Tuesday, April 12, 2011

James Carter Ruined My Life

On June 21, 1995 I posted this tale of woe on the Usenet discussion group rec.music.bluenote. It became an internet sensation in the online jazz world of the day: folks reposted it far and wide (I remember planning a trip to Paris and stumbling upon it on a website devoted to jazz in France!), and it was translated into Dutch for the Amsterdam-based e-zine Writers Block.

Years later, jazz chanteuse Dee Dee Bridgewater used it on her NPR program Jazz Set (hearing the glorious Ms. Bridgewater purr the name “Kelly Bucheger” — intoned perfectly since her producer had contacted me to figure out how the hell to pronounce it — was a highlight for me...). I’ve met people from all over the world who’ve read it, and I still get emails about it. Lots of folks can relate to the experience, and have been through similar things themselves — when you’re striving to excel in any discipline, there will always be somebody out there better than you. And some of those folks will be younger than you. Get used to it.

My adventures with James were ultimately a sort of “vaccination” for me — I had my musical “mid-life crisis” at the age of 24(!!), which has given me plenty of time to ... get over it! In the years since, I’ve encountered plenty of dazzling younger players who’ve amazed and impressed me. Instead of inducing me to ditch the horn, I just want to practice more. I mean, once you’ve been humbled by the best: bring ’em on!

There are also some postscripts to this story, but I’ll save that for ... you know ... after the story. Anyways, maybe you’ve read this before, or maybe it’s new to you, but here’s the true tale of my brush with (young) jazz greatness...



Before he was a Sony & Atlantic recording artist celebrated as The Next Really Big Thing by the jazz and popular press, before Downbeat put him on their cover with the audacious caption New World Order, before Robert Altman put him in a Hollywood movie, and before Time & Newsweek hailed his albums, James Carter was just a monstrously talented high-school kid. I know because, unfortunately, I was there.

In the summer of 1985 I was preparing to tour Europe with a big band fronted by Detroit trumpeter Marcus Belgrave. The band was made up of faculty and staff of Michigan’s Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp, and was a very hot group — in addition to Marcus and Detroit piano legend Harold McKinney, we had folks who’d played with Buddy Rich, Woody Herman, and other name big bands.

Due to an ego-meltdown on the part of one of the guys who was supposed to tour in the sax section, it was announced that his replacement was going to be this 16-year-old kid from Detroit, a camper who was at that moment touring Europe with a Blue Lake student group, but was due back in a couple of weeks. Despite considerable skepticism on the part of some of us (including me), folks who knew this kid, including Marcus, said he’d do fine — and besides, he was going to hold the second tenor chair: what harm could he do?

His name was James Carter.

I was the first tenor player...

As I began to hear more and more testimonials about James along the lines of “oh, this kid’s a muther, just you wait, you’ll be amazed,” I started to view his arrival with a little apprehension. As the only guy in the band who’d be playing the same axe as this kid, I didn’t want to be amazed. I was 24 years old, so I had eight years on him. He couldn’t be that hot. I wanted him to stay out of the way, do a competent job, and that’s about it. In a big band, there’s the first tenor player, and then there’s some other guy. As the first tenor player in this band, I thought this scheme had its merits....

One day, between sessions, during that languid pause when faculty and staff hang out and talk about what a great place camp is when there aren’t any kids around, somebody I hadn’t heard before was in the woods wailing on a tenor sax. James was due back, and I realized it had to be him.

Damn! I was in trouble.

Believe it or not, James at 16 was not all that far removed from James today. He already had that massive, glorious sound. That same grandstanding confidence and youthfully exuberant tendency toward excess. He knew he was bad.

I considered him evil.

It was not like he was Mozart and I was Salieri. It was more like he was Mozart, and I was a plumber.

I became James’s baby-sitter. James was my roommate. Although I had ample opportunities to smother him with a pillow, or push him in front of a moving car, I did not do so. This may have been the greatest contribution to jazz I will ever make. I hope not.

So: how did he become the monster player he is? Well, first of all, he’s a born player. The camp had a museum of rare and exotic instruments. While most folks weren’t permitted to touch them, James, indulged as he was by everyone (sigh), got chances to give things a try. He could pick up anything, and in a matter of minutes get something happening. (A serpentine? Been there... Sackbut? Done that... Didjeridoo? Doin’ it tomorrow...)

However, that is of course only half of it. James was also, sad to say, very disciplined about practicing. Not that he’d play scales and stuff (I never heard him do that...), but rather he’d just be playing. Constantly. Always. He always had a Walkman on, playing tapes of saxophonists and figuring out their stuff. In fact, there were times when I’d awaken to James, in the dark, quietly — but not quietly enough! — trying to cop some licks off his Walkman.

“James, Jesus, it’s THREE in the morning! I’m up in a few hours! Bed time, already!”

“Sorry. I was trying to figure something out.”

It sounds like a cliché, but there were times when I’d find James asleep in bed with his horn, as if he had just one more thing to work out but didn’t quite make it... I’d gingerly take his horn and put it in its case.

Here are some of my musical recollections of James at 16: first of all, and I think this offers insight into James today — James had R&B bar-walking tenor down COLD. He could totally do that screaming blues thang (I still can’t), and it would electrify audiences.

And here’s another important thing: James was into electrifying audiences. I’ve seen him incite near riots! He’d get honking on a single note, juicing it up and fingering it about nine different ways, then let loose with a grating altissimo shriek that also happened to be exactly the right thing to do for that moment.

A trumpeter in the band, trying to cheer me up, noted that at the time James was listening to a lot of baritonist Leo Parker. “Aw, man, he’s just doin’ Leo Parker!” And in fact, I think James was getting a lot of stuff from Leo Parker back then. Though he had many other goodies in his bag of tricks as well....

While we prepared for the upcoming tour, we lived in the basement of the Heidi House, which was where the visionary founders of the camp, Fritz and Gretchen Stansell, live. I’m a good friend of their son, Tom, who lived for many years in Copenhagen with his wife and daughter — he met his wife on this tour, so it wasn’t a disaster for everybody. Tom had a great record collection, and James voraciously dived into it. I know that’s the first time he heard the Johnny Griffin/Lockjaw Davis stuff, and he seriously checked it out. (Serious is the word, too — when James heard something he liked, he didn’t smile and say “wow, that’s cool” or whatever. Instead, he’d frown and concentrate — and try to figure it out.)

On a personal level, we related together OK, I guess, considering I was the guy who’d have to get James to bed at night and up in the morning, and just in general keep him out of trouble, while at the same time I envied the hell out of him. (He was also handsome and very popular with the girls at camp — basically, he was the polar opposite of everything I was at age 16...)

James knew, and so did everybody else, that my playing couldn’t touch his. He was playing the second chair book, but taking the lion’s share of the solos — he’d just end up with them: “hey, let’s let James blow on this one, ’cuz he’s a youngster and folks will get a kick out of how well he can play.” I lived in terror that someone would propose a tenor battle: James would’ve been Julia Child, while I would have been the groggy lobster, soon to be dinner, ready for the pot.

It didn’t happen, because the other band members knew I was in a tough spot, and were gentle about it. Marcus was very cool and always encouraging to me, even though my ego and self-esteem were at a low that summer, I’m sorry to say.

And, unfortunately: James was a good kid. He had a big ego, of course — I mean, he was a 16-year-old kid who could do stuff on a sax that was phenomenal, and he knew it. And yet, he wasn’t egotistical, if that makes sense — just supremely confident. On any tune, at any tempo, in any key, if somebody would say “who wants to blow on this” he’d nod his head and get into the queue. And smoke!

If he was a kid like most kids, it wouldn’t have been surprising if he had said to me, his jail keeper, something along the lines of “I could kick your ass on tenor.” He never did that.

He did start calling me “Lip” all the time, both for the fact that I had the nervous habit of constantly cracking jokes, and because I had an embouchure problem back then that James, a natural student of the horn, spotted right away. It wasn’t said to be cruel; he just wanted to make sure that I knew he knew.

One musical vignette: in Arhus, Denmark, there was a jam session after our concert. James picked up somebody’s alto and ripped through the changes of an up-tempo Cherokee as if he were the guy who’d thought them up. Fred Noren, a fine Swedish trumpeter and member of the band (today he leads the Stockholm Jazz Orchestra), put it this way (insert Swedish accent here): “Bird, man! He sounds like Charlie Parker!”

MY NEMESIS: James getting into trouble on the band bus, somewhere in Europe.
And he DID, dammit: he DID sound like Charlie Parker!

I quit playing at the end of the tour. While everybody else went home, I went to Paris to lick my wounds and spend what I made on the trip with the woman who’d eventually be my wife — she was living in Paris at the time. I renounced the saxophone because it didn’t seem like there was room for a tenor-player like me on a planet that had 16-year-old kids who could play like James.

I picked it up again about six months later, when I realized that, James or no James, if I wasn’t a saxophonist then I really didn’t know who or what I was.

I’m very proud of James and his accomplishments. I watched him work hard, and he’s earned what he’s got. However, the youthful Mr. Carter leaves me in a paradoxical position: when I grow up, I want to play like the kid!


POSTSCRIPT

In 2006, for the first time in the more than twenty years since the tour, I ran into James in New York, at a Selmer saxophone event at Steinway Hall. That evening, I was directed to a roomful of Selmer saxes available to play test. Heading down the corridor I heard an impossibly WAILING bari and instantly said to myself: “What the ... James!"

I turned the corner, and ... there he was! Last time I’d seen him, more than two decades before, he was a teenager, and I was younger. And hairier. I went up to him. He pondered me for a moment, exclaimed “Kelly!” and gave me a great big hug.

I pointed out that last time I saw him he was 16, and now he was all grown up and looking great. He said that I looked good too, which was sweet of him. Maturity has been good to James. He is a super nice and humble person, enthusiastic about music, a friendly, warm fellow. He is a great, successful adult. An inspiration, even.

I am totally glad that I never smothered him in his sleep with a pillow.


POST-POSTSCRIPT

From an interview with K. Leander Williams, published in Time Out New York:

K. LEANDER WILLIAMS: Speaking of your youth, there’s an article on a blog about you at 16 called “James Carter Ruined My Life.”

JAMES CARTER: [Laughs] Yeah, by Kelly Bucheger. We’re totally cool.


POST POST-POSTSCRIPT

In May of 2012 NPR’s jazz blog, A Blog Supreme, featured this piece. I was delighted, of course, but there was an unexpected side-effect: my blog traffic spiked insanely, prompting Google to suspend me from their AdSense program, convinced that some sort of fraud was afoot. Good times.

8 comments:

  1. I remember when your post was published on rec.music.bluenote! In fact I reposted it, complete with translation to French, on "Le Jazz," a French website that at the time was bilingual. That's no doubt what you ran across. ("Le Jazz" later morphed into "Citizen Jazz" (www.citizenjazz.com), a fine site but now in French only.) I guess nothing is ever forgotten on the Web!

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  2. Thomas, that sounds exactly right, and thanks for that information! By any chance do you still have that translation? -- I'd love to post it here!

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  3. I've heard James jam in so many situations and saw him stick his head close to Frank Morgan when he was playing. Even caught him with a Django tribute band at Yoshi's. Needless to say he burned!

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  4. I'm so glad to see this again. It is one of the very favorite things from my early usenet / internet days. I'm also a Blue Lake alumni who plays (played) Tenor Sax so I can totally relate. I went to (West) Germany with a Blue Lake group back in '84. It was such an amazing experience.

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  5. Heh! Yeah, your account sounds about right. I had my own encounter with "the kid" when I was studying jazz at Wayne State University. I was 26 years old back then, living on campus, and it was my habit to hit the practice room at night and go at it for three or four hours.

    One night I walked into the building and a high school band was playing a concert. I listened for a minute or two, but I was anxious to get to work on my alto, so off to my room I went, pulled out my Omnibook, and began hammering out "Ornithology."

    A while later, the concert ended and some of the kids in the band, hearing me playing down the hall, came pouring into the classroom where I was practicing. They listened for a bit, and then the bass player said, "Hey, we need to get James. Somebody go get James."

    They got James. Into the room walked this 15-year-old kid with a tenor tucked under his arm. He listened to me for a second, then said, "Oh. 'Ornithology.'" He then proceeded to play the Parker solo from memory on his tenor as flawlessly as if his genetic makeup contained an "Ornithology" chromosome. Then, as I stood there slack-jawed, he proceeded to do some crazy kind of double-tonguing thing through the range of his horn on up into the altissimo register.

    I smiled at him sagely. "Death," I thought. "You must die."

    He told me that he planned to master every woodwind instrument. "Right," I thought. "Have at it, you little..." Evidently he did, with stunning success. The times when I've heard him on the radio, whether on tenor or bari sax, or bass clarinet, or whatever, James Carter has never been anything less than amazing.

    So I empathize with your story. I can just imagine how it must have felt to bunk with Carter a year or two later at Blue Lake. I congratulate you on your immense restraint in not smothering the kid with a pillow. You're the patron saint of self-control, and the jazz world is in your debt.

    By the way, I attended Blue Lake myself for a couple of summers back in junior high. And years later, I played in the Aquinas College Jazz Band with Tom Stansell. Great guy, a fine player, and a fabulous horn repairman. I bump into him every now and then. Small world, you know?

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  6. Storm, thanks for posting this, sort of the prequel to my thang! Great tale, been there, yup... And: "Death," I thought. "You must die." Oh, yeah, SO been there... Thanks, man!

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  7. I have fallen completely and madly in love with U, Kelly Bucheger.

    The Moment I read these words, "It was not like he was Mozart and I was Salieri. It was more like he was Mozart, and I was a plumber..." I swooned.
    You are a wonderful storyteller, and I'd bet a Hellava Hornplayer.

    I'm from Detroit, and I know Maestro Belgrave loves the Art too much to let some two-bit player muck up his sound.

    I've known Carter and his family for years, and I've seen him play in front of many different kinds of audiences,large and small...

    The best performance I've ever seen of his was in front of a group of about 30-50 people MAX (mostly Family and Old Friends)a few years ago as part of the last act at the end of an annual street festival in his old neighborhood in Detroit. He wasn't even listed on the bill. It just said The Carter Brothers on the Program, but those of Us who knew, knew...

    This was a classic example of the Prophet being revered everywhere but at home... He was playing for his Mother who was in the audience. It was her birthday. Needless to say, We were damn near levitating from his energy. All I could think of was "Damn, why isn't this being filmed...?"

    Definitely One of the Greatest Performances never heard of...

    I, All of Detroit and the entire Horn Loving World are also grateful U didn't smother One of Detroit's Finest with a pillow... U 2, Storm... (~;

    Blessings to U and Your Loved Ones... Play On, Player.

    Peace,

    Robyn Ussery
    Detroit, MI

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  8. Robyn: Your comment didn't make my day -- you've made my week! Thanks for your kind words -- yet another benefit I've received for not smothering James! What a good move on my part! Blessings back to you and yours, and thank you for taking the time to share this with me!

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