Born John Wallace Carter on September 24, 1928, in Fort Worth, TX; died on March 31, 1991. Education: Bachelor of Arts degree in music education, Lincoln University, Jefferson, MO, 1949; Master of Arts degree in music education, University of Colorado, 1956.

John Carter was a leading jazz clarinetist for more than 40 years. The fusion of Carter's interest in African American history and jazz composition led to one of his greatest professional accomplishments, the five-album series Roots and Folklore: Episodes in the Development of American Folk Music, during the 1980s. The work "traces in musical form the intersection of preslavery African civilizations and Western cultures and their ensuing entwined history," according to the Nation. Carter worked with jazz luminaries including Ornette Coleman, Dewey Redman, James Newton, Bobby Bradford, Red Callender, and Alvin Batiste.

From childhood in Fort Worth, Texas, where Carter was born on September 24, 1928, he shared a love of jazz with three contemporaries: saxophonist and jazz composer Ornette Coleman, drummer Charles Moffett, and saxophonist Dewey Redman. Carter absorbed the pulsing gospel hymns at the local Baptist church and the classic pieces of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Cab Calloway, which his parents played on their home phonograph. He studied alto saxophone but had an immediate affinity for the clarinet when he started playing the instrument at age 12. He first performed Texas blues in Woodman's Hall in Anacostia, a jazz center in Washington, D.C. Carter teamed with Coleman in the 1940s.

Following graduation with a Bachelor of Arts degree in music education from Lincoln University at the age of 19 and completion of a Master of Arts degree in music education from the University of Colorado, Carter was ready for a career in jazz performance. After marrying wife Gloria and beginning a family, a desire for security compelled him to teach music in the Fort Worth public school system, a position he held from 1949-61. Paralleling his classroom work, Carter experimented with the clarinet and found that it was the instrument he was best able to express himself on.

Resettled at an elementary school in Los Angeles, California, Carter taught music for 21 years in that city's public school system. In 1964, he joined with musical pal Bobby Bradford, six years his junior, who joined him for clarinet-trumpet duos and a tour of the northeastern United States with their unique brand of Texas jazz. Simultaneously, Carter nurtured local progressive jazz artists at his own club, Rudolph's. Driven by intellectual curiosity, he performed on flute and saxophone while refining a mastery of the clarinet, breaching customary artistic boundaries and matching up against Bradford's solid musicality.

When Carter's daughter and three sons reached maturity in the early 1980s, he gave up the classroom for full-time jazz clarinet, establishing the Wind College in Los Angeles. On his own record label, he recorded with Bradford and Newton such classics as Night Fire, comprised of "Morning Bell," "Juba Stomp," and "Buckin.'" For Dance of the Love Ghosts, Carter teamed brass, synthesizer, kete drum, and dawuro drum to perform "The Captain's Dilemma," "Moon Waltz," and the title song, all original works. Carter summarized his vision of jazz in a five-part suite recorded as Roots and Folklore: Episodes in the Development of American Folk Music, consisting of five individual discs released in installments during the 1980s--Dauwhe, Castles of Ghana, Dance of the Love Ghosts, Fields, and Shadows on a Wall.

Critical response to Carter's work focused on his lyricism, rich texture, fluidity, and free melodic expression. Comparisons to jazz master Wynton Marsalis placed Carter above the jazz talent in beauty, spontaneity, and range. Jazz tuba player Red Callender, who joined Carter, Bradford, and Newton to record Dauwhe, praised Carter's command of his instrument in Rough Guides, "I had never heard anybody with such control on the clarinet.... His complete mastery of the instrument is astounding." His virtuoso vocal and horn work in Castles of Ghana brought favorable comparisons to Marsalis. Individual pieces blending clarinet, trumpet, violin, cornet, trombone, drums, and acoustic bass carried evocative titles: "Evening Prayer," "Conversations," "The Fallen Prince," and "Theme of Desperation." In 1996, for "Sippi Strut," "Spats," "Hymn to Freedom," and "And I Saw Them" in Shadows on a Wall, Carter earned four stars from Q magazine and five from the NAPRA Trade Journal. Of the final recording, David Grogan, reviewing for People magazine, called Carter an "avant-garde composer with a passion for history" and dubbed him "the Alex Haley of the Jazz world."

Carter influenced the styles of his pupils Julius Hemphill and Peter Epstein, as well as contemporaries Newton, Murray, and Bradford. His work inspired numerous tributes, including a ferocious, yet lyric recording of "Sticks and Stones" and "Karen on Monday" by jazz clarinetist Francois Houle on the album In the Vernacular--Music of John Carter, released in 1998.

One of the first clarinetists to express a humanistic Pan-African vision in jazz, Carter improvised at the extremes of personal emotion, yet controlled his probes through precise, impressionistic melody. His tonal research led him through the enslavement of African Americans and their resulting poverty in the plantation South to their flight to the North in search of independence through factory labor. Passionate, intellectual, and focused on his music, Carter influenced an era of clarinet players. Carter died suddenly of complications from the removal of a non-malignant lung tumor on March 31, 1991.

by Mary Ellen Snodgrass

John Carter's Career

Played with Ornette Coleman, 1940s; taught music in the Fort Wort, TX, public school system, 1949-61, and the Los Angeles, CA, public school system, 1961-82; established a traveling combo later known as the New Arts Jazz Ensemble with partner Bobby Bradford, 1965; opened Rudolph's, a jazz club nurturing new talent, in Los Angeles, 1960s; headlined recordings on Flying Dutchman, Moers Music, and Revelations labels, 1960s-1970s; formed Clarinet Summit, 1981; left teaching for full-time jazz composition and performance, founded the Wind College, 1980s; completed five-part jazz masterwork, Roots and Folklore: Episodes in the Development of American Folk Music, 1989; work reprised by Francois Houle's album, In the Vernacular--Music of John Carter, 1998.

John Carter's Awards

Down Beat magazine's Hall of Fame, 1991.

Famous Works

Further Reading



Visitor Comments Add a comment…

almost 16 years ago

hearing his music for the first time this week, via a thoughtful gift from a colleague/former John Carter student I vividly remember this humble, quiet man teaching orchestral instruments at Hazeltine Elementary School in Van Nuys. (He must have been working part-time then.) I was a Teacher's Assistant there at the time, while studying at the CalArts music school. He had said to me, "oh..say hi to James (Newton) for me!" I heard about his greatness after that, but never got around to hearing him or any of his recordings until now. That's what led me here. WOW!!! Mr. Carter - thank you for all this beauty and verve...and the jazz history lesson, to boot! ...and thank you, Ms. Mary Ellen Snodgrass!

almost 16 years ago

9/24/08 HAPPY BIRTHDAY, DAD. from all of us. we miss you.