Thursday, January 23, 2020

Saxophonist James Carter Talks About Charlie “Yardbird” Parker

Photo credit © Vincent Soyez

“You have to be totally comfortable wherever,” Jazz saxophonist James Carter says. “I feel that music equals life, that’s the way my teacher always taught me. You just can’t go through life and experience it fully with a set of blinders on. I think there’s tremendous beauty in cross-pollinations of music and influences.”

Before his performance in Seattle last fall, Carter spent a few minutes to talk with Seattle Opera. His conversation touched on Charlie Parker’s musical influence, his discovery of tenor Enrico Caruso, and his reasoning for playing classical, Latin and other music genres as well as other topics.

Carter has won Down Beat magazine’s Critics and Readers Choice award for baritone saxophone several years in a row. His discography includes more than 15 albums, among them Chasing the Gypsy (2000) featuring his cousin jazz violinist Regina Carter; Caribbean Rhapsody (2011), a collaboration with contemporary classical composer Robert Sierra; and Live From Newport (2019), a release steeped in the styles of famed guitarist Django Reinhardt.

If Charlie Parker had lived longer, how do you think he would have influenced jazz?

Where he would take the music is beyond imagination. When you listen to some of his last interviews, Parker was cognizant about going away to study. He wanted to hook up with Stravinsky and Edgard Varese. He wanted to study composition in Paris. Where would it take him? I’m not sure. If Parker had lived, we can only guess at the directions. People have posed similar questions about Martin Luther King. You know, if he had survived? How would history have changed?

You're noted for crossing musical boundaries, playing not only jazz but also classical, pop, and Latin. What compels you to play across genres?

The idea that music and the arts are supposed to be universal drives me. To be a part of the universe, to be more of a universal being is a mad incentive alone. It's somewhat akin to the individual that wants to go abroad and study as opposed to taking somebody else's word for that. It’s the same thing with playing all types of music. To be able to have those experiences and get something out propels my exploration. Also to the fellowship with other artists are important.

How did you discover Enrico Caruso, the great Italian tenor?

I turned the television to one of those audio channels. The channel was featuring some recently released recordings from Nimbus Records. Nimbus had digitized Thomas Edison’s original recordings. It was an entire hour of him singing. You could still hear the old-world crackles and the nuances on the recordings. I heard his voice and I loved the drama. I loved his authority. I loved his vulnerability. It was all encompassing—the majesty. I think that he lit others up around him as well. He elevated the whole operatic game.

Has those recording influenced your playing?

It's made me want to be more honest and more humble in anything that I attempt to play.

Do you have a favorite opera?

Oh boy, there's a couple of them. Carmen, and then Carmen Jones where it’s puts it in the hood and all that. Verdi’s The Force of Destiny. The Marriage of Figaro is another one. And, of course, La bohème.

The remarkable things is that these operas tell great stories. The blues are stories. Kabuki theater is stories. These are stories about common folks in ordinary and not so ordinary circumstances. If we take that understanding—just believing that the same things are happening to people everywhere, then the world becomes a smaller place.

From your perspective, music should be explored from every possibility.

I think it's easier to think about it that way. This reminds of a television program that aired in 90’s. BET produced a show called, Our Voices hosted by Ed Gordon. This particular episode covered alternatives to opera. It featured excerpts from Julius Hemphill’s Long Tongues, an opera for six saxophones instead of voices; parts from Anthony Davis’s opera on the life and times of Malcolm X; and Denyce Graves, a rising star at the time, performing a couple of Massenet pieces. Denyce represented the traditional aspect of opera, and these other works represented the unorthodox way in which it could go. The point of the program, at least for me, was to show that music shouldn’t be categorized to the point of keeping people from exploring it. You should appreciate it for what it is.

Photos: © Julian Von Schumann; © Norman Timonera

How will you mark the 100th anniversary of Charlie Parker’s birth?

I'm helping to curate the centennial in Detroit at the Charles Wright Museum of African American History. I’m working with Charles Ferrell at the museum on several public events such as concerts and lectures. You know we can play Bird into the ground, as far as that's concerned. But I feel that at a milestone such as 100, it's time to look at the complete individual.

In 1988, Bird, the movie directed by Clint Eastwood, was a cool representation, but there were things that were not accurate. In the film, he’s portrayed as a functional junkie that just happened to have this gift. But when you juxtapose that with Paul Desmond's interview about the Charlie Parker, you learn that Parker rehearsed 11 to 15 hours a day for three to four years. That's not in the flick. That's not mentioned. There's no montage like you see Rocky building up for the big fight.

Then, do you feel that the portrayal of African-Americans jazz players is oftentimes inaccurate?

Yes. This has been going on for the longest time. I mean, same thing happened in Lady Sings the Blues (1972), ‘Round Midnight (1986) and, more recently, in the films Miles Ahead (2015) and Bolden (2019). None of them show the hard work of jazz musicians.

Who were your early musical influences?

I'm the youngest of five—two brothers, two sisters—all musically inclined. My brothers were basically the ones that took it on a professional bent. My oldest sister passed when I was five. She was a great alto singer. My other sister also sang soprano and played flute and piano. The root for all of us was our Mom. She was a violinist and pianist in her formative years. She encouraged all of us. Music was always playing—Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Billy Eckstine, you name it. Then there were a host of family members that played and people that my brothers and sisters brought into the mix, friends that performed in their bands.

I give most of the credit to my musical father and teacher Donald Washington. Because without him, I wouldn't be here. We wouldn't be talking now.

Was your cousin, Regina Carter (jazz violinist), an influence?

We’ve always been cool and run into each other. We play on each other’s albums. But no. I was 15 when her career took off. We didn’t play together or anything like that when we were young.

Last question: What fascinates you today? Who or what is piquing your interest now—who are you listening to?

It's funny that you mention that. I’ve just discovered Modesto Briseno Jr. He was a tenor saxophonist and flutist. He played with Benny Goodman in the '60s. He died in an automobile accident in 1965, I think. He was part of the Benny Goodman Sextet. He’s got a distinct tenor sound that hollers West Coast, but it has a little bit of East Coast urgency. He’s got a lot to say, so I want to check out what else there is about him.

Seattle Opera’s Charlie Parker's Yardbird plays February 22–March 7 at McCaw Hall.
Tickets and info: