The NIU Jazz Ensemble's annual spring concert April 10 is the final concert at NIU for its director, Ron Carter. After 20 years at the helm of the nationally-renowned ensemble, and numerous accolades for his work in the field of jazz and jazz education, Carter is retiring. Surprisingly, Carter says growing up, he had no idea his career would be in jazz.
“I was actually training to be a classical clarinetist. I wanted to play in the symphony orchestra. In fact in my high school, I made the Georgia All-State Concert group my junior and senior year in high school. And I played in the high school jazz band, but I only did it just for fun.”
But Carter also had other interests.
“I will say though that when I was 14 or 15 years old I playing professionally in a rhythm and blues group. I was singing, and they wanted somebody that played saxophone and sing in the group, so I borrowed my cousin’s saxophone. I was the youngest one in the group, so they made do all the work—all the writing the charts out, and making sure the parts were right and those kinds of things.”
So at what point did he decide, "this is the direction I want to go"?
“I started doing more professional playing in rhythm & blues bands, and played in the college jazz band, and started enjoying it more. And actually started studying jazz myself, but still it was not going to be a vocation.”
When I went to graduate school I finally figured out that the ability to make a living being a classical clarinetist for me for me was probably thin. So I started playing more playing of the saxophone at that time. And my first job offer I actually got was to be a jazz band director at Lincoln High School in East St. Louis. And I got the job.”
“To be honest with you, I learned on the job. Because in my experiences through college, there was no jazz education. We played, but you were basically on your own.”
Carter says there were a number of events and people that helped get him to what became his life's work.
“I think what really helped me was when I moved to St. Louis and started working and teaching there. I started playing with a lot of professional jazz musicians, and I got in a group called the George Hudson Big Band. George Hudson played in the Blue Devils with Count Basie. And he played in Benny Motin’s band with County Basie. And he was in a small group with Count Basie. In fact that’s how he ended up in St. Louis. And his group was a group that everybody around St. Louis played in. Even Miles Davis played in this group. In fact, when I got there, Clark Terry had just left. So in that band I had actually had an opportunity to play with musicians who came out of the Basie band, the lead trumpet player from Ray Charles’ band, the drummer from the Count Basie orchestra, and had the opportunity to learn a lot on the job.
Carter likened it to the graduate school education he never actually got in graduate school.
“All these great musicians. And also start studying the music itself. And working with people like with Clark Terry who was one of my main mentors. I studied the music through the literature and through all the people that, quote unquote, were part of the history of this music.”
So, after a long career studded with awards and accolades, what is he most proud of?
“When I taught high school, I wanted my students to be able to go to any program and be functional in any music program in the country, whether it was classical music or jazz literature. And so I taught them how to study literature, how to improvise, how to respect the music, how to learn the music, but also how to teach the music.
When I started here, I based the foundation of this program on graduate studies, but based on pedagogy – learn how to teach jazz. And so some of these students that come from here head jazz programs all over the world now."
Carter point to several other things of importance that he been able to accomplish during his time at NIU.
“There was time, before I got here, when you had some students who could improvise. Now, you have only one or two students that don’t improvise.
And recruitment has improved a lot, because myself working with Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York, and also doing All-States -- I’ve done All-States and directed the top students for every state in the union, except New York. And so the base that I’ve been able to recruit (as) students is at a whole different level.”
Also being able to bring a cross section of minority students in here. When I got here there were very few minority students in the program. Now we have Hispanic students, students from Japan, from China, African-American students from Chicago – well from all over the country. It’s just a whole different mix of students now, too, rather than just students from the region. We get students from all over, and not just graduate students. We get undergraduate students from all over the world now. So it’s just a totally different climate now.”
Carter says that that diversity is a legacy of his time at NIU that needs to continue.
“That’s one thing, leaving, I’m really hoping and praying they are able to bring in someone who is still able to recruit internationally, and recruit students that are diverse – keep the organizations diverse, as the music is diverse. Those things are things I’ve made a conscious effort to accomplish.”
Carter believes the school, the students and the communities they touch will be all be the better for it.