James Carter: It’s all music to him

Lawrence B. Johnson
Detroit News Music Critic—17 October 2002

James Carter, one of the larger lions of modern-day jazz, raps both hands around a saxophone that only he can see. Practiced fingers fly up and down invisible keys as he vocalizes an explosion of notes. That, says Carter, is how he did it when he was 11 years old, back when he first picked up a horn and just sort of puzzled it out — playing along with his mom’s Ellington and Basie records.

A few minutes later, he’s back at it, but now from the sax nobody can see, he’s tossing off riffs that nobody’s ever heard. Long flights of fantastic, leaping melody spring from Carter’s lips and memory. This is James Carter in the present tense, at the full height of his jaw-dropping powers, swooping through a new concerto he premieres this weekend in a homecoming visit with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

Commissioned by the DSO, the saxophone concerto written for Carter by Roberto Sierra takes the 33-year-old jazz master and Detroit native to a new place in his celebrated career. And why not? Carter learned long ago, in fact around age 11, that no pigeonhole provides room enough for real musical creativity. That was something like lesson No. 1 the day a little boy with a horn walked into the home, the circle, the influence of his first and most important mentor, Donald Washington.

“He used to say, it’s all under one roof,” Carter recalls in a leisurely interview over dinner. “Music is music, and music and life can’t be separated. I grew up in a home and in a family where music was important. There were no boundaries, no limits. My mother loved music, all my brothers and sisters were involved in music. The more I explore different kinds of music, the more aspects I find in common. I love Caruso, man. It’s fantastic what he does with ‘La Forza del Destino.’ ”

And Carter is off on another vocalizing tangent, doing his wordless imitation of the legendary tenor singing an aria from Verdi’s opera.

It’s hard to say where creative talent ends and authentic genius begins, but Carter’s effortless display of memory and musicality strongly recommend him for the latter label. His mother, Thelma Haight, likes to tell about the time her mischievous little musician-in-the-making got his whole classroom in trouble at Edison Elementary School.

“The window was open, and James heard this bird singing. So he starts imitating the bird, and the teacher, who had her back to the room, turns around and asks who was making that sound. Nobody says anything. So she says, ‘OK, if nobody will admit to doing it, the whole class will be punished.’ And that did it. Everybody at once started saying, ‘It was James. It was James.’

“James needed to be challenged. He was reading street signs when he was 3, and he could name every model of car you passed on the road. He won the spelling bees at both Edison and Murphy Middle School. But he was never really a problem. I taught all my children, nothing’s too good or too bad that you can’t talk it over with Mom. It makes a difference when parents are close-knit, and you have love and understanding when you’re growing up.”

As a youngster, James got a crucial boost from an understanding mom — his father, Robert, died when the child was 2 — when he got caught with his hand in, well, not exactly the cookie jar.

“We took in a boarder named Charles Green who played sax,” Carter says. “He had this gorgeous gold-plated alto, and I started sneaking up to his room when nobody was around to look at it and ‘play’ it. I’d hold it and blow into the neck piece, without the mouthpiece, and work the keys. But one day he walked in on me, caught me red-handed with his instrument.

“He got pretty upset. But when my mom heard about it, she said if I really wanted to play sax, and I could find an instrument that cost less than $200, she’d buy it for me. So I did.”

Imagine the child Mozart in a group piano class, and you’ll have a sense of what happened when 11-year-old James Carter took his new horn to school.

“At home, I’d play along with Mom’s Duke Ellington and Count Basie records, so when I went to band class at school, I’d be warming up with what riff I’d just been playing. I didn’t really know how to play — I’d just reason it out. If I want this higher pitch, maybe I should push this key. But the kids in the class were playing ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ and ‘Hot-Crossed Buns.’

“Then the teacher would come in and say, ‘OK, today we’re going to learn a new note. It’s called G.’ Man, I was really bored. I was going to quit. I wanted to play jazz, but I started thinking jazz was for older people, and maybe I should just sit it out for a while.”

Fortunately, Carter’s older brother Kevin, a guitarist, had a better idea. He told James about a guy called Donald Washington he’d been gigging with. Washington took students. Maybe James should give him a try. “The moment I walked into his house, I felt music everywhere,” Carter says. “It was one of those times when your chest opens up, and you think, ‘Yes, this is it.’ He had all these instruments and stacks of records — Blue Note stuff, anything you could think of.”

It proved to be a jazz immersion, or rather a musical immersion. Saturdays, Washington and his prodigy would spend three hours together dealing with every aspect of jazz and music, the technical stuff, different styles, philosophy — for five bucks a lesson.

By the time he enrolled at Northwestern High School, a specialty school known for the excellence of its music program (all of Carter’s siblings had gone there), James was drawing a lot of attention. He won summer scholarships from the Interlochen and Blue Lake music camps and went on a European swing with an 18-piece band from Blue Lake.

When trumpeter Wynton Marsalis visited Northwestern, Carter dazzled him with both his playing and his extraordinarily acute hearing. His ability to identify complex chords played on the piano persuaded Marsalis to invite the teen-ager to join him for a performance in Washington, D.C., the first of several collaborations while Carter was still a student.

Finally, with school behind him, Carter followed New York’s siren call, taking first that city, then the world by the storm of his uncommon gifts.

Now he comes home to expand his world again. But in a sense, it’s just another gig. “Music’s music, and this (concerto) is a lot of fun,” Carter says. “It has a great jazz feel.”

And with that, he snatches up the sax that isn’t there and rips into a vocalized phrase that leaves no doubt — you’re gazing straight into a horn of plenty.


Whether he’s playing tenor or soprano sax, shows off a sweet, sinuous tone; when he reinterprets Reinhardt’s classic Nuages with a bass sax, the muscular sound is distancing at first, but then it wraps itself around the listener like an anaconda.
-Christopher John Farley, TIME

There were passages in the program, especially during pieces such as Joe Henderson’s “Recorda Me,” in which Carter played with a surprisingly soft and tender sound, his improvisations filled with subtle melodic paraphrases. At other times, he added an appealing, burry edge to his tone—the result calling up images, on soprano saxophone, of Sidney Bechet.