September 2004 CJA Network Newsletter Featured Interview

Jazz Pianist and Presbyterian Minister

Bill Carter 

(Part One)

 When did you start developing an interest for Jazz Music? Who was your most influential piano teacher?

BillMy love for jazz began in my home. When she was in high school, my mom was an all-state clarinet player. She also loved big band and swing music. I can’t ever remember a time when we didn’t hear the Benny Goodman Quartet, Fats Waller and Rhythm, Artie Shaw’s small combo, or the Count Basie band. She still has the original 78’s and 45’s.

Our small town in upstate New York also had a concert series that was sponsored by an endowment. Mom and Dad regularly took us to free concerts by every existing big band in the sixties. We heard Basie, Kenton, Maynard, Woody Herman, and a few of the “ghost bands” that were perpetuated in the legacy of the great swing musicians.

What I remember was the sheer thrill of swing, the appreciation of excellence, and the high respect accorded good musicianship. All are values that still remain with me. When Mom tells the story of hearing Louis Armstrong at concert when she was a kid, I still can hear the excitement in her voice, and I understand it.

Somewhere around the age of thirteen, I discovered ragtime by Scott Joplin and James Scott. My piano teacher, Mrs. Black, was a saintly lady who was schooling me on the classics. When I bought the sheet music for “Maple Leaf Rag,” it was as if a new world had been revealed to me. Physically I could not play the dancing octaves or the stride bass, so I started to get very serious about my playing. For a few years in high school, it was obsessive. While neighbors had garage bands playing rock and roll, I put together a Dixieland combo in my basement. We weren’t very good at the improvisation thing, so I started writing out all the parts. My middle school band teacher gave me a three minute lesson in transposing, and I pretty much went on from there.

As a teenager, I progressed to the point where I could read through Bach’s Two Part Inventions. Yet I started hearing notes that weren’t on the page. Mrs. Black would roll her eyes at that, and try to keep me on task. Meanwhile my grandmother (my mom’s mom) had slipped me a couple of Dave Brubeck Quartet albums, and my musical corruption was complete. I was thrilled by the improvised counterpoint, the rhythmic experiments, and the overall sound of the band. You might say I was turned aside by “Dave Digs Disney,” a wonderful album which is still one of my all-time favorites.

 Who do you consider some of the main influences on your writing and playing?

BillI’ve been influenced by a lot of great musicians. With CDs piled around the house, office, and car, I am always listening to something. These days, I’ve worked to develop my own sound and approach. If you listen, you’ll hear echoes of Herbie Hancock, Dave Brubeck, Keith Jarrett, Ray Bryant, and maybe even a little Monk. My all-time favorite band was the Miles Davis quintet of 1965-67.

In terms of writing, I’ve been influenced by Horace Silver’s writing for quintet, Herbie Hancock’s music for sextet, and Thad Jones’ charts for big band. Again, I press myself to write charts and tunes that sound fresh or make some new kind of musical statement.

 What Jazz Artists are you currently listening to these days? 

BillIn the CD changer right now, you’ll find Charles Ives’ Third Symphony, the middle CD of Bela Fleck’s “Little Worlds,” Gesualdo’s music for five voices, and Brubeck’s “Countdown: Time in Outer Space.” That’s typical. Last week, I think it was Pat Metheny’s “Still Life Talking,” the Thelonious Monk big band, and the Hilliard Ensemble’s madrigal album. Out in the car, I’ve been digging the soundtrack to the Steve Martin movie, “Leap of Faith.” I’m thinking of transcribing Charles Ives’ “The Unanswered Question,” just to get an idea of what he’s doing harmonically in that piece; not sure if I have courage or patience just yet to do that.

 When did it dawn on you to start playing Jazz in church?

Bill: The first time that I ever played jazz in a worship service was a during a youth group dramatization of the parable of the prodigal son. I was the piano player in the bar where the prodigal son ended up, and banged out some ragtime piece. That symbolized the church’s general appraisal of jazz: music for sinners, played by reprobates in some seedy den of iniquity. Even though I learned along the way that Duke Ellington had presented concerts of sacred music, it never occurred to me that there was a church somewhere that would actually want to hear swinging music.

In seminary, I worked for a couple of years at a church in Plainfield , NJ . The pastor encouraged me to put together a jazz worship service one time. I quickly discovered that there was no repertoire that was available, and it seemed just plain wrong to play Cole Porter tunes for the prelude and offertory. Also, we had the problem of congregational singing: what do you do with the hymns? After years as a club pianist, I knew two truths: everybody wanted to sing with the band, and few were good at it.

All of those one-time experiments got locked in a filing cabinet. The first church where I served as pastor had absolutely no interest in jazz, unless I wanted to play some “background music” during the choir’s spaghetti supper (music to chew by).

When I was called to First Presbyterian Church of Clarks Summit , PA, all of that changed. It’s a welcoming congregation that encourages everybody to use their God-given gifts. Naturally, they wouldn’t let me off the hook. When we couldn’t find a sub for the organist on a holiday weekend, someone nudged me to fracture some hymns. That was back in September 1992, and it’s been downhill ever since! J

 How did your quartet Presbybop come about? You also have a new CD release with them, "Stand On Your Head" . Share more about that!

Bill: The quartet was formed for the Second Annual Jazz Service in 1993 (see how tradition begins?). I had reconnected with Al Hamme, my college music professor, who recommended two musicians for a quartet: Tom Whaley on drums, and Steve Gilmore on bass. That was a little intimidating; I had played with Gilmore at a student clinic in the seventies, and was knocked out by his tone. Of course, his boss Phil Woods sat in with us on that occasion, which was similarly terrifying.

For the first jazz service in ’93, and for two years following, we had no group identity. It was a pickup group, with stable personnel, which I used for casual gigs here and there. Living near the Pocono Mountains , and not far from NYC, I’ve been able to enjoy the opportunity to play with numerous world-class musicians who live within forty-five minutes of my home. Tony Marino joined us on bass in 1995. When he can’t make a gig or tour, Steve Gilmore is the other cat that I’ll call.

Everything took a new turn in 1996, as we began to play here and there. Churches started calling us for programs, concerts, and worship services. In 1997, we did a notable gig at Princeton Theological Serminary, my alma mater. I presented some of my reflections on the religious implications of jazz for a group of pastors and theologians, and that was accompanied by some new music from the quartet. The president of the school loved it, and offered to help us document it on CD. That was the genesis for “Faith in a New Key,” our first recording.

“Stand On Your Head” was our fourth CD, preceded by “Dancing Day” and “Fragile Incarnation.” For this project, which has no explicit religious overtones, I wanted it to sound like one of those classic Blue Note records from the sixties. I had written a pile of tunes, some for quintet, and called in trumpeter Jeff Stockham to play with us. It’s a wonderful presentation of the band, and my favorite project thus far.  Some have referred to it as our “legitimate album.” If there was any doubt that the Presbybop Quartet is a serious band that plays serious jazz, this album will dispel it! The music is smoking from the very first note.

From the early nineties, I have insisted on presenting my music with the best available musicians. It is a quality issue: God gives us musical gifts, calls us to develop them, and calls forth our excellence. Christian musicians are not called to play trite music in an incompetent way. We are called to offer our music as skilled praise-makers. As 1 Chronicles 25:7 describes the first group of temple musicians, “they were trained in singing to the Lord, all of whom were skillful.” Let’s hear a good word for training and skill!

  (To Be Continued in the October CJA Network Newsletter)

 More information on Bill Carter can be found on his website: