Steve Carter – Jazz Guitar Life Interview

During my last year in college, I got a call from Van Morrison. I rehearsed with him for a while, on bass, and he asked me to go across country on tour with him. But I was an English major at UMass/Boston, a few months short of graduation, I was newly married, and I wanted to finish school, so I didn’t take the gig. Van was not happy with me…

Steve Carter

Jazz Guitarist, Writer, Poet and all around renaissance man, Steve Carter has seemingly done it all and in this 2004 Jazz Guitar Life interview, he talks about his teaching at Berklee, how he got into solo guitar performance and the history behind Frog Story Records. A great read and quite entertaining! Enjoy 🙂

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JGL: How old are you?

SC: 58.

JGL: Just for a little more background, what geographical area do you live in?

SC: I’ve always lived in and around Boston.

JGL: At what age did you first get into guitar playing and were you interested in jazz from the beginning or were there other musical interests before jazz? What was the motivating experience to get you involved in this particular music and instrument?

SC: I started fooling with the guitar about the age of 12. In high school I played with some rock bands, mostly playing bass. At that time I didn’t understand what it meant to study the instrument.

JGL: What kind, if any, formal training do you have (ie: lessons, schooling, that sort of thing). And how did these experiences help you get where you are today?

SC: I never took any guitar lessons. I studied upright bass with a great jazz bassist named John Neves. I took a few piano lessons with his brother, Paul. I took one year of harmony and arranging classes, part-time, at Berklee, in about 1970. I’ve always been self-taught, in just about everything.

JGL: What was your first guitar? What are you playing now?

SC: My first guitar worth mentioning is the same one I play today, my Aria Diamonds thin hollow-body. I bought it from a friend in 1968 when I was playing with a rock/soul band called The Heat Palace. It has always had a great tone. I love it.

JGL: Who were your influences on jazz guitar when you were beginning? And have they stayed the same or have they changed over the years? Who are you listening to today (guitarists or non-guitarists)?

SC: John Neves used to tell a great story about a jazz player who was asked to write on an index card the names of players who had influenced him. He covered every bit of the card, both sides, with names, and wrote them so that, for instance, the “a” in Miles Davis was also the “a” in Bill Evans. I don’t like to even start talking about influences, because so many great musicians and non-musicians, have inspired me, and still do.

Just off the top of my head, here’s a few players I’ve listened to in, say, the past month: Marian McPartland, Jim Hall, Ron Carter, Clifford Brown, Willie Ruff, Dwike Mitchell, Rufus Reid. And then there’s Mozart, Stravinsky, Jack Jarrett, Bela Bartok, Prokofiev. Just to name a few.

JGL: Did you know early on that music was something you wanted to do as a career choice and if so, what were some of the things you did to make this choice work for you?

SC: When I was in college I started playing with a band called The Blues Children. You can guess what kind of music we played. We had some success around Boston and I thought I’d really like to be a professional musician. The band played some pretty prestigious gigs, the best coffee houses (blues was considered “folk music” in those days), opening for people like Odetta, the Chambers Brothers, John Lee Hooker, Mississippi John Hurt. But it never really took off, eventually broke up.

During my last year in college, I got a call from Van Morrison. I rehearsed with him for a while, on bass, and he asked me to go across country on tour with him. But I was an English major at UMass/Boston, a few months short of graduation, I was newly married, and I wanted to finish school, so I didn’t take the gig. Van was not happy with me. After college I took a job teaching guitar, and I gigged with some bands, sometimes as leader, mostly as a sideman, some on guitar, mostly on bass. Gradually I got interested in jazz.

After I started teaching at Berklee (I’ll discuss how that happened later), I started gigging with lots of jazz groups. Some guitar duos, some quintets, a ten-piece band. I had the good fortune to play with some of the great teachers and students at Berklee. That’s really where I learned the most.

JGL: Were your parent(s) and family members supportive of your musical career choice and from our last conversation you mentioned that you had a daughter. Do you have any other children, and If it is not too personal could you talk a bit about raising a family and how you handle being father, husband, and a working jazz guitar player. How have you been able to maintain all these responsibilities and obligations?

SC: My father had wanted to be a musician when he was younger. He played trumpet, but gave it up when I was very young. He used to tell me that he practiced in the closet so as not to wake up me and my brother. My father introduced me to John Neves, and that was a turning point in my life. But when I was first starting to have some success with my playing, my father said to me, “You can’t make a living with music. You’ll want to get married and have a family.” Well, I got married and have a great family, and I’m still having a ball playing music. My wife and my two daughters have been tremendously supportive of my music.

A few weeks ago my older daughter, Sheri, got married. Their wedding was in a theater and they billed it as “Sheri and Jason’s Wedding Spectacular”. It was spectacular, Their friends played and sang and “acted” in the wedding. I sang some songs I had sung to Sheri when she was a baby, and I played a song I had written for Sheri when she was about four years old. The Wedding Spectacular was one of the finest moments of my life. It hasn’t been easy keeping the music going while raising a family, but my family has always understood how important it is to me to make music, and they have been my inspiration.

JGL: What was your practice routine like when you were beginning and what is it like now? Are there specific areas that you work on or do you just play through tunes?

SC: When I applied for the job teaching at Berklee, I actually didn’t know much. I knew some scales and some chords, and could read a little, but I was really not very advanced. Bill Leavitt, the chairman of the guitar department, took me under his wing for a summer and we went through all of his books: all three volumes of the method, the Classical Studies book, the Melodic Rhythms book, and the duets book. That’s when I learned how to practice. To this day I still practice from those books every once in a while. But these days my practice consists of warming up with a few scales, arpeggios, intervals, and chord exercises, then reviewing my repertoire of tunes and working on new tunes.

JGL: How difficult do you find it making a living as a jazz guitar player? Or have you found it to be relatively easy?

SC: I’ve never actually “made a living” as a jazz guitar player, but I’ve always been a professional jazz guitar player while making a living. And that’s something I’m proud of. For twenty-five years I taught guitar at Berklee and played all kinds of gigs: rock, blues, jazz, weddings, concers, shows.

In 1997 I left Berklee and started working days as a software developer. Since then, that’s been my day job. I continue to gig. When my kids were younger, I had to take a lot of gigs that were less than ideal, just to bring in money. Now my kids are grown up and I take only the gigs I want. That’s a dream come true!

JGL: How do you go about searching for gigs or do they come to you now that you are known? And what have you found in your experience that makes looking for gigs easier?

SC: I still have to search for gigs. Once in a great while I’ll get a call for a club gig or a private party from someone who’s heard of me, but mostly I have to go out and try to find a place to play. It gets harder, not easier. In the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s there were lots of clubs with live music around Boston, and lots of live music at functions. There’s a lot less today. I have a PR package I send out, with a promo CD, color photo, news clippings, reviews, etc. Last year I sent out about 70 of those and got three club gigs out of it. Now some of the club gigs were great and I’m still doing them, but others went away after a while, for one reason or another.

One club I play every few months is Michael Timothy’s Wine and Jazz Bar in Nashua, NH. It’s the best club gig I’ve ever had. Michael is a devoted jazz fan and a fantastic cook! The man’s a saint! 🙂 But I still have to call him every month to see if he has an opening. There’s no shortage of great jazz players in this area, and we all have to hustle if we want to work. (That reminds me I need to give Michael a call 🙂 )

JGL: Could you describe some of your best musical situations or experiences and the worst?

SC: One great experience comes to mind. In about 1966 the Blues Children got a call to back up the Chicago blues legend Little Walter. He had just flown in to Boston for a gig, and his band missed the plane. We got the call just a few hours before the gig and hustled into town just in time to set up and blow.

Now in those days blacks and whites rarely played blues together. It was said that white guys could not play the blues. Little Walter didn’t buy that. We played the first set and he liked us. On the break he gave us a lesson in the blues. The next set was incredible. I’ll never forget that high note on “Little Red Rooster.”

After the gig, Little Walter said, “Youz the only white boys what’s got it. Them other white boys don’t play the blues well, some do, Paul Butterfield, I showed him how do this [played his harmonica] and this [played his harmonica] but them other white boys, they ain’t got it. You boys got it.”

JGL: What type of musical situation do you enjoy the most (i.e.: trio, quartet, duo, solo, etc.)

SC: I enjoy solo, duo, and trio the most. These days, that’s almost all I do. I played in a duo with a singer, Skye Hurlburt, for about a year recently. We made two CDs on my Frogstory Records label. I enjoyed that a lot, but it ran its course, and now I’m doing almost exclusively solo gigs.

JGL: What type of guitar/amp sound do you prefer, or does it change from one situation to the next?

SC: I always use my Aria and my old Ampeg B-15. I adjust the tone controls on the amp, and I adjust the reverb (Alesis Nanoverb), for each room. I’m very particular about tone. People have told me that I always sound the same, no matter what guitar or amp I’m playing. I think that’s a good thing. The sound is in your mind and your fingers, not in the hardware.

JGL: Do you like performing more as a sideman or as a leader? And if you could comment on the pros and cons of both.

SC: I much prefer to be a sideman. That’s where my strengths lie. I’m actually a better accompanist than a soloist.

JGL: How did you come to play with Al Martino, Little Walter and Anna-Maria Alberghetti? In their day they were extremely popular artists and performers and are still known to this day. What were those experiences like for you as a player? Did you go on the road with any of them or was it more of a recording gig?

SC: Al Martino and Anna-Maria Alberghetti were together on a one-night show, with a big band. Someone just called me for the gig. I also had the great pleasure of playing a one-nighter with Cab Calloway. It was in the 80’s and we played his trademark “Minnie the Moocher” as a disco tune! He had fun and so did we. I was able to get a few show gigs because I could read, and of course I had connections from Berklee. Actually, I played both those shows those shows on my Bean fretless. Being able to read bass clef was a marketable skill.

JGL: What was the motivation to release your own CD? And what was your experience as such getting the CD out (from the initial idea to the final product)? Do you plan on recording another CD and if so, will there be more original compositions on it or do you prefer playing standards?

SC: The making of “Act One” is an interesting story. I have a friend, Alex Case, who was a student of mine at Berklee. A few years after Alex graduated, he wrote to me and asked me to play solo guitar at his wedding. Now I could play a few solo pieces, but there were teachers at Berklee who played such amazing solo guitar that I was too intimidated to do much of it, even though it was my favorite kind of guitar playing. I said, “I’d love to Alex, but I don’t play solo guitar.” “Sure you do,” he said, “I’ve heard you. We want you to play.” Well, I quickly learned a bunch of tunes and played their wedding. It was in a field on a hill top in New Hampshire, overlooking a mountain. I had to run extension cords a few hundred yards, across a road and into the field. The wind kept blowing my music stand over. But it was the experience of a lifetime.

After that, Alex hired me to play at a private party at his house. Alex is a recording engineer. About this time he had just finished working on a Dave Mathews record that won a Grammy. He had a recording studio in his house, and he had the house wired with speakers in almost every room. I set up on the porch with my little Peavy Studio Pro 112. We split the signal, and ran a cord ran up to the bedroom on the second floor, plugged into my Ampeg, which was sitting on top of a bed. Alex put two mics on the Ampeg. He fed the signal to speakers throughout the house, and into his DAT recorder. I played the gig, and he recorded it.

At first he just wanted to record it because that’s what he does, and because he wanted a recording of my playing to listen to. In addition, I’d get a nice demo tape. When we listened to the playback, it sounded so good I decided to cut a CD. Again, at first I was just thinking of it as a demo. A while later I went into Alex’s studio and recorded the rest of the CD. Most of it was one take. We used some of the cuts from the party and some from the studio. Alex is such a master that it is hard to tell which is which even for me! The production quality was good enough that I was able to offer the CD for sale on Amazon. (Maybe some of your readers will support me by buying a copy!) They should…(ed’s note)

JGL: What’s the history behind Frog Story records? Is it your own label? And do you plan on recording other acts or is it strictly for your own personal needs?

SC: When I was with the Blues Children, we had a singer, Jim Malone, who, when he got tired, after late gigs, would just start babbling. It was about 1967 and he drove a huge old early-60’s Lincoln. It was so big that we could get all five of us in it and have room to stretch out and sleep on the way home from gigs. So we’d be nodding off and Jim would be babbling. But he wanted us to stay awake. He got lonely. One night we were driving down a deserted road on Cape Cod. The rest of us had fallen asleep and Jim, babbling to himself, decided he’d wake us up. He slammed on the breaks, throwing us tumbling about the interior of this monstrous Lincoln. “What?” we yelled. “Did you see that?” Jim asked. “It was a huge frog, right there in the middle of the road.” “You nearly killed us all to avoid a frog?” “But it was huge! It was the size of a cat.”

Well, after that, Jim told the story to anyone who would listen, and every time, the frog got bigger. First it was as big as a cat, then a small dog, then a pony. So when agents and club owners would start telling the Blues Children what they were going to do for us, we’d look at each other and say, “Frog story.” And anyone who was jiving was called a frog. When my kids were little, they’d hear my wife and I talking about frogs, and they thought they were good things. So they started buying me little toy frogs and stuff as presents. I have dozens of them around the house. Once they even bought be a African tropical frog. So when I sent “Act One” to Disc Makers for pressing, I needed a label name, and Frogstory Records just popped into my mind. By the way, the photo on the album cover is mine, and the photo on the back is by my daughter Wendy. The graphics were done by my daughter Sheri. And my wife Marilynn kept us all in line during the somewhat frantic production and the release party. It was a family affair. 

As for my plans for the label, for the present it’s just for my own music. Right now I have one solo CD and two duo CDs. I’m planning on two follow-ups to “Act One“: on “Act Two” I’ll play duets with myself; on “Act Three” I’ll play lead, rhythm, and bass. Those CDs will be mostly originals. Before those come out, I’m going to do a CD called “Intermission Riffs” in my home studio which will just be for friends and family. A few players have approached me and asked if Frogstory Records will support other artists. At some point I’d like to do that, but I’d need to get some backing first. Selling CDs is really hard, these days.

JGL: In your bio it states that you play bass as well. Did you get into bass because you enjoy playing the instrument or was it easier to get gigs as a bass player rather than a guitar player? And is it that much different conceptually and/or musically than the guitar in terms of your musical mind-set?

SC: As I said earlier, I studied upright bass with John Neves, and played upright bass for a while. I played it in some jazz, rock, and folk groups, and I played in a local civic orchestra. I love bass. I have a great old Mosrite bass and a fretless Travis Bean. The Bean was my working ax for many years when I played in wedding bands. I think that playing bass is great training for guitarists. But you have to avoid the temptation to play it like a guitar. You have to listen to the great bassists Ron Carter, Rufus Reid, Scott LeFaro. Playing bass is all about support.

JGL: On your site, there is a quote from you basically stating that you “sing the lyrics” in your head while playing. This is something I also strive for when playing tunes and I have mentioned it in the Tips section of this site. Could you expand on this concept?

SC: Singing the lyrics helps me phrase. But there’s a more subtle influence, as well. Great lyricists know how to shape the color of the vowels, the bright “e” sounds and the dark “o” sounds as in the phrase “It’s just the nearness of you.” Thinking along those lines helps me shade the tone of the guitar in subtle ways.

JGL: It seems like you have spent a great deal of your musical life as a teacher in one capacity or another and On your site your bio mentions that you taught at Berklee for twenty-five years. Had you always planned on teaching as a career or was it more of a practical and steady gig than performing? Were you able to combine both teaching and playing professionally during those years? Do you teach privately now?

SC: I don’t teach privately any more. But I do continue to write instructional pieces for my site, and I’m working on some instructional CDs, and eventually DVDs. The first will be a CD of my original guitar duets.

JGL: Could you talk a bit about your experiences teaching guitar at Berklee? And how important do you feel it is to study formally (i.e.: college or University). Do you have any thoughts on the “technical” or “vocational” schools like GIT founded by Howard Roberts or the Players School of Music founded by Jeff Berlin (bass player extraordinaire).

SC: Any school is a great school for a great student. You have to work hard to find the good teachers and to get the best out of them. You have to be prepared before you go in to the school, otherwise you’ll waste your time learning the basics and not getting to the deep stuff. But, as Howard Roberts used to say, “We’re all self-taught.”

JGL: You play quite a few gigs as a solo guitarist and your CD “Act One” is a solo guitar venture. Could you explain why you have chosen this form of guitar playing? Do you find it limiting at all or is there a greater sense of freedom not being bound by another instrument? How do you approach this method of playing?

SC: I’ve always been fascinated with the way a guitar can be a whole orchestra. I can play bass, chords, and melody to some extent all at once. It’s the perfect combination of freedom and responsibility. Responsibility means keeping the ability to respond. In a band, you respond to the other players. In solo playing, you respond to your own ideas, to where the piece wants to go.

JGL: How important is the audience to you? And how do you handle nights when the club is practically empty or when you are playing your heart out and everyone seems to be blabbing away and not listening to what you’re playing?

SC: Very important. You never know who’s listening. Music reaches people at a deep level. They can appear to be babbling away and yet the music reaches them. And if for a few minutes someone stops to listen and you move them deeply, well, that’s why you make music.

JGL: Have you ever had second thoughts about your choice to have music as a career and if so, what other career path do you think you would have followed had you not been a guitar player.

SC: I’ve followed a lot of career paths. I’m a published poet and journalist (I was a regular contributor to Guitar Player magazine for some years), a teacher, a software engineer, a photographer. Who knows what I might do when I grow up!

JGL: Any advice for the younger guy or gal who is thinking about playing jazz guitar?

SC: Listen to all the great instrumentalists and singers, not just guitarists. Listen to the great composers, in both jazz and “classical” music. Learn everything you can. Learn from everyone you play with. Never stop having fun.

JGL: I really enjoy reading your gig journal and players journal. It’s a great look into the life of a jazz guitar player. There are some great stories on there and I encourage all who are reading this to check it out. Thank you for sharing your experiences to a wide audience and thank you Steve for participating on Jazz Guitar Life. It is most appreciated.

SC: You’re very welcome. Best of luck with your site. It’s a valuable resource to jazz guitarists.

Please consider spreading the word about Steve and Jazz Guitar Life by sharing this interview amongst your social media pals and please feel free to leave a comment. We would love to hear from you 🙂

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