The Best Things in Jazz Are Free...No, Really


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After a year in New York, I can say with confidence that a free lunch is hard to find. The closest I've come is a free bagel with cream cheese from a street cart vendor in Greenwich Village. The next day he changed his mind and charged me double. But in the jazz world at least, that has just changed with the advent of NYU's interview (and sometimes concert) series at Barnes and Noble...

Every Friday evening at their Upper East Side store (at 86th and Lexington, specifically), Barnes and Noble opens its doors to the jazz community by hosting an interview with one of jazz's great legends. The interview series is conducted (and was conceived by) the director of NYU's jazz studies program, Dr. David Schroeder, who described how and why he started this series: “Through my position as the director of Jazz Studies at NYU, I have been fortunate to have access to some of the most inspired musicians on the planet. In developing friendships with these artists, I have also discovered their human side. It is my hope that through this series, artists can share their lives along with their music."

It features artists like Ron Carter and Russell Malone, Don Friedman, Wayne Krantz, Steve Kuhn (discussing his time in John Coltrane's band), Benny Golson and many others. For students and fans alike, this is a really special opportunity to meet the art form's greatest contributors, to hear their stories, see them demonstrate what they do and to ask them questions. And for free. It almost reminds me of those Mastercard commercials:

Subway Fare: $2.25
Barnes and Noble coffee: $2.00
Band-aids after getting run into by a crazed bike messenger
on 86th Street: $5.00
NYU interview series at Barnes and Noble: Free

Getting to meet, listen to and talk with a jazz legend: Priceless

Anyway, this past Friday featured Ron Carter, and as an added bonus he played a few duo tunes with guitar great Russell Malone. For those who don't know Ron Carter, he is one of the most important voices on the jazz bass in the entire history of the instrument. But his importance stretches even beyond that-- he was the cornerstone of perhaps the most influential jazz group in the modern era, the second Miles Davis Quintet (in the 1960's). That group totally reshaped the way that jazz players approach time, rhythmic and harmonic modulations, group interaction and composition (musicians still study the group's innovations 40 years later). And through all of the experimentation, the glue for the project was Ron Carter. His bass work provided the foundation for the other members to build upon, and he was there to guide them back if they leaped too far...

Following his stint in the Davis group, Carter has gone on to a prolific recording career both as a leader and as a sideman (I heard the figure 2500 recordings thrown out there, and I believe it). He has recently released an album dedicated to Miles Davis, called “Dear Miles." He has also just had an authorized biography about him published, entitled “Finding the Right Notes," and he was autographing it for the crowd on Friday...

The event began with Carter and Malone performing two duo pieces-- I didn't catch the names of the tunes but the first was loosely based on rhythm changes and the second was a blues melody that they appeared to compose on the spot. They have obviously played together many times, to the point where they have developed that special form of communication unique to virtuosic jazz musicians-- they have managed to create a variant on language such that only they know how to speak it. Carter put it much more succinctly when he said that he “trust[s] Russell." And for good reason...the music served to reinforce just why this was a standing room only crowd.

During the interview, Carter expanded on his astounding resume. He attended Eastman School of Music as a classical cellist in the 1950's. His classical background and training taught him “the value of discipline," how to practice, and a solid understanding of the rules of music. The last point was particularly important, he felt, because “it's hard to break the rules when you don't know what they are."

Carter moved to New York City in August of 1959, where he soon switched to the bass out of necessity. Even though there were many clubs and an active jazz scene, Carter said of his fellow young musicians at the time that “We were all looking to play, all the time. It didn't matter when, where or with whom..." Carter insisted that that experience was invaluable, and urged young musicians today to “find your own places to play, because you need to find out what you don't know."

Carter rocketed to stardom when he joined Miles Davis' band a few years later, but noted that his relationship with Davis began on surprisingly even terms. Carter was playing a two week gig with Art Farmer, and when Davis asked him to come on tour immediately, Carter replied “Mr. Davis (I didn't call him Miles yet), you'll have to talk to Art. If he says it's okay, I'd be happy to come with you. But if he says no, I'd be just as happy to stay here." That honesty and respect between the two men would shape their relationship and work in the years that followed. Carter gave the crowd a few other tidbits about his time with Davis, but in all fairness it's told more completely in his book (which everyone says is an excellent read), so I'd encourage people to pick it up...

What was more valuable than the jazz equivalent of TMZ was Carter's insight into how he approaches music and the bass. He talked about how every night on the bandstand was like “school" for him: “I really am constantly trying to find the right notes. What I mean is that everyone plays differently, and what I want to do is find the notes that fit with the player, to make that player sound better than he really is!" In response to audience questions, he discussed his approach to the duo he had just played with Russell Malone. “I try to hear everything, and I try to anticipate where Russell is going. I trust his judgment and that he will take me someplace that I wouldn't have thought of. But I also want to make him play something that he wouldn't otherwise play 'at his house.' So I need to start listening to where he's going even before he starts playing."

And for those rhythm section players among us, check out the following tip: “I always insist that the drums be tuned properly so that they are tuned to my bass. That way the drummer can hear all of the frequencies and can really hear the pulse." So if you're having time problems in a session, the fault may lie with your intonation! I wish that I could say that I could have intuited that in 100 years, but I would be lying to you :-)

Anyway, there were many other gems throughout the interview (Carter's favorite composer is J.S. Bach, for example), but rather than give myself carpal tunnel syndrome here, I'm just going to strongly urge you to check out this series in person. It's free and it's accessible...and I think Dr. Schroeder summed it up perfectly: “Mr. Carter is the consummate professional. A true gentleman who continues to inspire young musicians through his exemplary life's work. What a great opportunity for everyone to listen and learn."

Amen to that. See you next Friday at 7pm, and beware the bike messengers...

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This story appears courtesy of From Riches to Ragtime: Peter Cobb.
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