It’s no secret that jazz is a tough sell. Over the years, myriad ways to dress it up, infuse it with gimmickry or adorn it with commercial appeal have been undertaken, sold, mocked, consumed, spat out, or just plain flopped.
Jazz legend Ron Carter knows this all too well—especially when he finds himself booked onto so-called jazz festivals packed instead with pop and rock acts.
“I’m always upset, because they tell me that jazz doesn’t sell,” the famed bassist tells me recently on the phone from his home in New York. “But these festivals continue to have the name in their program. They must feel it appeals to somebody, otherwise they wouldn’t have the word in the title!”
Carter, age 77 and the undisputed most-recorded jazz bassist in history, should find a welcome home this weekend at the Healdsburg Jazz Festival, which for 16 years has staunchly presented pure jazz. In 2010, when the Healdsburg Jazz Festival’s artistic director Jessica Felix was ousted by the board of directors and a change in musical format was announced, a public outcry from fans and musicians alike resulted in Felix being reinstated and the board stepping down. (Read about it here.)
Carter notes that showcasing non-jazz acts — prevalent in lineups for the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, Jazz Aspen Snowmass, or the now-defunct Sonoma Jazz+ Festival — teaches audiences an entirely incorrect definition of jazz. Such faulty inoculation puts legends like him in a precarious position. “If we don’t do what they heard at the last ‘jazz’ festival,” he explains, “we’re kind of like the bad guys. They think we’re cheating them. We’re the charlatans.”
In Healdsburg, Carter joins a true jazz lineup that includes Charles Lloyd, Joshua Redman, Bobby Hutcherson, Marcus Shelby and others attuned closely to America’s native musical art form. He indicates, however, that even “real” jazz might be able to sell itself better commercially. When we talked, he had just returned from the Billboard Music Awards in Las Vegas, witnessing all the sizzle and bombast of a huge commercial show — replete with a Michael Jackson hologram.
“The groups that perform there, they insist on the audiences being attracted to them visually. They want you to see what they do. They want the flash, they want the flames, they want the smoke,” Carter says.
“The whole process of the things they do to make the music attractive is something that the jazz community doesn’t see every day, because we don’t go to those kinds of shows,” he continues. “I’m not saying we have to borrow some of that mindset, but it’s interesting to know how they sell the music.”
The sublime group Carter brings to Healdsburg this year, including pianist Renee Rosnes, drummer Payton Crossley and percussionist Rolando Morales-Mattos, plays a 90-minute set with no breaks, with Carter indicating through a form of musical ESP which song to segue into next. Some of those indicators, he admits, can be very subtle.
“Oh, man, it kinda fools us sometimes,” he laughs. “There’s this exchange of quietness, this exchange of question marks, this exchange of exclamation points, this exchange of nothing, sometimes, to make this stuff work.”
This combination of simultaneously grounding and directing the group is a hallmark of Carter’s playing, dating back to his celebrated stint in Miles Davis’ famed second quintet with Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams and Wayne Shorter (and, before Shorter replaced him, George Coleman). It was a five-year run that, no matter how many hundreds of other combos he plays with, will always define Carter to the jazz audience at large.
Carter talks about playing with Davis with appreciation, blended with a tone of slightly resigned acceptance for the public’s enduring interest in what amounts to a sliver of his long career. When asked what he learned in that quintet about the role of the bass, and the role of his own playing, Carter demurs for a second.
“The implication is that Miles taught me those things, and that’s not quite the case,” he says. “I try to say these things and not sound haughty, because that’s not my feeling. But what I did learn from playing with the band — with Wayne and George, Herbie and Tony — was how much an impact you can have in such a high-powered band. It’s one thing to be with Jim Hall, in a duo, or it’s one thing to be with my Golden Striker Trio, but it’s another thing to be in a band with that personnel, with that skill set, that direction, that volume! To be able to be a part of that group and still affect their thought process and musical direction—man, every night was a school for me.”
At the time, Davis’ aesthetic was teetering around the edges of a three-way Venn diagram of free jazz, modal jazz and hard bop, and Carter’s role became not just the foundation of the group—like most every bassist in jazz up until that point—but a navigator to the other four men of theretofore uncharted musical waters.
“Can I have a strong enough sense,” Carter remembers asking himself, “of those things to tell these guys—as I’m playing it, not telling them, but telling them through the bass — hey man, I think here’s the bridge right… here? Or this is a C7 right… now? Can I do that with the bass? Can I have an impact on this high-powered band? And I learned that the bass can do all of those things.”
For all his dedication to jazz — Carter taught jazz at the City College of New York for 20 years, and joined the staff of Juilliard as a bass instructor in 2008 — the amiable bassist has stayed open to new musical ideas. Even as far back as 1969, Carter opened soul singer Roberta Flack’s debut album First Date with a now-classic bass riff to the track “Compared to What;" sessions with Paul Simon and Phoebe Snow followed.
In the 1990s, Carter received a call from rapper Q-Tip, asking to record on A Tribe Called Quest’s album The Low End Theory. (Carter checked with his son to make sure the hip-hop group didn’t peddle in “unsavory” content, and stipulated that the rappers refrain from cursing on his song before agreeing to the studio date.) The result, "Verses From the Abstract," was one of the earliest collaborations between a hip-hop group and a jazz musician. "They were nice kids, by the way," Carter adds. "I was sorry to see them break up, ‘cause they were on the right track. They had some really good musical ideas, about changes, form and keys."
But the majority of Carter’s output has been jazz, whether in his early dates with Eric Dolphy, his Blue Note dates with McCoy Tyner, his records with Milt Jackson or even his recent guest cameo on the HBO series Tremé. His discography is massive, and ever-growing. “As for that title, yeah, I’m probably the most-recorded jazz bass player. It’s probably over 2,000 albums I’m on,” he estimates.
“I had someone email me the other day and say, ‘Hey man, I cut this record with you and Gene Ammons on it.’ I forgot about that! Those things are still coming up.”
Ron Carter performs 7:30pm, Saturday, June 7, at the Raven Theater in Healdsburg as part of the Healdsburg Jazz Festival. For tickets and information, visit healdsburgjazzfestival.org.
Care about what’s happening in Bay Area arts? Stay informed with one email every other week—right to your inbox.