Northern Illinois University

Northern Today

Jazz students spread music gospel
according to Professor Ron Carter

October 12, 2009

by Mark McGowan

Members of the NIU Liberace Jazztet perform in Peru (top) and Colombia (bottom).

“A short tour to Colombia sounded just like one more engagement to all the seasoned musicians in this band. They have been on the road so many times … no one imagined this was going to turn out to be a life-changing experience.” — Alejandro Fernandez, jazz studies grad student

Ron Carter knows the road, the literal and often mythical one that musicians travel endlessly from one gig to the next.

And in Carter’s line of work – jazz – there’s another road.

It runs through a band’s musical charts, which usually are just maps of sorts that point the soloists in the right direction without providing a destination. The road just goes on, and every night is different. Audiences of strangers, eager to lose themselves in the sounds. Improvised solos, evolving from show to show.

Carter, director of jazz studies in the NIU School of Music and a Board of Trustees professor, has made it his life’s work to escort young musicians to – and along – both roads.

What a busy life it is.

NIU’s Liberace Jazztet recently returned from a trip to Bogota, Colombia, where the group performed at the Teatro Libre Jazz Festival. Carter and his young musicians also gave concerts and clinics at Javeriana University, Fernando Sor School of Music, National University and Centro Orquestal Kennedy.

Alejandro Fernandez, the bassist, is from Bogota – and was the main reason behind the invitation to perform there. Others in the group were Shawn Bell (trombone), Larry Brown (guitar), Willerm Delisfort (piano), John Moore (trumpet), Patrick Terbrack (saxophone) and Clifton Wallace (drums).

Ron Carter

A few months earlier, in May, the Jazztet journeyed to Lima, Peru, to perform at Festival Internacional Jazz Peru. The group has an invitation to play in Brazil next year.

“My students get an opportunity to hear many of the roots of jazz. The Afro-Peruvian music we played and heard is the popular dance music there. Even in Colombia, the Afro-Colombian music is similar to salsa dance music in Cuba,” says Carter, whose pair of black briefcases still clings to airport luggage tags. “They also get a chance to interact with musicians from around the world.”

The Jazztet enjoyed warm receptions everywhere, starting at the U.S. Embassy in Colombia. Carter successfully applied to the embassy for a travel grant.

But the true rewards came on stage.

“Every concert we played, they didn’t want us to stop,” Carter says. “At Teatro Libre, we were supposed to play until 9:30, but we had three encores. We played until 10:30. It was like a riot. They wanted us to come back, but I was too tired.”

That concert – sold out weeks in advance, it was the festival closer – received a live broadcast on Colombian national television. The Jazztet members, who had no idea until a few hours before, rose to the occasion.

“It was an intense set full of jazz standards, some originals and lots of swing … people just kept asking for more, but it was time to leave. At the end of the concert, the theater director approached us and said, ‘This is the best concert we have had in 21 years of (the) festival. This is your house. Please come back whenever you want.’ ” — Fernandez

Residents of foreign countries appreciate jazz more than people of the United States, birthplace of the music.

Carter knows that. It’s why he scouts those lands for young musicians whose presence in DeKalb would benefit both sides: the player and the program. It’s why he – Georgia born and bred – has been named the permanent director of education for Jazz Peru Jazz Festival in Lima. It’s why he’s spending a week in Mexico next September as an artist in residence at the State University of Chiapas in Tapachula.

It’s why he’s creating exchanges between NIU and other schools, including the Fernando Sor music school in Bogota. More than a dozen students have been recruited to NIU, not just in jazz but on strings and classical woodwinds as well.

It’s why the jazz groups continue to record and release CDs – the Jazztet and the Jazz Ensemble each have two coming out this year, with a record release party scheduled for Wednesday, Dec. 16, at the Jazz Showcase in Chicago – and why he posts to YouTube. E-mails have come from China, Korea and Japan in recent weeks. Those students want an education in jazz straight from its source, Carter says.

“They love jazz. They just love it. They’re trying to connect with the tradition of jazz, with the blues, with the feeling of jazz, the emotion of jazz, the culture of jazz,” he says. “Jazz has a standard around the world, and we’re maintaining that quality of the music.”

Jazz maintenance comes through jazz performance, exercising those muscles as often as possible.

“We played a couple of tunes and gave the students the chance to play for us, followed by a session of coaching by Professor Carter. The lesson was clear to everyone: Jazz is a language you can only learn by listening, singing and playing along with the recordings.” — Fernandez

Members of the Jazztet play plenty of gigs, partly for pure survival.

The nation’s sagging economy has forced the Liberace Foundation, which provided the initial $10,000 to create the group in 2001 and has generously funded it since, to reduce NIU’s subsidy by two-thirds. “We’re the only jazz group they held on to,” Carter says. “That’s a positive.”

Carter has booked shows at FitzGerald’s in Berwyn, the Iron Post in Urbana and a jazz club in St. Louis, his old stomping grounds. He’s lined up Christmas parties. He’s secured a gig at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola at the Big Apple’s Jazz at Lincoln Center. Jazztet members also are allowed to find engagements for the group.

Next year will find NIU’s jazz groups traveling back to Lima and to Brazil if the group finds funding to continue.

(Of course, there is never an entrance fee to enjoy the NIU Jazz Ensemble’s annual fall concert, scheduled for 8 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 5, in the Duke Ellington Ballroom. Tenor saxophonist Don Braden is the guest artist.)

For his part, Carter also manages an exhausting freelance life.

He’s program director of Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Band Director Academy. He was lab band director at the Birch Creek Music Academy in Egg Harbor, Wis. He accepts numerous invitations as a featured guest artist and clinician. Next month, he’s serving as guest director for the Illinois Music Educators Association District I Honors Jazz Band.

Meanwhile, there are royalties flowing in – some from the live broadcast on Colombian television, some from the publication and reprinting of Carter’s textbook, “Teaching Music Through Performance in Jazz.” The book also is being translated into Spanish.

Carter, who listens to jazz recordings when he’s alone in his office and who whistles and scat-sings when he has company, enjoys it all.

“My graduates can fit into any music based on the jazz tradition – rock, dance, salsa, popular, blues,” he says with a broad smile. “They’re playing all over the world.”