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Regina Carter: ‘Embrace. Engage. Evolve’

by Bryan Reesman

Trying to briefly encapsulate the genre-spanning work of globe traveling, Grammy-nominated violinist Regina Carter is challenging, but its essence could be distilled down to some key words: Open. Eclectic. Inspired. Adventurous. The New Jersey-based composer and musician, who is a native of Detroit, was a prodigious talent as a child. Encouraged by her mother and by teachers, she blossomed into a world-class player who embraces numerous genres and keeps her mind open to possibilities. That artistic vision has led her into a prolific solo career on top of working with the likes of Kenny Barron, Ray Brown, Mary J Blige, Wynton Marsalis, and Dolly Parton.

“I have so many interests, and I figure it’s out here, why not?” Carter tells me when our interview begins. “I love doing the research and seeing what’s out here musically. The last record I did [2014’s Southern Comfort] was all music that would have been relevant during my grandfather’s lifetime from the late 1800s to now. Some of the material that I came across was really intriguing and interesting, and it’s a history lesson. It’s so ironic for me because I hated history in school.” But once she delved into a project involving music and her family connection to it, she became engaged, which seems natural.

Different Methods

This situation leads to the point that learning works differently for different people. Some people can get good grades but retain little of what they have studied. Others can absorb knowledge in less standard ways and remember much more. Carter is a big proponent of the Suzuki Method, which espouses less stringent methods of teaching and allows students to learn by ear.

“It’s very similar to the way we learn to use language to speak growing up in our families, by imitating, and maybe because that’s the way I learned it seems the most natural way,” explains Carter. “When you look at other cultures, when you look at a lot of the African cultures where people learn their music, their culture, and their language, it’s not separate. Everything is combined. Everyone experiences that, so it’s very natural for them, whereas I think here in our culture we separate, and if you have the means or if you have the talent, then maybe you take lessons.” She invokes her parents’ and grandparents’ generations and how more families then owned a guitar or piano at home or sang. “They came together and sang as families, so it was more of a part of family life.”

Education runs through the violinist’s lineage. Her mother felt she and her older brothers Dan and Reginald should be exposed to music and have multiple career choices in adulthood; not that she expected any of them to choose music. (Carter says Dan works in finance, while Reggie is a house prop manager at the Winter Garden Theatre.) Carter’s maternal grandmother Sarah Vandousa McCaskill graduated from Morris Brown College with a degree in piano pedagogy in 1915. Not only was that rare for a woman at that time but even rarer for an African American woman. A pianist, McCaskill was the first organist for St John’s CME in Detroit, the city where Carter’s mother grew up.

According to Carter, her mother “plunked” on the piano. “She could play melodies and a very simple left hand accompaniment which she did for her kindergarten students during their music period,” recalls Carter. “The talent skipped my mother but she just wanted us to have exposure. We all took piano lessons, and they discovered that I had a musical gift by accident because I walked up to the piano one day when my brother was getting ready to have his lesson and just started playing one of the pieces he had been practicing. The teacher tested me and found that I have this gift to be able to hear and play back what I heard.”

Carter started piano lessons “too young” and never wanted to learn what was in the books before her. Instead she would bring in songs she had composed at home. She brought in colorful transcriptions that her teacher Josephine Love (co-founder of Your Heritage House Fine Arts Museum for Youth in Detroit) kept and gave to her star student’s mother when she graduated high school. The violinist says her teacher did not want to turn her off to music by forcing her to read, so she advised her mother to let the young girl continue being creative at home until she got older.

“When I was four, the Suzuki Method was being offered in Detroit for the first time, and this teacher called my mother and said this would be perfect for me,” says Carter. “[Josephine] really taught this method. She didn’t teach us to read for a long time. I think you’re supposed to teach children to read sooner than she did, but she taught us for a good amount of years to play by ear.”

High School, College, and Beyond

Fortunate to have music in her life from elementary school on, Carter attended Cass Technical High School where she majored in music. State requirements meant she had to take another string instrument (she chose viola), a wind instrument (oboe), and she performed in orchestra and sang in concert choir, madrigals, and harp and vocal. “If we had sectionals, I might be in school from five in the morning until six or seven at night in certain parts of the year,” she says. “It was really intense. The school had 4,000 students, and it was a pretty amazing school. When a lot of the students went to college, they could test out of their first year courses after graduating from Cass.”

When Carter was 12, cellist Marcy Schweickhardt got her involved with the Detroit Civic Orchestra, which back then was called the Detroit Symphony Youth Orchestra. She performed with them through high school. “I was the youngest member,” she reveals about joining their ranks. “I had no clue what I was doing, but she felt it was really important for me. I was terrified because at the beginning I had no clue what was going on. She would come and sit with me and show me where we were in the music. My reading chops were horrendous. My mother would sit through those rehearsals every Saturday with me, and she [Marcy] would explain each piece that we might be working on – what was happening historically, what the piece represented – and it made us really connect more with the music because then we understood what was going on instead of just listening at something. We had a deeper understanding that really made us appreciate it even more.”

After graduating from Cass in 1980, Carter journeyed to the New England Conservatory of Music to study classical music but later switched her focus to jazz. Back in high school, her close friend and jazz vocalist Carla Cook bequeathed upon her albums by the likes of Jean-Luc Ponty, Stephane Grappelli, and Noel Pointer which gave her an introduction to jazz by way of violinists. She also took Carter to a Grapelli concert. The budding virtuoso had until that point only associated her chosen instrument with classical music or Motown recordings. Her mother did not want her pursuing a career in jazz; she wanted her daughter to land an orchestra seat with employee benefits.

“When I got to New England [Conservatory], I auditioned for both the jazz and classical departments, and I got in both,” says Carter. “That was my second year when I decided I really wanted to try to understand and completely immerse myself in the jazz world. I switched majors my second year there, and then after my second year I came back and finished at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan. It’s only a half-hour outside of Detroit, and the jazz scene in Detroit was thriving then. I could take the car and go to jam sessions and sit in or hear people play during the week. I played in the jazz band at OU as well.”

She could also take lessons and do summer camps with the likes of trumpeter Marcus Belgrave. She worked with organist Lyman Woodard and pianist Kenny Cox and played alongside people like her cousin, saxophonist and wind player James Carter, and bassist Rodney Whitaker. “There were so many great musicians right there in the scene in Detroit,” she says. “There was always something going on.”

After graduating from Oakland University in 1985, Carter became involved with a Detroit Symphony program that sent string players into public schools. Many schools then had band teachers but no one to teach the strings. “The few string players that were there would just be sitting there, or the teacher would try and split their time and teach both at the same time,” she says. “I would go to two or three schools a day and work with the string players at those schools. I also worked at a private school and set up a string program. There were four different schools that I would go to. After that, I took a trip to Germany [in 1987] that was supposed to be a vacation, and it ended up lasting two years.”

During that spontaneous and exciting time, she lived in Munich and Kassell for two years. She recalls meeting jazz trumpeter Duško Gojković while sitting in a Munich jazz club, and after he learned she was from Detroit and had studied with Marcus Belgrave, he assisted eagerly her in finding housing. She wound ended up renting from jazz drummer Branislav Lala Kovačev.

“I taught violin on the American base in both Munich and Kaiserslautern, played church services, and was an au pair in Munich,” recalls Carter. “Some friends introduced me to an American saxophonist originally from Detroit named Carol McKinney, and she helped get me a gig in a Funk band based in Kassel. The band was made up of musicians from the U.S. Army and German musicians. I later learned that Carol is the aunt of drummer Gayelynn McKinney of the group Straight Ahead.”

‘Everyone Just Has to Find What Works for Them’

Upon returning home in 1989, Carter joined the Detroit jazz quintet Straight Ahead which ultimately recorded three albums for Atlantic Records starting in 1991; she played on the first two. She moved to New York in 1991 and recorded music with the ensemble while doing lucrative side gigs that began to take up more of her time. That same year she was hired to play with the String Trio of New York when violinist Charles Burnham took time off to work on a play. She stayed with the Trio for five or six years and also played with the Soldier String Quartet. Other artists she recorded and played with included Kenny Barron (they later co-wrote and recorded 2001’s Freefall), Sextet With Strings, Lewis Nash, the Black Rock Coalition, Ray Brown, Mary J Blige, Wynton Marsalis, Dolly Parton, and Lauryn Hill.

“The funny thing is when I first moved to New York someone said to me be careful about taking gigs with all these different types of bands,” notes Carter. “Pick one genre, one style, stick with that because people are going to think you’re not serious. My thing was I just loved music and loved all the different experiences, and I didn’t want to lock myself into one thing and I didn’t think I should have to. Luckily I didn’t listen to that [advice] or I would’ve missed out on so many wonderful opportunities. Plus I had to pay the rent!”

Her solo recording career began in 1995 and she is now working on her tenth studio album. She received a Grammy nomination for Freefall. She has integrated jazz, blues, and classical into recent albums, and she knows her fans appreciate her sincerity in what she does.

“Everyone just has to find what works for them,” believes Carter. “Luckily for me, knock on wood, this late in the game I’ve been lucky that it has. I think if people are honest about it, if you have many things that you’re interested in and you really give it your all and respect it, I think people feel that, they feel that it’s an honest love of many things and that you respect it. Then I think they’re okay with it.”

When she holds her master classes as artist in residency at Oakland University, or when she appears elsewhere, Carter lets students know that they should not concentrate on one area of music. They should take a business class. “It’s important to understand the business, and that has changed so much and is continuing to change,” she says. “There are some basics that everyone should know – reading a simple contract, negotiating, and just being responsible. Everyone has to take part in their own career, their own growth. You can’t just rely on someone else and not pay attention. You have to understand what’s going on because if something goes wrong and it’s because you’re not paying attention, you’re the one that’s going to get stuck holding the bag. So that’s really important.”

The violinist also stresses curiosity, being open-minded to many different styles of music, and supporting one’s peers when they are playing. “Just take in as much as they can because it’s so difficult out here now,” concedes Carter. “Everyone’s feeling it. The record sales are weird, people are streaming, gigs are becoming fewer and fewer. It’s really difficult to try to figure this whole thing out, so I think if you can write that’s important. If you’re open to different styles of music then you have more opportunities to work in different situations. Just really be open and be curious and be out here and just really try to help each other out. So many people helped me, shared information with me. I think if you’re open and you share with someone else, someone else is going to share with you. I think you open yourself up to receive.”

Carter does not teach privately, although she has on occasion given a private lesson to someone who has inquired, and if she was available. She does not think she would make the best instructor on a continuous basis. “I can say, ‘Here, this is what I did,’ and to me that’s my lesson,” she says. “That to me is not even teaching, it’s sharing.”

The master classes she does at Oakland University have no set time or agenda. Many times she will sit in and play with a big band and help them with music they are working on or go over their phrasing. She might work with an improv class. Sometimes she takes in music for students to listen to, or they bring in whatever they are listening to and discuss it. These are shared experiences.

Always Something to Learn

It is refreshing to hear that someone as accomplished as Carter still takes lessons deep into such an illustrious career. She received a NEA grant in the late ‘80s and studied with the late violinist John Blake Jr., and she periodically took lessons with him after she moved to Manhattan in the early ‘90s. Two other violinists coached her on solo pieces she performed with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (one by David Schiff and one by Billy Childs) during the last decade; Gayle Dixon and Dianne Monroe, respectively.

“Every once in a while I’ll think, ‘I need to work on this,’ and I’ll think of someone to call and have a couple of lessons,” says Carter. “It’s important to do that. I remember when I was recording one of Barry Harris’ tunes [“Fukai Aijo” on Motor City Moments] and was talking to him on the phone. We talked for a while, and then he said, ‘I have to get out off the phone, I’m going to have my lesson.’ I had a big smile on my face. ‘You’re still taking lessons!’ ‘Yeah, there’s always something to learn.’ I used to think, ‘Oh my God, here I am still taking lessons,’ but there’s always something to learn. I’ve found that sometimes I get into really bad habits, like the way I hold my instrument. You can really hurt yourself and I’ve had some issues, so sometimes I have to go even in for that, to straighten out my posture, and then I’ll work on something else.”

The way that she learned as a child has stuck with her to this day. “I find when I sit down and try to learn something, my brain kind of goes on strike,” admits Carter. “I still [use] the Suzuki way of learning, doing it by ear and really listening and hearing something and not necessarily sitting down and trying to force myself. If I’m transcribing something, just put it on and enjoy it, and keep playing and play the piece I’m trying to learn. [Even] if it’s the melody first just so I have that down. I’ll pick someone I’m going to transcribe first and just keep playing it so I can sing it back. I’m not just sitting there trying to forcibly learn it. It’s just on and then I take it in. I guess the Suzuki Method is great for me. It’s difficult for me when I have to sit down and analyze something because I’ve always had a hard time focusing.”

That is an ironic statement given the length and breadth of her career. She laughs at that thought but acknowledges that focus is tough. “I still beat myself up over it,” she says. “I still get into this thing that this is how you’re supposed to learn. Sometimes it’s really difficult for me to understand that I have to validate my way of learning. It’s just my way, I have to accept that.”

‘Queen of Scandal’, Accolades, and Humility

Some lessons are ones that we cannot prepare for. In 2001, Carter was chosen by the mayor and community of Genoa, Italy to be the first jazz musician and African-American to play a 250-year old Guarneri violin (“The Cannon”) in their possession that was once favored by Italian violinist and composer Niccolò Paganini. The instrument is played once a year by a specially selected recipient. After being referred by her friend, Italian composer and musician Andrea Liberovici, who conjured the idea of her playing a concert on Paganini’s Guarneri del Gesù (performing arrangements by bassist John Clayton), Carter undertook a lengthy interview process to determine her eligibility. Once they picked her, she raised some eyebrows given her favored musical genre.

“There was a lot of controversy because people thought that playing jazz on the Guarneri would diminish its value,” she recalls. “We had a big press conference right before the concert, and because of the controversy they sold out the hall. ‘Queen of Scandal’ was the headline of the Italian papers. They sold out the auditorium, and I don’t know what people thought. I don’t if they thought I was going to set it on fire or bash it or whatever.”

She notes that the Guarneri was much bigger than her violin, and she was only allowed four hours over two days to become acquainted with it. That is little time at all. “I tell people it’s like if someone turns off the lights in your bedroom while you’re sleeping, rearranges the furniture, and you have to try to get around the room without turning on the lights,” elaborates Carter. “I would shift up to the third or fourth position and the note would be nowhere to be found. I knew my limitations and kept it to that. I picked some repertoire that I felt would work well on instrument and that they wouldn’t freak out about. And they loved it.”

Dealing with the handling and transport of the Guarneri was daunting. There was a violin keeper with her when she was initially trying out the instrument with an armed guard stationed outside. Armed guards were posted on both sides of the stage during the December 30, 2001 concert. Carter requested that they bring out the instrument to her during the second half of the concert, when she was scheduled to play it. “I kept dreaming that I was walking and then fell into a hole with it,” she confesses.

Another amazing accomplishment came when Carter won a $500,000 “Genius Grant” from the MacArthur Foundation in 2006 (a year before she and her husband, drummer Alvester Garnett, moved to New Jersey). “You don’t get it all at once and the government gets their hands on it,” she quips of the endowment, adding more seriously, “I guess anytime you get it is the perfect time, but I had just gone through a crazy time. It was a point where I just wasn’t sure whether I really wanted to continue to do music full-time or to play music, and I needed to check out some other things. It afforded me the opportunity to back off being on the road so much. I took some classes at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Michigan. I took an intro to music therapy course and went to a couple of conferences and shadowed a couple of music therapists there because I thought I was going to go back to school to become a full-time music therapist.”

While the discipline was not what she envisioned, nor did she ultimately pursue it, she came to New York and trained to be a hospice volunteer. “I did that for a couple of years and had a couple of different patients,” she explains. “Two of the patients passed away, and [for] one I was a volunteer for the family and the wife passed away and the husband moved to the West Coast. I loved doing that and got so much out of that.”

The situation was so inspiring to her that Carter wants to learn how she can receive grant money to be able to go into hospice situations and play music and also “spend time and visit with people that are making that journey,” she says. “I’m very drawn to that. We’re all going to leave here, and that’s something that sometimes haunts me. I become very obsessed about death. When you’re dealing with people that are in that period of their life and they know it, for me they have such a sense of clarity about everything, and I get a sense of calmness about death. Even though as a volunteer you’re doing something to help them, I feel like they’re giving the volunteer an even bigger gift.”

Such humility and wide-eyed awareness has served Carter well as she has ventured throughout the many musical adventures in her life. Always remembering that she has something new she can learn, the violinist stays open to possibilities, and that ethos has led her down some unexpected and invigorating paths. “Yeah, it’s pretty amazing,” she muses. “When I think back at some of the things I’ve done, it’s been a pretty exciting journey.”

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