Vail Jazz Alumni: Bryan Carter channels empathy learned at workshop to drumming career
Vail Jazz Foundation
Bryan Carter left the 2007 Vail Jazz Workshop with more than improved skills as a jazz drummer. He took home a guiding philosophy that continues to influence his life from composing, to performing, to teaching, to social justice activism.
“Something that workshop instructor John Clayton shared had an impact: He approaches music with maximum honesty, clarity and integrity,” said Carter in an interview with Vail Jazz board member JoAnn Hickey. “That’s the philosophy I try to live by. I try to be honest and clear and have integrity with what I’m putting out into the world.”
Carter seems to have been blessed with abundant clarity. He began playing music and attending symphony performances at age three. By age five, he knew that he wanted to be a jazz drummer and set his sights on attending The Julliard School. Those dreams came true thanks to Carter’s focus and perseverance, with a healthy dose of support from his parents, both of whom are renowned music educators.
Despite growing up in the company of jazz greats — he recalls sitting on Dizzy Gillespie’s lap, “poking his cheeks” — young Carter was nonetheless impressed by the caliber of instructors and peers alike when he arrived in Vail 13 years ago.
“It’s incredible to find yourself surrounded by young people who are as passionate about the music as you are,” he said. “The workshop is not like normal jazz camp, where two or three kids really love jazz, and the rest are there to have fun. The Vail students are serious, and you know that their goals align with your goals.”
He remains in touch, personally and professionally, with several of his workshop compatriots.
“They didn’t hand us sheet music; we learned orally. The music was passed down the way that Bird [Charlie Parker] and Dizzy taught their younger generation. That approach evoked conversations. We came up with arrangements as a group, and that freedom was something that I’d never experienced,” Carter said.
He still appreciates the collaborative experience he had in Vail.
The Vail Jazz Workshop accepts the dozen most promising high school musicians and pairs them with six acclaimed jazz professionals for a week of intense instruction. The students learn more than music. The instructors impart insights into the professional music life and reflect on their own experiences. Due to COVID-19, the 2020 workshop took place online.
The New York City drummer has maintained a rigorous schedule since graduating from Julliard. Prior to the pandemic, he toured with his band, Bryan Carter & The Young Swangers. He also served as the house drummer for NBC’S “Maya & Marty” starring Maya Rudolph, Keenan Thompson and Martin Short. A teaching artist for Jazz at Lincoln Center, Carter is a sought-after workshop headliner as well jazz instructor for underserved children.
“One of the incredible facets of our musical world,” he said, “is the idea that there is always more to teach, always more to learn. Learn something new and then share it with somebody. It’s the only way to expand our musical family.”
Even after COVID-19 essentially silenced live music, Carter has remained active. He has live-streamed concerts, appeared as a guest on podcasts, and used his voice and talent to build awareness of and raise funds for organizations such as the NAACP, Black Lives Matter, and Drummers for Equality.
A member of the LGBTQ community, Carter is committed to creating respect for young musicians from all walks of life. In 2019 he produced “Jazz at Pride: A Celebration of the LGBTQIA+ Community within the Jazz Community.” This event brought together more than 30 musicians. Unable to perform live in 2020, Jazz at Pride continues as an educational and conversational resource.
On June 19, 2020, in commemoration of Juneteenth, Carter released a single entitled, “Dear Blue.” The ballad’s lyrics share the content of a letter addressed to a police officer from the Black victim of a deadly traffic stop. The lyrics imagine a world where violent officers must face victims by letter and wonders whether apathy can be transformed into empathy.
Carter continues to find fulfillment from his Vail Jazz Workshop experience.
“Something I learned from John Clayton is to meet students where they are in a gracious, approachable way. Everything came from a place of love,” he said. “You felt the love that our mentors and teachers had for the music and also the love and appreciation they had for our being willing to deal with such difficult music. You could see they were willing and wanting to be mentors to students. That’s something that I bring to my own educational philosophy.”