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85-year-old bassist Ron Carter has no plans on slowing down

Critics say Ron Carter left a big footprint in music, especially for bassists.
Didier Baverel
Getty Images
Critics say Ron Carter left a big footprint in music, especially for bassists.

Ron Carter is one of the most prolific and influential bassists in jazz history. During his six-decade career, he has recorded more than 2,000 records, and he has no plan on slowing down.

"Age has not made me think slower," Carter says. And it's not made me refuse gigs. What it's made me do is be thankful I got this far playing an instrument with four strings."

Next Tuesday, May 10, For the Love of Ron Carter and Friendswill take place at Carnegie Hall - which is a one-night 85th birthday celebration. Carter will lead three different bands performing highlights from his career.

The Most Important Bass Player

Born in Ferndale, Michigan in 1937, Carter started to play the cello at the age of 10, but switched to bass in high school because he claims opportunities were limited for Black musicians to play classical music. He studied at the Eastman School of Music, then went on to get his master's degree at the Manhattan School of Music. By the time he was 25, he was one of the most sought-after sidemen in jazz.

Carter's most historic recordings came in the 1960s as the bassist in the second great Miles Davis Quintet. He says the band – with Miles Davis on trumpet, George Coleman and then Wayne Shorter on saxophone, Herbie Hancock on piano, and Tony Williamson on drums — never rehearsed before recording.

"God gave Miles the title of Head Clinician at this laboratory," Carter recalls. "And his job was to bring in these various chemicals night in and night out, and see what these remaining four guys in this group—what kind of combinations would they find of these explosive devices he brought to the gig, and what kind of fun could he have trying to keep up."

Each night when Carter would leave a gig with the Miles Davis Quintet, he'd review the session.

"I'd look back and say now, 'How did I help these guys play better?' And 'how could I make me be better as I got them better?' Those are my views," he says. "And to this day, that's still how I feel when I'm playing a gig: That I helped these people who I'm playing with get better because I'm playing with them."

And Carter has certainly helped a lot of musicians get better. Bassist Stanley Clarke says in the last 50 years, Carter has been "the most important bass player." Before Clarke became famous as a founding member of Chick Corea's Return to Forever band, he says he learned by listening to Carter.

"I remember as a young kid, I used to get his records," Clarke recalls. "I could tell he was very, very professional because the consistency was there from record to record to record: his sound, his ability, and then his flow."

Giovanni Russonello, who writes about Jazz for the New York Times, says Carter has left as big a footprint in the music as any musician, let alone bassists.

"When I think of Ron Carter, I think of this incredible ability to be sure-footed everywhere, but also sound almost like a plasma, like some undefinable, mutable substance," he said. "Because his bass line sound endlessly fascinating, and full of ideas. And on the move."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Vitale