8:37 am Mar. 26, 2012
Jazz education has undergone a surprising transformation in the past three decades.
A music that was once advanced in front of audiences in the trial-by-fire cool of nightclub jam sessions, it has now taken up residence in conservatories throughout the world, a move that has also drastically increased the number of players. Unfortunately, the swelling ranks have coincided with jazz's steadily dwindling commercial fortunes, just one of several reasons that some in the jazz community have a love-hate relationship with the new “classroom-as-bandstand” paradigm.
Ron Carter has never seen any of this as a disadvantage.
“I think it's important to have a pool of organized knowledge to draw from,” explained the bassist and educator when reached recently at his spacious home on the Upper West Side. Carter's 50-year career gives his words the ring of authority. He's currently a faculty member in the 11-year old jazz department at the Juilliard School of the Performing Arts, but he'd risen to the very pinnacle of the jazz world decades earlier, as a member of the last acoustic quintet led by trumpeter Miles Davis. (Active from 1963-68, the group also included fellow icons Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Tony Williams.) Carter's resume, which now stretches to just over 2,000 recordings, is littered with classic music, even stretching into the realms of chamber music and hip-hop.
Carter is in the mood to reflect about process as he prepares to star in a Juilliard gala fund-raiser Tuesday night at Alice Tully Hall. The proceeds will go to a scholarship the school is naming in his honor.
“It's always good to just play,” the bassist said, “but I know from experience that unless you can find someone on the bandstand who'll take you aside and show you shortcuts and whatnot, it can also be a place of uncertainty, of scrambling and trying to find out what you can.”
Interestingly enough, clues about Carter's own relationship to developmental trial and error might be gleaned from a colorful passage about him in Davis' memoir Miles: The Autobiography; the trumpeter made no secret of prefering the spontaneity of great musicians responding in the moment to hours of rehearsal.
“It would take Ron four or five days to really get into something,” Davis told co-author Quincy Troupe. “But when he got it, man, you'd better watch out. Because that motherfucker would be laying it down, and you'd better get up and play your ass off or you were going to be left behind and look real bad.”
To hear the Juilliard Jazz Department artistic director Carl Allen tell it, Carter is a generous instructor who can be mistaken for icy on the bandstand.
“I first met Ron about 20 years ago on a gig with [tenor saxophonist-composer] Benny Golson,” Allen, a drummer, recalls. “I think it was at a club in New Jersey. It's funny, Ron didn’t really speak to me on that gig, so I think I got the impression that he was a little cold. I just remember him maybe nodding at me. You have to understand that I'm of a generation that grew up studying records he's on. As we ended up on more gigs together—with Golson, [trumpeter] Art Farmer and others—I came to realize that his manner is just no-nonsense.”
Carter's relative ease in the classroom can be traced to something else, though: that the conservatory environment formed him. The son of a bus driver in postwar Detroit, he began music studies as a classical cellist, though switching to the bass was the first harbinger of things to come.
“At that time in Detroit they weren’t giving me the opportunities to play that they were giving the white kids,” he recounted matter-of-factly in his faculty portrait for The Juilliard Journal. “But when I started playing the bass, they were compelled to let me, because I was the only one playing that instrument.” By graduation, he'd won a scholarship to the prestigious Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY to further his classical studies.
And yet, the same pragmatism born of racial chauvinism had to kick in again at Eastman.
“The decision to pursue jazz was kinda made for me,” explained Carter. “I was excelling at school, but the lack of opportunities coming my way forced me to start looking around for a place to put my knowledge to use. That's around the time I started making jazz gigs in different places, like frat parties when I was home in Detroit on break. It was a practical decision, and the jazz community welcomed me. I was told that a good bassist would always have gigs in New York City, so that’s what led me to pursue a master’s degree at the Manhattan School of Music. I'd looked here at Juilliard, but Manhattan offered me scholarship money. Of course, at that time there was no jazz program here.”
Carter feels the idea of having a scholarship in his name probably won't sink in until the star-studded fund-raiser, an event that will feature musicians from every era of his multifaceted career in addition to several arrangements for his pet project nonet, a classically-tinged ensemble with four cellos, two basses, piano, drums, and percussion. Benny Golson, who was one of Carter's first employers when he hit New York City in 1960, will be on hand, as well as new-jack bass heavy Christian McBride and historymaking guitarist Jim Hall.
When the conversation turned to his current position, Carter was quick with a reminder that Juilliard was not first teaching job. Starting in the '70s, he taught at City College, a post he held for 19 years while maintaining a busy schedule of recording and international touring. (“In all that time, Ron only missed four days!” said Carl Allen.) Carter jokingly admitted that these days he's mellowed out a bit with his students.
“I have become much more patient,” he said. “As you get older, you start to allow one more mistake that you wouldn’t have allowed this time last year. I’ve learned to let the second mistake go by, but not the third or the fourth.”
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