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Carter, John (Wallace)

Clarinetist and composer John Carter was best known for his virtuoso improvisations and epic, five-part compositionRoots and Folklore: Episodes in the Development of American Folk Music, an extended meditation on the history and evolution of African music in the New World. An early disciple of Ornette Coleman, he later developed his own distinct approach to free-jazz improvisation and composition.

 John Carter

John Wallace Carter was born in Fort Worth, Texas, on September 24, 1928, and was a childhood friend of Coleman and drummer Charles Moffett. He earned a bachelor's degree in music education from Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri in 1949, and a master's degree from the University of Colorado in 1956. He taught in public schools in both Fort Worth then moved Los Angeles in 1961, where, with Coleman's encouragement he formed a band, the New Art Jazz Ensemble (NAJE), with trumpeter Bobby Bradford in 1964.

Carter conducted orchestral versions of Coleman's work at UCLA in 1965, and he was initially a follower of the saxophonist's "harmolodic" approach to composition and improvisation. On the NAJE's 1969 album Seeking, he demonstrates great facility on alto and tenor saxophones, as well as clarinet.

On Seeking, Carter and Bradford form a quartet Tom Williamson on bass and Bruz Freeman on drums, which presages similar approaches to the quartet later heard from David S. Ware or Dewey Redman. The track “Karen on Monday” is described in the notes as a “proclaiming and complaining song:” it describes Carter’s daughter’s Monday mood. A repeated bass figure lays a soft blanket upon which the horns improvise in a lovely legato.

“The Village Dancers,” also on Seeking, sounds most like the Coleman Quartet. Its melody line, played by the horns, was initially intended as a bass line, but its speeded up brass invocation serves as a kind of raunchy, yet spiritual exercise on physical movement.

The NAJE continued as a group until 1974 and released a total of four albums on the Revelation and Flying Dutchman labels, which have since been reissued on CD by HatOLOGY. After the NAJE disbanded Carter played clarinet exclusively, and progressively came into his own voice as an improviser and composer.

In the late 1970s, he played in a group called Wind College with flutist James Newton and bassist Red Callender, and was the subject of a documentary, The New Music: Bobby Bradford and John Carter in 1980. He played at clubs and festivals in Europe and the United States, both as a leader and as a sideman, with groups that frequently included Bradford, Newton, and Roberto Miguel Miranda. In the 1980s he led the clarinet quartet Clarinet Summit, with Alvin Batiste and Jimmy Hamilton and with David Murray on bass clarinet. As an improviser, Carter came to share affinities with the work of other free-jazz clarinetists, such as Perry Robinson and Theo Jörgensmann.

In the 1980s, Carter focused increasingly on composition, starting with Dauwhe, an octet he recorded in 1982. The piece would become the first part of Roots and Folklore, and reveals his evolving approach to both instrumentation and creative improvisation. With focused interplay and overlapping of tones and ideas, Carter’s clarinet takes an omnipresent position.

Carter and Bradford’s musical relationship was not unlike that of Coleman and Cherry in their pianoless quartet. In this setting, Carter and Bradford embrace the composition's pastoral, evocative voices of tribal Africa while the sleekness and idiosyncratic horns swirl like apparitions above the manic, even brooding rhythm. Both experimental, yet familiar, Dauwhe augurs many of the ideas Carter later explored in the remaining volumes of his history: clashing cultures, forces of myth and predation, lust, and unadulterated beauty amid the chaos. Neither free music nor swing, this album shows elements of both, and has layers of ensemble work similar to massive conductions of Butch Morris.

Carter’s compositions, intriguing in their varied instrumentation, draw on the folk wisdom of country blues, the sophisticated dances of swing, the figured bass of bebop, and the violent clashes of free jazz, all combined in careful doses. The five parts of Roots and Folklore explore deep feelings about the African diaspora, starting with Dauwhe, named for an African goddess of happines. This is followed by meditations on imprisonment in Castles of Ghana, the middle passage on Dance of the Love Ghosts, chattel slavery on Fields, and the youthful exuberance of Harlem between the World Wars in Shadows on a Wall. The works vary in instrumentation, and are both expressionistic and impressionistic.

“Ballad to Po’ Ben” from Fields is a tormented jazz opera, and introduces themes of dances, suppers, wakes, and funerals, not to mention the celebrations post-funerals. Similar to work by Marion Brown, yet totally unique, “Ballad to Po’ Ben” represents the grains, tobacco, and cotton that African-Americans were required to labor, even as grief and pain allowed for a national music to be born. A searing vocal solo from Theresa Jenoure recalls the darkest, most evocative moments of Abbey Lincoln on the 1960 Freedom Now Suite. Don Preston’s vampire-like synthesizers then open into Marty Ehrlich’s and Benny Powell’s pas-de-deux. With growls of despair and moments of halo-like clarity shining through the gloom, this track opens a torrent.

“On a Country Road” features recordings of Carter’s uncle discussing “the old days” while Carter’s wispy, nearly electronic clarinet is unaccompanied at first, then Fred Hopkins and Andrew Cyrille join. Fierce and immaculate, the tune has a dark, yet hopeful tone.

Carter employed equal parts roots and folklore in his explorations of African-American historyhis attachments to what came before looks forward in both style and quality of style. Carter's work is articulate and allows for a sinister wilderness to penetrate even his most designed pieces, all of which are a statement about Africans who became African-Americans, and the immense losses in between.

Carter explained the role of the pre-planned harmonic and structural features of his music in this way. “The only restriction on freedom of approach is that each player must listen to and cooperate with his fellows toward group expression within the mood and movement suggested by the theme…[these] are merely jumping-off places; they suggest, to us, moods and forms of motion; to be sure, our group concept and thus our subconscious planning of treatment has evolved, but no two performances are alike, nor do we consciously consider any attempt to formularize them in any way.”

John Carter, recorded the final chapter of Roots in 1989, and died of lung cancer in Los Angeles on March 31, 1991. He was survived by his wife, Gloria a daughter, Karen, and two sons, Stanley and Christopher.

Select recordings

As a leader:

Dauwhe, Black Saint, 1982

Castles of Ghana, Gramavision, 1985

Dance of the Love Ghosts, Gramavision, 1986

Fields, Gramavision, 1988

Shadows On A Wall, Gramavision, 1989

co-leader with Bobby Bradford’s New Art Ensemble:

Seeking, Revelation, 1969

with Horace Tapscott:

The Dark Tree, HatOLOGY, 1989

Contributor: Sean Singer