Monday, June 6, 2011

Hanging Out with Ron Carter

Earlier today, I was treated to quite a thrill. Currently interning at the Blue Note Jazz Club, I was in the office today when Jim Hall and Ron Carter were there doing their soundcheck.

As the soundcheck ended and Ron began to head upstairs to the dressing room, I asked him if he'd like any help. He obliged and handed me his bass case. "Be careful," he said. "It's heavy." It was.

After we got into the dressing room and finally figured out how to turn the lights on, Ron, smiling, cracked a joke. "I like those," he said, referring to the complicated light switch. "But only one of 'em," he said, laughing.

It was obvious that Ron was in a very good mood and I could also tell that he was enjoying my company. I seized the moment, taking that opportunity to grab a video camera in hopes of asking Ron a question or two (for the Blue Note blog, one of my job responsibilities).

I found Ron downstairs just to the right of the stage. With camera in hand, I asked if I could ask him one question about the Blue Note, for the club's 30th Anniversary. "Of course," he said. "Let's go up to the dressing room for this."

We got up to his dressing room and sat down in the room's comfortable chairs. I turned the camera on and asked him my Blue Note related question. My one promised question quickly turned into two and then three. His answers were very telling of the care with which he holds all of the musicians with whom he plays. Here's what he said when I asked him if there was any particular Blue Note performance that particularly stands out to him:

"Well, you know, to answer that question kind of implies that the others weren't so important, so I'm not gonna do that. (laughter). They're going to come knock on my door and say, 'Why you!'...And I never answer that kind of question because I don't want anyone who is not mentioned in my commentary to feel that their job wasn't important to me, or that I didn't have a good time, or that I didn't learn any music, or that I'm not looking forward to working with them again. And each group I've worked with here, I've always had a good time, and I've always learned some music, and I've always had the chance to look forward to working with them some more, and hopefully I've gotten better in the meantime, so I don't want them to feel that they're not on my list."

It was obvious that I was listening to a very caring, thoughtful, and articulate man speak.

I mentioned to him that I'm a pianist; that I study with Don Friedman. He began asking me about Don; how he's doing, what he's been up to, etc. I felt us getting into a friendly conversation, so I turned the camera off and sat back.

As Ron began telling me about recording with Don and Joe Henderson, I was reminded of a really wild band - a totally unknown one - that Don was once a part of and had told me about. I told Ron, very excitedly, about the vocalist' Dick Haymes' group which included Don, Scott Lafaro, and Elvin Jones.

Upon hearing this, Ron was shocked. "What!", he exlaimed. "Wow, they must've washed Haymes away."

I told him what Don had told me; that on a gig they played at the Village Gate, the IRS came out to get Haymes; he owed a million dollars in taxes. Ron was certainly shocked. "One million dollars," he said. "In the sixties...Damn, in the '60's one-million dollars really was one-million dollars."

I mentioned that I hadn't realized that Dick Haymes' brother was Bob Haymes.

"Who's that?", asked Ron.

"He wrote 'That's All.'"

"Wow," said Ron. "I didn't realize that."

I told Ron that Haymes had also written one of my favorite songs, a song that isn't very well known, but a song that Blossom Dearie did amazingly, "They Say It's Spring."

As soon as I mentioned Blossom Dearie's name, Ron's face lit up. "I know that song," he said, smiling.

He began telling me how much he loved Blossom Dearie's piano playing. He said that he really admired the way she played chords; that she was really a master of voicings, and that she always played the perfect chord for each moment, always with the right note on top. He told me that he really had a lot that he had wanted to learn from her. "When I played with her, I knew the right bass notes and passing tones to play below her but I wanted to sit down at the piano with her and learn about the full chords from her." He said that the two always talked about getting together for this lesson of sorts, but for one reason or another, it never happened. "Regrettably," said Ron.

I told him how I love her repertoire; how she's really introduced me to so many beautiful songs that I never would have heard otherwise. He agreed. "She had a way with songs that were very rare that people didn't really know, but she would interpret them in a way that would make people want to know them, and she'd make them popular before they were popular...She was singing 'Peel Me A Grape' long before it was famous."

I smiled, saying how I also loved her arrangements; how she'd slow down songs - like "Tea For Two" and "Surrey With A Fringe On Top" - that were normally played fast. He smiled too, and during mid-laugh, began to sing - just a few bars - raising his voice to a high squeal, doing his best Blossom Dearie impersonation.

It was really a thrill to talk with Ron Carter about one of my all-time favorite musicians, Blossom Dearie. It was also extremely surprising and validating (in a way) to hear him speak of her piano mastery and his love for her music and her piano playing. Ron is always associated with Herbie Hancock, a pianist who is often considered the ultimate harmonic master, and it was very exciting to hear his excitement about the playing and music of Blossom Dearie.

One thing that really shocked me during our conversation was how comfortable Ron made me feel throughout, and how genuinely interested he seemed in what I had to say, too. Looking back on it, it really felt like nothing more than two huge jazz fans having a friendly conversation about the music we both love.

I told him how I recently played with Houston Person and how his sound just knocked me out; how, while on stage listening, I got the chills and I realized that I'd never really heard that sound on the saxophone before in real life; no one really plays like that anymore.

Ron understood, seemingly shocked at that reality. He began to reminisce on that specific tenor sound..."One of my first sessions was with Coleman Hawkins, Tommy Flanagan...and Eddie Locke or someone like that. I think it was called Hawk's Groove...or something like that." He said it quickly, casually, in passing, before asking the question that mattered most to him: "Do you ever listen to Don Byas?"

"Oh yes," I answered. We began to speak about the Town Hall duo recordings of Don Byas and Slam Steward. Ron loves those recordings. He then asked about Gene Ammons, and expressed to me his love for that sound, the sound of the "Texas Tenors," quickly mentioning Frank Wess as another player that he loved.

I told him that one of my favorite recordings is the Coleman Hawkins/Red Garland album. He smiled. I also expressed my love for his album with Red Garland. "Oh yeah," he said. And then, so cool and casually, said: " That was with Philly Joe, too."

Our conversation kept on for a while. Ron was really at ease and seemed to be enjoying our conversation. He seemed especially grateful when, later that day, I brought him a copy of a Blossom Dearie piano-only record that he hadn't heard before. I apologized for my bad handwriting. "It's not bad," he said, laughing. "Don't worry. I've seen much worse."

As I was leaving the room, Ron said to me: "It was great talking with you. That was a bit more than one question, but I was prepared for it. I really enjoyed it."

I've heard stories about Ron being a tough guy, a difficult interview, and I've also heard some near-horror stories about some people's approaching him. To me, I sat in awe as I fathomed how those stories could be possible. That day, I was in the presence of a real sweetheart, someone who loves to smile and laugh and share his experiences. More than anything though, I felt that I was in the presence of an extremely inspiring jazz fan, someone who gets just as excited about jazz and specific musicians as he did when he was only a kid; the only difference is that this enthusiastic fan just happens to be the great Ron Carter, too.

Here's a video of a portion of the interview: