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Uptown Conversation: RON CARTER (Unabridged)
Highlights from Issue 34: Jazz
Ron Carter / Photograph Courtesy of BLUE NOTE RECORDS
Monday, March 17, 2008
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The complete interview with Ron Carter appears in Issue 34: Jazz. Here we present an excerpt of the interview, along with some unpublished material that was omitted from print
UPTOWN CONVERSATION: RON CARTER
By Peter Relic
When talking about bassist Ron Carter, words like prolific and influential — though accurate — seem insufficient. Most notably known as a member of the second great Miles Davis quintet (he played with Davis during the pivotal years from 1963 to 1968), Carter has lent his considerable musical skills to an estimated 3,000 albums, both as a sideman and a leader. An amiable yet no-nonsense interview, Carter welcomed STOP SMILING into his vibrant, longtime Upper West Side apartment, decorated with art (predominantly by female African-American artists) collected by his late wife, Janet. When informed that the tape recorder was rolling, this Distinguished Professor Emeritus of the City College of New York says, “I take all questions seriously.”
Stop Smiling: The first time many of my generation bought a record with you on it was A Tribe Called Quest’s Low End Theory. Its spare funk sound is unique in hip-hop history. As an old-school jazz musician, why were you amenable to working with rappers?
Ron Carter: Well, I don’t know if I’m an old-school musician. I had done enough different types of records with enough different types of musicians that I felt this was just another chance. I wanted to see how these guys operate. I’ve done overdubs for Jefferson Airplane, I’ve done sessions with Flora and Airto and their Brazilian thing, I’d done stuff with Little Jimmy Scott, with Aretha Franklin, with Paul Simon, with Billy Idol — a pretty broad palette. But when these guys called me about this record, I didn’t know who they were. I knew the genre, but I didn’t know them. So I asked my son who these guys were and he said they were the most musical guys in that zone. So I called the guy [Q-Tip] up and told him I’d do the record. But I told him, “Listen, you gotta stop using this cursing language with the drugs. I don’t do that, and I will be gone before you can spell the word exit.” He assured me they were talking about real issues and they’d make sure the language was okay for me. It turned out their language was much less crooked than everybody else’s. So I went in for two hours, made some tracks and came on home. I’m embarrassed to say this but I’ve never heard the record after all this time. I bought it last month and I’m going to listen to it.
SS: I was listening to a Freddie Hubbard album you play on where you play a low C. You had a fingerboard extension built so that you bass could reach that note?
RC: The first one. In 1969 I got a call from a bass repair man in Cincinnati who has since passed away. I went down to see him on my way to somewhere else — he was a great repair man always working on my fiddles, and he told me he had this experiment going where he'd built on extension on the fingerboard so that bass could go down to low C, but you got to finger the notes. Up to this point there was a German contraption that went down to low C, but it had these pads and springs so that you pressed a key and the pad would come down but the springs would always break, and it added about 15 more pounds to the neck of the bass, which was really a drag.
So he said he had this device he's working on and he wanted me to try it out — it makes the bass go down to low C from low E with this clamp on there, it allows you to finger E-flat, D, D-flat, open C. I said, "If I don't like it can I take it off?" He said, "If you don't like it you gotta come back and I'll take it off for you." So he put it on in the spring of 1969 and I've still got the same one. When I go to concerts and the orchestra's on TV and three or four guys have this machine on their bass, I get a chuckle inside because I think, "If these guys knew that I had the first one in 1969, would they still feel the same way about playing it?"
SS: What was the fella's name in Cincinnati?
RC: Dave Horine. His shop is still there in Cincinnati under a different name. I try to use the fingerboard extension sparingly so that it has its intended effect. I may not use it at all one night if I can't find the right place for it. I use it with as much patience as I can, wait for the music to make it most effective. I'll stay up there all week, I want the music to make it necessary. And certain gigs I'll use it all night because the tunes are in the right key or they're slow enough or fast enough so the note is an important part of the tune.
[Here's a link to the talkbass.com forum that discusses pioneering bass luthier Dave Horine]
SS: What do you feel about the possibilities for music as a healing power in the universe?
RC: I’m not sure music can do that. I’m not sure that Beethoven’s Fifth or Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue played in Congress is gonna make them stop the fuckin’ war, man. Or make the Shiites and the Sunnis not shoot each other. We hear musicians and people who look for ways to solve problems say music is the answer. But music has so many different possible interpretations that I don’t see how it’s possible for a tune or a note to discourage a guy from robbing this grocery. I hope my examples don’t seem simpleminded, but I don’t think music has that kind of life-changing force to make the world what I would call a better place to be. I can’t imagine a person — a hedge fund manager — would go to the Village Vanguard and hear different bands for a week and be so moved by this music that they’d give the Village Vanguard their million dollars so they could operate for a year without taking any money off the door. I wish I could play a chorus and make the robbers stop robbing. I wish I could play a chorus and make all the gangs come to my gig at a nightclub and say, “Man, we gotta stop doing this.” It’s going to take something else to make that happen. And I don’t think music is the means to make that take place. There was a jazz fundraiser at the White House this year  and President Bush said he enjoyed the music, but the war’s still going on, man. Kids are still getting killed. The music didn’t stop his thought process at all.
To read the complete interview with Ron Carter, click here