Born James Carter, January 3, 1969, in Detroit, MI; married Tevis Williams, August 31, 1996. Addresses: Record company--Atlantic Records, 75 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY 10019.

Many up-and-coming jazz players in the nineties fall into one of two major movements: the "conservative" neo-traditionalists or the "innovative" avant-gardists. Saxophone player James Carter has been claimed by spokesmen from both camps. Art Ensemble of Chicago member Lester Bowie, speaking for the avant-garde, told Down Beat, "He's the tenor player of the future. I haven't heard anyone who can touch him.... He can do just about anything he wants to do. He goes all the way back to the old swing, so he's very well versed." In the same Down Beat article, neo-traditionalist Wynton Marsalis enthused, "I think that James is a tremendous musician.... I'd have to say that in terms of talent, he's one of the top three or four kids that I've run across."

James Carter was born on January 3, 1969, in Detroit, Michigan. Music surrounded the Carter household; his mother played piano and violin, his brother Kevin was a guitarist with Parliament- Funkadelic, his oldest brother Robert was the lead vocalist for the soul band Nature's Divine, and his father listened to a wide variety of music. Carter told Option, "My father was a very stern critic on what was being played in the house radio-wise. B. B. King was his main cat, but I could wake up on any given day and hear all facets of music--Barry Manilow, Sly Stone, or Parliament- Funkadelic."

The first saxophone young Carter played was one owned by a boarder his family took in, Charles Green, who played with the group War. James's mother bought him an antique model, and his brother introduced him to Donald Washington, a private tutor whom Carter refers to as his "musical father." In addition to teaching James to play the saxophone, Washington exposed him to artists spanning the history of jazz, as well as other genres of music.

As a teenager, Carter honed his craft at the Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp and the Interlachen classical music camp. He toured Scandinavia in 1985 as a member of the Blue Lake Jazz Ensemble student band, then returned to Europe with the faculty band the Blue Lake Monster. That year, he met Wynton Marsalis and impressed him with the ability to recognize complex chords by ear with his back turned.

Carter met Lester Bowie in 1988 at a Detroit Institute of Arts event. A lack of musical opportunity in Detroit prompted Carter to move to New York, where Bowie was his first employer. In New York, James was noticed by bandleader Julius Hemphill, who was organizing a sextet of saxophonists. In addition to playing on Hemphill's 1990 work Long Tongues: A Saxophone Opera, Carter played on two sextet albums, Fat Man and the Hard Blues and Five Chord Stud. Reviewing the former, Down Beat commented: "The group plays the tar out of Hemphill's thick compositions, uniquely arranged with middle-rich (but never muddy) songs."

In 1993, following a year with Lester Bowie's Organ Ensemble, James Carter recorded his debut as a leader J.C. On the Set. This album featured bassist Jaribu Shahid and drummer Tani Tabbal, with whom Carter had played in high school. On the basis of that disc, The Penguin Guide To Jazz characterized Carter as "an accomplished multi-instrumentalist.... What's striking, on the strength of the three deployed here, is how much he sounds like himself on all of them, even when he's explicitly paying homage to saxophonists of the past."

Carter's mastery of several reed instruments, as well as his ability to filter numerous influences through an individual voice, earned him a comparison to multi-reed player Roland Kirk. Columnist Gary Giddins wrote in the Village Voice: "In James Carter, we have at long last something of an heir to Kirk's scholastic understanding of the instrument's history, as well as virtuoso exuberance and capricious spirit. Carter is neither afraid to play to the gallery nor confound its assumptions. He can apparently play anything, projecting himself in timbres that range from plummy to guttural, from arch ripeness to unholy shrieking."

The 1995 ballad album The Real Quietstorm was followed by Conversin' With the Elders, on which Carter's quartet is joined by diverse guests. Among the contributors were traditionalist Count Basie Orchestra veterans Harry "Sweets" Edison and Buddy Tate, as well as avant-gardists Lester Bowie, Hamiet Bluiett, and Detroit- based Larry Smith. The musicians reinterpret standards from the history of jazz, from big band classics "Moten Swing" and "Lester Leaps In" to Charlie Parker and John Coltrane standards, as well as a piece by composer Anthony Braxton. Buddy Tate commented about the recording sessions in The Washington Post: "Years ago, everybody wanted to be identified as himself.... [That's] what James has got- -his own style, his own thing. He doesn't copy off anybody. He's going to go a long, long way."

Carter's latest projects include his screen debut in Robert Altman's film Kansas City alongside many leading jazz players of the nineties. The film is set in 1934 during the swing era in Kansas City's jazz clubs, and the characters are modeled after musicians of that era. Carter's was inspired by Duke Ellington's tenor player Ben Webster. He commented on the sense of history in the film in The Washington Post: "The whole vibe was still there.... It's like everything came full circle, being involved with a project that's about Kansas City at a particular time that fostered the music that I have grown up listening to--from Jay McShann and Count Basie to Bird ad infinitum--and being part of something that will basically last forever--this gathering of musicians."

Carter is living up to the mountain of hype associated with his work. He summed up his philosophy to Option: "You can play all the right notes but you have to cultivate the spirit so the music grooves with some kind of nobility....If you're not going to take the music anywhere new you might as well stay home and listen to old records."

by James Powers

James Carter's Career

Began playing saxophone c. 1980; recorded and toured with Lester Bowie Organ Ensemble, Julius Hemphill Sextet, and Mingus Big Band, c. 1990-1992; toured and recorded with his quartet, c. 1993-1996; appeared in film Kansas City with other jazz musicians, c. 1996.

Famous Works

Further Reading


Visitor Comments Add a comment…