot more complicated these days.
Guys are writing more difficult bass parts. They're writing in strange meters, and they expect the bass [player], as easily, [to find] these figures, as he's found them on them on the piano. It's always been a problem that piano players or arrangers sit at the piano and write a bass part that's a figure that's kind of intricate. Pianists assume that bass players have the skill level to make this bass part that he played on the piano come true on the instrument. And a lot of times, that's not the case. It's not the same instrument, of course.
I try to give my students the view that when the guy writes it, he's got to be able to play it. He doesn't want to hear any sob stories. He doesn't want to know that's not possible. He doesn't want to know anything else but this is what he wrote on piano ,and this is how it sounds on the bass, no matter how complicated or unmusical it is on the instrument.
Has studying classical, and still playing it, helped out your jazz playing?
Well, it helped me learn how to prepare lessons... It's helped me get the most out of rehearsals. When you rehearse, you have the music in place, you have the parts all copied directly; you have a view of what you want the music to sound like. That kind of preparation before a jazz rehearsal saves a lot of time and a lot of aggravation, especially when jazz players always rehearse for free. I don't want to cut their time because I can't pay them for the rehearsal. If I go in there with a plan and a program, with an order of music to rehearse, the music is done in a medium amount of time and everyone goes away and not because they didn't get paid.
Do you warm up before gigs maybe with some Bach material?
With a nightclub, it's not possible. I come off the street and go to the bandstand. I try to explain to people that one of the differences between a jazz gig and a classical gig is that most classical gigs have a room where everyone warms up -- all the string players over here and the brass players over there. They've got their spaces in this 600-square foot area to warm up in.
A jazz club, most of them don't have a coatroom. And to think that you could go to the club and warm up, that's a myth. It's difficult. There's no question about that. I've just have a way in my head to get my hands ready, even though I can't do any physical warm-up on the instrument before the gig because there's nowhere to do that. No dressing room. Again, some of them don't even have a coatroom. It's just kind of weird that we're stuck with this kind of environment, but that's what the environment builds. There's no dressing rooms to allow, let alone a place to hang up your coat, but a place to kind of practice some kind of 20-minute quiet privacy to get warmed up for the gig, especially if it's coming in from New York cold.
Playing with Miles in the '60s, I was curious what kind of schooling that was and what kind of experience you came with.
Every night, he let us know this may be our last chance to do some great music, and we shouldn't let that night pass... We should make ourselves available for those opportunities, in this case, with his band. But in general, when you get on the bandstand there's a chance to play some great music. Don't mess it up.
How would you compare the state of jazz today versus forty or fifty years ago?
Well it's still looking for the kind of exposure that the other musics always find. I don't quite understand that. There's a dearth of African-American media -- the television, the press, the talk shows -- to make jazz more available to their audience. They're not doing that. They haven't done it in very long time. Music is fighting to survive despite their ignoring our existence, and it really upsets me that we don't have their help.
What's the expression, "It takes a community to raise a child"? It takes the African-American media to keep this music alive, and they're not doing their share at all. So it's difficult. In addition to that, there are fewer jazz labels than there were twenty or thirty years ago. There were like 25 jazz labels then. Right now, there are two or three at the most. There was jazz on the radio, and now that's not so prevalent. So it's tough times for getting the music out to a public. The music has been determined to survive without these impediments, and it's doing okay.
You did a few albums with Jim Hall. How did you like playing with him?
Well, Jim would spend time making the arrangements at his house. My job would be to get to the gig and make them sound like they belonged together. It was always a challenge because he's such a quick study. He picks up on everything I do, and it adds another life to it. It's always wonderful to hear someone who's that quick on the uptake, so to speak. He always had a great sound. He always had good intonation. Of course, he always had wonderful ideas, and it's always a pleasure to play with someone who can respond to my input, to their concept and their music right away, and he does that very well.
With your current quartet, what is it about each player that you dig?
The percussion player's name is Rolando Morales-Matos. He's from San Juan. He's been with the Lion King for ten years as a percussion player and as an assistant conductor. And he teaches school at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, and he's on call for the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra. So he's a very busy person. I'm happy to have him carve out time for this tour. He's a very good composer and a very good arranger, and it's nice to have someone in the band who has a view of percussion as an additive, not just a hanger-on instrument in the band.
The drummer, Payton Crossley, has been with me for fifteen years and he's kind of gotten to understand what it takes to make this kind of group with no horn work every night. He's got a great drum sound and is happy to take my recommendations about what the drums can sound like for this band.
The current pianist is Renee Rosnes, who was a Canadian and now an American citizen, who is a wonderful composer. She's got a great touch on the piano, knows a thousand tunes and I have no concern about calling a song that we haven't rehearsed and have it sound like we've practiced that tune four days ago.