Public Service Announcement from Benny Green:
My Life Lesson from Ron Carter
Because of the personal nature of the incident that I'm about to recount from decades past, I recently telephoned and asked Mr. Carter if he'd read through the following for approval, to help me determine whether I'd feel right about sharing this story publicly. Today I heard back from Sir Ron, who to my great delight reported: "works for me". Telling this story will bring me peace, and I hope, may help a younger musician, so thank you for reading...
I’ve come to learn over time that sometimes a hand is being extended and a gift is being offered, but one needs to clearly recognize the golden opportunity of that moment for what it is, in order to open their present.
Today an exchange that happened almost 30 years ago and that I didn’t understand at the time, makes perfect sense to me. Now I’m sure that it was only my ego, and the ego’s nature to convince oneself of whatever one wills to be so, that once blinded me to the humanity of a situation that I’d like to recount here.
I’ve asked Mr. Carter’s permission to share this story, as something more than just an opportunity for me to own up to what I can now recognize as a universally meaningful experience. Beyond any self-indulgent motivation for some sort of penance on my part, I’d like for this story to possibly inspire a younger musician to better apply themself - to learn to better prepare themself than I once did.
Bruce Lundvall, who was the president of Blue Note Records, had an idea to ask Ron Carter to record a duet with me of J.S. Bach’s “Jesu, Joy Of Man’s Desire”, for a Christmas compilation.
As I recalled to Mr. Carter on the phone today, and as I now see this in review - I did some work to prepare for Betty Carter and Art Blakey’s bands, but I never sought a record contract - Bruce Lundvall simply came down to Sweet Basil where I was playing with the Jazz Messengers, handed me his business card, said “Let’s make a record”, and signed me to the label.
Although the following is not a pleasant thing to admit, I think it’s necessary. The truth is that honest work, study and practice laid the foundation for my receiving the privileged opportunity to be invited to record for a major record label. But practically as soon as I was signed to Blue Note, along with the photo sessions and marketing, reviews and ratings, my ego got kind of “hooked” to where I unwittingly began focussing my attention more on trying to be cute, than towards any sort of truly diligent, conscientious studying and practicing.
I didn’t perceive of this shift gradually occurring in me back then - I wasn’t purposely jiving - but whether the nature of one's complacency is carelessness or laziness - real work bares progress, whereas lack thereof drains an invaluable momentary human interaction of its potential, and merely wastes people’s time.
As the date of the scheduled recording session approached, I went to Colony Music and walked out with the simplest sheet music I could find for the piece, which I believe was a mini score with three staffs. I barely skimmed it - and I’m more than a little ashamed to actually write the word “skim” in a story referencing anything Mr. Carter has ever been involved with - but witness a child who was given more than he knew what to do with, and who believed his hype.
The best way I can put this is that I really thought I was cool, because I was on the radio and in magazines and getting paid, and I really was becoming deluded that just by being this person who was being marketed - that somehow along with my nouveau fame, magic would occur just by me showing up. Of course this wasn’t a conscious mindset I was adopting, but it was the definition of an “attitude".
The record company paid for a limo to pick me and my girlfriend up on the Upper-Westside to drive us to the engineer Jim Anderson’s home studio in Brooklyn.
I opened the sheet music and we began to attempt to record. I didn’t know what I was doing. I remember thinking that I would just sort of read the top line of the simplified transcription of Bach’s piece as though I was reading a fake book, and that I’d homogenize the counterpoint into chord symbols... I told myself that the music would all somehow come together into a cohesive whole, it would just somehow “fall into place” as if by gravity, all because Ron Carter was there. It would just sort of “happen” without my having lived with this piece, with no dedication to having developed any depth of a genuine personal relationship with the composition.
I was so caught-up in my own ego that I failed to realize any substantial sense of responsibility to others - I failed to see the blatant disrespect my inaction posed to J.S. Bach, Ron Carter, Jim Anderson, Bruce Lundvall, Blue Note, and to listeners - people who love Bach, people who love Mr. Carter, people who believed in me and wanted to take me seriously. I was getting to play Bach, with Ron Carter, for Blue Note - and a recording is a documentation that lasts and leaves its statement - good, bad or indifferent - for all time. What on Earth was I thinking? I wasn’t thinking. I’d stopped being hungry, as foolish as this may sound - I momentarily overlooked the old saying that when you fail to prepare, you prepare to fail.
After no more than what I believe were two false starts which each lasted less than one minute, Mr. Carter calmly said words to the effect of -
“Listen, here’s what’s going to happen. This session is cancelled, we’re going home. Benny, I want you to get a real score for this piece, put the time in and actually learn it. Explore this piece, learn the intervals, learn the harmonies. I’ll help you - I’m going to check on your progress, and when you’ve learned it, then we’ll record it.”
Back to me and my ego, I was humiliated in front of both my girlfriend and Jim Anderson, and mortified in front of Mr. Carter. To illustrate just how deluded I was in reading the situation - I actually thought that Mr. Carter was being too stern! I actually thought he was giving me some sort of a “hard time” by cancelling the recording session. It didn’t even occur to me to realize how grossly inappropriate it would be for Ron Carter’s bass to be any part of me bludgeoning the music of J.S. Bach and considering it appropriate to treat music in such an outrightly disrespectful manner, in union with the greatest bassist of our time.
Mr. Carter phoned me two days later to say “I’m just checking on you, and that you understand what happened.”
It seems to me as though my mindset was to try to convey honest respect to Mr. Carter by addressing him as my elder and as the master he is to us all, but as for learning Bach’s piece, I must have had other priorities back then.
Mr. Carter phoned me again a few weeks later. I was on the road and hadn’t gotten serious about this piece. The recording opportunity was soon an afterthought, and whenever I’d see Mr. Carter, he was kind, looked me in the eyes and asked how I was. But he never mentioned the incident again.
My dear friend and younger brother, the wonderful pianist and a beautiful human named Donald Vega, has played in Mr. Carter’s trio along with Russell Malone for many years now. Donald’s seriousness, humility and honest, dedicated work represents to me the opposite of how I responded to the opportunity Mr. Carter once presented me.
Mr. Carter clearly respects character. I’m convinced that had I followed through on Mr. Carter’s offer to help me to help myself musically, not by way of any shortcuts, but from the fertile soil of J.S. Bach, he might have chosen to give me a chance to play in his band. I know that whether or not he may have given me that invitation, I would have to have earned it, and my inaction effectively assured that I wasn’t the kind of a musician who Mr. Carter would consider responsible enough for an ensemble of his own.
Mr. Carter graced me by dignifying my phone call today. And I once thought he was mean. To an ego - perception is about anything except ownership of one’s responsibility.
Thank you for the grace, kindness and generosity you’ve shown me, and for what you give the world, Mr. Carter. As can be said by countless souls the world over, point of fact is that your bass plays on most of my favorite records that I grew up with.
I hope this story can plant a seed for someone with talent and heart, to do better for themselves than I once did if a king or a queen - or just an ordinary fellow human being - offers them a golden opportunity, because it may never come around again.