Carl Arter has been a band leader and driving force in the Pittsburgh jazz community for four decades, and has worked with all the international jazz stars who started out in Pittsburgh, and kept the tradition alive.
Born in 1918 in Pittsburgh, Carl got his musical foundation from classical pianist D. Nelson and encouragement from his father, a concert pianist. In high school he started on piano and trombone, and finally settled on saxophone in the Allegheny High School band. After high school, Arter had no intention of making a career in music, so he went to work in a steel foundry.
One day in 1941, while riding to work in a friend’s car blaring jazz out of the radio, Carl spontaneously decided to study saxophone seriously. The next day he bought his horn, and started taking lessons from locally well known Pap Cacese, who remained his primary musical professor until 1946, and again 1948-51. Other teachers who significantly influenced his stylistic development were Betty Keyser, Max Adkins, and Dallmeyer Russell.
During those early years, 1943-45, Carl Arter played saxophone in western Pennsylvania and West Virginia clubs with Joe Harris on Drums and Linton Garner on piano. During the first half of 1946 he worked with Musa Kaleem, who later joined Art Blakey’s band.
In 1946 Carl enlisted in the army and did his entire tour of duty on clarinet with the 418th Army band in West Virginia. That band was eventually deactivated and he was sent to Fort Sill in Laughton, Oklahoma. En route, through a friend, he was introduced to John Coltrane and played tenor sax with him for three weeks in Oklahoma City. While stationed at Fort Sill, Carl got permission from his commanding officer to play local clubs every night and on the radio every morning. He played numerous engagements with Thad Jones at the Club 66 in Oklahoma City during this period.
Upon discharge from the army in 1948, he returned to Pittsburgh and took advantage of the G.I. Bill by attending the Pittsburgh Musical Institute as well as a local business college. Fritz Jones, who later gained world renown as Ahmad Jamal, worked in Arter’s five piece band in Pittsburgh and north central Pennsylvania for much of 1948, as did Edgar Willis, an outstanding bass player who later joined the Ray Charles Orchestra.
1951 marked a turning point, as Carl began the serious study of piano, while teaching saxophone and playing locally with Linton Garner and occasionally Ray Brown. Among his students was Stanley Turrentine, who remains a very close friend and musical associate whenever he has a concert in Pittsburgh. Throughout his career Carl has shown a lot of interest in helping younger musicians get the proper harmonic foundations.
After being elected president of the Pittsburgh musician’s union local, Carl found union work demanding much of his time and stopped performing from 1957-1962.
When his friend, Al Morell asked him in 1962 to fill in on an piano at a party Carl got re-inspired and immersed himself back in his music. Eddie Jefferson, Carl Arter and Dakota Staton spent much of 1963 rehearsing for an extended tour of East Africa, but the beginning war in Ethiopia forced the tour’s cancellation. Eddie Jefferson urged him to go to New York, but Carl preferred the local scene.
Hooking up with Edgar Willis, who had returned from working with Ray Charles, and female vocalist Tiny Irvin, formerly of the Dizzie Gillespie band, Carl gained some wider recognition after a public radio broadcast on WQED in 1964. Sonny Stitt was a frequent performer in Pittsburgh during the first half of the 1960′s and Carl’s group formed Stitt’s nucleus in the Pittsburgh area, at legendary spots such as the Hurricane Bar and the Crawford Grill. Former Gulf Oil executive Roy Kohler, a big fan and close friend, got Arter a lot of important local jobs during the mid 1960s.
From 1964 to 1983, the Carl Arter trio featured Tiny Irvin, and occasional Babs Gonzales on vocals. Since 1979, he has been entrenched at Eileen’s Zebra Room in Pittsburgh on weekends, and has gained wider acclaim through performances at the Pittsburgh Jazz Festival, the Three Rivers Arts Festival, and on radio and cable television.
After making his debut album with Tiny Irvin in 1982 (Also on Earwig), Carl wrote all original music for this recording. Song From Far Away reflects the many years of his dues paying and brings to the world the unique piano artistry of a Pittsburgh legend, appropriately enough at the same time as he appears on National Public Radio’s American Jazz Festival Series.
Carl Arter appears here at his peak, feeling that he is playing his most inspired music in years. He described himself as having always been hooked on harmony, continuously striving to replace the whole band with his complex, sophisticated harmonic musical style.