Lend an ear to a Ron Carter bass line and whole worlds unfold. The Maestro’s choices with regard to tone, touch, feel, note selection, and attitude, while in spontaneous conversation with his bandmates each allude to the consummate blend of wisdom and craftsmanship gained from a lifetime spent in jazz. Now a remarkable new film pulls back the curtain to present the full scope of Carter’s masterful process and more. Finding the Right Notes, by filmmaker Peter Schnall of Partisan Pictures, in collaboration with PBS (airing and streaming on October 21st), follows the journey of the 85-year-old legend, from his youth in Ferndale, Michigan, through racially charged times that literally altered his career path, to historic recordings with Miles Davis and countless others, to his underheralded work as a solo artist, composer, arranger, educator, and mentor.
Schnall and his crew spent over six years (with a pandemic pause) following and filming Carter at home, on the road, in concert, in the studio, even in mourning. The result is at once a sweeping saga told amid a stellar soundtrack of Carter performing his music (as captured by Schnall’s team) and an intimate portrait of one of the instrument’s most towering and revered figures. As George Benson says early in the film, “Something powerful happens when Ron Carter picks up the bass.” Ultimately, Finding the Right Notes is about a man on mission. Yes, the Maestro is all about finding new and better notes nightly. He’s also a fearless, unwavering, dedicated champion of the music. As a viewer, the two-hour film will leave you feeling highly motivated and greatly inspired, as you return to your life and career. To gain insight into the project we were fortunate to speak with the director and the star.
What led you to agree to do have this documentary made about your career?
RC: Peter [Schnall] approached me about six years ago. He had seen me perform and he knew about my book biography, [Ron Carter Finding the Right Notes, by Dan Ouellette, KMW Studio, 2009]. He thought it would be a good time to do a documentary, if we could figure out the scheduling. At first I wasn’t really comfortable about having my private life on display onscreen, but in getting to know Peter, he’s very nice, he’s a fine filmmaker, and he felt he could help me provide some additional perspective and inspiration beyond the book. At the time I was very busy between performing and teaching fulltime at Julliard, so I said, If you can work with the times I’m available, I’m all for it. After having some additional talks about a broad range of topics and interests, we decided to give it a go and here we are.
Were you involved in any of the storyline or editorial process?
RC: No, I’d seen the trailer previously but I didn’t see the full film until last Sunday [mid-September]. It’s amazing, it looks great, the sound is terrific because there was so much live recording of performances, as Peter and his team tried to capture the essence of what I do. I thought he did an excellent job of maintaining the integrity of what this film is about, which is music.
Early in the film you say your favorite thing is to find the right notes to get to a different level—a sentiment you return to throughout. What is a right note to you?
RC: It’s a note that gets everyone to stop whatever they’re doing and get up off the ground because my note just knocked them over. That’s the right note for me. And once I can get them to acknowledge that this note beat up on them pretty good we can go to the next measure [laughs]. I’ve been accused of turning the band around. I did a big band concert three or four years ago and this musician was telling his friend about the experience he had with this bass player who did this concert with this big band he was in. He said, we knew who he was from his recordings but we hadn’t experienced playing with him. So we’re on the bandstand during the course of the first tune and this bass player plays a series of three or four notes. Now there are 16 musicians in the band and everyone of them had to get up off the floor because this guy turned everything around by the select notes he picked at just the right time. I want to be able to be that guy. I know I’ve found some of these right notes but there are more available—a new order of notes waiting to be discovered. Every chance I get to play the bass that opportunity presents itself.
When the film first visits you in your apartment you share that for a jazz acoustic bassist your sound is everything. Can you elaborate?
RC: People who have their own sound have spent some time figuring out what kind of sound they want to be identified with. They want to be sure that when someone plays a record that they’re on or hears them playing in a club it’s apparent that he or she has spent a great deal of time trying to define what kind of sound they have. It’s the kind of sound that commands attention from everyone from the mechanic to the bus driver to the mailman. And if they hear it repeatedly you can make a big enough impression on the listener to have one more fan in your club. That’s the importance of finding the right sound. Which kind of falls into the category of, Oh Yeah, that’s Ron Carter. It’s a true blessing to have that, but it’s also once less bit of privacy you don’t have. You can’t hide behind that note anymore because people know who it is. What Peter does so well is make it clear from the first few interivews that this is a guy who was able to come up with a sound that everybody recognizes. Whatever their station in life, they can be sure of two things: Having a good breakfast and recognizing my sound in the morning [smiles].
You’re arguably the finest example in jazz of someone who comes to the music extremely well-prepared yet is able to be totally spontaneous when the playing starts. How are they related to you?
RC: They’re not separate. If there’s a line between one and the other it’s how well you know the material. It’s one thing to have great ideas, and we all look for those great ideas. But it’s another thing to be able to stumble upon an idea in the process and try to fix that idea and develop it, or be a part of it evolving. And find the solution on the spot. I’m pretty good at that. I hear a phrase or a note and I think, Man, can I use that somewhere else to get more value out of it? Can I make it change color in the middle of the stream? Can I use it in a different part of the tune? Can I remember this idea for tomorrow night, and what have I thought about to help it have another life? If you find a note or an idea or a sound like that, go for it.
In the Miles Davis segment of the film you ask, What’s the proper way to lay out the chemistry of a song to keep the integrity? Can you expand on that?
RC: I’m of the right notes mindset; I’m not trying to fool the listener into thinking I’m making some magic before their very ears. It simply means I’ve found a phrase that they can easily identify with, and at some point I can find a way to make those notes show up again to remind them, Oh yeah, we already heard that. If you listen to a complete set of ours you would hear an idea that I start on the downbeat of a song, and I use this idea, this trademark of the song, somewhere else in the set. For example, the second song in our set is “Mr. Bow Tie.” At some point when I’m ready to finish the set I will play that melody again. And there are always people who applaud it. They’re not schooled in music necessarily, they just recognize that they heard this idea 45 minutes ago and now I’m playing it again. It’s that kind of awareness that amazes me. Sometimes they don’t catch it and I’ll say, We missed the boat but let’s try again tomorrow!
The racial injustice you’ve endured throughout your life is well-covered in the film, including the great conductor Leopold Stokowski expressing interest in hiring you early in your career, but explaining that the board of directors would never go for an African-American bassist in their orchestra. Here’s a hypothetical question: If Stokowski had welcomed you and you became a celebrated principal bassist in a major orchestra would you still have pursued a career as a jazz bassist?
RC: Probably not. I think if I’d have been one of the first African-American bassists in a major orchestra I would have had enough to do to maintain the standards I would be responsible for, not to mention the pressure of being in that position and having to prove yourself every night. To dabble in the jazz community while being a fulltime member of a classical orchestra? Well there are plenty of fulltime players in jazz. Why would I want to be just a good part-time player? I’d be all in on one or the other.
In retrospect are you happier that your legacy is on the jazz side?
RC: I’m happier playing music, it just so happens to be in the jazz world because of someone else’s choice, not mine. I accept that I was thrown into this cauldron of wonderful players but the situation was completely outside of my control. I simply trust that I’m doing this career justice by looking for the right notes every night.
One might ponder whether Ron Carter could have been as creative and inventive on the classical side as he is on the jazz side.
RC: Sure, I could have. I would have had someone write pieces for me, like classical players do, or had my own Afro-American classical ensemble to play in public high schools. I would have found a way to be all in on the classical side. There’s a group, I think it’s called Stringz, that features African-American and Latinx classical musicians. I could have been a part of that. There was an NPR article about this the other day. I’m often asked if things have changed in the classical world regarding minority players, and unfortunately the ratio has not changed much despite more minority players studying classical music at major universities. It’s a situation that needs remedying. I’m past the age of being able to do it myself so all I can do is speak what I think is the truth and hope it resonates.
In a scene where you’re speaking to students at LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts you express your frustration at listening back to a record and realizing you missed a note or an idea.
RC: That happens in a nightly basis. I have a knack for finding something new in the music as we play that I didn’t find the night before. If one of those escapes me it can mess up my evening. How did I not jump on that? In this case, as we came out of the pandemic my students were making me listen to old records I’m on. This insistence on their part and the embarrasment on my part that I don’t remember these songs was compounded by listening and realizing how many chances I had to discover an idea that somehow got by me. To hear that is rather upsetting, but as I say in the film, I’m getting better at being a little more patient with myself and letting it go.
On the flipside, I always stress to my students that there’s no such thing as a bad gig. By that I mean there’s always a chance to have that magic note rise up from nowhere. They’ll express their frustration at not being able to play anything hip on a gig because the music isn’t their style or taste, or it’s not the key they know the song in, stuff like that. The problem is they forgot two very important things when they took the job: First, you have to bring a bigger set of ears, and second, you have to leave your ego at home. If you can command those two parts of your gig life you’d be surprised how much creativity you have available to you, no matter the musical situation.
What was the main lesson you took from the pandemic pause?
RC: Two main lessons, I think. One was my choice to not listen to my history, which was a great idea because it forced me to stop and exhale. The second lesson was how important organization is to me. When I have gigs I sit down at my desk at home or on the road and I plan the sets for that run. I missed spending my evenings that way. There was no music, no shows, no one who needed my guidance. I missed my chance to help the band play better. I missed them having the chance to hear me play a terrible note in the first chorus and when it comes around again on the out chorus. An example of that would be when Dave Brubeck gave Miles Davis “In Your Own Sweet Way,” and Miles played the wrong melody note so many times that Dave finally changed the melody he had written to what Miles played. I want to have that kind of impact.
What was your role in curating the soundtrack recording?
I had a minimal role. Peter used the musical performances he filmed during the making of the movie for the soundtrack. My input was to make sure the song titles and player credits were correct, and if there were alternate performances, to see if there was a better choice musically or sonically.
You’ve been playing your Epifani rig—a UL 901 head and 1×10 or 1×12 cabinet—for awhile.
RC: It’s the purist version of my sound through an amp that I’ve ever heard. It makes my bass sound like it’s supposed to, it doesn’t color the sound in any way. I sound like me through it. I like to put the speaker up on a pole to get it away from the drums and so that I can hear it clearly and the audience can hear it more clearly.
When did you first incorporate the C extension on your bass?
RC: I think it was around 1969 or 1970. I needed some work done while I was on tour in Ohio, and I heard good things about the Bass Shop in Cincinnati. When I got there the owner said he was working on design for an extension. I explained that the reason I didn’t have one was that it adds weight, as I lug my bass around town, and that they’re known to be unreliable and difficult to manipulate. He said, I’ll make you a deal, I’ll install it for free and if you don’t like it, I’ll save the pieces I remove and we can put it back the way it was. I gave it a shot, got back home to New York with it, played it and thought, wow, there are some choices here. Sure enough it proved to be very fortuitous. I worked hard to get some facility with it and use it in my own ways. Interestingly, there are electric bass players I’ve spoken to who heard my low C string and decided to extend their range with a 5- or 6-string bass guitar.
Of late you will frequently end shows with a solo version of “You Are My Sunshine.”
RC: I was working in a trio with Bill Frisell and Paul Motian at the Blue Note—a wonderful unit—and “Sunshine” was one of Bill’s regular songs. I had never considered it to be necessary in my little jazz tune vocabulary but then my band started working again after COVID and I thought, Bill really found something with his version, I bet I could find something interesting with it if it’s just me and the bass. As I figured out more and more what to do with the piece, I started getting more and more comments—especially from those in the senior citizen age range. It brings back memories they haven’t had for quite awhile, which is always amazing to hear. “Mr. Carter, my mother used to sing me that song!” So it helps in the nightly challenge of, Can I hold the audience’s attention with just the bass?
In May you had your 85th Birthday celebration concert at Carnegie Hall and now there’s the release of this film: two milestone moments. Has either had any impact on you with regard to slowing down or retiring?
RC: No. The film is wonderful and so was the Carnegie Hall concert. It let me know that with some organization and people who believed in my judgement enough to offer financial support that it was possible to perform my music in a major concert hall. But as long as I can do this: [breathes in and out] I plan to keep going!
Among the many magic moments in Finding the Right Notes is when Ron Carter and Jon Batiste take an impromptu turn through the standard, “Sweet Lorraine,” with Carter presenting some alternate chord changes and Batiste reacting to them in delight. The full performance can be heard on the soundtrack album, Finding the Right Notes [IN+OUT Records]. Says Peter Schnall, “I gently asked them what they thought about the possibility of playing together for the Power Station interview, and Mr. Carter showed up with his bass, but I still didn’t know for sure.” Carter explains, “Jon was asking me some questions about harmony and reharmonization, so playing together was the natural next step. Basically the premise is, can I get the piano player to go along with my reharmonization on the spur of the moment? It’s an example of where a song can go if you trust your sense of daring and maintain the integrity of the tune, and have a willing partner who is interested in updating their harmonic options.” He continues, “I heard some chords in my head, thought Jon was harmonically advanced enough to catch them, and he did. My bass line shows what I would do on a given night. If I had more time to play with Jon and we got to check out each other’s harmonic concepts I would probably have found a another way to do it. But I was just pushing the envelope showing him some quick choices that came to me, given the time we had.”
Ex. 1 contains two sets of changes to “Sweet Lorriane” in G major. The chord changes in black are the pair’s first time through the tune, which is close to the song’s original changes (written in 1928 by Cliff Burwell, with lyrics by Mitchell Parish), as well as the versions which appear in jazz fake books. Carter lays down a two-feel (two half-notes per bar), with he and Batiste settling in at around 88 BPMs. Of interest is how both play the second chord (the VI) as an Em7 when most play it as an E dominant 7 (which they do later). Other Carter touches include the chromatic passing chords in measures 3, 11, 18, 20, and 27 (he walks in doubletime in 11, 20, and 27), and the II-V up a halfstep to start bar 14. The “false” turnaround starting on F7 (instead of the expected, tonic G) in 31-32 is also Carter’s creation.
The changes in red represent the duo’s second pass through the song (at 1:29). Here both play an E7 on the second change in measure 1. Following the G root, Carter plays the third of the E7chord (G#), which he uses to continue chromatically upward in bars 2 and 3 (Am7, F#7/A#, Em7/B). This leads to the big shift from the first pass, where Carter used a II-V (Dm7-G7) at the end of bar 3 to resolve to C major in measure 4. This time, Carter stays on Em7 for beat three (of bar 3) and plays an Em/D on beat four to ascend melodically into a C#m7b5 (the #IVm7b5)—a common subtitution for the I or the IV chord in jazz. He then continues down chromatically in a new way, implying the Cm6, and G/B.
For the bridge (Letter B), Carter plays the same changes as the first time through. Then for the last A section he returns to his newly-introduced harmonic movement downward from the Em to the C#m7b5 in 27-29. He offers, “The point is I set up this new harmonic motion by playing the first chorus more traditionally. That’s one of the most difficult parts of the job: setting it up for the pianist to know the new changes are coming and that you mean it. It’s something I’m good at doing, steering the pianist in the direction I want to go.”
Ex. 2 shows the last A on the pair’s third and final pass through the song (listen for other cool Carter substitutions on the AAB that precedes this). Here the Maestro extends the song’s “tag” starting in measure 7, where he plays his previous false turnaround starting on F7. This time when he gets to the Eb7 in bar 9 he begins a cycle of fourths (Eb-Ab-Gb-Db), which Batiste plays as major 7ths. Measures 13-15 contain the final sequence: II-V-I climbing to the IV, back the the I, then the tritone substitution V chord (Ab7#11/13), before the resolution to the tonic G. And in one final burst of Carter creativity, he ends on the relative minor (Em11). He sums up, “The goal would be now that Jon heard my changes he would help me take the song somewhere else based on his reaction, because he understands my angle for the chord progression. Then he and I each bring our changes to other bands where they grow and develop further. That’s jazz.”
Through a Lens Musically
A Conversation with Finding the Right Notes Director and Producer Peter Schnall
How did the project come together?
Back in 2015 my dear friend John Matera invited me to the Blue Note in New York City to hear Ron Carter perform. I knew of his history with Miles Davis and many others but it was the first time I saw him play live. I was totally mesmerized by him. Afterwards John told me that no one had yet made a documentary on Mr. Carter, and he filled me in on his career as the most recorded bassist in jazz. So I suggested that we reach out to him, to see if he was interested. I sent Mr. Carter some of the documentaries I’d produced and a couple of months later I found myself sitting in his Manhattan apartment. And we just started talking about life, our families, and careers. I kind of hinted that I wasn’t a jazz aficionado but that I loved jazz because my mother bought jazz records, though she never told me why she loved jazz. He asked me what it would take to make the film and I told him we would hang out with him for six months, filming interviews and behind the scenes at performances, and he said, Let’s give it a try. The six months turned out to be six years. In retrospect, one of the documentaries I sent Mr. Carter was the first film I’d ever produced coming out of college, which was a portrait of my grandfather, a normal Jewish immigrant living in Far Rockaway, Queens. I think Mr. Carter was taken by that—the intimacy and the personal side.
What was your main challenge?
The main challenge in any documentary is, What’s the story? Where is it going? What is it telling? What is it bringing to an audience that they’ve perhaps never known or understood before? What I was interested in was understanding Mr. Carter, himself, in addition to his music. The more we talked the more he helped us flesh out his 60-year journey through the world of jazz. And once I began traveling with him, attending and filming concerts, talking with his colleagues, friends, and other musicians, I realized how admired and respected he is within the jazz community. All of that helped me build the character of Ron Carter. Mr. Carter’s trust in us, opening up about his life, bringing us into his home and work spaces, that made a huge difference.
What effect did the pandemic pause have on the film?
A major one, actually. When we resumed filming it revealed a whole other side of Ron’s world of music and entertainment, and just how fragile it is. I felt we should sit down with him one more time to talk about where he was as he approached 85; and then I thought, I shouldn’t be the one talking to him—it should be someone in his world. I remembered the interview we had filmed with Jon Batiste in 2017. So I reached out to John and proposed that he sit down with Mr. Carter at the Power Station studios in New York and have a one on one conversation about his music and career. I gave Jon an outline of everything we had filmed and some topics to cover, and he of course brought in his own questions and insights. They spoke for two hours. One of the most magical moments during the filming was when Mr. Carter and Jon took a break from conversing and played a rendition of “Sweet Lorraine.” When it was over, I realized I had captured something extraordinary: A relationship between two people, a former mentor and mentee, that I could now weave throughout the entire film. It became a perfect way to weave in and out of all the stories we had filmed. We decided early on during our edit, to start up the film in a very unusual manner: Using Jon’s very telling and funny story of his very first, and very bumpy encounter, with Mr. Carter when he was 17. It really sets the film in motion.
How did you lay out your storyboard?
We had so many clips and scenes, from Newport to Detroit to St. Remy, France to New York City. Before we were able to create a story line, my editor and producer Lucas Groth and I decided to edit each individual event we had filmed over the the six years, in order to see how they would play out on their own, as their own story, and we found that some held up very well. We then assembled them, not in chronological order, but in an order that helped reveal an understanding of Mr. Carter and his history. Lucas came up with the idea of having Mr. Carter perform one of his favorite songs, “My Funny Valentine,” over three different eras and seamlessly weaving them together.
The scene where Mr. Carter visits his childhood home in Ferndale, Michigan is compelling. And you say it was his first time back, even though he has performed in nearby Detroit many times.
That’s correct. He hadn’t been back there since the ’50s. How lucky we were to have an open afternoon during the Detroit Jazz Fest where he could take us there, walk down the street, and remember how the law required him as a black student to circumvent the white neighboorhood while carrying his cello home from school. That opens up a powerful point in the film where Mr. Carter discusses all the racial injustice he has faced, including his rejection by the classical music world. One of my favorite exchanges is when he says, “You know, as offensive as being called a colored boy is there have been times when I have been glad to be called that. I played Carnegie Hall. And I got to Carnegie Hall being a colored boy. I can live with that.”
Let’s talk about the film’s underscore and the soundtrack album that will be released with the film.
For the underscore we decided to use mostly Mr. Carter’s compositions. He has written over 140 songs and what better way to introduce the audience to him than have his music lead the way? Lucas and I would find a song from one of his recordings and use it to underscore the scene, the moment, or the emotion. Often the chosen songs coincided with the live recordings we filmed at shows and concerts. This was also the first time I have worked with a music supervisor. Working with Jonathan Zalben was key for me in helping to understand jazz and the arduous and complicated process to clear and license the soundtrack. In one particular scene, where Mr. Carter is at home taking about his son’s passing, we couldn’t find an appropriate song, and Jonathan came up with one that perfectly captures the emotion [“Doom Mood”]. As you can well imagine, sound and music are an extremely important and integral part of this documentary. Sound mixer Brian Beatrice, whom I’ve had the pleasure of working with for many years, took our sound files and wove them into a stunning soundtrack.
In preparation for the accompnaying soundtrack album, we came up with a list of performances we had recorded during Mr. Carter’s performances and had Jonathan send them to him for his final review. The other tracks on the album are songs Mr. Carter had recorded with IN+OUT Records, the German company releasing the film’s soundtrack. I believe some of them have not previously been released.
What led you to pitch the project to PBS?
I’ve produced many documentaries with PBS and I find that they continue to respect a filmmaker’s style and point of view, allowing them to bring out the story in a creative, and, at times, in a very personal manner. Bill Gardner [PBS Vice President, Multiplatform Programming & Head of Development] was incredibly supportive throughout the entire process, encouraging us as we went; saying, It’s working, keep going. He even asked for the show to be extended from 90-minutes to two hours in length, as he was so taken by our rough cut. That doesn’t happen too often. Finding the Right Notes is a co-production between Partisan Picture and PBS.
What would you say is your main takeaway, having done your first music documentary?
I’ve learned more on this film, than any other project I’ve produced on what it takes to be a musician. We listen to their music, see them live, see a little bit behind the scenes, and it looks like fun. But to have the unique opportunity to dive deep into the life and work of a musician, or more importantly, the legendary bassist Ron Carter, has been an extraordinary journey for me—one I will never forget. My younger daughter is a musician, and singer-songwriter. Watching her struggle as so many do in all of the arts, I now have a greater empathy and comprehension of what it takes on a daily basis, preparing, performing, and traveling. The other takeaway is how I truly honored I feel to have had the opportunity to work with and get to know Mr. Carter, and tell his story.
A View from the Inside
by John Matera
Executive producer John Matera, who initially suggested the project to Peter Schnall, shares his thoughts on the making of Finding the Right Notes
Imagine being alongside your hero over the course of six years, among legendary musicians, collaborators, his family, and his friends. Through hundreds of hours of filming, it never got old. Firsthand access to Ron Carter on stage, in his home, on travel, in schools, and in casual moments was marvelous.
I had never worked on a documentary project before. When I first proposed the idea to director Peter Schnall of producing a documentary film on Ron Carter, I had no idea how truly complicated it would be to craft a two-hour show. I would also learn how rare it is to be able to spend years following a subject, as we did with Mr. Carter. That unique opportunity allowed us to capture the life, the career, and the music of one of the greatest jazz artists ever.
Peter and I often discussed how we wanted our story to unfold and from the very beginning, Peter decided to have Mr. Carter’s voice, along with his colleagues and family, be the only voices of the show. There would be no narration. Not an easy task, but it made the film feel intimate and personal.
My work throughout the production from finding sources, to arranging shoots, to schlepping gear, to bringing a life’s knowledge of jazz into the film’s story line, was a blast. But the biggest thrill for me was being on the other side of conversations with jazz icons and having the extraordinary opportunity to interview the likes of George Benson, Herbie Hancock, Christian McBride, Victor Wooten, and others.
While filming Mr. Carter’s performances, it was tough for me to stay on task instead of just listening to the great music. Concert footage was terrific, but the offstage stuff was key. We witnessed the time and detail the Maestro devoted to composing, scoring, set planning, rehearsing, and sound checking. We learned that his manner—serious, quiet, brusque, or however people might describe it—was all about the music. When touring, he did little or no sightseeing or socializing that would distract.
His attention to detail was clear from the beginning, when we asked Mr. Carter for the intimate access to his life that the film would require. Holding DVDs of other Partisan Pictures documentaries, he said, “I watched these. Peter, you are an artist. I can work with you.” He had checked us out.
I also learned what his inner circle knows—that Ron Carter is one of the most thoughtful, gracious, funny, relaxed, warm, and sincere human beings you could ever meet. He is family centric. He is a gift-giver. He cares about people.
We had a trove of phenomenal content, so it was difficult to see favorite moments dropped from the final cut. The story told itself indeed, but the magic happened in the editing. Peter, along with editor Lucas Groth, transformed a collection of interesting scenes into a seamless and compelling portrayal of the legendary bassist. That was our goal, and achieving it feels fabulous.