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 from 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 complications 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, Marcus and folks who knew this kid 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 and lovely pause when faculty and staff relax 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, and 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 wore a Walkman, 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. But 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 the home of the visionary founders of the camp, Fritz and Gretchen Stansell. Their son Tom is a good friend of mine (he 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 studied it. (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 handsome and very popular with the girls at camp: he was more or less the polar opposite of everything I was at age 16...)

James knew, and so did everybody else, that my playing couldn’t touch his. Though he played the second chair book, he took 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, on the menu and 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 really was a good kid. He had a big ego, of course — I mean, he was a 16-year-old who could do phenomenal stuff on a sax, 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 a 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 up the horn 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!


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. I wasn’t expecting him. After a presentation of their latest horns, I was directed to a roomful of Selmer saxes available to try out. Heading toward that room I heard an impossibly WAILING bari and instantly said to myself: “Whoa! That... Must... Be...”

I turned the corner, and there was James! The last time I’d seen him he was a teenager, and I was younger and hairier. I went up to him and stood there. 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, and he is, in fact, an inspiration!

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


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.


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.