2004 CJA Network Newsletter Featured Interview
Pianist and Presbyterian Minister
did you start developing an interest for Jazz Music? Who
was your most influential piano teacher?
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.
small town in upstate
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.
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
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.
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?
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
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.
Jazz Artists are you currently listening to these
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.
did it dawn on you to start playing Jazz in church?
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.
seminary, I worked for a couple of years at a church in
. 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.
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).
I was called to
First Presbyterian Church
, 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
your quartet Presbybop come about? You also have a new
CD release with them, "Stand
On Your Head" . Share more about that!
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.
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
, 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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
(To Be Continued in the October CJA
information on Bill Carter can be found on his website: