Bass icon and Juilliard Jazz faculty member Ron Carter is on the phone thinking back to an auspicious meeting he recently had on campus. It was the moment when Carl Allen, the jazz program’s artistic director, gave him some once-in-a-lifetime news. “Of course, I didn’t know what to say,” Carter says, remembering the afternoon. “I was called into the office and told that [Juilliard Jazz] was planning a celebration in my honor. That in itself was overwhelming enough, but then it was explained that the tag for the celebration would be a fund-raiser for a Juilliard scholarship in my name. Fortunately, I was sitting down or I might have fallen over.”
Audiences who’ve witnessed Carter’s cool bearing onstage over the past five decades might have a hard time imagining much of anything buckling the bassist’s posture-perfect 6-foot 4-inch frame. But his astonishment is as understandable as the accolade is deserved. The Detroit native is considered by many to be the dean of bass players, his supple playing having graced just over 2,000 recordings in settings that stretch well beyond jazz into the realms of chamber music (his first instrument was cello) and hip-hop. An awe-inspiring percentage of his jazz sides are considered cornerstones of the idiom’s history, with one particular handful of discs, recorded with Miles Davis (’45, trumpet) from 1963 to ’68, assuring the bassist’s place in the pantheon of jazz greats. Many still see the Carter incarnation of the Miles Davis Quintet (which also featured pianist Herbie Hancock, tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter, and drummer Tony Williams) as the trumpeter’s most bracingly influential acoustic ensemble. “Everyone studies those records,” says Allen, who persuaded Carter to teach at Juilliard five years ago. “At this point, Ron is someone we all grew up listening to.”
While Carter confesses that the specifics of the Ron Carter Jazz Scholarship at Juilliard are still in the works, his benefit concert is well beyond the planning stages. “Ron Carter at 75: A Life in Music” is scheduled for March 27 at Alice Tully Hall. “As much as we’re honoring Mr. Carter,” says the executive director of Juilliard Jazz, Laurie Carter (who isn’t related to the evening’s honoree), “this can also be seen as his gift to Juilliard—which we are very grateful for.” The concert is designed to be a look at the many facets of the bassist’s career as player, composer, educator, and award winner (Carter has two Grammy Awards, one for music from the 1986 Hollywood film ’Round Midnight, the other for 1993’s Miles Davis Tribute Band; he was also nominated for a 2011 best improvised jazz solo Grammy for “You Are My Sunshine” on Donald Harrison, Ron Carter, and Billy Cobham’s This Is Jazz on Half Note).
Allen first alludes to the who’s who of greats lined up for the benefit when he mentions guest-star tenor saxist-composer Benny Golson, whose relationship with Carter goes back to shortly after the bassist first arrived in New York City, in 1960, as a scholarship student in the graduate program at the Manhattan School of Music. Decades later, Golson was responsible for Allen’s first bandstand encounter with the bassist. “It was about 20 years ago at a club in New Jersey,” Allen recalls. “It’s funny. Ron didn’t really speak to me on that gig, so I think I got the impression that he was a little cold. I just remember him maybe nodding at me. But as we ended up on more gigs together, with people like Golson, [trumpeter] Art Farmer and others, I came to realize that his manner is just no-nonsense.”
In addition to Golson and Allen, the star-studded evening is loaded with special guests, including guitar eminence Jim Hall, veteran reedist Hubert Laws, and Carter’s trio partners in the sparkling 2003 album Golden Striker, pianist Mulgrew Miller and guitarist Russell Malone. Though Carter will handle the bass chores for much of the evening, his immense contribution to the instrument will be feted in performances by two subsequent generations of bass heavies, Christian McBride (’90) and Buster Williams.
One thing that both Carter and Allen are proud of is that the event will allow them to have Juilliard students onstage with the jazz luminaries. Just last year the bassist released Ron Carter’s Great Big Band, a disc of fine arrangements for 17-piece ensemble that should be ripe for the student-driven large ensemble on the celebration’s bill. Carter’s voice rises slightly when he discusses the evening’s other large band, his long-running but rarely staged nonet. Its unique makeup corrals both his classical and jazz ambitions. “It’s four cellos, two basses, piano, drums and percussion,” he says. “I’ve done gigs with it in the past, but budgets are prohibitive for that size ensemble. We’re going to augment our jazz students with several players from Juilliard’s classical department.”
The nonet is also a reminder of how Carter’s formative vision was shaped by inner as well as outside forces. He had every intention of becoming a classical musician when he got a scholarship to the Eastman School of Music in the late 1950s. “The decision to play jazz was kinda made for me,” he explains. “Early in my playing career I was made to realize that the classical environment was not ready to accept a talented African-American player. I was excelling, but after a while I started looking around for a place to put all my bass knowledge to use. That’s when I started making jazz gigs in different places, like frat parties when I was home in Detroit on break. It was a practical decision, and the jazz community welcomed me. I was told that a good bassist would always have gigs in New York City, so that’s what led me to pursue my master’s degree at the Manhattan School.”
Carter’s conservatory history might explain why he’s never been anxious about jazz’s move into the conservatory. Juilliard wasn’t his first teaching position; he taught at City College for 19 years. (“In all that time, Ron only missed four days!” Allen says.) “I think it’s important to have some kind of organized knowledge,” Carter opines. “The bandstand can be a place of scrambling and trying to find out what you can unless there’s someone who’ll take you aside and show you shortcuts they’ve learned over the years. Whichever way you go, the bottom line is it’s always good to play.”