An Interview with James Carter

A Conversation With
James Carter
By Fred Jung

James Carter is one of a handful of musicians that is consistently making some of the finest music in jazz today. His name has become a buzzword for critics, for connoisseurs of jazz music, and the industry as a whole. He is a man in charge of his own destiny and his perceptive on his life, his music, and his future is mature beyond his years. The young saxophonist and I took some time during his tour to speak candidly about his influences, his music, his views, and his love, the saxophone.

JazzUSA: You came from humble beginnings. Let’s talk about how you came to play jazz music and your inspirations as a youth to pursue the music.

JC: First of all, I was born in Detroit. I’m the youngest of five and my family was always musically inclined. My mom was at the helm of the music part of it, as far as participatory where I was concerned because she used to play violin or piano during the school days. My father, who I did not have around long enough, he passed when I was, a little after two, about two and a half or something like that. He was into blues. He was an avid blues cat. He listened to B. B. King and others blues players like Muddy Waters, Elmore James, you know. I think he pretty much had an earful of what my people would call ‘good music’. But I think it was also because that’s what those artists had attention for, honesty, and what they were trying to convey and communicate to their listening audience, be it live, or on vinyl, or 8 track, whatever the case might have been at the time. It is the honesty that is what I have kept with me and it’s been somewhat incarnated in my music. Studying music and music being life. Music being an honest recollection of one’s own experiences to date or perceptions of tomorrow as well as today and of the past, whatever. It’s all part of one continuum.

JazzUSA: All these individuals were instrumental in your development as an artist and as a musician. Let’s talk about how each individual influenced you and how you developed your relationship. First, Wynton Marsalis.

JC: To begin with, as far as Wynton was concerned, the time I went down, I originally met him in March of ’85. He came to our town and was a guest soloist with the symphony at the time and the Board of Education got him to do a question and answer that was attended by the citywide fine arts departments of various schools. I met him because our jazz band was also hosting the event. Our school was hosting the event and they came from miles around for that. That’s how we pretty much met and exchanged numbers. I ended up taking my first tour of Europe that same year, in the summer, under an international jazz exchange program. While I was out on that tour, I was looking at MTV one day and I noticed that Wynton’s brother was playing with Sting. I wondered if it was something that he was a guest on or was he actually doing that. Later on that year, I got back into the States and it was pretty much confirmed that he had left the group (referring to Wynton Marsalis’s quintet in the early 1980’s with brother Branford Marsalis, Kenny Kirkland, Jeff ‘Tain’ Watts, and Charnett Moffett, Branford Marsalis left in late 1985) and Wynton’s manager called up and said, ‘We’d like for you to come down and play at Blues Alley.’ So I went on the second week of December in 1985 to Blues Alley and played there for the week. That’s how that started and it pretty much was a series of concerts that came from that gig, up until the summer of ’87. There’s was a little national eyebrow lifting, but nothing that was really on any given level, or what you would call notice or anything like that, except for one People Magazine interview that I did in March of ’87 and that was the first national splash and all.

JazzUSA: Lester Bowie.

JC: Lester, now that was more important, I would feel. It was most important because in ’88, May to be exact, ever since we played our first gig together, I was a last minute addition at the Detroit Institute of Art’s Recital Hall, part of a chamber jazz concert series in which Lester was soloing and guest artist of. We exchanged information and he was talking to me about putting a group together, which subsequently became the New York Organ Ensemble, but it started out with piano. We premiered it here in New York, first week of November in ’88. That was my first time here in New York as a musician and through that particular incident, I met Frank Lowe and subsequently lead me into meeting Julius Hemphill in St. Louis. I played with him for a long time. I became a member of the sextet from ’89 on up until his death in ’95.

JazzUSA: You divide your time between your own career as a leader and also with that of dame Kathleen Battle, Frank Lowe’s Saxemble, and Hamiett Bluiett’s Baritone Nation. How has playing in such a variety of settings aided you musically? Let’s start off with Bluiett’s Baritone Nation.

JC: It’s something that we’ve been threatening to do for the longest. It was just a matter of getting the right personalities on baritone together. Through Patience Higgins and Alex Harding, whom I had told Julius about, and also in turn told Bluiett about. We went to school together. We went to high school together, played in a jazz band. Then he came out here to New York to try and get some stuff together and so I tried to turn him on to different people. Anyway, the Baritone Nation pretty much instilled to me the viability of the baritone saxophone standing on its own two feet, with no rhythm section, just pure sound. We just added another dimension to it by using low clarinets, based on two bass clarinets, with Alex and Patience playing bass clarinets and Bluiett was playing contra-alto clarinet and I played the contra-bass clarinet. We just recently premiered that at the Texaco Jazz Festival (New York). We didn’t even use all of the material. We just went over a couple of things impromptu. We didn’t use it all during the concert because of time restraints and all. That’s what the Bluiett situation means to me.

JazzUSA: Are you going to record another album with Bluiett’s Baritone Nation?

JC: I think so. Well, I know so because I’m quite sure we want to record and document the clarinets being added on to the situation and see if there is some other cohesiveness that could take place. Right now, I think we’re in the process of finding another drummer.

JazzUSA: How about your time with opera diva Kathleen Battle?

JC: I always loved working with vocalists and her being an operatic soprano, I was widening her horizon. Being there to be a part of it, and watching her development, and being part of her development as well was really hip to me. I first saw her on television on a Boston Pops thing that John Williams was conducting. Branford was guest starring along with her. They got together and did a collaboration of some Duke Ellington stuff towards the latter part of that broadcast. I thought it was a very nice situation and I could hear myself doing other things with it. I kept saying if I ever got the chance for something like that to come to fruition, I would. The New York City Ballet called me up and asked me to come down to the studio because Kathleen wants to do a little ‘blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah’. I consented and went down there and that’s how it happened. I enjoyed every minute of it, every solo, and I enjoyed playing along with her. She was a nice vocalist in terms of personality, on and off the stage.

JazzUSA: Do you enjoy the opera?

JC: Yes. I like Caruso.

JazzUSA: And Frank Lowe’s Saxemble?

JC: Frank Lowe was one of the heroes I grew up hearing about. I felt like it’s one thing to know about these individuals, but when I was doing the gig with Lester, one night we were playing down there, I kept noticing this tall cat with dreads, with a couple of saxophones with him. He had a saxophone case on his back, anyway, I noticed. Just being curious and being in New York for the first time, I said, ‘Hey, I want to know who that is.’ So I went up to Lester real quiet and asked, ‘Who’s that cat with the saxophone case?’ He said, ‘Oh, that’s Frank Lowe.’ I was like, ‘What!’ So I went up to him and I was like, ‘Yo, man. I’ve been digging you since this, that, and the other.’ He had been sticking around for the set we had just played and we had exchanged numbers as well and he was talking about putting together a group around what he had heard from me and I thought it was quite an honor for that to happen so quickly first off. We pretty much formed the group. The first group consisted of Michael Marcus, Frank Lowe, and myself. It’s always been great playing in a saxophone ensemble in a context of any sort. The last saxophone ensemble that I was playing with at that particular time was back in Detroit that consisted of eight saxophones. All of the individuals doubled on other instruments, which widened the musical scope that we were able to deal with. Unfortunately, due to lack of gigs and lack of inspiration in Detroit the situation started falling off and the members started falling off one by one. We went from eight to five and then four in that same year, one by one. They felt it wasn’t going anywhere and started dropping off one by one. So we just don’t exist anymore.

JazzUSA: I had a conversation with Sonny Rollins and during the course of our conversation together, your name was mentioned by Sonny. It is gratifying to you to be praised by one of jazz’s living legends?

JC: We played a show back in 1996 in Cleveland, Ohio. I was on tour in Kansas City and my wife had passed on to Mr. Rollins that I was staying at such and such hotel and he called me up initially to discuss what we were going to play at this concert. Sonny and I should only have been on the phone for ten maybe fifteen minutes. It turns out we were on the phone for almost three hours. We were talking about not only music, but the way that we approach life, and certain things we have noticed where music parallels life. Just to have more of a vision then just playing the music. Giving it life, by saying, ‘Well I hear this, that, and the other in it and I see how this parallels this experience.’ It took it to a whole other level by the things he was saying. We just bonded. I’m glad you reminded me of that because I need to give him a call anyway. He ended up smoking me out at that jazz festival. He also smoked me out at the first jazz awards (New York Jazz Awards). I got about three or four nominations going and he was also on the same bill and he ended up with a clean sweep. It was late in coming anyway because the first annual jazz awards was supposed to have taken place three years ago.

JazzUSA: Most of the musicians in the current market seem content on releasing material that is “safe”. But you go out of your way to explore new music, to stretch yourself, and pave new pathways. Do you think that you are taking a risk?

JC: I don’t really try and go into thinking about things as being a risk or something like that. I think about it more or less as what I’m hearing naturally and I think that makes the injection of whatever music or whatever criteria I am listening to at that particular time that will help me with my end product. I’ll be able to digest more naturally as opposed to thinking about, well this is variables I need to take this risk. It already is a negative just by me saying that as opposed to, OK, I’m going to listen to this to help the process and have a better end product and all. If it happens to cross the line and everybody gets satisfied or some people get satisfied as well as myself, it’s all been a good day. If you are not hungry and still have the fire, then it’s about time to quit.

JazzUSA: You have a horde of saxophones. Do you have a favorite?

JC: I have one called Black Mahalia that kind of stands out. There is a story that goes along with it and it has a “Free Willy” kind of vibe to it. It starts back in the fall of 1992. The place is some place in Austria. I was over there with Julius Hemphill’s Sextet and at this festival, they had an exhibition room that consisted of places where you could get the latest CD’s, underground bootleg copies of things, even vinyl, and all sorts of small section of new and used instruments that were coming out and were for sale. At this one spot, there was a saxophone that was on display under glass that was an old Conn that had modifications done to it. I mean serious modifications. It wasn’t like somebody just threw some keys on it that were of another horn and that was it and it’s a piece meal job. I looked at it and I was like, ‘Man, this is kind of hip!’ At the time that I was playing with Julius, I was using this old Conn with me in its original form, so I was looking at the difference between the two and I was like, ‘Man, this is hip!’ Unfortunately I wasn’t able to get that instrument out of its case in order to actually play it and stuff. I just took the info that they had a pile of. Getting back with them later, I noticed that David Murray had been endorsing their product or they gave him one to play.

That following year, I talked with David Murray. I went over to his house and stuff. A couple of things had happened. His Mark VI (Selmer) got stolen and right at that time he spoke with the manufacturer that made this horn and they said they wanted him to play this horn because you are a cat on the cutting edge. David was like, ‘Cool, I need another horn anyway.’ Later on that following year, they found his horn and plus another Mark VI was loaned to him by Charles Tyler (played with David Murray in the late 60’s and early 70’s). Needless to say, Dave’s a VI man and so the Conn went into the closet. I asked whether or not it could be possible to check out Dave’s Conn, and he was like, ‘Cool.’ I played it there for a couple of hours and he let me take it back home with me. I played it for about a month and change and did a whole lot of hits on it and stuff. I called the folks up that made the horn, in Switzerland and told them that I had been hanging with my man David and I love this horn. I want to have it and this, that, and the other, and they broke it down to me and told me how much it cost and I was like, ‘What!’ At the time the horn was eight grand. They wanted to mass produce these horns with as many old Conns as they could find and I gave them some advice on what type of instruments that are out now that are more consistent, at a fraction of the cost. Anyway, I did not have the scratch on me at that particular time, so I talked to David and he wanted the horn back. So I had to give him the horn back, but before doing that I took the serial numbers and stuff off of it and gave it back to him. The following year I went over to Switzerland and I finally had some notoriety going because J. C. On The Set was out by then. I had some jack with me that I could put down on the horn as a down payment, in order to secure it. So, by the time I got all this together and I called them up and they had told me that they had sold all their horns. So I was mad, needless to say. The most they made, they only made five of them. The one that I had was the second of the five that had been made. So I was like, ‘If anyone calls up and says they don’t like their horn or whatever the case might be, them get in touch with me or get in touch with you.’ A few months later, I get a call from a guy speaking in broken English, talking about he has a black pearl Conn, and if I was interested, but he didn’t leave a number. A couple of days after that, he calls up again, and I was on my way out to go to the store and I heard the call come in. I unlocked the door and ran to go get the phone and he asked, ‘Are you interested?’ And I said, “Ya, but you didn’t leave a number last time.’ He said, ‘I know. I apologize.’ I asked him if he had the horn there with him and he said yes and I asked him to tell me what it looked like. He said, ‘Blackish-gray, silver keys.’ I said, ‘OK, I’m on the right track.’ Because out of the five that they had made, three of them were blackish-gray and had silver keys. The other two were made with black keys and gold plated bodies. I knew I was in the ballpark. I had him read the numbers off to me and I was reading my numbers and the numbers matched. It turned out that this horn was in an automobile accident with him and the car was totaled but the horn was cool. He had to get another car and so needless to say he had to sell it.

JazzUSA: What did you end up paying for it?

JC: Six. By then the exchange rate had gone up on the Swiss Franc and the eight thousand that it originally was had turned into twelve. So I took it for half the original price.

JazzUSA: How many saxophones do you own?

JC: I’m in the double digits somewhat.

JazzUSA: How important is the audience’s response to you?

JC: I know it is important to the extent of knowing that you have a captive and attentive audience. It’s not the end in itself. There’s certain times in Europe as well as here where you have some unruly elements in the audience as well. It’s not cool over there to talk, but at the same time the music shouldn’t suffer as far as its mobility. If that was the case, we wouldn’t have anybody breaking any ground through the years. It would be safe to play Dixieland all the live long day, if that was the case.

JazzUSA: How are the audiences in Europe different?

JC: They are more open-minded. They act to the same extent that people here would react to pop music, popular music of today. They have that same kind of excitement for jazz.

JazzUSA: If you were to change one aspect of the jazz industry today, what would you change?

JC: The open-minded aspect of it needs to be changed. The democracy of it on both sides as far as what the powers that be deem to be fit to be playable or classified in music. Even the artists in general, there’s certain people that get stuck in their own niche and they feel that since its proven for them monetary and status-wise, that that’s the end in itself. They see somebody else doing it and they want to put them down or something. I would like to see that change as well. Just in general the democracy that’s involved. I think it would be a better situation and everybody would come to the table with something new, at least in their minds if they are not actually applying it to their art form. But at least acknowledge that, and taking that knowledge a bit further by actually documenting it. Just be glad that we are all playing and we are able to document it.

JazzUSA: How important is diversity to you and your music? On a personal level, because there’s more enthusiasm, particularly with where one’s coming from and where one’s going and to be able to actually apply it to one’s craft is a bonus. It’s icing on the cake.

JazzUSA: Let’s talk about your new album In Carterian Fashion.

JC: I wanted to do something with spirituals and in small combos or in large ensembles, I noticed that the key element was the organ. It hooked up both gospel and jazz, because it was in both of them, in both realms. I don’t know if we should call it realms. It was in the music. I wanted to do a small microcosm that represented those acoustics.

JazzUSA: For audiences that come to hear you live and that listen to your recordings, what would you like them to take away from your music?

JC: I’m glad you brought that up because a whole lot of people want to say that it’s a buch of technical feats and things like that. The technical aspects of it is only a means to an end. It is not the end in itself to see how many octaves I can jump in one single bound and all this. How long I can hold this note or whatever. I don’t ever look at it that way, that I’m going to hold this note for twenty minutes or whatever until I see somebody pass out in the audience or something. I would rather keep the spirit going and be happy for the music that comes out. When we first played here at the Iridium, a reviewer told me that he had a lot on his mind and after the show he told me that he was leaving with a clear conscience. That’s what I would like to see.

JazzUSA: The jumps and held notes are referred to as showing off or grandstanding. Is that unfair?

JC: I would say so. If it looks like I’m grandstanding, whatever the case is, then that’s their opinion, but I am just playing the music at that particular time and if that’s all they see and they can not hear beyond that then that is another example of the need for open-mindedness.

JazzUSA: Do you have a philosophy in your music and is it similar to your philosophy on life?

JC: I don’t separate the two. Music is life. Keep your ears open and digest as much as you can. Make it better for yourself and in turn make it better for the world’s situation.

JazzUSA: If you were not playing jazz, what other avenues would you like to pursue?

JC: Before jazz, I was into computers and science and all that. I would say I’m still interested in science in general because it’s another avenue that stretches the human experience in general. Any type of mystic should intrigue anybody. That’s a given. I think the miraculous way that we have all this information at our disposal at the drop of a dime and the content of said information, bio-engineering, where’s it going. Whose hands is it going to be in? How is it going to be used? Is it going to be used for the better or for the worse for mankind?

JazzUSA: What is next for James Carter?

JC: I’m looking at doing a second volume on the The Real Quietstorm series. Only the theme will be things that were done obscurely by Billie Holiday and also perceptions on things that I think she would like to listen to if she was here, which opens the poetic license for the originals as well as takes on other artists or whatever, but mostly originals. I’m thinking about dealing with that license, and with that I’m looking at not just a regular quartet with a rhythm section but also some other horn things and strings.