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A project of Jazz Appreciation Month, KNKX and Jazz24 celebrate highly regarded jazz creators who continue to inspire.

Long in the spotlight, bassist Ron Carter still fights to keep jazz vital

Ron Carter of the Ron Carter Trio performs at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival on Friday, April 27, 2017, in New Orleans.
Amy Harris
Ron Carter of the Ron Carter Trio performs at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival on Friday, April 27, 2017, in New Orleans.

Bassist Ron Carter famously stepped into the spotlight as one of the members of the “second great” Miles Davis Quintet (1963-1968)—and hasn’t stopped performing, recording and teaching for over six decades.

This recording of “Footprints” featured that second great Miles Davis Quintet, with Herbie Hancock on piano, Wayne Shorter on sax, Tony Williams on drums and Ron Carter on bass.

They never rehearsed before they recorded. The ebb and flow between the artists was electric, experimental and ultimately, iconic.

Carter grew up in Ferndale, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit. At age 10, he started by learning classical cello.

In the PBS documentary Ron Carter: Finding the Right Notes, Carter recalls the distinct imprint of racism on his young life. He had to cart his cello twice as far as white kids, since children of color weren’t allowed to walk through ‘white-only’ neighborhoods.

And even as he was excelling in classical music, he received a stinging and unforgettable rejection in his young life.

“I’m attending the Philharmonic of Rochester and this person named Leopold Stokowski is conductor. He’s the guy who made 'Fantasia,' with Disney, you know?" Carter said in the film.

He recalled Stokowski telling him, "you know I’d like to take you down to my orchestra down in Texas, but the board of directors are not ready to hire a colored boy."

"And I was stunned," Carter said.

He made a calculated switch to bass in high school, since a bass player was always needed.

Carter got a B.A. in music from the Eastman School of Music and a masters degree from Manhattan School of Music.

In the 1970s, Carter became house bassist for CTI Records. That’s where he collaborated with many jazz greats, like trumpeter Freddie Hubbard. While working on the title track to the album "Red Clay" – it was Carter who came up with that distinctive bass line.

In the PBS documentary, pianist Jon Batiste asked Carter to describe his approach when working with band leaders who hire him. Carter answered this way:

“One is to wish I would come back…and the two is to watch him walk off the stage with tire tracks on his back from my time!"

Carter says if you look at all the different ways of playing even just three notes on the bass, the options are endless.

Carter is a distinguished professor emeritus at City College in New York. He taught bass in the Jazz Studies Program at Julliard, and is on the advisory committee of the board of directors of the Jazz Foundation of America.

Carter says jazz is continuing to find its place in history:

“It’s seeing the music still fight for its survival, and I’m still part of that. I mean, how long do I want to continue fighting for the survival of the music, or part of the struggle of people who are trying to make the music remain vital to someone else’s life...which is how music lives!”

Carter has won three Grammys: one for the instrumental piece "Call Sheet Blues" in the 1986 film “Round Midnight,” and another for Best Jazz Instrumental Performance on the album A Tribute to Miles.

In 2021, his album Skyline, with pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba and drummer Jack DeJohnette, won for Best Jazz Instrumental Album.

Paige Hansen has been heard on radio station 88.5 KNKX-FM for over 20 years where she’s hosted news & jazz. You can currently hear her hosting jazz weekdays & Sundays. She is also an active musician, writer and singer.