A quiet guy with a warm smile, Carter Graham has clearly been putting in serious practice hours since he graduated from the Jazz Studies program a couple of years back. His piano work is sensitive, lively, and always musical. He remembers rocking out to his parents’ Beatles and Rolling Stones LPs when he was only four, and that genuine, uncomplicated joy is a quality you hear in his playing. He’s a first-call for lots of jazz gigs, but he’s also a member of fauxpasfunk, a beatbox/hip hop project known as Beatox, and a blues band called Justin Aron & Dirty-Pool. Recently, he’s assembled a new five-piece band dedicated to playing great dance music from the 1970s to the present, including some original stuff—watch for that!
When did you start playing piano?
My parents “forced” me into piano lessons just before my seventh birthday. I say “forced” because at first I didn’t enjoy the lessons and I especially didn’t like having to do half an hour of practice a day. Apparently it wasn’t long until I started practicing on my own, and even liking it!
In retrospect, I feel lucky that they chose piano for me. It has all of the perceivable pitches, you learn to read both bass and treble staves, and you develop a great grasp of harmony. I will also add that I had two gifted and inspirational teachers, Rose Neufeld and Victor Csordas, who were flexible with their curriculum—I know too many people who were turned off music by stiff teachers.
What piano players are your biggest inspirations?
The only jazz album in my house growing up was My Favorite Instrument by Oscar Peterson. I really loved the track “Lulu’s Back In Town”—when he went into stride, I thought that was the greatest thing ever. I still listen to a lot of Oscar Peterson. I’m also enamored with anything by Wynton Kelly. His version of “Green Dolphin Street” is my absolute favourite. At the moment, I’m listening non-stop to The Real McCoy by McCoy Tyner. I’m in the process of learning the whole record, looking for different recurring concepts that I can apply in my own work.
There are so many others. Bud Powell, Fats Waller, Herbie Hancock, Bill Evans, Kenny Kirkland, Marcus Roberts… Say what you will, but when the jazz lineage of your instrument essentially starts with Art Tatum, what can you do except be completely stunned (and inspired)? You just have to roll up your sleeves and get busy!
How does your jazz training translate into other parts of your life?
One thing this music has taught me is the importance of being absolutely honest with myself. It takes an incredible amount of motivation and discipline to assess your weaknesses, then address them. This is where it becomes about mental toughness for me. On the days I don’t want to work, can I make myself get through that feeling? I often feel better when I push through.
One other lesson is how essential it is to have an open mind. On the bandstand (as in life), if you’re just doing your own thing, you’re going to miss all the interaction, dialogue, and beauty going on around you. If you keep your ears open, you won’t miss your invitation to have your voice heard.