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Big shoes to fill: Ron Carter retiring as director of NIU Jazz Ensemble

Ron Carter, professor emeritus and director of the Nothern Illinois University Jazz Ensemble, holds hands ensemble member as part of a tradition before the farewell concert for Carter on April 10 at the Duke Ellington Ballroom at the Holmes Student Center.
Ron Carter, professor emeritus and director of the Nothern Illinois University Jazz Ensemble, holds hands ensemble member as part of a tradition before the farewell concert for Carter on April 10 at the Duke Ellington Ballroom at the Holmes Student Center.

Ron Carter seems to have been destined for jazz greatness.

Given the same name as legendary jazz bassist Ron Carter; his first teaching job was at the alma mater of another jazz legend, Miles Davis. Carter, the director of the Northern Illinois University Jazz Ensemble, gave his farewell performance with the renowned ensemble April 10 in the same venue where Duke Ellington gave his last full performance with his orchestra almost exactly 40 years earlier – NIU’s Holmes Student Center.

“Some people are just special. [They] have an X-factor, because they were chosen to do what it is they do,” said Quentin Coaxum, a former student of Carter’s at NIU who is now a professional jazz trumpeter and teacher. “All the rest of us can do is just appreciate them while we have the opportunity.”

As Carter prepares to retire from NIU, his colleagues and former students remember his work ethic, recruiting abilities, and sheer talent.

Distinguished early career

Carter first got involved in music through singing in the church choir at the age of 8, and still credits his Christian faith as motivation.

“I’ve always been self-motivated to be the best. And also, I’m a Christian, so my faith in God and Jesus Christ, that motivates me and lets me know where all my strength comes from,” Carter said. “Because all the things I’ve done, I wouldn’t have been able to do anything without my faith.

“One thing about the Afro-American experience and Afro-American music: it’s always come through the church.”

After earning his master’s degree in music education from the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, he began his first teaching job in 1977 at Lincoln High School in East St. Louis, the alma mater of Miles Davis, whom he got to know.

Carter walked into a difficult situation there, said Russell Gunn, a two-time Grammy-nominated jazz trumpeter and former student at Lincoln. East St. Louis was a community in decline, and he faced opposition from the school board and from parents who didn’t understand his demanding regimen.

“What we understand now is he was a genius,” said Gunn. “The first thing is that he kept us off the streets, which for sure would have taken all of us if we didn’t have that safe haven. And for a lot of us, he gave us careers – and not just us who are doing well as musicians. The work ethic [we] learned there served [us] well.”

Carter’s jazz band at Lincoln was so successful that they were often mistaken for an arts school when they performed, not only because of how well they played, but because of how professional they were. They went on a European tour and performed at the North Sea Jazz Festival in the Netherlands in front of Dizzy Gillespie and Art Blakey and their bands.

“He would always tell us that if we didn’t play as well as he played by the time we left that we had no chance of being professional musicians,” Gunn said. “He was so right. You really appreciate his foresight in knowing what we had to take away.”

Talented recruiter at NIU

Carter was hired in 1995 as NIU’s Director of Jazz Studies, and one of his greatest contributions has been his ability to recruit musicians from around the country and the world, said Paul Bauer, Director of the NIU School of Music. Consider the diversity of musicians in the jazz ensemble at the April 10 farewell concert: The 18-member band included students from Minnesota, New York, Florida, Arizona, South Korea, and Japan, among other places.

Part of his success is because of the reputation he’s built, Carter said.

“I’m known for being one of the top jazz educators in the world,” he said. “I teach all over the world.”

Carter has also had a big impact on the music faculty at NIU.

“Music majors want to study with great teachers and great artists,” said Bauer. “Ron is recognized as a great teacher. He’s a performer as well. One of the strong influences Ron has had here is to ensure that he had colleagues who work with him who are terrific performing artists.”

Rich Holly, dean of the College of Visual and Performing Arts, said Carter employs his boundless energy and enthusiasm in his teaching.

“He’s very frequently out working with high school and middle school jazz bands, not because it’s great recruiting for the school of music, but just because he loves to work with kids,” Holly said. “His ability to get what jazz is and what music is and a love of life across to young students is just amazing.”

Next for Carter, program

Carter’s successor leading the jazz program will be Reginald “Reggie” Thomas, NIU officials announced Tuesday. Thomas will come to the university from Michigan State, where he is a professor of jazz piano. Before his time at Michigan State, Thomas was a professor of jazz studies and director of black studies at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville.

“Reggie Thomas was the clear choice to serve as a teacher, colleague and leader of the NIU Jazz Studies program on its continuing upward trajectory,” Bauer said in a news release.

Carter, an NIU professor emeritus, doesn’t consider his legacy complete yet. He wants to start a jazz program at Lincoln Center in New York City to mentor educators coming out of historically black colleges. He will also continue to mentor several former students who are leading jazz programs at schools across the country, including Michigan State University and Temple University.

“I guess I will be mentoring them until I’m no longer here on this earth,” Carter said.

His students, past and present, appreciate it.

“The longer I am out here playing music, the more I realize how lucky I was to have Ron Carter for a teacher, and how right he was about just about everything,” Coaxum, who performs with the Quentin Coaxum Quintet, said. “He has touched a lot of lives in an amazing way, and I am continually inspired to try and touch people’s lives in a way that I have seen him do.”

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