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‘We’re Trying to Shift that Narrative’: Terri Lyne Carrington Isn’t Waiting Around for Jazz to Reach its Full Potential

Christian Wissmuller • Current IssueJanuary/February 2022Spotlight • February 22, 2022

A professional musician since the age of 10 (youngest person to receive a union card in Boston!), Terri Lyne Carrington has never once pumped the brakes on developing her creativity and expanding her own professional success. The three-time Grammy winner and NEA Jazz Master has set the bar for contemporary jazz drummers and emerged as an inspiration and role model – particularly for female musicians.

Since 2005, Carrington has been a professor at her alma mater, Berklee College of Music, where she serves as the founder and artistic director of the school’s Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice. JAZZed recently connected with Ms. Carrington to learn more of her lifelong career as a music scholar, educator, and advocate.

You have had a unique, a singular experience. Not everybody gets the early, early start that you did. If you were to think back to your days starting out, was there any one teacher or one learning experience that really sticks out as having been impactful?

Well, that’s interesting. Let me think back to when I was younger. I don’t really remember a lot of them. I mean, I remember things that taught me a lesson, you know, just by experience. Actually, my dad was my first teacher, because he played drums, as well. Then, maybe around age nine, I had a beginners teacher, and his name was John Wooley.

Then, Keith Copeland was probably one of my most important teachers, because I was with him around 11 or so, and 12, 13. He ended up being an educator in Europe. He taught at two colleges, conservatories. But, anyway… after that, my next teacher for a couple of years was Tony Tedesco, and he lives in New York. Plays with, you know, Broadway plays and stuff like that. So, he helped me with breathing. And then, finally, I ended up with Alan Dawson at around 14 or so. Yeah, so those have been my four – or five, counting my dad – teachers.

And, Keith was important because he showed me, you know, more practical things – like Latin rhythms, funk. And he had studied with Alan Dawson, too, so, he showed me some of Alan’s stuff, which prepared me for when I got to Alan, formally.

What methods of imparting wisdom – from any of those individuals you just mentioned, or others later in life – do you find to be most effective?

I think the biggest thing with teaching is helping someone get together their technique and coordination, but conceptually, I think drummers find their way – they find their own thing. You can point people in a direction and expose them to things, but I don’t think you can really teach someone how to play, and how to capture the magic and the things that are important. A lot of people have technique and coordination, and… I don’t know, they don’t sound great. They just sound like they have a lot of technique and coordination. You know? So, I think concepts and presence, how to be present in the music – those are things that are more difficult to teach. And, I feel like it’s really a journey of self-discovery and teachers along the way help you with that journey.

I’ll just tell you one incident that I remember, which was a huge learning moment for me. When I was probably 11 or 12 – something like that, maybe 10 or 11 – I sat in with Art Farmer when he was playing clubs in Boston, and I was getting pictures taken for Kidsworld Magazine. So, Alan Dawson was the drummer, and he knew me. We were family friends. Even though I hadn’t been studying with him yet, he was always kind of there, and supportive. And so, I sat in so they could take this picture and we were playing some song, and Art asked me if I wanted to play something else, and I said, “Yeah, can we make it a little brighter?” And so, then he kind of starts this blazing tempo that I couldn’t play – you know, on purpose. “Well, you said brighter,” you know? So I had to play it half time, throughout the song, and Alan was upset. He didn’t understand why Art would do that. But, it made it so that I moved away from how I had been practicing and I worked really hard on, you know, swing pattern, just my right hand on the ride, so that that would never happen again. And, of course, it didn’t ever happen again.

Those kinds of experiences are sometimes unfortunate, but it kind of makes you learn something a different way. And, how to also adjust some thought, being flexible… I mean, I had to think quickly in that moment to start playing half time. And then it inspires you to just keep working, so that you’re not in that situation again. I think those kinds of experiences are important outside of the classroom for learning.

Since you’ve also spent a lot of time on the other side of the teacher/student equation, from an instructor’s standpoint, what format of presenting material do you prefer: master classes, one-on-one private lessons, classroom? You know, what do you find to be most impactful?

Well, all of it is important. I mean, you can’t beat one-on-one. You know, that’s a way that students get what they want most. I think students have to understand what their deficits are, what their weaknesses are, and where they need to be strengthened. So, if I have a student that comes to a lesson that has no idea about what they want to learn, that’s a little bit frustrating. Because it’s an exchange, and you have to be able to, I think, get the most out of your education. So, it’s when people just kind of sit there like a blank page, that’s… nothing. But I do think that one-on-one is the best, especially when it’s collaborative.

Starting at Berklee at such a young age, what was it like to be amongst people who were 7, 8, 10 years older than you, but basically studying on the same – or in your case, on a higher – level? Like, what was that experience like, to be amongst all these kind of, you know, late teens, early 20s kids, when you were the age that you were?

I guess I didn’t really think about that. You know, I was used to being around older people. I mean, the only times I didn’t fit in is if you had a teacher or students that just kind of treated me like a little girl or something, or didn’t take me seriously. It had nothing to do with music, though. Any challenges like that are going to come from, you know, people’s expectations, people’s…what’s the word I’m looking for?

Prejudices? Pre-conceived expectations?

Yeah. People just expect a certain sound out of a certain body. You know what I mean?

And, culturally, that body in jazz and in other music genres, mostly, culturally, it’s been male bodies. And an older body – like a grown, male body.

But then, once I started playing, things changed. Either people embraced it or they didn’t. Because it’s more of a culture to them than the sound. You know what I mean? And, not that I had everything developed at that time, because I didn’t. I had things I needed to work on.

One thing that was for certain is whatever those things I had to work on, the potential was there. So, then it’s a decision for the educator, the colleagues, fellow students: are you going to embrace that and nurture potential in a little girl, in the same way that you might do with a young man? You see what I mean? So, that becomes kind of the question at that point. And, I was very fortunate, because a lot of people did embrace my potential.

And, the other thing is, by what do we judge aptitude? Or, what is the merit system of how we even decide who can play or who can’t? If we’re judging it on things like technique or things that a lot of people will use as a standard, then that might not have worked in my favor so much back then. But, my technique wasn’t bad. It just wasn’t like maybe some of the other students. But, when you judged it on things like musicality, time feel, instincts – yeah, it was very strong, maybe stronger than most of the students.

It must have been sort of gratifying to be able to silence any of those teachers or fellow students who initially might have approached you with condescension because you had the goods. That must have felt sort of good.

Well, yeah. I mean, you know, obviously I had to have something in my favor or I wouldn’t have survived or lasted. So, I had to be able to, you know, have some goods, whatever those goods were [laughs]. You have to have things that encourage you along the way. You have to feel good along the way, or you won’t do it. Because, honestly, that’s why most women quit: because it doesn’t feel good, because they’re not encouraged, and because it’s just not fun. So, whatever that fun factor is, that a lot of young men have in music, I was feeling that, you know? I was embracing that fun. And, that’s why I kept doing it. But, it’s also something that a lot of women don’t feel or have, because they don’t have access. They’re not ready and they’re not in the clubs, so to say – you know, to have fun. And, I just, I guess, was confident and capable enough, in a way, that I didn’t pay attention to anything dumb.

This dovetails really nicely into what I wanted to talk about next: the Jazz and Gender Justice studies program at Berklee, and also your recent album, Waiting Game. You have absolutely put your money where your mouth is in terms of addressing and acknowledging gender-based inequalities and injustice and working to improve those issues. Could you talk a little bit about the catalyst behind both the department that you lead at Berklee, and also Waiting Game?

Yeah, I think the catalyst is probably waking up and realizing that, you know, I did have support. I did have a lot of things in my favor that a lot of young women didn’t have. What kind of person would I be, after playing for 40 years – and I’ve been professional over 40 years – to not acknowledge that in some way, and to not give back, and to not do something with whatever platform or platforms that I have?

Also, the one thing I didn’t have were other female contemporaries, or whatever. You know, not just on the drums, but really on other instruments. There’s a couple here and there, but I mean, it’s really so few that it’s ridiculous. I think that I want [female music students] to grow up and develop their careers in an environment and a culture that’s different. So that’s kind of I was waking up to: saying it’s not just good enough that I was successful. What happens with exceptionalism is the people that aren’t “exceptional” get recognized, but then, you have all of the middle-of-the-road, average, kind of, good – whatever words you want to use – people that are still able to work and pursue music, or pursue this as a career. Equity is when women are just not the exception at the top, but they’re all throughout, and get kind of the working stick gigs, as well, you know? They don’t have to be the exception to that degree.

And then, I listened to stories that some of the young women at Berklee told me, and it kind of, like, blew my mind, because I hadn’t experienced some of the things they experienced.

For example, what?

Oh, just teachers telling them, “Next time, comb your hair.” Or, “Try to look better.” Crazy shit like that.

Ugh, really? In the present day? That’s insane.

Yeah. You know, at an audition at Berklee. It’s things that they would never say to me.

You know what I mean? Or, to another male drummer, or a male musician. One student had a teacher in high school that said they’d never heard any woman that could really play. So, I’m hearing things like this, and it just made me really angry, and I wanted to create a space at the college for these young women to come and feel like they could kind of let their hair down, just be themselves. And, to just kind of shed some of that weight and know that they’re in a safe and nurturing environment.

And, also, there’s probably about 50% young men in our institute. And, the men that gravitate to the institute, they’re thinking about gender justice, social justice issues, and they want to be on the right side of history. They’re tired of having to conform, in the sense of the kind of masculinity that is expected sometimes of male musicians.

Oh, yeah. Absolutely. No question. You’ve had a long partnership, at this point, with Berklee, in various roles, like, on all sides of the equation. Do you feel that Berklee has been a particularly accommodating institution for you and for your advancement as a player, as a person, as a teacher, as a performer?

Well, yeah. I mean, but you can’t really go by my story. Berklee has its problems like everywhere else. I got a scholarship at 11 years old, a full scholarship, to Berklee, by the founder, Larry Berk, and then his son, Lee Berk, took over and I got an honorary doctorate while he was president. And then, when he retired, Roger Brown, came up to L.A. and met with me to get me to come back to Boston and teach. So, my charmed story at Berklee is not kind of the normal, average Berklee story, either.

No, my own time at Berklee wasn’t like that. I did have a great time, though.

Honestly, it’s been great for me, even coming back as a teacher. It’s been great for me, but there’s still issues at the college, and cultural issues overall. So, our institute, for one, is trying to make sure in whatever ways we can that the college is thinking about gender justice, but also the culture. Our goal is to participate in transforming the culture.


As a teacher at Berklee, in a given semester, what are your duties? What do you do? Do you actually teach classes? Are you going to be giving lectures?

With the institute, I have two ensembles personally, and there are six ensembles in our institutes. And I manage just what the institute is going to do. We have a managing director that does all of that, and I’m the artistic director and founder. And, we have guest artists that come through. We give auxiliary lessons that are in our ensembles. There’s also a liberal arts class that our managing director, Aja Burrell Wood, teaches, called “Jazz, Gender, and Society.” And we collaborate with other departments and we try to help shift the culture at the college.

But, yeah – myself, I’m there. We also have a Monday night gathering where we all come together. And, it could be a workshop, it could be a discussion, it could be…you know, whatever it is we want it to be! So, I’m there mostly Mondays and Tuesdays and remotely the other days.

Do you do any private lessons, either at Berklee or independently? Any one-on-one instruction?

I haven’t done private lessons like that in about five or six years, even before the institute. I got burnt out on private lessons.

What about master classes?

Not at Berklee so much. I was teaching at Global Jazz Institute for three years before I started this institute, and even there I would teach private lessons, but to all the students. I like that better. It spoke to my total musicality, as opposed to just the drums. But, within that, I will see a few drummers. So, in answer to your question, I guess I do sometimes teach private lessons. I try to see all of our students for a lesson at least once. We have 50 students or so and I try to see them for a short lesson at least once a semester.

That’s got to be awesome for them. Okay, the last question: Do you have any advice or words of wisdom for your fellow jazz educators?

For my fellow jazz educators? Yes. To embrace the idea that jazz will never reach its full potential until we have gender equity, racial equity, until we consider ableism – all of these things. It will never reach its full potential otherwise. And, I think that’s the basic idea that most educators need to embrace for everything to move forward as progressively as possible.

When you have a culture that’s kind of been one way for so long, it’s really difficult to bring those thoughts in. I think there’s a lot of people who don’t see anything wrong with how it’s been. But, women drop off – from middle school to high school, from high school to college, and from college to the professional world increasingly more than men. And so, at the end of the day, you may have, if I were generous, maybe 20 percent or something like that being women really playing the music. And, that’s being generous. And those numbers have to change.

That would be including, probably, vocalists. And my passion has been around instrumentalists. Because it’s an unwritten kind of rule: men play the music, women sing the music. We’re trying to shift that narrative. So yeah, my advice is to be a part of the change that’s happening now in society, so that jazz doesn’t remain kind of on the outskirts or in the margins of what’s really changing in society right now. And also, to consider nonbinary students. That’s really an important thing. I don’t like the term “women in jazz” because it’s binary and it’s not inclusive. And, I look at a lot of students that are just practicing their freedom. You know?

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