Jazz history class from the ‘70s contributes to premiere of upcoming PBS documentary


Image courtesy of John Matera

John Matera, a 1975 Pitt graduate and executive director of an upcoming PBS documentary on Ron Carter.

By Shreya Singh, Staff Writer

The personable way in which former Pitt professor Joe Harris taught his jazz history class in the 1970s inspired the creation of a documentary that tells the story of jazz bassist, Ron Carter, titled “Ron Carter: Finding The Right Notes.”

Harris, who passed away in 2016, told stories about his jazz career that touched his students, according to executive producer John Matera, a 1975 Pitt graduate who majored in business.

“One day we were in class 一 and this was a night class 一 and the weather was bad,” Matera said. “Halfway through the class, Milt Jackson walks in — a famous vibraphonist — saying his gig got canceled so he thought he’d come over and say hello. Well, that just proved that all of Joe’s stories were true. Joe made me appreciate jazz in a new way and I never lost that.”

With appearances on more than 2,200 recording sessions, Carter is the most recorded jazz bassist in history. Carter, who is based in New York, started playing bass in the 1960s and has since won three Grammy awards. Not many know his name, despite the popularity of his music. 

Matera said he decided to create a documentary on Carter’s life after realizing that Carter created a majority of his favorite jazz albums. The documentary will premier on PBS Oct. 21. 

Matera said he always enjoyed listening to jazz music throughout his life, but it wasn’t until he took a class during his undergraduate years at Pitt that he truly became a jazz enthusiast.

“I particularly enjoy listening to jazz,” Matera said. “I thought I knew a lot about it and turns out I didn’t. To cure that problem, I enrolled in Joe Harris’ jazz history class at the University. Joe was a longtime noted jazz drummer — particularly in Europe — but he played in other places as well.” 

Matera started filming the documentary six years ago. According to director and co-producer of the film Peter Schnall — who is also a seven-time Emmy award-winning documentary filmmaker — Matera first came up with the idea in 2015 after attending one of Carter’s performances. 

“My dear friend John Matera invited me to see Ron Carter perform at the Blue Note Jazz Club in New York City,” Schnall said. “At one point John turned to me and asked why no one had ever produced a documentary on Mr. Carter. It was as simple as that … A few months later I met with Mr. Carter and proposed the idea of producing a documentary on his life and career, and he agreed.”

The documentary follows the past six years of Carter’s life, discussing the start of his career and how he established himself as one of the greatest jazz bassists of all time. Carter recently played a sold-out show at the August Wilson African American Cultural Center and headlined the Pittsburgh International Jazz Festival over the weekend.

Schnall said a challenge while filming the documentary was seeing whether the story he was trying to capture in the film would manifest in a compelling way.

“The hardest challenge of any documentary film is whether or not the story one sets out to capture will reveal itself,” Schnall said. “In a way that is not only compelling to audiences, but does so in a way that is different, eye-opening, cinematically interesting, moving and perhaps above all, reveals a moment or person in a way never seen before.”

Lucas Groth, editor and co-producer of the film, said Carter and Jon Batiste — a Grammy award-winning musician — shared a moment that helped shape the film and further the story along.

“The most memorable part of the filmmaking process for me was getting back the footage from the conversation between Ron and Jon Batiste that we use as a bit of a spine throughout the film,” Groth said. “Up to that point we had many wonderful and moving scenes, but we didn’t have a film. Batiste’s presence in the film allows a contemporary audience to have a touchstone — that one of the biggest artists in music today reveres and respects Ron so immensely.”

Matera said the documentary tackles many tough topics throughout Carter’s life 一 including his experiences with racism.

“Here’s a guy who started in the ‘60s and his career was marked by being great from the beginning and going up from there,” Matera said. “I don’t want to talk too much about this because you’ll see it in the movie, but the classical world wasn’t ready for a Black musician. So, all these aspirations of being the best bass player were a dash.”

Agreeing with Matera, Schnall said a significant moment in the film is when Carter recalls the racism and segregation he faced as a Black musician growing up in America. 

“The America that Ron grew up in would not be a welcoming nation when it came to allowing young Black classical musicians to advance in their careers,” Schnall said. “Later, in the quiet of his Manhattan apartment, Ron, for the very first time spoke about the deep-seeded racism that he and so many African American musicians had been subjected to and never stopped fighting to rise above.” 

With three producers working together to tell Carter’s story, Groth said it was a pleasure collaborating with Schnall and Matera. 

“This was my first time working with John,” Groth said. “He was really the expert on Ron’s story, as Peter and I were not huge jazz-heads at the beginning of the process. I think the combination of John’s expertise in the subject matter with the storytelling ability that Peter and I have cultivated over our careers led to a great collaboration.”

Matera credits the jazz history class he took at Pitt with Joe Harris for his idea to make a documentary on Carter’s life and accomplishments. Matera said he likely wouldn’t have made the documentary had he not taken the class.

“It was a wonderful experience to learn in that class,” Matera said. “If you look at the film credits, there’s a dedication to Joe and a thanks to the University of Pittsburgh’s Music Department. They may not have directly contributed, but if that hadn’t happened, the class I mean, I wouldn’t have done this.”