Ron Carter on the onstage moment he’s still waiting for.

Ron Carter is telling me to put on slippers. I’ve stepped into the legendary bassist’s home on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

“No, put your boots there,” he instructs. “No, there.” I’m suddenly frozen onstage, overwhelmed by Carter’s whip-fast changes. Then he says, “Now, put those brown fuzzy things on.”

We move to his living room, a chic sanctuary adorned with large, vibrant artwork. As we chat, he offers incisive observations about his craft. It quickly begins to feel like a master class.

“Master” is the operative word. Carter turns 80 in May. He’s the most-recorded jazz bassist of all time with no signs of slowing. He’s no longer at the City College of New York, his post for 18 years, but teaches privately. In March, he toured Europe with accordionist Richard Galliano. He’s just restrung a cello with plans to revisit his first instrument. He’s exploring Bach’s cantatas, eyeing the tenor parts for bass. Even in his leisure time he investigates. His current listen: pianist Glenn Gould’s performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. “I’m amazed at how he articulates all the different voices that Bach has going,” Carter says.

When I ask about important moments, I expect an old anecdote—working with Miles Davis or on one of his Grammy Award–winning projects, for instance. He instead recalls something from mere months ago. He played with a quartet at the Blue Note in Greenwich Village. It’s something he does often, yet at that performance, he found himself afraid to exhale. Afterward, he told the crowd that they’d witnessed something great. “We all heard the changes coming, the time was perfect, the band wasn’t too loud, it wasn’t too soft,” he says. “Just perfect.”

Carter took some time from his busy schedule to reflect on his life and career.

“My job is to make the bass make the music do something that maybe nobody else thought of before.”

Let’s go back in time. When you were 11, why did you choose the cello?

[My teacher] just set them on the table. It just seemed to me that the cello was the nearest thing that I thought I would like to play. I said, “Well, let me try that one.” And that’s what I stuck with.

Do you come from a musical family?

My sisters all have great voices and one of my younger sisters has played piano, flute, and a little bass, and she has perfect pitch. One of my sisters played the viola, one played the violin, so we had our own little string quartet at the house . . . . My dad at the time liked Broadway show kind of tunes. Somehow they found the music for these tunes that were arranged for string orchestra. It was a real potpourri of options in the house.

Were your cello studies classically grounded?

Yes. My thought was to be an orchestral cello player.

You’ve spoken before about why you had to switch from cello to bass, and that it had to do with being an African American player at that time. Can you speak about that?

The schools had PTA meetings, small conferences, and they wanted some background noise. It was great and I thought, “I want to know how that stuff works, too.” I thought that there were jobs that I should’ve been invited to play, and I didn’t get those options. I couldn’t understand why I didn’t, because I thought that I played as well as those two guys that were in front of me.

So, the bass player in the orchestra was graduating the spring of 1955 and he was the only bass player in the orchestra. My logic tells me that if I am the only bass player, as long as there are these small chamber groups they must call me to play. So, I sold my cello, got a bass, took lessons, and here I am.

Was it a happy transition?

It was a means to an end. It was to make them hire me. And for me that was fun. [Laughs.]

It’s one thing to see a practical strategy in switching. When did you start loving the bass?

I think given the competitive spirit at the schools where I attended as a bass player, it wasn’t a matter of necessarily loving the instrument. It was of a need to get better than everybody else so you can get the job, whatever the job happens to be. Competitiveness doesn’t replace the love of music; it just makes the importance of playing well critical.

Every day it’s an awakening to certain things that the bass can do that I haven’t quite figured out how to do yet. I go to work every night looking for this new way to rearrange the notes I heard last night—maybe a better order that I can find that makes me finally able to let you hear what I hear. That’s a challenge every night for me. Can I find these notes in a new order that makes that guy say, “Wow”? Can I find something so I can say, “How about that? I’ve finally got that right”?…

Illustration by Olivia Wise