Music Credits: Regina Carter, recorded live in New Jersey, November 7, 2022
“Up South” written and performed by Regina Carter and Russell Malone from the album Motor City Moments, 2000.
“Cornbread Crumbled in Gravy” (traditional!) from the album Southern Comfort performed by Regina Carter, 2014.
“Pavane pour une infante défunte,” for piano (or orchestra) by Maurice Ravel, performed by Regina Carter from the album, Paganini: After a Dream, 2003.
“Shades of Gray” by Regina Carter from the album Freefall, composed by Regina Carter, performed by Kenny Barron and Regina Carter, 2001.
“Judy,” composed by Hoagy Carmichael and Sammy Lerner, performed by Regina Carter from the album, Ella: Accentuate the Positive,2016.
Jo Reed: You’re listening violinist and 2023 NEA Jazz Master Regina Carter and this is Art Works, the weekly podcast from the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed.
This is the second of a two-part podcast with jazz artist Regina Carter. Last time, we traced Regina’s musical evolution, her upbringing in Detroit and the influence of that city on her musical development, we learned about her training in classical music and her transition to jazz, her early experiences playing jazz in Detroit and her move to NYC where she played with a variety of artists from Dolly Parton to Max Roach. We pick up today’s podcast where we left off: Regina had released her first two solo albums when she received a pivotal call from Wynton Marsalis to tour with his Pulitzer Prize-winning oratorio, Blood on the Fields.
Regina Carter: I was a soloist at that point. Solo recording artist still on Atlantic. And so my first two records were categorized as Smooth Jazz, and I had that market that I was working in. But when I received a call from Wynton to tour with Blood on the Fields, touring with that group put me on the map, put me on the jazz map, having that type of exposure. You can't you can't buy that. And it was such an incredible time. Just the piece, what it was about hearing. What everyone had to learn and feel and go through. And basically my piece came at the very end. And it was maybe about three minutes, four minutes worth of music. And I just started to myself. This is the only time I get to play during these two hours. I'm going to milk this. It just started playing a little bit longer each night. But it was an incredible time for me. And, you know, I think Wynton for calling me for that because that that put me on the map.
Jo Reed: As you moved further into your solo career, many of your albums center around a theme—I think your first themed record might have been Motor City Moments, your love song to Detroit, how did this celebration of Detroit come together,
Regina Carter: Well, I have so many I have so many wonderful memories from growing up in Detroit. And I wanted to make a record celebrating some of the folks, some of the musicians and people in some of the experiences I had. So I thought about some of the musicians I wanted to honor, so to speak, and some of the tunes I chose aren't by Detroit composers, like Chattanooga Choo Choo, that was the first tune, the first dance tap dance piece that I tapped to. I learned a routine on that in dance school. So that represented my life growing up, taking tap and ballet in Detroit. Love Theme from Spartacus, I heard Yusef, the great Yusef Lateef, recorded that and I fell in love with it and wanted to record that. Then, of course, I had Marcus Belgrave on a couple of tracks. I had I had to have him. I was I was so thrilled that he recorded with me. Also the great pianist Barry Harris. And it was so wonderful having Barry in the studio and with Marcus and they told these amazing stories. I wish that we had had a video camera rolling because there was so much history. And I remember talking to Barry on the phone and he says: well, what do you want to record? And I said, Well, I want to do "Fukai Aijo." And he said, Well, how does that go? And I laughed because it's one of his tunes. And in my mind: what? But you think about he's written thousands of tunes. He's not going to remember every tune. I just it was so it was such a beautiful moment for me.
Jo Reed: You also recorded one of your tunes “Up South,” more than one, but “Up South,” this great bluesy duet with guitarists Russell Malone. And that leads me to ask you about your own compositions, and how you approach composing and what inspires you and what's your process for actually doing that?
Regina Carter: My process: fire under the butt. Its usually what works. [laughter] Now with that piece. Yeah, that's for sure.
With "Up South" on that record, Motor City Moments, I wanted to also recognize the migration, the great migration of people coming up from the South. And my dad's family. There were 14 kids and 13 siblings. And so they all came up one at a time and would get a job and then bring the next sibling up and get them situated. And my dad was from Alabama. He was from a coal mining town that doesn't exist anymore: Bradford, Alabama. And my grandfather, who I'd never met, was a coal miner. But I wanted to honor my father and so I wanted to do "Up South," but I didn't want it to be your 12 bar blues. I wanted it to be like the original blues where there was no, there was no form to it. It was really about a feeling. And so Russell Malone was the perfect person to have for that --great guitarist, and he's from the South as well. So it was just a lot of fun. We just kind of went in. I told him my idea and we laid it. I think we laid down two takes and that was it.
Jo Reed: Throughout your career you continue this exploration of family history through music particularly in Reverse Thread and then Southern Comfort. These are real histories in music.
Regina Carter: You know, early on, dealing with record companies, the A & R people would always say "well, we need a story. What's your story?" And my very first record on Verve was entitled Rhythms of the Heart, which doesn't really say anything. You know, you have to make a story out of that. And it was all music and all styles that I enjoyed playing. I didn't want it to be, I didn't want that record on Verve to put me in a box. So musically, I was kind of all over the map, as people would say. So Rhythms of the Heart had different types of tunes. And sometimes I'm like a kid in a candy store when I'm thinking about a project: I chase the shiny things, you know. 2 seconds, I'm here, oh, I'm going to do this, and then another second, I'm over here, and so I have to really make myself focus. And I remember I decided I wanted to do a record and trace my family history. I had done ancestry test on Ancestry.com. And I knew about my mother's side of the family, pretty much. knew my aunts and uncles on my father's side, but I never, and I knew my grandmother, but I didn't know anything about my father's father, except he was a coal miner. I didn't really know anything about him. So I said, I'm going to do research to see where did he live? What year did he grow up? What was the music that was happening? And he came up in the Appalachian region. So there was music from Africans, the Native Americans, Scots, Irish, all of this mixed in together to create this beautiful Americana sound, if you will. I did a lot of research: different libraries, listening libraries, sites. I think I spent probably two years researching and working on this record and coming up with repertoire. And then I would I would play live somewhere and say: okay, no, I need to change this instrument or I want this. And after I recorded that record, when it was being mastered, when my mom passed in 2005, I moved all her stuff to Jersey and I had a couple of boxes in our house. And I finally said, okay, these boxes have got to go. And I opened up the one box: and there was a sheet she put together with all of the siblings and my grandparents’ pictures on it. So this is my first time seeing my grandfather. And I thought that was, like I don't believe in coincidence, you know, I felt that was perfect timing for Southern Comfort.
Jo Reed: And that Southern comfort, jazz, traditional music and in more jazz merged together so beautifully with Appalachian and Cajun fiddle tunes and mean folk songs. What an album it was!. And “Cornbread Crumbled In Gravy”, that just stays with me. Tell me why you chose to put that on. And thank you for doing that. I love that song.
Regina Carter: A lot of the tunes that I recorded on Southern Comfort were from field recordings that I had heard and “Cornbread Crumbled In Gravy”, just the voice, it was just a recording of a woman singing. And it was just something that touched me so deep inside with that song. I felt like I have to do this song. And it was so interesting because one night we were playing in a club, playing music from the CD, and there was a busload of tourists that came in and one woman came up to me and she said, “I know that melody. My mom used to sing it to me when I was little, but the words are different.” And so it's just one of those things how you can see how music and art travels and how connected we are. And going back to Reverse Thread, sometimes I'm listening to music, you know, from different parts of the continent of Africa and I'd say: "oh, that sounds like this music here." We're all connected. So I just said we're all a piece of one fabric. And if you start to pull that string and unravel us, that's humanity. That's who we are.
Jo Reed: The violin is a very misunderstood instrument. It's revered. You've said people regard it as precious, and yet it is an instrument that has played through so many cultures around the world. This most revered of classical instruments is a world instrument.
Regina Carter: Right. Right. If you look at every culture of, of music across the globe, almost every culture has an instrument that's either a violin, fiddle or something from which the violin came out of whether it's an Endingidi, which is the violins used in Uganda or the Ganges fiddles, one string with the bow. In every culture, there's Indian classical music, or there folk music, like you said, every culture has a music that that violin or something similar to violin is used in. And, it's funny when I'm doing workshops sometimes with children and their parents will say, don't you think it's important that, you know, students start off playing classical music? And I said, whose classical music? Because every culture has its own classical music. As long as you learn how to play the instrument, you learn the technique of it, you can learn that playing anything. I see a lot of my students and friends that play Irish fiddle music or American fiddle. I feel like they have a much better bow arm than a lot of European classical players, at least a lot better than mine. I feel like they're very fluid with their bow arms. I tell people it's a piece of wood with strings on it. And so I try to approach the violin with that in mind: and not stuck in the limitations of what someone said this instrument is supposed to be able to do.
Jo Reed: Well, speaking of violin and the mystic violin, you actually had the experience of playing Paganini's violin called "The Cannon" in 2001, and you were the first jazz artist to play it. How did this happen?
Regina Carter: Many years ago, actually, right before 911, a good friend of ours was visiting from Genoa-- Andreas Lieberovici,--he was listening to a recording of a rehearsal I had done. and Andreas said: Oh, this would be great for you to do a concert in Genoa and using Paganini's violin. Which I thought, Well, this will never happen. But he was excited about it. I didn't even give it a second thought. in fact, when he went to the mayor of Genoa, who was a jazz fan, the mayor immediately said, yes, but the violin, Paganini's violin, the Guarneri del Gesu, it belongs to the community in Genoa. And there was this long interview process. Some folks thought it was a great idea. Some people were totally against it: saying playing jazz on this instrument, would devalue it and blah blah, blah, blah, blah. So finally we got the okay and I went over to Genoa. And the promoter, the night before, a bunch of us had gone out to dinner and he's telling us only a few tickets have sold and if we don't sell more tickets, we have to pay for the hall. So my friend scheduled a press conference the next day and I held the press conference and they said, well play something. So the first thing that came to my mind was “Amazing Grace,” which was one of my mother's favorite tunes. And I'm going to play this to soothe all that's going on inside of me. They sold out all the tickets. The hall was packed. And it was just an amazing concert. People came and they loved the concert.
Jo Reed: And what playing on the actual violin, was it an adjustment? Could you hear the difference in sound?
Regina Carter: This violin is priceless. I had to go to a specific place to practice on the violin. And every violin is very different. The size, the strings, the shifting. And I tell people, it's like knowing how to get around your bedroom in the dark and then someone going in and changing all the furniture around and didn't tell you. So you have to learn. And two days is not a lot of time to learn. But I knew what I could and couldn't do on that instrument and it was much bigger than mine. When the violin came, it came with a whole line of police escorts. I thought, Oh, wow, the Pope's in town. You know, it's just they were bringing the violin. The room I was in had these red velvet curtains which they snatched closed. And I, I just remember being petrified, playing this instrument. John Clayton, again, said try music from the French Impressionist period because a lot of times the chords are more modern and easier to improvise over.
Jo Reed: You also actually made a CD with that violin called Paganini After a Dream, which is a beautiful CD.
Regina Carter: They, the community of Genoa gave me permission to record an album. It was funny. My friend Andrea said, You might as well record a record. And I said, I think you're pushing it now, you know? They said yes once, leave it alone. But they said yes again. I picked some of the same tunes that we played on the concert there. But again, a lot of the French impressionist tunes by them, Debussy, Fauré, Ravel. Just trying to pick tunes that were easy enough for me to navigate on that violin.
Jo Reed: You were given a MacArthur Award in 2006, which had to have been a red letter day for you.
Regina Carter: Mm hmm. yeah. You know. After I got married in 2004, six months later my mom was gone. And she made her transition, yeah, Six months after we got married and I spent her last couple of months with her in the hospital, I just stayed there with her. And it was a life changing experience for several reasons, just watching that process. And then I played music, sometimes when she couldn't communicate, I put music on and I could see how her vital signs would change one day. And I'd know, take that off and put something else on. But, while she was still here, I was supposed to play a big festival and in another country. And I kept asking her, doctor, "is she going to be here when I get back?" And he'd always say, "I don't have a crystal ball. I don't know." And so I think three days before I was supposed to leave, the doctor said, "she won't be here when you get back." And I knew then I'm not going. And so we called my agent and manager, and they called the festival. And the festival producer said, "You're full of blank and we're going to sue your blank." And they did. And the thing is, is that the contract was not written properly. They had left the Inc. off of my business name. And so if you leave LLC or Inc. off, they can sue you personally so that now they can come after my stuff and my husband's, because I just got married. So I was freaking out and they were trying to deal. And I said, “Can I bury my mother and have like just a minute before we start dealing with this?” And I remember calling all kinds of attorneys and attorneys in that country wouldn't touch it. And finally, I found someone that helped me and we settled. And I was so bitter after that. I was bitter. I just thought, how could someone in the music business be that cold and callous? And I didn't want to play anymore. And it was because of John Clayton who said, “if you don't play anymore, you've let them win.” So I'm going through this whole thing grieving my mother, having to go back to Detroit. I was holding on to her house just because I needed time. And the lawsuit was settled. And two days later, I got the call from the MacArthur Foundation. And if they had called me before, these people would have gotten that money. It had just consumed my life. I felt like that was my mother, that was my green light that then the sun came out. And it completely changed my life. It would have completely changed my life regardless, but because of all I had just gone through for an entire year, it was the sun I needed.
Jo Reed: Obviously, there's a great financial benefit that comes with that. And I wonder what that gave you the room to do other than take a breath, which clearly you needed to do.
Regina Carter: Yeah. The gift from the MacArthur: I needed to take a break and breathe. I needed to have time to really grieve and I needed to figure out what I wanted to do. I wanted I didn't want to go out on tour anymore. I just needed time to find myself, find my footing. And I thought I wanted to go to school to become a music therapist. And I talked to several music therapists and they said, one said, "you know, before you jump in, take an intro to music therapy course first." So I interviewed at several schools and Western University in Kalamazoo, Michigan. They didn't have an online course; they set one up specifically for me. So it wasn't online. It was long-distance learning. They would give me my assignments, I'd load them up, and then a couple of times a year I'd have to fly to Michigan and spend time there, either being tested or following different music therapists around. And one of the therapists I followed worked in hospice, and I thought it was just such a beautiful gift --not only giving to the people that are making their transition, but what you get from the person that's making that transition. And I knew then that's what I wanted to do. So I became a hospice volunteer. I trained and I had a couple of patients. I saw them in their homes for a couple of years until they all passed away. And then I didn't do that anymore because I was traveling so much and it wasn't fair, I felt, to leave and be gone for three, four weeks and not be able to see my patients. Although no matter where I was, I called them when I was on the road and just talked to them and told them what was going on. And I think in the West, we don't really deal with that. We don't talk about it. We don't want it. It's very uncomfortable, where other cultures celebrate it. It's a part of living. And so, after many years, I decided I wanted to train and become an end of life doula.
But I jumped way ahead. But with the MacArthur, let me take a moment, take a U-turn. So with the MacArthur, I went to school and became a hospice, a hospice volunteer, and just took some time and then decided on the next record, which was: Reverse Thread. And I shopped to the label because I owned it. I wasn't with the label and I shopped it and I told my manager at the time I said, "whoever takes this record, they have to take it as is." No changes. And it's funny how things work. Chuck Mitchell was at Verve. He was one of the main reasons I was signed to Verve and he was leaving. He said, make sure she stays and take good care of her. And I always wanted to work with him and so many, many years later. I shopped it to a label where he was and he took it just as it was, and he said, "listen, I'm not a musician, but here's a suggestion” You think about it. It's your record." His suggestion made total sense. And so I was with him and then he and he went to another label. The next record I made. So I used the money to start investing in myself and in my records so that I could own the Masters. And that's something I learned from folks like Dee Dee Bridgewater and Abbey Lincoln, it's own your masters.
Jo Reed: You cut your record. And then when you go out and tour. Are you opening up those records as you're performing them live? I'm just curious about the relationship between the live performance of the record in front of an audience and what happens in the studio.
Regina Carter: When recording records in a studio, its, it can be a little intense. You don't want songs to be too long: you know, you're thinking about radio play. Can it be played on radio? How long is the tune? Different things you have to think about. And so when you're playing, when I'm playing live, those tunes definitely open up. People can take longer solos. Someone will do something different that sparks something else, that becomes exciting, so it changes over time. And maybe a year or two later, if I have a sub in the band, and I'm sending them the music and I look at the charts, I'm like, " this is what we recorded, but we don't even do this anymore." So it can be difficult to like, but that's the beauty of playing live, and the energy that you get back from an audience when you're playing. I feel like audiences are part of what we do. We're not playing at them. They're actually involved. We need we need that energy.
Regina Carter: Well, that leads me back to your work with hospice and in playing for the people who were making that transition and the healing power of music that you alluded to. And I would like to have you speak more to that, but also wonder if you feel that same kind of, I don't know, healing power or spirit when you're performing not in a hospice situation, but live in front of an audience.
Regina Carter: When I'm performing live, it's an amazing feeling. And especially when the group can lock in as one and you go into this other space, I don't even know. It's like we can communicate without words. And as I've gotten older I think I play more with intention. What is it that I'm trying to say or get across. It is not just playing notes to get people to react, but playing something to hopefully get someone to feel something. I want to feel. I want the band to feel. I want them to feel. And I think working as a hospice volunteer helps me to get in touch with that. And so I try to be centered and say, "what is it that I'm trying to say?" I'm not trying to necessarily wow you. I'm trying to convey an emotion. I can't control how people accept, but I'm giving a gift. And I don't feel like it's mine. I feel like that God is working through me or my higher power. That if I can get out of the way, and let that come through, that's the real gift.
Jo Reed: I cannot not talk about you and Kenny Barron and your album Free Fall. That was back 2001, I think. That was like a conversation between two brilliant instrumentalists. And I would just love a little background on that.
Regina Carter: I met Kenny Barron, 2010 NEA Jazz Master and Pianist, I met him years ago. I was playing with a group at the Telluride Jazz Festival, and he and Malina Shaw came up to the stage and introduced themselves. And Kenny said, "I want to play with you one day." And I, before I could even catch myself, I said, "Yeah, right." And so, we always laugh [laughter]. And I just thought, "Oh, he's just being polite, you know?" And many, many years later, we talked about it and I played some gigs with him not just duo, but sometimes with his group. And it just seemed like we had a connection, just a very natural musical connection. And so when we finally were able to, our schedules matched up, and we were able to record this record, we just got together once and we both brought a list of tunes that we liked. And so we went through and we just kind of play through them quickly and say: oh, that works, this works, this works. So we just and we spent two days in the studio just going through that list, playing them so we could make a decision after that. It was just an incredible time in the studio. I was so comfortable. Kenny Barron is just like a lake. He's just such a calm and wonderful human being. And I've learned so much. I consider him a mentor. I, I watched him and learned so much not only from his playing, but just how he reacts or doesn't react in certain situations, which is a huge lesson.
Regina Carter: Ella FitzGerald is an important musical influence on you. What about Ella inspires you?
Regina Carter: When I was a child growing up in Detroit, I remember there were some albums in one of the closets and one was a record by Ella. I had no idea who she was, but I would just put these albums on. Ella took me to another place --a very calm place. And it was like it was like when a mother sings to her child. And I just loved hearing her voice. Of course, when I was introduced to jazz and started getting into the music and learning about all these people, and it seemed like on several records I would always choose an Ella tune to record. And so it was time for me to record a record, and I was like, ugh, I don't know what I want to do. And I was talking to Carla Cooke and she says, Well, you love Ella. Why don't you do a tribute record to her? And I said, that's a perfect idea-- not realizing that it was her 100th birthday that was coming up. And I knew that so many vocalists would probably be doing tribute records to Ella. But here I am. I'm not a vocalist. I'm a violinist. So because I knew so many people would do tribute records, I wanted to choose tunes that weren't as popular. You know, back in the day, you get an album, you had Side A, you flip it over and you had Side B, and so I called it a B-side record--tunes like "Crying in the Chapel," "Judy," which I could not find a recording of Ella singing that. But "Judy" that's how she won the night at the Apollo. And that put her on the map...
Jo Reed: I’m so glad you mentioned "Judy" for a second because it's uncanny how much your violin sounds like a voice.
Jo Reed: You mentioned teaching and we haven't talked about your teaching because your commitment to teaching is deep and it's broad. Why is this such an important part of your life?
Regina Carter: When I was a child, my mom was a kindergarten teacher, and sometimes I would go to school with her instead of my own school and I would help out or I'd watch her. And as most children, I would imitate her. At home, I'd set up my room like a classroom. But I swore, though, I would never teach. I think seeing my mom come home after teaching and it drains you. If you're a good teacher is a lot of energy. But lo and behold, you know, I think the tradition, the tradition that I got from Marcus Belgrave and so many other musicians in Detroit, it's just naturally in me to pass along the knowledge. And I actually enjoy it when I start working with students, I get really excited, especially if they want to learn. I get really excited by it. And I think it's important to pass on the tradition not only of jazz, but just another having another perspective about music, why you're playing music. And I always try to educate them a little bit about the business of music, because that's the one thing that I don't know any university or college that offers a business course for musicians, and that should be mandatory.
Jo Reed: I know we're running out of time, but your latest project is so intriguing to me. “Gone in a Phrase of Air. “
[01:41:16] Regina Carter: That is a continuation of another piece I wrote some years back about Black Bottom, where my mother grew up in Detroit, and areas like Black Bottom and Paradise Valley were areas where blacks and immigrants were forced to live. Some of the homes were funky and old. Some were really beautiful. And, you know, most people own their own businesses, really tight knit communities. And Robert Moses said, if you want to get rid of these funky neighborhoods, just run a highway through these and then you can destroy these neighborhoods, which is what happened in 1956. Highway Act was signed. And I-75 in Detroit was put through in my mother's community, where she grew up. And most of those people were not compensated for their homes and businesses and they were moved into projects or other places. And I thought this would be a great project. And so a dear friend of mine, a poet, Leslie Reese, her grandmother, grew up in Black Bottom. And so Leslie interviewed all these people that had grown up in Black Bottom, and she turned some of their stories into like a tapestry. And I composed music to that. During that research, I found that it didn't just happen in Detroit, but it happened in almost every urban city across the United States. And so I was inspired to keep researching that and writing music and adding photographs, showing some of these neighborhoods. And it's still happening. Redlining. And so many people don't know about this, even adults, and they don't know that it's still going on. And so I continued this project and "Gone in a Phrase of Air" is a title from Leslie Reece. She put it on one of her and one of the pieces, her black bottom. And she said, "I know some of these neighborhoods were old and funky, but they just tore them down, gone in a phrase of air, just like they were never even there."
Jo Carter: It's such a resonant title and such an important project. Thank you for doing that.
You have been awarded through your career, the trifecta: the Doris Duke Award, now you're named an NBA Jazz Master. And I do wonder what being named a jazz master means for you.
Regina Carter: Being named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts is still mind-blowing. In my mind, it's for someone that's lived a lot longer and had more experience. But I think in my head I'm still a kid. And then my body says, "No, you're not." But it's such a huge honor. And you know, sometimes when you're working, you're doing what you do, you get so caught up in the every day. And when you get, when you're recognized by something this prestigious, it's like someone's saying you're doing okay. You're doing what you're supposed to do. Keep going. Keep going. It helps it helps me to keep going and to know that my music hopefully my music obviously is touching some people. It is. And that's what I want. And. It just encourages me to keep creating.
Jo Reed: Well, thank you. Thank you for giving me your time. Congratulations on this award. Thank you. So well-deserved. I couldn't be happier.
Regina Carter: I so appreciate that. Really. Thank you. Thank you.
Jo Reed: Thank you.
That was violinist and 2023 NEA Jazz Master Regina Carter. Regina Carter and the other 2023Jazz Masters were celebrated at a fabulous tribute concert on April 1 at the Kennedy Center. If you didn’t make it or you were there and want to experience it again—you can find it at arts.gov.
You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. We’d love to know your thoughts—email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. And follow us wherever you get your podcasts and leave us a rating on Apple, it helps other people who love the arts to find us. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.