I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
About saxophonist James Carter, they say a “prodigious talent,” exciting, exceptional. I find him bodacious, but also smooth as his awesome long notes. It’s obvious after a listen, he’s got technique stacked to the rafters. No exaggeration. James Carter picked up a saxophone to play jazz 11 years after his birth in Detroit on January 3rd, 1969. The same year, he went backstage summoning Count Basie’s counsel. He never willingly missed a Saturday lesson with Donald Washington, whose wisdom dealt with life, staying open to all idioms of music and developing chops—“James, you’re suckin’ in, you got to play out.” Carter toured Scandanavia in a student band, but before graduation ended up in the Blue Lake Monster Ensemble with Harold McKinney and Marcus Belgrave. With flying colors Carter passed an impromptu oral exam conducted by Wynton Marsalis, and while in high school accepted Wynton’s invitation to join his road band that featured Hot House Flowers (Columbia, 1986) at symphony gigs in New Orleans, Chicago, and Denver. After hearing Carter play in 1988, Lester Bowie gave him his debut gig in the Big Apple. This led to Carter adding to the groove on two DIW recordings of the New York Organ Ensemble with Lester Bowie—Funky T, Cool T and The Organizer. Bowie can pinpoint Carter’s forté: “He’s a real continuation of the tenor tradition. We call most of the other guys of his generation ’Fraidy Cats because they have been scared into being safe, by looking backward and then, really not contributing anything to the language. I think James is making a genuine contribution.” Determined to be among the heroic virtuosos of jazz, James Carter puts into practice Donald Washington axioms: “You don’t own the music. Somebody wants it, give it to ’em. Tell ’em where you got it from.” Carter does this on CD and in the following interview. But it’s at a live gig where audiences get a sense of how Carter’s bravura is tempered by DWU wisdom he’s made his own. “You’re not bigger than the art because everybody’s playing the same notes. It’s really what you make out of them. The art will be here when you go, you just got to make your mark.” For James Carter, those words translate into the Mercury of his mission.
Zoë Anglesey What were your first encounters with music?
James Carter I was born the youngest of five, all musically inclined. So that basically explains the diversity of the music that was in the household. I mean, throughout the course of the day I could go and hear Sly and the Family Stone to the Beatles and Barry Manilow, Parliament Funkadelic and Jimi Hendrix. We had the whole spectrum of music in the house. I started listening in particular to my mother, who would play various jazz tunes, Duke Ellington, Billie Eckstine and Count Basie. And she would also sing if the feeling got to her. She used to play violin and piano in her day. That’s basically where my music came from.
ZA Didn’t your brother Kevin play with Parliament Funkadelic?
JC Yeah, that was for a short stint. He also played with the Floaters, the Platters—these were all the groups from the disco era. And he played with Martha and the Vandellas, Martha Reeves.
ZA Early on, you were attracted to the jazz records?
JC Yeah. I started listening to them. My mother took me to see Count Basie in 1980, this was when he first started performing in a wheelchair. And Billy Eckstine was also on the bill with him. I ran away to meet both of them backstage. I’m so glad I did because four years later the Count had passed. By this time I already had a real desire to play saxophone. We had a boarder by the name of Charles Green in the house who currently plays with WAR. He had saxophones and clarinets. When the folks would be out doing various errands, I would look at my man’s horns—their beauty. He had a gold-plated Selmer Mark VI alto which was in mint condition.
ZA: How old were you?
JC Maybe nine or ten or something like that because I received my first playable horn on May the 8th, in 1980. In fact, he picked it out—an old King from the mid-’20s.
ZA Your mother arranged for lessons?
JC Actually, it was my brother who knew my teacher through a couple of gigs they had played together. I was frustrated, wanting to play jazz but being in the fifth grade. Certain teachers didn’t know what to say about that. Their minds were just geared to teaching contemporary rudiments like the scales. That was as close to a tutorial as I could get learning how to play jazz at that particular age, until Donald Washington came along.
ZA How did that happen?
JC Kevin knew about the frustration I was having in terms of aspiring to play jazz and wanting to know more about it. Besides turning me on to Donald Washington, he gave me a couple of Charlie Parker albums. Somehow he hooked it up so I could go over and have this evaluation lesson. I stayed over there for four hours, at the time the lessons were five dollars. Who’s going to do that nowadays? There weren’t too many people doing that back then. And the lessons, sometimes we wouldn’t even look at the clock. We would just have fun in terms of his sharing the wealth of the knowledge he had. I also learned about the harmonious relationship between music and life and how an individual in music or in any of the arts is supposed to be an interpreter of his environment. So in that sense, artists express themselves about their observations through whatever means of communication they have, be it a horn or a paintbrush or whatever. I really got that from him. I was able to apply a whole lot of lessons from music to life and I think that really got me by. Fortunately for me now, I learned about the tradition and heritage of jazz at the same time. Donald Washington consistently egged me on. He said, “Always keep your ears and your eyes open for different things to interpret to bring out your individuality.”
Donald Washington was the first person to mention Lester Bowie or The World Saxophone Quartet. He took me to see these individuals when they were performing in town. I was flabbergasted, especially with The World Saxophone Quartet, particularly because that solidified the validity of the saxophone. I could see myself in a situation such as that one. At the time, I wanted to do that.
ZA And you’ve done it.
JC I started playing with the individuals of the saxophone quartet one by one. First with Hamiet Bluiett, who told me I shouldn’t fall into the pitfalls of being relegated to a clone of somebody who’s just regurgitating music from the past, note for note. From all these musicians I learned about the importance of keeping the continuum going as well as the evolution of one’s own individual music.
ZA: Sounds like people saw your potential and invested their hopes in you.
JC It came from all fronts. When I was young, there were those cats who thought, “Oh, he’s nice and cute” and all that stuff, but as soon as we started getting older and looking for jobs (laughter) this little vanity fear started turning into, “Oh god, they’re after my gig.” As long as we were these young cats who were really not stepping on their toes, meaning their jobs and reputations, it was all well and good.
ZA Detroit had been abandoned by the car industry, so people were in great need of work. It’s understandable.
JC Especially considering the scarcity of venues for jazz musicians out there. It’s a sad situation. I caught the tail end, I think, of the heyday of Detroit. There were always individuals who came to town to play, and possibly recruit. It started going downhill in ’84. Pops, as I call Donald Washington, got the hell out of Detroit. He put the idea in my head that it might be good to relocate. He could see it getting progressively worse. He could also see somebody who was just getting started wind up in this little niche. I go back and see cats that I grew up listening to, and they’re playing the same licks on the same tunes. There’s no musical growth happening because there is no incentive.
ZA Now that you’re in New York—you’re playing, you’re recording—do you feel like you have something to offer to some young kid in Detroit, or is it enough to have your music out on CD?
JC Actually, I look forward to bringing individuals out of Detroit, at least until the situation gets better. As soon as they get away, they can see what jazz is about—not only upholding, but expounding on the tradition.
ZA When you say you have had the opportunity to get people out of Detroit, are you referring to your own band members?
JC Yes. I told my pianist Craig Taborn as soon as the situation comes up. I’m going to get you out of there because this isn’t the place for a cat to be with your talent. You’ve got a hell of a gift, and it should be someplace where it can be amplified in a positive light. So we got Craig out; he’s done two albums with me and he’s recorded his own trio album.
ZA How did you first meet Julius Hemphill?
JC Well, I met him and all the rest of them with The World Saxophone Quartet in 1982 when they were playing in Detroit for a one-nighter. Donald Washington introduced me. It was more or less a “very nice to meet you” type of thing. You know, keep on keepin’ on. Six years later I meet Hamiett Bluitt. These were some of my heroes.
ZA Who are some others?
JC Musicians who really stress their individualism, who don’t conform—anybody who’s going for their own sound instead of just looking at a book and learning this or that solo. By learning somebody else’s solo, you’re basically learning a finished product that another musician accomplished. So my heroes are the ones who go against those traditions. And of course my teacher Donald Washington who’s to me like Elijah Muhammed was to Malcolm X. I’m forever in his debt because if it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be playing saxophone or even thinking about music. I’d probably be a Poindexter because I was interested in computers, chemistry and biology. As soon as a saxophone came into my hands, all that took a back seat.
ZA You pay homage to Sun Ra on JC on the Set. Did you ever meet him?
JC One of my colleagues in Detroit, Anthony Holland, gave me a cassette of Sun Song and Sun Ra recordings from the late ’50s. They were swinging. He still doesn’t get his just due as far as being a band leader.
ZA But you’re going to give him his due?
JC Definitely. I’m just expounding on what has been basically forgotten from this early period. He certainly didn’t want to remember because he was moving on. Jaribu and Tani would have a 12-hour rehearsal and then they wouldn’t even play anything that they’d rehearsed before. So I heard jazz in Silhouette and the reissues on Evidence of old Sun Ra compositions from the late ’50s to the ’70s. One of the CDs had this song, “The Hour of Parting” with Hobart Potson playing the trumpet and just the arrangement on it made me think hey, I’ve gotta record this. There’s a wellspring of knowledge in Sun Ra’s material. It’s kind of sad that it’s being swept under the rug for something that’s more superficial. He will be documented in my work.
ZA How do you choose your colleagues? You have leader status now and you could choose anyone who’s available. What’s your standard?
JC Well, everyone in my quartet but Craig, we’ve played together for ten years. Jaribu Shahid and Tani Tabbal and I were part of the Creative Arts Collective that performed at the Detroit Institute of Arts Recital Hall every year. That’s how we basically got the rapport happening in terms of knowing what each member was capable of. When I met Craig in ’89 he added to our flexibility.
ZA What do you mean by flexibility?
JC Going from one musical expression to another.
ZA Do you mean styles that correspond to periods of music?
JC Well, we’ve played in ragtime situations together, we’ve played in traditional jazz situations and we’ve also played “out,” which we will continue to do. We continue to bring these styles of music up to date via our thoughts, feelings and how we express them.
ZA Would you comment about the labeling in jazz? There seems to be a covert war going on because of it.
JC I feel labeling is a bunch of bull. Usually a group of individuals label something to feel that they’ve conquered it in one form or another. For example, someone might say, “Oh yeah, that’s avant-garde,” and feel confident about this pronouncement, but to the artist, it might not be the case. Labeling is just a convenient way of saying, “I don’t understand what’s going on.” It’s just a cop-out.
ZA Amiri Baraka wrote, “Swing, the verb, meant a simple reaction to the music, and as it developed in verb usage, a way of reacting to anything in life. As it was formalized and the term and the music taken further out of context, swing became a noun that meant a commercial popular music in cheap imitation of a kind of Afro-American music. From verb to noun means the erasure of black inventiveness by white appropriation.” He’s saying something similar.
JC Yeah, like bebop, which was uptown before it made its way downtown, but going downtown is how it legitimized itself. I mean it was legitimized from downbeat one. If it’s music and it’s vibration, then it has already legitimized itself regardless of its origins.
ZA How did you meet Wynton Marsalis?
JC It was in March of ’85, our high school was the focal point for a citywide workshop, meaning that people even from the suburbs came down to see and hear him talk.
ZA Did he play with you guys?
JC Yeah. He played “Night In Tunisia” with us. Afterwards I talked with him and what started out to be a small talk turned out to be an extra hour—just he and I hanging at the piano. He started playing notes and from there he went into the chords. I had my back turned and he’d say, “what’s this,” and I’d say, “That’s a D minor eleventh,” and then he’d ask, “what’s this,” and I’d say, “that’s a B flat with a raised ninth.” Then he started playing a little something in D minor and asked me to play along with him. I started playing along with him and he was like, “Yeah, yeah.” So we exchanged addresses and all of that good stuff. That was the last time I saw him up until I got this call in November of 1985. This was after the Blue Lake tours of Europe and all and our first hit was at Blues Alley in D.C. in the middle of December of ’85. Because I was a sophomore at that time, I was out with him like a week tops. We also played “Caravan of Dreams” in Texas, which was my last hit with him in ’87.
ZA How’d you keep from getting a big head?
JC I was basically taking it in moderation. I knew what I was dealing with and my teacher always kept me anchored by saying keep your eyes on the prize, and I went on ahead and just played. But at the same time I had a certain sense of pride that out of all the individuals in Detroit, I got picked to do these hits. I could have gotten egotistical because I’d been picked, rather than living up to it in terms of playing. I guess I survived.
ZA And since then you’ve played with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra?
JC That’s when Wynton and I got back into a real rapport. So it was cool.
ZA As a collector who restores vintage horns, how many do you have?
JC I own 11 tenors, eight or nine altos, and the whole clarinet family. A whole lot of the acquisitions have come about through pawn shops or something of that nature.
ZA What is it about collecting that’s important to you?
JC I was real fascinated with taking my first instrument apart. That’s how it initially got started, just taking it apart and putting it back together. The first time, it took me like seven hours to take it apart and put it back together and now I can do it within an hour. I just got a few to learn how to repair them.
ZA These vintage instruments, after you work on them do you sell them?
JC Not really. In certain cases I’ve gotten rid of some just to get something that’s better. I received this message from a pawn shop I do business with that they had a really hip vintage Conn in mint condition. I called them up and said, “Hold that horn for me and I can bring down this other horn for a trade.” In fact, it’s the Conn that I’m playing on my album. The lacquer was untouched since 1941 which was the year it was made. I have a certain enthusiasm for doing this because after World War II, they started making cheaper instruments. And they started adding alloys to what used to be pure brass to stretch the metal.
ZA What’s happening with Jurassic Classics?
JC It will be out in the spring.
ZA How do you feel about bringing rap and jazz together?
JC It’s like what happened with Afro-Cuban jazz, the marriage of urban mambo and jazz, through Dizzy Gillespie and others. In fact, Vernon Reid of Living Color and I exchanged ideas. It was smoking! What the DJs added in vocabulary like from James Brown grooves, was all about the rhythm and keeping the pulse happening. It’s like a hip version of Hooked on Phonics with a whole other swing in the back. It’s definitely a different flavor, which I guess for some people is an acquired taste.
ZA What do you listen to that we might not expect?
JC To this day I listen to Caruso because I get a whole lot from what he was doing voice-wise. I notice the integrity he had when he was singing and I try to transfer that integrity, conviction and intensity that he had in his voice, to what I express through the saxophone. You’re really supposed to be getting at the majesty of the individual, rather than the finished product. The majesty consists of what it took to get to that finished product. Even though I do all the solos on Coltrane’s Giant Steps, I keep in mind what it took for him to get there. It’s a whole lot more comprehensive than just learning a solo. It’s definitely rewarding because you get your own individuality out of his spirituality, rather than just getting his notes, which is the finished product of his search rather than your search. His spirituality gives me the incentive to continue my search.
ZA Anyone who hears you play notices your range of techniques, but how do you work on your sound?
JC Well, listening to and playing long tones, which is what Donald Washington brought me up on. That was how we would start off every lesson. I would play the whole compass of my instrument in long tones. You take each note, chromatically start from the bottom of the instrument and hold that note as long as you can, making it as straight as you can. Go to the next note and on up. The exercise might last 15 minutes to a half hour. Just constantly working on that, getting used to your setup, choosing the reed, the horn and all. Just getting a rapport going with your instrument and realizing that it’s just an extension of you. The sound actually becomes a manifestation of the player. Practicing diminishes the gap between what you can’t do and what you can.
ZA What do you want to project through your music?
JC Ultimately, there’s a history that needs to be tapped more like the soul vibe. Peers in my particular age group need to continue this music on all levels and all fronts. There’s an education to be had from this music, this heritage; as my teacher says, “Keep your eyes on the prize, study the music.”
ZA You can hear the music, but can you hear the history?
JC Donald Washington showed me how through music and history, you’re supposed to be interpreting your environment and how they’re harmonious.
ZA I love that Nathaniel Mackey quotes Henry DeMotte at the end of Discrepant Engagement. “The wing praises the root by taking to the limbs,” and there are many branches from this one root. People are free to take to any branch they want.
JC There’s also a parallel of birds leaving the nest and starting their own thing. I can perceive that it has more to do with individualism than clonism. When I first went to the Blue Note for a jam session, there were six tenor players. This particular night I brought my baritone down. The jam just sounded like one long tenor solo. In essence, one cat finished his solo and left the stand and then the next cat picked up where he left off and basically stayed with the idea of the previous instrumentalist, only in a different way and with different chords. I went up with a baritone and just demolished the whole thing.
ZA So when you take a solo, you want to make a statement?
JC You’re always going to be doing that. You’re not making a Bird statement, because Bird is dead. You’re not making a Herschel Evans statement, because Herschel Evans is dead. You’re not even making another person’s statement because you’re not that other person.
ZA How are you the same or different from your peers, especially as to how you choose to express yourself?
JC Music as a whole gives a person a third eye, like a sixth sense, so to speak. I make music the center of my everyday life.
ZA How do you facilitate this close relationship between your art, having to work, and life?
JC You’re dealing with the discipline that playing this music requires, and then you’re exercising the discipline that it takes to deal with the music. Music is not separate from the rest of my life’s necessities. Discipline also means in the context of jazz, that I should be able to speak about whatever is going on in the environment with some authority and hopefully offer a viable solution for a problem. Certainly, it’s the obligation to extol or exalt something that’s great and to bring it to somebody else’s attention, like I’ll continue to do with Sun Ra.
ZA James, what do you aspire for in composing?
JC I have found the life of Dorothy Dandridge intriguing. I definitely have a title, it’s called “Case 20813.” That’s the case number associated with her whole demise. Maybe the movements will correspond to her history—there are so many different tones I can think of in dealing with this individual. She represents a challenge because it requires coming up with something as raw as some of her experiences and at the same time explaining the grandiose dimensions of this particular individual. I’m paying homage to where I come from. At the same time I’m also making other people aware that this is a heritage that’s well worth delving into.
ZA When will the Atlantic recording be released?
JC Well, we went into the studio in October, so early in ’95. It’s slow ballads and tunes that just stroll or swing. People think that my age group doesn’t want to deal with ballads, which is to say that we can’t make statements that take a certain amount of time to develop. Like solos at a slow tempo are rare. I want to articulate some ballads, especially some that aren’t sung. I’m always having to sing about the unsung.
Zoë Anglesey’s Stone on Stone, a bi-lingual book of poetry by 16 American women, is just out from Open Hand Books. She writes and translates poetry from the Spanish, and sidelines as a jazz critic.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee