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John Carter was one of the very few free jazz players to concentrate exclusively on clarinet, and one of not very many to place an emphasis on the music's composed elements. Carter studied alto saxophone and clarinet early in his career. He played with fellow Fort Worth native Ornette Coleman in the late '40s. In 1949, he received his bachelor's degree from Lincoln University in Jefferson City, MO. In 1956, he earned a master's degree from the University of Colorado. He taught in Fort Worth Public Schools from 1949-1961 and in the Los Angeles school system from 1961-1982.
In 1964, while living in Los Angeles, Carter formed the New Art Jazz Ensemble with trumpeter Bobby Bradford (who would also work with Coleman). The next year, he conducted a program of Coleman's music at U.C.L.A. In the late '60s, he played and recorded with pianist Horace Tapscott and saxophonist Arthur Blythe, among others. Carter switched to clarinet full-time in 1974. He recorded as a leader for the Flying Dutchman, Moers Music, and Revelation labels in the late '60s and early '70s.
In the '70s, Carter became an elder statesman to a group of young Los Angeles free jazz musicians who included multi-instrumentalist Vinny Golia. In 1983, Carter formed a school for improvisation called the Wind College with flutist James Newton, bassist/tubaist Red Callender, and saxophonist Charles Owens. Carter's activities in the '80s included participation in Clarinet Summit, a multi-generational, multi-stylistic quartet with David Murray, Alvin Baptiste, and Jimmy Hamilton; the group recorded for India Navigation and Black Saint. Carter's major focus during his last decade was, however, a five-part set of multi-movement compositions entitled Roots and Folklore: Episodes in the Development of American Folk Music. The first suite was recorded for Black Saint, the final four for Gramavision.
As a player, Carter comes very much out of the free jazz melodic tradition of Coleman, Bradford, and Dewey Redman. He navigated the notoriously difficult B-flat clarinet with extraordinary fluidity and a rare certainty of execution. Carter had a comprehensive technique and a prodigious imagination; in his compositions, Carter harnessed the looseness of collective improvisation without compromising spontaneity.