Sitting in with the Big Band Boys, James Carter Blows Up An Old-Fashioned Jazz Storm

updated 03/09/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/09/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

James Carter was a junior at Detroit's Northwestern High School when he got the call just over a year ago from Vernon Hammond, co-manager of Wynton Marsalis' quartet. Could the teenager come to Washington, D.C. to play with the famous jazz trumpeter? At first, Carter thought, "God! Playing with Wynton!" Then he thought, "What the heck—a gig is just a gig." That sounds awfully blasé for someone then 17 years old, but consider that Carter had already toured Scandinavia with the Blue Lake Jazz Ensemble, had bopped around Europe with Marcus Belgrave and Harold McKinney and had sat in with J.C. Heard and Betty Carter back in Detroit.

Those gigs are all the more impressive because Carter first picked up a sax about six years ago—and almost put it down two years later because his teachers were "only interested in contemporary music." Carter preferred jazz in the mold of Dizzy Gillespie and Art Tatum. He had grown up with their music in the West Side house where his mother, Thelma, and stepfather Fred raised her five kids. Fortunately his brother Kevin, a former guitarist with Parliament-Funkadelic, steered James to Donald Washington's respected youth jazz ensemble in Detroit. "Carter is a phenomenal musician," says Washington. "You forget he's still young."

Marsalis probably didn't forget. He was only 19 when he riveted the jazz world with his trumpeting for Herbie Hancock. Last year Carter auditioned for him in Detroit, and a few months later Marsalis decided to give the boy a chance. James sat in several times last winter and spent last summer on the road with the quartet. "He has tremendous talent," Marsalis says, "and could develop into a first-class artist."

Carter doesn't toot his own horn, but he fervently extols jazz. "I hear kids my age protest, 'Oh, jazz, it's so boring,' " he says. "But I feel very strongly that it's our music, the only true black-American gift, and we should do everything in our power to preserve it." At the rate he is going, Carter could be a one-man preservation band.

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