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At 85, the Jazz Bassist Ron Carter Still Seeks ‘A Better Order of Notes’

Ron Carter, the acclaimed jazz bassist, in Riverside Park in New York, May 1, 2022. (Elliott Jerome Brown Jr./The New York Times)
Ron Carter, the acclaimed jazz bassist, in Riverside Park in New York, May 1, 2022. (Elliott Jerome Brown Jr./The New York Times)

On a recent morning on the Upper West Side, bassist and bandleader Ron Carter sat on the far end of a plush, rust-colored sofa in his spacious 10th-floor apartment, an oak-hued space with ornate sculptures and panoramic views of the bustling neighborhood blocks below. In the background wafted a gentle melody from Antônio Carlos Jobim, a Brazilian multi-instrumentalist and a former collaborator. The place exuded a grandeur that describes the man, too. It’s no surprise that Carter — Mr. Carter, Maestro, a jazz legend — lives here.

With more than 60 albums as bandleader and countless others as a sideman, and more than 2,220 recording sessions to his credit, Carter has long let his music do the talking. During our conversation, he seemed guarded, resting his head in a balled-up right fist and looking away when answering questions. But on this April day, he had something specific to discuss: a career-spanning show at Carnegie Hall on Tuesday with his own trio, quartet and octet to celebrate his 85th birthday.

“He’s as straight as an arrow,” Herbie Hancock, a hallowed pianist who met Carter at Miles Davis’ house in 1963, said in a phone interview. They were playing tunes in what would become the trumpeter’s Second Great Quintet. “Miles played a little bit, then he threw his horn down on the couch and went upstairs,” Hancock added. “But before he did, he told Ron to take over. He targeted Ron to do that because he knew that Ron could. Ron is a no-nonsense guy.”

Carter grew up as something of a prodigy in the Midwest, in a family that played instruments, yet wasn’t musical, per se. “Most Black people in the ’40s and ’50s, the families had some kind of common bond in the house before TV and all the stuff took over,” he said. “It was always someone who played piano, you had this choir singing at the house, normal African American communal in-house music.”

He took up the cello at 11 when a teacher starting an orchestra laid out the instruments on the table and it “seemed to strike my fancy,” he said, and played it until he got to high school. But he noticed he didn’t get the same opportunities as white students, despite being told how talented he was. High school orchestra members were sometimes asked to play background music for dinners and PTA meetings — everyone except the Black students. In 1954, Carter saw that the orchestra’s only bassist was graduating. He turned to the instrument as a way to stand out.

Discrimination followed him to Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, where Carter played bass in the orchestra: Guest conductor Leopold Stokowski, then leading the Houston Symphony, said he liked Carter as a player and person, but Texas wasn’t progressive enough to have a Black musician in the orchestra. So Carter started playing at a local jazz club called the Red Creek Inn, working as the de facto bassist for touring musicians passing through town.

“They said I played really good, and they thought that if I got to New York City, I could find work there,” Carter said. He moved to the city after graduating in 1959 and landed a spot playing in a band led by drummer Chico Hamilton while also pursuing a master’s degree at the Manhattan School of Music. In 1961, he earned the advanced degree and released his debut album, “Where?,” which featured two other stalwarts: alto saxophonist Eric Dolphy and pianist Mal Waldron.--NYT

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