Between Sets: A Conversation with Pianist Bill Carrothers : A Blog Supreme The jazzman, history buff and reputed recluse opens up about rural Michigan and being "overlooked."
NPR logo Between Sets: A Conversation with Pianist Bill Carrothers

Between Sets: A Conversation with Pianist Bill Carrothers

Bill Carrothers performs at the Monterey Jazz Festival. John Whiting for NPR hide caption

toggle caption
John Whiting for NPR

Bill Carrothers performs at the Monterey Jazz Festival.

John Whiting for NPR

Pianist, composer, history buff and reputed recluse Bill Carrothers made his Monterey Jazz Festival debut this year, preceded by positive press. Richard Scheinin of the San Jose Mercury News named Carrothers one of his "10 stellar, don't-miss acts." We included him in our festival game plan. The Oakland Music Examiner's Brian McCoy wrote a feature about him headlined "Monterey Jazz Festival's overlooked gem."

Overlooked? Google Carrothers and you'll find similar words, including "underrated" and "underappreciated." Although he's been a professional musician for three decades, performing throughout the U.S. and Europe, releasing 20 recordings as a leader, and playing with a Who's Who of jazz greats (Dave Douglas, Billy Higgins, Freddie Hubbard, Lee Konitz, James Moody and Scott Colley, to list just a few), it's a fact that many dedicated jazz fans still don't know who he is.

One reason may be where he chooses to live: in Michigan's remote Upper Peninsula, aka "The U.P." He once tried New York. He didn't like it.

I caught the tail end of his first set at the Coffee House and the whole second set. Both drew good crowds, and the second set — mostly luminous, introspective music — brought a standing ovation. I spoke with him backstage afterward.

Pamela Espeland: "Overlooked"?

Bill Carrothers: Oh, I don't know. I saw that, too. I don't play much in the States. This is probably the biggest festival in the States that I've played. I played the Vanguard a couple of years ago and that was great, that was a big deal. I played a week. We made a recording. [A Night at the Village Vanguard, out on Pirouet earlier this year.]

PE: You perform mostly in Europe. How much time do you spend there each year?

BC: Ten or 12 weeks. Never more than 15. I'll be there in October, December and February. I'm going in October for a very short time, to play at the end of the month in Nice. My solo record, Excelsior [Outnote, 2010] was nominated for the Victoires du Jazz [France's Jazz Grammy], so I'm going there to lose in person.

PE: Weren't you up for the same award for your WWI recording, Armistice 1918?

BC: Yes. Madeline Peyroux won that year. It was me, Brad Mehldau — who made a great record that year, his Live in Tokyo recording on Nonesuch, which was a killer — and Jan Garbarek put out a record that year, too. She beat all of us. There you go.

PE: So what do you think when someone calls you "overlooked" or "underrated"? Do you care?

BC: I care. I'd like to be less underrated. It would be nice to be just rated — to be one of the boys. In the States, it's very difficult. It's a really impenetrable forest to get these kinds of gigs. But I got this gig, I did the Chicago Jazz Festival a year or two ago, and I'm playing in Chicago again in November, so some good things are happening in the States now. But slow, slow, slowly.

PE: So it's building?

BC: Maybe. For now. It comes in waves. I'm never going to get rich, let's put it that way.

PE: Whose career do you like?

BC: Do you mean as a business career, or as music? Those are two different questions.

PE: As music.

BC: I like a lot of jazz piano players. I love Herbie [Hancock]'s playing. I would like to see him tonight, but every time we're in the same place, at a festival in Europe or something, I'm always playing at roughly the same time. And losing a lot of market share to him, by the way.

PE: Why do you live where you live?

BC: Because I have to keep my interactions with people finite. I can't deal with a lot of people all the time. This is already way too many people; I don't do well with crowds. I have a big bubble around me, and I need to have that space. In the country, where I live, you can have that and it's totally cool. My family is different, but strangers, people I don't know — I don't do well with that at all.

PE: Was that one of the reasons you left New York?

BC: Yeah. I couldn't stand it. The bubble was constantly being invaded, gratuitously so, and nobody gives a s---. It's all part of the deal. And that's not okay for me. And there are no trees. I have to have trees around, lots of trees. And I love winter, and I need lots of space. If I had stayed in New York another five years, I would have definitely killed myself. It's just not for me.

PE: But you travel a lot.

BC: I travel a lot, but I go to a hotel, I come out and do my thing, I go back to my hotel and I hide out.

PE: You pick very specific recording projects. The historical themes — music of the Civil War and World War I, your Clifford Brown recording [Joy Spring], your Stephen Foster recording with cellist Matt Turner [The Voices That Are Gone], tunes from the 1920s and '40s [I Love Paris]. What's next?

BC: I'm thinking about doing a recording of church hymns with a string quartet, and Peg [Carrothers' wife] singing. I found an incredible violinist in New York named Zach Brock. I'm thinking of him and Matt Turner. That's two so far. I haven't gotten the quartet yet, just the duo.

PE: Peg has an old-fashioned girl voice. There's nobody who sounds like her.

BC: I know, and I keep telling her to go out and do more, but she's so insanely modest and completely doesn't believe in her own thing. Come on, girl! Just go out there and do it. You'd be great.

PE: You guys should be like John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey, out there doing your act.

BC: I would love to do that. We're trying to get some work with the Stephen Foster project. She's great with that. God, that's an impossible group to get work with.

PE: Glenn Gould always traveled with his beat-up chair. You have some unusual piano habits of your own. No bench, always a chair. No shoes, just socks. And you remove the front part of the cabinet, behind the keys.

BC: The chair is lower. That's the main reason. You can't feel the pedals when you're wearing shoes. Taking the front off the piano is just another monitor. It lets sound in, so it gets right in your face.

PE: Tonight's set was very soft. You played "Puttin' on the Ritz" and some other pieces, and then the music got really soft. You play the most beautiful soft notes I've ever heard. Where does that come from?

BC: The touch thing? A lot of it's the piano. This is a good piano. And the soft pedal. That's the secret ingredient. If you lean into it a certain way, with the soft pedal, most pianos give off a different sound — that rounder thing. Which is much nicer, to my ears.

PE: You start teaching this fall, at Lawrence University in Wisconsin. Have you taught before?

BC: I've done clinics all over the place, but I've never had a position at a school. And I don't have degrees, so they made me an adjunct professor, which means professor without any of the credentials to be one. It's a salaried position, and I come for two days every two weeks, and I teach jazz piano. I take the better students, bring them into a room and beat them mercilessly until they do what I want them to do.