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Carl Arter

May 29, 1918 – January 11, 2006

Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Carl Arter was a driving force in the  western Pennsylvania, jazz community for over four decades. He played tenor saxophone for many years as well as vibraphone and piano.

At 23, he began to play the tenor saxophone, after being inspired by hearing a solo on the radio while riding to work one morning. He began taking lessons, and after learning the basics from his first teacher, he was interested in playing jazz so he began taking lessons from Max Atkins, a tenor player who also directed the house band at the old Stanley Theater.

In his late twenties, he joined the Army, spending most of his time was at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, directing the Army Jazz Band. There he sat in with trumpeter Thad Jones and Snookum Russell’s band in Oklahoma City. Mr. Russell’s band also featured Pittsburgh drummer Joe Harris, bassist Ray Brown and vocalist Tiny Brown.

Upon discharge, Carl returned to Pittsburgh and began to teach lessons in the Hill District. Around this time he realized how important the saxophone had become in his life. Around the same time, he met 14-year-old Stanley Turrentine. Stanley’s older brother, Tommy, who had been performing with Stanley, asked Carl to give lessons to his younger sibling. That relationship lasted late into Carl’s career, as Stanley would stop by while back in Pittsburgh, for a refresher on harmony.

In the late 1950’s while playing sax at a local club, an audience member bumped into Carl’s sax, resulting in damage to Carl’s teeth. Carl felt that he could no longer play sax at his high level, so he switched to piano as his main instrument. Carl was a contemporary of many Pittsburgh musicians who later became some of the biggest names in jazz. Marylou Williams, Ahmad Jamal, Ray Brown, Linton and Errol Garner, Edgar Willis, Billy Eckstine,  Art Blakey, Joe Harris, Eddie Jefferson, Dakota Staton, Tommy and Stanley Turrentine all came from Pittsburgh. Carl was known as a master of harmony and counted among his students Tommy and Stanley Turrentine.

From 1954 to 1960, Mr. Arter served as president of the American Federation of Musicians Local 471, the city’s black musicians union, during which time he took a hiatus from gigging. Carl got back onto the Pittsburgh jazz scene in earnest in 1962, on piano. Eddie Jefferson and others encouraged him to move to New York, but Carl preferred to stay local so he could take care of his family more easily.

He was playing at local club Eileen’s Zebra Room in 1978, with vocalist Tiny Irvin in his group, when fledgling label owner Michael Frank first heard him play. Michael made the label’s 3rd and 5th releases Tiny Irvin with the Carl Arter Trio (You Don’t Know What Love Is – 1983), and Carl Arter in a quartet format (Song From far Away – 1984). These were the only commercial recordings ever by these 2 legends of Pittsburgh jazz. In 1983, Earwig also recorded another album by Carl which has not been released.

Carl continued to play in Pittsburgh until ill health forced him to retire. He died January 11, 2006. His music lives on in the Earwig sessions and in the music of so many musicians whom he taught during his long career.

Carl Arter
Pianist
Albums