Ron Carter makes the case for the bass
by Seth Rogovoy

(LENOX, Mass., July 1, 2004) – Even though or perhaps because it’s ubiquitous – almost every ensemble includes one -- the bass is perhaps the most ignored and overlooked instrument in jazz. It’s usually just there, keeping time and noting the chord changes. But other than for an occasional, obligatory, often grudging bass solo, the spotlight typically shines on the other instrumentalists – the saxophonist, the trumpeter, the pianist. Even drummers get more respect than bassists, if only because it seems a lot more fun to play drums than bass.

So if the bass is the Rodney Dangerfield of the jazz ensemble – it just can’t get no respect – then Ron Carter’s career stands as something of a one-man campaign to reverse that impression. Because if Carter stands for anything, it’s for garnering respect for the bass and its potential role as a lead instrument in the ensemble.

Carter performs at the Duffin Theatre at Lenox High School on Friday and Saturday at 8:30, in a concert to benefit the Berkshire Project’s Hip Hop Remix for Teens at Risk program. Accompanying Carter will be pianist Stephen Scott, percussionist Steve Kroon and drummer Payton Crossley.

Speaking recently in a phone interview from his apartment in New York, Carter said that early on he bristled at the notion that his role in the jazz ensemble should be like that of a broom.

“Most groups today ignore the bass player’s input,” said Carter. “If you don’t want me to affect how you play, then hire the nearest broom. A broom just brooms. It doesn’t mop or dust. I try to make what I play a whole other view. To help that process by the notes and volume and intensity of what I play. If I don’t play with guys who feel like bass players can affect them, then I don’t take those gigs.”

Carter has certainly carved out a position for himself in the jazz world where he can be choosy about his gigs. The conservatory-trained musician and Grammy Award-winning composer has over 45 years of professional experience to his credit, including stints playing with Miles Davis, Wes Montgomery, Eric Dolphy, Jaki Byard and Cannonball Adderley. Estimates of his recording credits total upwards of 2,500 albums. A graduate of the Eastman School of Music in Rochester and the Manhattan School of Music in New York, he was the 2002 recipient of the Hutchinson Award from the Eastman School and the artistic director of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Studies.

Carter said that bassists themselves bear some of the blame for the limited regard in which their instrument is commonly held.

“If a bass player has command of the instrument, enough skill and daring, then he can control the direction of the band,” said Carter. “It’s about responsibility. It’s part of growing up. It’s part of life. The more responsibilities you have, the better person you become. It hasn’t occurred to most bassists that they have that kind of impact on the group. They’re just waiting around for their solos to come.”

Carter isn’t waiting around for anyone. Although he first rose to prominence as part of Miles Davis’s experimental, mid-1960s quartet with pianist Herbie Hancock and drummer Tony Williams, he has led his own bands since 1972. He has made so many recordings of his own and contributed to so many recordings by others that he says it’s impossible to pick out a favorite.

“I’ve had great times on a whole lot of records,” he said. “One of my students the other day found an LP at a flea market I had forgotten about. I did a Jewish Hebrew service with Thad Jones and Hank Jones. That was a wonderful record. If I pick out one, I forget the others.

“Most of those Miles Davis records are pretty good. Also the ones I did with Wes Montgomery. I like most of mine, too.”

Carter said he is drawn to a tune by the strength of its melody. “The form, the changes, if they’re a little bit crooked so to speak, and how strong the melody is,” he said. “If I can sing the melody -- it’s got to have a melody.”

For all his championing of his instrument, Carter’s first choice wasn’t the bass. He somewhat wearily recounts the story of how he switched from cello to double bass while in conservatory.

“I switched to bass because I was not getting the kind of exposure that the other cello players were getting who were not African-American,” said Carter. “Even as a bass player, the main orchestras were not hiring African-American musicians. That hasn’t changed in the last fifty years. You look at pictures of the main five orchestras over that time, and the proportions of whites and blacks have not changed.”

Nevertheless, Carter appreciates his conservatory background, especially the emphasis on discipline. “You learn discipline at an early age, during lessons for a prescribed period of time, learning how to take direction, and a level of technique with notes you have to play, to be responsible to your part, all important,” he said. “I’m not so sure the jazz schools teach that kind of discipline. “

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on July 1, 2004. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2004. All rights reserved.]

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