John Carter

NICE NOD by Ben Ratliff in today’s New York Times about my former neighbor, the musician John Carter. Mr. Carter dug his heels deep into L.A. He taught music, tooling around local schools. He lived right across the street from me and was a steady voice of encouragement when I was feeling a little wary about the piano (I’d played clarinet, then flute so this was instrument number three) and much later when I got into photography found a space for me to create — and I was able to shoot a couple of his album covers. Always calm, centered, Mr. Carter’s music felt worlds apart from the soft-spoken man with the dignified carriage and the quiet smile. I was amazed at the zigzags, squawks and spikes of sound that came out of the bell of his clarinet. I didn’t realize how impressive a cult figure he was until a drummer I knew and worked with kept repeating “That John Carter?.”
My most indelible memory: Stepping out of work late, late one night across town in Silver Lake, leaving the newspaper’s office I worked in, I hear a voice intoning my name — both of them. I turned. It was him, Mr. Carter, after a late-night session of akido — again, right across the street. “Late night? Too late for you to be walking to your car alone. Our secret, unless I see it again.”

He kept his word.

Mr. Carter always felt like a guardian angel floating around this big impersonal city, sending out messages. Glad to see there are much more of them to hear.

John Carter/Bobby Bradford

New York’s experimental jazz groups of the 1960s were framed as the “new thing,” but their counterparts in Los Angeles weren’t being framed at all; they were mostly ignored. The cream doesn’t always rise to the top, and here are two examples. John Carter and Bobby Bradford both played in the 1950s around Dallas and Fort Worth, where they had encountered the young Ornette Coleman; they were all beboppers looking for something new. By the end of the decade all three wound up in Los Angeles. Mr. Coleman left for New York, joined there after his initial success by Mr. Bradford. But by the mid-1960s Mr. Bradford was back on the West Coast, and the New Art Jazz Ensemble, with Mr. Carter on saxophones and clarinet and Mr. Bradford on trumpet, had become a real band, a good one. It started from the premise of Mr. Coleman’s music: clarion bebop themes giving way to long and grooving collective improvisations with no predetermined chord changes. And it pushed on from there, with a whole different kind of authority and intelligence — sometimes a more formally disciplined one — than there had been in Mr. Coleman’s bands. But it didn’t have enough opportunities to work, and outside of Los Angeles the group only became known to those most stricken with the jazz record-collecting virus, the kind who track down D.I.Y. albums with shaky Letraset graphics, released in tiny editions. An excellent new boxed set — “Mosaic Select: John Carter & Bobby Bradford” — should help right the situation. It contains reissues of two Carter-Bradford ensemble albums from 1969 and ’71, “Seeking” and “Secrets,” as well as some unissued live performances and a clarinet-trumpet duet from 1979. As improvisers the two musicians had an uncommonly special connection; Carter, who died in 1991, was a good saxophonist but a great clarinetist, clear and strong and resourceful, with few peers in his time.


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