John Carter: The Unbelievable Possibilities of Music

©Laurence Svirchev

John Carter (1929-1991) was the musician who restored the clarinet to the lexicon of contemporary American creative music. He was also the composer who went deeper than any other in tracing the origins of American jazz from its ancestral roots. Carter’s advanced musicality was known to the forward-thinking musicians and critics of his time but wider recognition never came until completion of his major work, Roots and Folklore: Episodes in the Development of American Folk Music. The last of the five Suites was issued in 1989, but John Carter could not capitalize on his achievement, for within two years his life had been vanquished by lung cancer.

John Carter © by Mark Weber

Carter was known for his intellectuality, graduating from high school at 15 and college at 19, later becoming a Master of Music Education. Until one year before his death, he made his living principally as a music teacher in public schools. In a revealing statement made to writer Mark Weber (Coda, 1977), Carter indicates he went through the same frustrations that conceptually and technically advanced artists have always had: “During my first years in L.A., I was trying to get somebody to play with me…but the cats weren’t interested in playing the kind of music I was going to play. In a conversation with Ornette [Coleman] about it, Bob was mentioned.”

The ‘Bob’ was Bobby Bradford, a cornet player who had been in a Coleman band. Carter and Bradford soon became musical mates. They established the New Arts Jazz Ensemble in 1965 with Bruz Freeman and Tom Williamson. Carter also conducted Coleman’s first symphonic work, “Inventions of Symphonic Poems,” in May 1967 at the UCLA Jazz Festival.

Two of the ways Carter established his performance reputation was in duet with Bradford and as as a clarinet soloist. Bradford told me in interview, “The duet thing came at a point in the 60s where the jazz audience was more willing to listen to duets and solo performances. We enjoyed this, but we’d rather have played in quartet. If the budget was such that [promoters] couldn’t afford the quartet, we would always say we had a duo book.”

Tandem 1 & 2 (in print, Emanem 4011, 4012) document Carter and Bradford in duet and solo performance. The name “Tandem” is a succinct summation of how they played with each other. They could have easily named the piece “Call and Response,” the ancient method of improvising a song though multiple cycles. The 1979 version of “Tandem” opens with the rapid melody, goes into improvisations until the head reappears at the end of the first minute. Then they “chase” each other, frequently exchanging leadership, one voice or the other drifting in and out of the melody, almost always ending sections in high-note harmony. The composition ends with a rapid high-note re-statement of the melody.

The 1982 version opens with a slow, seven note progression on clarinet which Bradford reprises with variation. The harmonization is purposeful until 2:18, when they take a moment for a ‘down-beat’ and launch into the fast melody. This version has greater variation in tempi, and ends expressing the melody quite softly. Both versions are playful, like cats chasing each other.

Carter and Bradford’s duet work is characterized by telepathic interplay, ability to hit and hold the same high tones simultaneously mid-improvisation, and their phenomnal ability to alter tempi at will without sacrificing the forward motion and logic of the composition. One never feels that they are displaying technique, but rather that they are achieving a musical end through the use of harmonic and melodic devices.

The oddly named “Les Masses Jigaboo” (Tandem 2) is a Carter solo, an opportunity to examine Carter’s virtuosic technique. The composition is based on a four note riff, which he uses to explore the range of the horn and the splitting out of upper-register harmonics. He runs the riff and improvisations prestissimo, altering the progressions between the bottom end of the horn and the treble but with a gradually increasing arc extending the high field of the horn. By 4:30, he is broadcasting exclusively in the treble zone, reaching high above the clarinet’s nominal range. The harmonic overlays begin to break into a series of discreet and simultaneously well-differentiated tones. The tension among these notes causes suspense, an unbelievingness in the aural sensation. At the moment of highest tensity Carter pauses and dramatically drops into the chalumeau timbre. The abrupt transition releases the tension and gets the kind of surprise applause that is virtually impossible to achieve in a solo concert. And as a foretaste of sounds to come, Carter winds down the piece with a variation of the famous time-keeping riff that opens “On a Country Road” in the Fields CD of the Suites.

John Carter ©Bill Smith

Bobby Bradford said, “John played serious clarinet. He could play a convincing Mozart clarinet concerto, and I don’t mean ‘sort of.’ He saw that there was a lot of ground that had not yet been covered, unbelievable possibilities in playing the solo clarinet.”

Vinny Golia, the multi-reedist and composer, was a friend of Carter’s for twenty years. He worked in Carter’s west coast Octet performing the Suites and in various projects. Carter also played on Golia’s Spirits in Fellowship and on Compositions for Large Ensemble. I interviewed Golia and he characterized Carter as a “quiet and dignified man. He was very gentle: he could afford to be, he had a black belt in Akido!”

Carter often gave recitals at academic institutions and his formidable technique always attracted professorial interest. Golia recounts, “John had a twinkly sense of humor. We did a duo concert at a college, and this classical guy comes up and says, ‘On such-and-such a number you hit a C above such-and-such.’ John said, ‘Yes I did, and when the reed is good, I can hit one above that. Let’s see.’ And he popped this note, it was so pure, an octave above what this guy was so amazed at. The guy’s face looked like he was on a centrifuge!”

Golia also commented on Carter’s and Bradford’s approach to music making, “I have an impression of their playing from before I became a musician [at the time he was a painter]. A lot of the New York school of free playing at that time was based on energy where two or three people could be doing different things at once. But the energy of the person playing next to you had to match yours. John’s and Bobby’s playing was more organic in the sense of how they built off each other. They had this way of improvising melodically that went through harmonic sequences in a way different from anyone else’s. John was working toward an acoustical lyricism, to reinvent the clarinet as an improvising instrument. He bridged 20th century classical, western, and European music with the jazz tradition.”

François Houle is a Canadian clarinettist who recorded several of Carter’s compositions in 1997 (In the Vernacular, Songlines). Interviewed about Carter’s technique, he said, “He used the extreme, altissimo register a lot. That is obvious. What is less obvious is how he does it. Clarinet players usually generate multiphonics from the bottom note and then they get the high harmonics. Carter could control the altissimo, but he would also hit the high harmonics and then trigger the lower harmonics.”

In 1982, Carter recorded the first of his five-record epic Roots and Folklore: Episodes in the Development of American Folk Music. He told Marc Chenard (Coda 1991) “One thing was pretty well focussed in my mind, and that was the periods to be covered by each Suite…I had no idea in Suite One what would happen in Suite Five.” The Suites begin with Dauwhe, an African goddess of happiness and music, and extends through Castles of Ghana (the period of contact with Europeans and the beginning of the slave trade), Dance of the Love Ghosts (the journey of the captured people across the sea), Fields (the agrarian period in America), and finally Shadows on a Wall (the movement of African-Americans into the northern cities of the USA).

There are a total of 30 serial compositions. I believe it is fair to say no other composer has been so audacious in telling the story of the unique forms of American music, blues and jazz, from its centuries-old origins to contemporary dialects. The music is not an archaic reiteration, but a dramatic creation with the musical stories thematically allied to historic developments. In his written explanations for each episode, Carter does not employ the political rhetoric of his own times. He dignifies the struggles and advancements of the Afro-Americans, the way Ellington did in his prose.

Carter used the Octet format, a chamber-like construct employing a careful combination of colour instruments: trumpet, bass clarinet, human voice, violin, trombone; Carter was among the first to use synthesizer as a colour instrument. A particularly intriguing device is the integration of voice as an equal partner with instruments. For example, on “Sippi Strut” Terry Jenoure’s singing of Carter’s poem is rendered at 10:33, a counterpoint solo at equal volume to Bobby Bradford’s already engaged solo.

The music is emotionally charged, the thematic scope is sweeping, and even with several instruments working contrapuntally, it swings hard. The Suites’ consonance of diction and their symmetry as a continuum of composition makes them an achievement of the highest artistic integrity. And yet, sadly, they are rapidly going out of print. Carter’s discography, small as it is, should be preserved as an opus, for he was certainly one of American music’s most important voices.

This article originally appeared in the Flemish language in Jazz ‘Halo, Belgium. December 2000.


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