Teaching is Two Way Street

October 9, 2013

By Matt Parish

As the final track on Terri Lyne Carrington’s excellent new album slows to a halt, the voice of Herbie Hancock pipes up. He reads words once spoken by Duke Ellington: “I think jazz will be listened to by the same people who listen to it now: those who like creative things, whether they understand them or not.” Below it, Carrington eases along in a cryptically relaxed groove, inviting listeners to come to a similar conclusion. The album, Money Jungle: Provocative in Blue, revises tunes that Ellington wrote in the ‘60s for an album with Max Roach and Charles Mingus. It was a time when the heyday of swing was fading from memory, bebop standard bearers were advancing into an unprecedented universe of diverse musical languages, and young audiences were deserting the genre for rock’n’roll.

Carrington, who has always approached her music from several trajectories at once, is a perfect candidate to reinterpret Ellington’s obscure masterpiece.

Carrington’s career has spanned one of the most open-ended periods in jazz history. All styles of music are more accessible than ever, while the audience for jazz is growing increasingly difficult to pin down. Musicians’ career paths are getting more complicated, too – there are more avenues of expression to track down, more recording techniques to master, and more questions about the future.

Carrington first rose to prominence in the late ‘80s, playing in front of a national audience every night as the drummer for the house band on the Arsenio Hall Show. Jazz musicians were enjoying a bit of a career renaissance. The generation of “Young Lions” lead by Wynton and Branford Marsalis had established footholds in the industry and Carrington, on the strength of her 1988 debut Real Life Story, was one of the hottest voices in jazz.

She still is. Now a certifiable veteran on the scene and a seasoned professor at the Berklee School of Music (and the University of Southern California before that), Carrington has had a unique view on the transition of jazz and jazz education. While balancing a vibrant career that includes last year’s Grammy-winning Mosaic Project and a full teaching schedule, Carrington has kept her focus simple: “Hone your craft,” she tells JAZZed.

Carrington grew up in a jazz family in Medford, Massachusetts. Her father, Sonny Carrington, was a saxophonist and president of the Boston Jazz Society. Her mother was a pianist. Her grandfather, Matt Carrington, played trumpet with Fats Waller and Chu Berry. From childhood, she was a natural on the drums. She took lessons from Keith Copeland and sat in with greats like Dizzy Gillespie and Oscar Peterson. When she was ten, Clark Terry brought her along to the Wichita Jazz Festival to play with his ensemble. Soon after, she appeared on the television program To Tell the Truth thanks to a meeting with Buddy Rich. She received a scholarship to Berklee and was soon performing with up-and-coming musicians like Greg Osby and Kevin Eubanks.

In short, Carrington was in the middle of a vibrant professional jazz scene almost from the beginning.

Real Life Story included guest spots by artists like Wayne Shorter, John Scofield, Carlos Santana, and Dianne Reeves and crossed genre boundaries at every step. It was nominated for a Grammy. While drumming on the Arsenio Hall Show, she spent much of the ‘90s as a record producer, helming albums by Reeves and Monique among many others.

Like the rest of the music industry, jazz has had to adapt to a changing economic landscape and become ever more savvy and business-minded. She received an honorary doctorate from Berklee in 2003 when she returned to Boston and took up a music professor position there with students of varied skill levels. Meanwhile, her recorded output has thrived. After 2011’s landmark, Grammy-winning Mosaic Project, which brought together a wide variety of notable female musicians (Dee Dee Bridgewater, Esperanza Spalding, Helen Sung, Cassandra Wilson, Sheila E, and many more), Carrington quickly began work on her next release. It was conceived in part as a tribute to Duke Ellington’s ‘60s trio recording Money Jungle (with Max Roach and Charles Mingus) and in part as commentary on the changing influence of finance on all sectors of life.

But as Carrington continues through her one-of-a-kind career, she remains first and foremost an artist’s artist, forever looking to improve her own grasp of musical styles in the service of both her own playing and the education of her students. She approaches education as an exchange of ideas, and is always game to learn something from the diverse backgrounds of the musicians she finds in her rehearsal studio every day.

“Collaborating is super important,” she says. “It’s always a two-way street.”

JAZZed took time to talk with Carrington recently about her careful educational approach, and the models from her own ongoing education that she’s in developing that approach, and the changing face of an audience of faithful listeners who persist, whether or not they understand everything that’s going on.

JAZZed: The shadow of money and financing looms large over everything on your new album, just as it does on a smaller level on every young musician’s career. What do you think an educator should be doing to teach music students about the business side of their lives?

Terri Lyne Carrington: I think the music education process should be just that. It’s one of those early times in your life when you aren’t necessarily focusing on the business. But it depends. If your goal is to be a star, then you’re going to have to focus on the commerce side of things early on. If your goal is to be an artist and you want to hone your craft at school, I think it’s not so important to focus on that. Some of the greatest artists to become stars did not focus on the business. Sometimes when you do that, you start overthinking and you do things that don’t really allow you to live to your full artistic potential.

On the other hand, the business part of it is just so much of having a career these days. I was just talking to a student of mine who had said that they really wished there were more classes on business. They felt like there should be a class where you go out and find a gig and make things happen. A lot of people feel like, in the end, that’s the reality, at least at Berklee. So you do have to have both.

JAZZed: Do you find it’s possible to teach people that, or is it something done better by just throwing them out to the wolves?

TLC: Like creativity in general, you’re right because there’s no real formula to succeed in the business. But maybe presenting different scenarios would be good. Both the music and the business are important to a music career in the end, so if you get out and have none of either of those, that’s probably not good.

JAZZed: What aspects, if any, of business do you tend to focus on with your students?

TLC: All of my students ask me questions and I’ll answer them. They’re trying to get real life experience from me, so I’ll try to touch on that. I know a lot of them aren’t getting that, but I don’t dwell on it. I try to help them on their creative process and hope that someone else more equipped on the other side of things can help them with that kind of thing. I think they can certainly get more out of me on the creative side of things than anything else.

JAZZed: How long did it take you to find your voice as an educator?

TLC: The first semester or two, I was probably kind of green. I taught part-time at USC before I started at Berklee and that wasn’t quite as intense. It was a lot of half-hour private lessons. All my lessons now are an hour long, with labs and ensembles and final exams.

But it just took the first year to get comfortable. I don’t have a cookie cutter approach – I just relate to the students and try to figure out what it is that they need and move ahead based on that. I know a lot of people have certain things that they do with everybody, but I’ve never been that way.

JAZZed: Has it taken a long time to build up a vocabulary that you can use to relate to your students?

TLC: I think the main thing is that most of them come to me for jazz. Some come to me for other fusion kind of stuff, but since it’s mostly jazz, I have to be proficient in a lot of different styles. Latin styles, funk, and everything else. So I think they’re often looking for a specialty. I’ll often start with more technical stuff that I learned from Alan Dawson, then I kind of found my way into my own exercises that I think help them out with rhythm. I now have more and more Latin rhythms incorporated into what I teach. It’s very good for coordination, so a lot of my exercises that could have been based in swing are now based in 6/8 Afro-Cuban instead.

JAZZed: Is that a style that you’d gotten into expressly for its use in education, or did it parallel your own professional use?

TLC: I guess it did parallel it. Honestly, I was never really satisfied with my Latin playing. I mean I could play through the beats, but improvising inside of them was tougher. Since I’ve been teaching, I’ve gotten a lot better.

JAZZed: In many jazz education scenarios, there can be interesting opportunities for both the student and teacher to learn from every lesson. How do you view your interactions with students?

TLC: Collaborating is super important. It’s always a two-way street. I want to get from my students as well as give to them, and I think that most things are collaborations including teaching. I never come from a dogmatic standpoint. I never talk down to my students. I never feel like I’m better than them. Of course I have more experience, but I don’t pretend that they can’t show me things. Especially the foreign students with different cultural backgrounds. It’s an exchange. That’s my high-level students.

Of course if I have someone who feels a little more beginner or intermediate and with them I’m trying to get them on a solid ground where they’ll be able to function as a drummer.  But the higher level students, I watch them and see what they’re doing. I’ll say, “I see what you’re doing. That’s cool. Here’s another approach you might use.” They’ll hopefully be interested in checking that out.

JAZZed: Did teaching come naturally to you?

TLC: There wasn’t too much of a breaking-in period or anything because I’ve always tried to look at it more like mentoring.

One thing that is interesting is that I really analyze what I’m doing a lot more, so that I’m able to explain what I’m doing to people. I’ve had to figure out my own albums. So I fell even more in with Roy Haynes once I started teaching, because I started checking out all of the modern things that he’s been doing for so long. With the way he’s influenced so many people and drummers, he’s just become even more of an idol to me over the last ten years or so. I love the way he breaks down different aspects of comping. Soloing is one thing, but the most important part for a drummer is how they comp behind the soloist and their time feel. Their voice is so tied to that time feel – sometimes the drummer’s behind, sometimes it’s more straight, sometimes it’s more triplet-based. It’s beautiful and it’s very difficult to totally take it. He’ll combine phrases so that he’s playing triplets, straight eights, four eights, sixteenths. He’s always combining that so that the ear doesn’t get tired. That’s something I find really important. He breaks up the time beautifully, knowing when to play with steady time and when to break it up. So you can use that as a great teaching tool.

JAZZed: So do you get to point to different aspects of his approach for different students, depending on their tendencies?

TLC: No, I pretty much use the same aspects of his playing for every student. Some people aren’t even ready to deal with that yet because they’re still getting the basics together. Other people are at the point where they’re good, so if they want to become great, they need to really look at the subtleties and nuances of great drummers.

JAZZed: Are there other musicians that you consider mentors?

TLC: Jack DeJohnette has always been my big mentor. He studied under Roy Haynes. Jack opened me up to playing openly, lucidly, and fluidly.

JAZZed: Are there mentoring techniques that you try to integrate into your approach to students?

TLC: With Jack, he didn’t really sit me down and teach me particular techniques or anything. I did a lot of playing with him – he’d play piano and I’d play drums. But I’ve always felt very influenced by him in that the way I think about music is very close to the way he thinks about music. Some of the things that I say to my students are probably very similar to the things he would be saying.

JAZZed: The quote that you finish the album with is interesting because it’s almost contrary to one of the rallying cries for jazz education for so long – that educating young people about jazz will widen the audience for jazz in the future. Here, Ellington is saying that the people who love jazz will love it without having to understand the music. What’s your opinion of a public’s technical or even historical understanding of jazz music?

TLC: I don’t think it’s that important to understand everything that’s going on in jazz music for a listener. We’re playing for people that don’t need to necessarily understand the music, but they do have to have an appreciation for creativity, as Duke Ellington said. For a player, of course you have to have to understand so much about it. Of course, a lot of it is intuitive, but there’s so much to learn. You have to do your homework. You have to know the history of the music. You have to know all of the people who played important parts in the music. That’s one thing that frustrates me about a lot of young musicians. It’s impossible to know everybody and everything, but it’s important for them to make as much effort as possible – to go back and study, study, study – so that they’re more informed as to what makes the music what it is today. Every year that passes, there’s more to learn. I have to stay current, so I have to learn, too. Everyone has to stay current.

But mostly, I don’t think that the audience has to understand it so much. It would be beautiful if we could play for people who really know, but I think it’s just as beautiful if you can touch people who might not.

JAZZed: What’s something important that you took from your studies while preparing for this new record?

TLC: It’s okay to want to move forward and not be stuck in the past. It’s always the great musicians like Duke and Herbie and Miles and John Coltrane that didn’t want to be stuck in the past. They wanted to move forward. As educators, we need to embrace that. Sometimes with education people can get stuck in the past because they’re trying to teach a doctrine that they’ve learned and which is already in the past. I think that those do have to be taught to everyone, but we also have to embrace new ideas and always be ready to move forward.

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