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Icon Ron Carter to conduct his last NIU Jazz Ensemble concert

April 7, 2014
Ron Carter

Ron Carter

After 20 years of directing the NIU Jazz Ensemble and shaping the diversity of the program, School of Music professor Ron Carter will retire this spring.

“I will definitely miss the students a lot and the great colleagues I’ve met here,” Carter said. “I’ve enjoyed having the opportunity to recruit students from all over the world to join this program.”

The NIU Jazz Ensemble, alumni, faculty and friends will attend a farewell concert at 8 p.m. Thursday, April 10, in the Duke Ellington Ballroom of the Holmes Student Center.

This concert is free and open to the public and it will include performances from special guest Vincent Gardner, lead trombonist for the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. Music from famous musicians such as Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald will be played.

Carter has invited some former students from all over the world to play with him during the pre-jam session in the Capitol Room of the Holmes Student Center from 6 to 7:15 p.m.

That group includes Tony Suggs, former pianist from Count Basie Orchestra, from Japan; Allyssa Jones, program director for Performing Arts in the Boston Public Schools; and Andre Delano, a recording artist from Los Angeles who has played with legends such as Lionel Richie.

A post-concert jam session in the Regency Ballroom is planned from 10:30 p.m. to midnight.

NIU Jazz Ensemble

Carter has made it his life’s work to teach musicians of all ages and expose them to the diverse world of music.

Before coming to NIU, he taught at East St. Louis Lincoln High School for 17 years.

After completing his master’s degree at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, he was assigned to direct the band program at the high school that had dwindled to a mere 15 students. Within two years, however, more than 100 students were enrolled in music programs, touring Europe, making records and playing alongside legends.

“It was something needed in the community, other than just something to occupy the school day,” Carter said in a former interview with Northern Now. “We became one of the top high school jazz programs in the country. We toured every year and recorded albums every two years.”

In addition to his duties as a jazz director, Carter has always engaged in other music-related activities and projects and welcomed the invitation to be featured as a guest musician at many performances all over the country and the world.

Jazz at Lincoln Center logoAs program director of Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Band Director Academy, he’s been able to travel all over the world to perform and he’s recruited students from England, Bogota, Colombia, Peru and Asia. He helped to start the program 15 years ago to teach middle school, college and high school directors how to teach jazz. He also serves as an education consultant for the JALC Essentially Ellington program.

Upon arriving at NIU in 1994, Carter wanted to expand and differentiate the Jazz Studies program – and he’s done just that.

Enrollment in Jazz Studies has grown to 55 majors over the past 20 years, and U.S. News and World Report ranked the graduate program in jazz in the Top 10 nationwide from 1997 to 2014. Ten years ago, the Jazz Ensemble toured Europe with master musician Ed Thigpen.

“We’ve managed to bring a more diverse group of guest artists and young artists to tour with the jazz ensemble including legends like Curtis Fuller, Frank Wess, Clark Terry and James Moody,” Carter said. “We’re also one of the major recruiting arms for the school because we go all over the country touring and playing.”

Students in the NIU Jazz Ensemble also enjoy the opportunity to run clinics and workshops so they learn how to teach and work with students of all ages and communicate with directors.

“When students leave NIU, they have been very successful in finding employment, and I’d say more than half the programs in the region are headed by graduates of NIU,” Carter said.

Carter’s work and influence has left a big impact on some of his current and former students.

Ron CarterBernard Long Jr., a former NIU student and member of the Jazz Ensemble, was only 6 when he first started working with Carter. He began to play jazz at the age of 10, and when it came time to attend college, Long knew exactly where he wanted to go.

“NIU was my only choice to make it in jazz studies and I really wanted to play with Ron Carter,” Long said. “He had a huge impact on me, and I look up to him as my musical father.”

Long played in the jazz ensemble from 2005 to 2009 and got the opportunity to tour with the Glenn Miller Orchestra, which has been active since 1936.

“Ron was a mentor on and off the stage,” Long said, recalling how Carter referred him to Michigan State University so he could earn a master’s degree in music. Long, who obtained a graduate assistantship that waived his tuition, graduated in 2012. He’s currently an interim assistant band director at East St. Louis High School.

Carter, who plans to move to North Carolina when he retires, wants to continue touring and playing and recording music.

In his successor, he would like to see someone who wants to maintain diversity and continue to add more jazz faculty to continue the success of the world-renowned program.


  • The NIU Rosebud Jazztet album, titled “The Standstill,” will be available for sale. The album features original small-group jazz compositions. The NIU Rosebud Jazztet is funded by the Rosebud Foundation and is comprised of senior- and graduate-level students in the NIU School of Music. The students are recognized as “Jazztet Scholars.”
  • The NIU Foundation will have donation forms and envelopes to pledge tax-free donations to the Lucille D. Rayford Minority Jazz Scholarship Fund, which Carter helped to start. The fund has given away more than $10,000 in the last five years to music students.
  • A special box for cards will be available for well-wishers who want to bid Professor Carter the best.

by Chonce Maddox