Cover photo © 2022 Marilyn Stringer
It is a safe bet that most blues fans have heard and/or seen Jimmy Carpenter blowing his saxophone over the course of the last four decades. After playing sideman to some of the finest musicians in the blues and New Orleans musical communities, Carpenter has finally stepped out into the spotlight on his own with a killer Las Vegas based band – Chris Tofield on guitar, Mike Merritt on bass, and Cameron Tyler on drums – helping him tear it up on his memorable original songs. But this was definitely not a case of overnight success.
“My father had big band records, which I loved as a kid. But he also had Dave Brubeck records which featured Paul Desmond on alto saxophone. That was the sound that caught me as a kid. The other thing that was happening at the same time was that Boots Randolph had a network television show, which shows you how different things are today. He would start every show playing “Yakety Sax.” He’d play a little bit, then these two go-go dancers would come out, one on each side of him. I thought that was the most amazing thing I had ever seen!
“After fourth grade, I got invited to this summer school program, where they had metal or wood shop. But my Mother told me that I could also learn to play an instrument. Was that of interest? She says that I looked at her and immediately said that I wanted to play saxophone. That is how I got completely enamored with it from the start, and have stayed enamored with it to this day. Excluding a couple of detours, that is all I have done since then.”
The school system in Greensboro, North Carolina offered quality music programs in those days, so the budding musician was able to get a solid education in the crucial opening phase of his career.
“I played in the school band from the 5th grade on. Starting in junior high school, I had a great saxophone teacher, Charles Murth, who was a wonderful band director. Every week we had what they called the “steps”. We had to go in this room with the other sax players. Each of us had to play our assigned piece, an exercise or scales. How well you played determined your position in the line-up, which was at risk every week. I was absolutely determined to stay first chair. There was another player, Tom Barker, who probably hates me to this day. We battled it out every week, and I never lost it.
“When I got into high school, there were some distractions. I decided that I wanted to be a guitar player. I did that for a minute, but when I started looking at going to a music school for college, I knew that there was no way I could get in playing guitar. So I got the sax out, practiced, auditioned, and got in. Honestly, I had an inauspicious career at music school. At the end of the year, the head of the Music Department sat me down, saying, “Jimmy, I think you should do one of two things. Either go to a school that will teach you what you want to know, like Berklee College of Music, or start playing live gigs. I decided he was right, so for better or worse, I went out and started playing gigs.”
While at music school in Greensboro, Carpenter gravitated to Tate Street, which was the heart of the city’s hippie community, where all of the cool people hung out.
“That was quite the scene. I found myself playing in a lot of different things, both in and out of school. At that point, I hadn’t been paying much attention to blues music because I wanted to be John Coltrane. One of the first things that got me was Otis Redding, some of the most amazing stuff I had heard. I began working backwards from there. Around 1979, I was playing in the Little Alfred Band, a big mess of guys from that scene, including Scott Sawyer, who is still active, a heavy guy that is more of a jazz guitar player. Through that band, I got turned on to a lot of stuff like Little Walter’s “Too Late” that got me deeper into the blues side of things.”
Another part of the band experience provided some hard-earned lessons that would come in handy as the years went on, a valuable tutorial on surviving the dynamics of a working band.
“The Little Alfred Band taught me that people have different ideas about where things should go. Me and the harmonica player got all excited about the band at one point, had a bunch of promotional material printed up. When we took it to the rest of the band, the other guitar player promptly quit. That was my first lesson that bands are not easy to run.”
The next phase of his career was spent with the Alka-Phonics, described on Carpenter’s website as “a renegade blues band”. Formed with a number of his friends, the band came together after a trip to Elon, NC to see guitarist Tinsley Ellis, giving the musicians the proper inspiration, and starting a life-long friendship between Ellis and Carpenter. The band gave the saxophonist his first taste of life on the road, touring along the East Coast from Washington D.C and Philadelphia, down to Florida.
“We were just wild, and certainly not a pure blues band, For a long time we did a James Brown medley, and had a raggedy medley of Motown tunes. That ended once the movie The Big Chill came out. Then every lounge band in America was doing Motown, so that wasn’t cool any more. Once I heard a band in a Holiday Inn lounge doing a similar set, we stopped doing Motown. Johnny Sansone was in the band for a minute. We had several guitar players. The last one, Terry Garland, passed away last year.
“I was working as an exterminator in 1980. It was a shitty job, but as long as I got the work done, the owner let me do what I wanted. The owner was a jazz drummer, so he understood what was going on. I was making minimum wage, about $110 a week. As soon as I was sure that I could make that much playing music, I quit that job. That was pretty much the last W-2 form I ever had until I started working with the Big Blues Bender. It has been a good run, although at times I was hanging on by my fingernails.”
The group recorded several demo records that never lead to anything. The cost of recording in those days was prohibitive. After a solid eight year run, the decision was made in 1987 to end the Alka-Phonics. Carpenter found himself adrift for a spell until a guitar player friend got in touch with him.
He ended up joining The Believers, a blues-rock band based out of Charlottesville, Virginia for another eight year stint. Lead by his friend Charlie Pastorfield, the band did several recordings, including one in Nashville.
“That one was called I’m Your Prisoner. Garry Tallent, the bass player from Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band was the producer. It was all original material except for one Flamin’ Groovies song. It’s a challenging thing to make a record. It was Charlie’s band, but at that point I was handling the business aspects. I knew there would be challenges, and I knew that I would have to be the “no” guy. I didn’t want to be in that position, so that is why we hired Garry to help us out.”
Around 1996, grunge music was sweeping the country, and the Believers weren’t cool any more. It got tougher and tougher to find good paying gigs that would keep things afloat. Once a self-sustaining enterprise, the band started losing money. Not wanting to go backwards, the saxophonist made the decision to leave the band to make a change, deciding to use his experience to become a booking agent.
“It was an OK run. After about a year and a half, things were starting to work out. That is a cutthroat business, especially in the D.C. Area where I was living at the time. I was sitting in my office one day when I got a call from my friend, Tinsley Ellis. He wanted to go out on the road for a year with a four piece band that would include a saxophonist. He knew I was doing the booking thing, but still wanted to call me first even though he figured I wouldn’t be interested. I took a couple of days to consider it, but I had decided almost immediately to do it. So I closed the agency in 1998 and went back on the road. It was a great tour and education that set me on the path I have been on since then.”
With time on his hands after finishing that year-long commitment, Carpenter got a call from yet another guitarist, Jimmy Thackery, who wondered if Carpenter wanted to do a few shows together. They did a short ten day run that worked really well. At the end, Thackery extended an offer to continue on in his band, which was quickly accepted, making Carpenter an official member of Thackery’s band, the Drivers.
“That lasted six years and I appeared on several recordings. We did a European tour right before 9-11, which was my first time overseas, so that was awesome. We played in Paris, all over France, and then in Italy. I am really thankful for that stretch with Jimmy. I got to play a ton of shows. By default, I became the road manager, keeping the books and handling the merchandise. While I don’t consider myself a business man, I like to know what is going on. Sometimes it is easier just to do it than rely on somebody else, so that scratched that itch for me. Another educational endeavor!”
In 2003, life in the D.C. Area was getting tense, so Carpenter decided to fulfill a dream by moving to New Orleans. While New Orleans had a thriving music scene, Carpenter was constantly on the road with Thackery, making it difficult to make inroads in what was now his home area. That lead to the decision to dedicate himself to breaking into the New Orleans scene. he left Thackery’s band. It took some doing, but by 2005, his schedule was finally starting to fill up for several months at a time. He was also taking advantage of several opportunities to sit in with guitarist Walter “Wolfman” Washington, a New Orleans music legend.
“I was hanging out with Walter, circling around his gigs trying to get noticed, just being a nuisance. That August, I was on a festival in Maryland with Chubby Carrier. Walter was also on the fest. I sat in with him, and afterwards he came up and asked me if I wanted to do his travel dates. Walter had a killer tenor sax player, Eric Traub, who did not like to travel. I told Walter I absolutely wanted to work with him. For ten years, I did pretty much every Walter show.
“That fest was August 20th, 2005. Hurricane Katrina hit August 29th, wiping out all of the shows I had booked. There was nothing good about Katrina. I went back to New Orleans right after the power came back. A lot of people didn’t go back, so by attrition I sort of moved up the ladder. The gig with Walter certainly gave me some street cred I wouldn’t have had otherwise. Walter is an amazing guy – guitarist, singer, and songwriter.”
As time went on, Carpenter found himself playing with Eric Lindell, and some of the Mardi Gras Indians, a tradition unique to New Orleans. He also did horn arrangements for several Honey Island Swamp band recordings while finding time to also play with Billy Iuso’s band. He could usually be seen hustling from one stage to the next throughout the annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage festival.
“As far as my education, the New Orleans period was the deepest. I was in over my head so much of the time. It was frightening, interesting, and encouraging. There is nothing like playing on stage with a bunch of people that are way better than you, kicking your ass. It’s a beautiful thing. Over the years I played on a lot of Indian projects with Big Chief Monk Boudreaux. That stuff is so much fun. It is deep and trance-like. I usually played baritone sax on those gigs. The music is a one chord groove. I would just find the lick and beat it to death.
“If I had to pick one person who was the most influential on me, it’s got to be Walter, except for Charles Murth in the beginning. Walter is the consummate band leader. It is hard to describe the way he plays – it is totally unique, rhythmic, and funky. He will take a right or left turn at the drop of a hat. I learned early on to watch, read, listen, so I could anticipate where things were going to go. It was a real education.”
In 2008, Carpenter released his first recording under his own name. Entitled Toiling In Obscurity, a title that offered a sly summation of his career up to that point, the recording was actually a by-product of the aftermath of Katrina. It featured a fine line-up of New Orleans musicians bringing to life Carpenter’s original songs and strong arrangements.
“Before Katrina, my then-partner and I had bought a house. Later the Small Business Association wanted to lend me a bunch of money against my house. They kept calling to the point of hounding me. But I didn’t want to do it. Finally, they offered me $10,000, unsecured at a super low rate for thirty years. I quickly figured out the payments would be about $45 a month. It seemed like things would never be so bad that I couldn’t make a $45 dollar a month payment. I took the loan but my partner & I couldn’t decide what to do with the funds, so I decided to make a record. I had been keeping notes about who I liked playing with around town. Most of those players also were on my next release, Walk Away, a few years later.”
Moving to the next phase of his career, Carpenter began working with Mike Zito, who he had met at Buddy Guy’s Legends club when Zito opened for Thackery. Zito wanted to start doing a guitar & saxophone band line-up. So Carpenter would do dates with Zito as his schedule permitted. Finally, Zito put together a new band called The Wheel, featuring Scot Sutherland on bass, Lewis Stephens on keyboards, and Rob Lee on drums. The band was a huge hit.
“First of all, Mike is the hardest working person I have ever met, except for my partner Carrie Stowers. In the music business, Mike is hard to beat as far as making shit happen. His thing started to roll, so he was hiring me for more and more dates. When he finally put the Wheel together, we toured the world, cut a few records, and had a great time. It is a friendship that started almost 20 years ago. I played gigs, then was in a band with him, and now I am on his record label, Gulf Coast Records. It is cool how things have developed over the years.”
In 2013, Zito and the Wheel were booked on the Sin City Soul & Blues Revival, a festival in Las Vegas. For Carpenter, it ended up being far more than just another gig. And this time, it wasn’t another guitar player that opened the door to a new opportunity.
“As usual, I was running around sitting in with different people. A guy involved with the festival, AJ Gross, noticed that I was jumping in with both feet. At one point, he stopped me to mention that he would probably be involved the following year, and maybe I could be there all weekend. I said that would be great. As it turned out, AJ became the founder of what became the Big Blues Bender, a three day festival. He booked Walter for the fest the next year.
“I was therein 2014, hanging out, doing horn stuff with Deanna Bogart. Then I met this woman at a merchandise booth. I ended up chasing her around all weekend. I eventually wore her down, one thing lead to another, and Carrie and I have been together ever since. I split time between New Orleans and Vegas for a year. Then I said we either need to quit or I need to move to Vegas.
“So I made the move to Vegas, where my role with the Blues Bender has grown exponentially. It has become a very, very good thing. It is always challenging and interesting, and the reason I can pursue my solo career instead of touring all of the time as a sideman. This allows me to scratch my business and musical itches. I am very grateful to have this going on.”
Carpenter helps book the festival, and is the event’s Musical Director, running a seven piece band that backs a number of artists. He also coordinates the annual fund raiser for the Hart Fund, sponsored by the Blues Foundation that uses the funds to help musicians with health and financial issues. Over the years, over $200,000 have been raised.
“It is a ton of work, but it really pushes my envelope. I had never written 25 horn charts for nine different artists. Now I do it all the time, so it is old hat. It goes back to something Dr. John once told me while we standing around in a recording studio. He made a comment about music. I replied that I don’t really play jazz. Dr. John goes, “Wait a minute, Jimmy Carpenter, don’t you never tell no motherfucker that you don’t know how to do nothin’! They say can you do this, you say fuck yeah, I can do it.” That’s the way it’s gone with the Bender.”
In 2017, Carpenter released Plays The Blues on the Vizztone label, with backing by Ellis and Zito among a number of guitar wielding guests, living up to the title with a strong focus on the blues. The title track, along with several other instrumentals, provides the leader with plenty of space to spotlight his dynamic saxophone skills.
His initial Gulf Coast Records release, Soul Doctor, is Carpenter’s strongest release to date, featuring some of his best vocal work, plenty of brawny sax tones, and more stellar original material. The impact of the album was blunted by Covid shutdowns, although it received plenty of airplay and praise from reviewers. Some of the disappointment at the lost opportunities was offset when he was named the recipient of the 2021 Blues Music Award for Blues Instrument – Horns, the sixth time he had been nominated.
“Just to be on a list with players like Doug James, Nancy Wright, and Kaz Kazanoff is exciting enough. It’s a big world, and an honor to be on that narrowed down list. I must admit, while the other years I didn’t win I did say it is a great honor to be nominated, it is indeed much better to actually win one! I humbly submit that no one can really argue that point. Now I am trying to build on that momentum.”
In another twist of fate, a project that he was involved in a decade ago ended up being a part of a Grammy winning album in the 2021 ‘Best Regional Roots Music Album’ category.
“A trombone payer, Craig Klein, was a friend of mine in New Orleans. We were commissioned to write a piece, a funeral dirge, for the Musicians Tomb in the city. We wrote it under the supervision of Wardell Quezergue. Most people outside of New Orleans don’t know that name. There was no heavier guy in New Orleans music than Wardell. He was known as the “Creole Beethoven,” a brilliant composer, arranger, and record producer. He also wrote the horn arrangements for many of legendary band leader Dave Bartholomew’s records, usually at $50 per song.
“We never recorded the piece, but did play it live at two internment ceremonies at the Musicians Tomb. So then Craig and his band, the New Orleans Nightcrawlers, recorded the piece, entitled “Tomb Tune,” on their 2020 release, Atmosphere. And it wins the Grammy! So I received what they call a “Participation Grammy”. It’s not the statue, but a certificate recognizing my contribution to the record.
“Wardell was older, and mostly blind a the time. We would take my laptop to his apartment. This guy was one of the heaviest arrangers and composers in American music history, yet he has no money, and living in an apartment in a Catholic Retirement home. He was a wonderful, sweet man. I’ll never forget one time we were listening to the piece. I was watching Wardell as his face lit up at one point, and he said, “Oh man, that is just beautiful.” That is a moment I will never forget. Like my career, it took a long time to come to fruition, but when it did, it was a beautiful thing.”
Check out Jimmy’s website for more information on this great artist:https://jimmycarpenter.net