Ron Carter was born May 4, 1937, in Royal Oak Township (near Detroit), one of eight children. His introduction to music came at age ten when he began playing cello. By the time he graduated from Cass Technical High School in Detroit, he was playing bass and the violin, clarinet, trombone, and tuba as well. In the spring of 1955, Carter won a scholarship to the prestigious Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. He graduated with a Bachelor of Music degree in 1959, and joined a group led by Chico Hamilton. Six months later, when Hamilton returned to California, Carter entered the Manhattan School of Music, graduating with a Masters in bass in 1961.
During this period, Carter began proving himself in the ultimate testing grounds: the New York studios. He freelanced rather ferociously, an activity he has maintained throughout his career. Ron accompanied such luminaries as Eric Dolphy, Jaki Byard, Randy Weston, Wes Montgomery, and Bobby Timmons, and toured Europe with Cannonball Adderley.
In 1961, Carter did a series of albums for Prestige with Eric Dolphy and Mal Waldron (Carter’s was called Where, Dolphy’s was Out There, and Waldron’s was The Quest).
Then, in March 1963, Carter joined the Miles Davis band and, for the next five years, made that rhythm section as exciting and radical as imaginable. They toured Europe in ‘63 and ‘64, Japan in ‘64.
During the summer months, when not touring with Miles, Ron used his free time working at many different jazz clinics, writing a series of three books (Building a Jazz Bass Line), and playing at a seemingly limitless number of clubs and record sessions.
By 1965, Carter was definitely coming into his own. He won the Down Beat New Star award and continued to expand his session work. If it’s jazz, Carter’s most probably been there. His reputation in the studios is peerless: he is capable of accompanying any kind of player, and at the same time, is able to play with stunning virtuosity as a soloist. Musicians and producers alike easily acknowledge that Carter has saved more than one fumbling session. Ron’s list of credentials is awesome—both in jazz and elsewhere. He’s played on Aretha Franklin sessions and he’s played on albums by the Jefferson Airplane. He was one of the first blacks to break the all-white barrier in classical music, playing with many different symphonies.
In 1971, Carter recorded an album for Atlantic called Uptown Conversation. Then, at CTI, he did a series of five very powerful and imaginative albums, including Blues Farm, Spanish Blue, All Blues, Anything Goes, and Yellow and Green. Also in the early Seventies, Carter became an integral part of the New York Jazz Sextet (later the New York Jazz Quartet).
"I wanted to form my own quartet,” says Ron, "but the bass is not usually considered a lead instrument, and visually, the bassist is always in the back.” He found the solution in the piccolo bass, an instrument which he describes as a three-quarter-size bass tuned upside down like a cello. This effectively put him out front in the group and created one of the most distinctive and unusual jazz formations ever. Pianist Kenny Barron, drummer Ben Riley, and the bassist’s bassist, Buster Williams, have been thrilling audiences for several years now.
Carter’s switch to Milestone Records two years ago seems a most propitious move. For the first time, he was given the opportunity to act as his own producer, a job which he has performed with ease, grace, and decided skill. His first Milestone album was Pastels, with Kenny Barron, Hugh McCracken, and Harvey Mason. The LP further established Ron as the most prominent, inventive bassist alive. The next was Piccolo, a double-album set recorded live at what the Quartet considers their musical home, a small, intimate Greenwich Village club called Sweet Basil. Critical acclaim, and increased sales, resulted.
Last year, Carter rejoined his friends from the Miles Davis band (Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and Tony Williams, plus Freddie Hubbard) for the V.S.O.P. tour. "It was the first major indication that people today are willing and eager to investigate acoustic jazz. I feel a definite responsibility to present a musically viable alternative. I listen to and enjoy all kinds of music—from the top popular stations to the symphonies. But my heart is right here with acoustic jazz.”
On Peg Leg (released in the spring of ‘78), Ron augmented his regular quartet with woodwind arrangements, while on his newest, A Song for You, a cello quartet enhances the performances of a band that includes Jack DeJohnette and Ralph MacDonald. A Song for You, released in conjunction with the Milestone Jazzstars tour, is evidence of Carter’s continuing growth as a composer, his imagination as a producer, and his stature as a master bassist and musician.