Regina Carter

Violinist, Educator
Black woman in orange jacket playing a violin.

Photo by Jeff Dunn


Regina Carter is renowned for her mastery of the violin and exploring the instrument’s possibilities in jazz, as well as taking journeys in other genres of music. A recipient of a MacArthur "genius" grant and a Doris Duke Artist Award (as well as an individual NEA jazz grant in 1990), Carter also shares her knowledge and talent through teaching and workshops.

Growing up in Detroit, Michigan, Carter attended Cass Technical High School, then continued her training at the New England Conservatory of Music and at Oakland University in Michigan. She first gained attention in 1987 with Straight Ahead, an all-female jazz quintet. In 1991, she moved to New York City and began a solo career, releasing her first recordings on Atlantic Records while also working with the String Trio of New York. Switching labels to Verve, Carter released albums such as her tribute to her hometown, Motor City Moments and, Paganini: After a Dream, recorded in Genoa, Italy, where she made history as the first nonclassical violinist to play Niccolò Paganini's Il Cannone ("The Cannon"), the legendary violin built by Giuseppe Guarneri in 1743.

On her album, Reverse Thread, Carter explored her African ancestry, reimagining traditional African songs. Southern Comfort was the result of Regina tracing her father’s roots in the American South.

Carter has held artist-in-residence positions at the Oakland University School of Music, Theatre, and Dance in Michigan, and at San Francisco Performances. She also served as resident artistic director for SFJAZZ in San Francisco, California. In 2018, she was named artistic director of the New Jersey Performing Arts Geri Allen Jazz Camp, a summer immersion program for aspiring women and nonbinary jazz professionals. She currently is on the faculty of the Manhattan School of Music in New York and New Jersey City University in Jersey City, New Jersey.

Carter has worked with world-renowned jazz artists such as Ray Brown, Arturo O’Farrill, and Eddie Palmieri as well as legendary artists from other genres such as Mary J. Blige, Joe Jackson, Billy Joel, Dolly Parton, and Omara Portuondo. She also has appeared as a guest artist with orchestras such as the Atlanta Symphony, the Chicago Symphony, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, and the Orquestra Sinfônica do Estado de São Paulo in Brazil.

Selected Discography

Motor City Moments, Verve, 2000
Paganini: After A Dream, Verve, 2002
Reverse Thread, E1, 2010
Southern Comfort, Sony Masterworks, 2014
Ella: Accentuate the Positive, OKeh Records/Sony Masterworks, 2016

I cannot put into words how blown away I am, being named an NEA Jazz Master. It is an absolute honor and among the most significant events in my career. This prestigious award will serve as a great motivator. I thank those who have come before me for paving the way.


Regina Carter

Music Credits:  Regina Carter, recorded live in New Jersey, November 7, 2022

“Time After Time” composed by Stéphane Grappelli and performed by Stéphane Grappelli and Joe Pass, from the album Tivoli Gardens (Live), 1990

“Optimistic,” composed by Gary Hines, James Harris III ,Terry Lewis from the album Body and Soul performed by Straight Ahead 1993.

“Ephemera Trilogy,” composed by James Emory, from the album Intermobility, performed by the String Trio of New York,1992

“Something for Grace” composed by Johnny Almendra and Regina Carter, from the album Something for Grace performed by Regina Carter, 1997

Jo Reed:  That is the music of NEA Jazz Master violinist Regina Carter and this is Art Works, the weekly podcast from the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed.

This is the first of a two-part interview with jazz great Regina Carter.  Regina Carter is renowned for her mastery of the violin-- exploring the instrument’s possibilities in jazz by drawing from a variety of musical influences – including  Motown, Afro Cuban,  Swing,  Folk, World, and of course the Blues.  A recipient of a MacArthur "genius" grant, a Doris Duke Artist Award, and an individual NEA jazz grant in 1990, Regina’s distinctive voice is apparent whether in her solo work or in her collaborations.  Trained as a European classical violinist, she brings that fluidity and grace to her playing as she takes jazz violin in unexpected directions. The focus in part 1 of this two-part podcast is Regina’s early life. I’m thinking of it as “portrait of the artist as a young woman.” We’re going to hear Regina share stories and insights about her upbringing in Detroit, her musical education in European classical and in jazz, and her early career. In other words, we’re going to try to trace how Regina Carter became Regina Carter.

Regina Carter: There was always music playing in my house. I have two older brothers, so they would be playing their records in their room and they were taking piano lessons. My oldest brother took piano and trumpet. That was Dan and Reginald, the brother right over me, took clarinet and piano. And my mom said that one day, while one of them was having their piano lesson, I walked up to the piano when I was two and started playing one of the tunes that Reginald had been working on and their teacher said, who taught her that? And they said, No one, we didn't even know she could play. And so that teacher, she tested me and told my mom I had an ear for music. And so I was enrolled in music lessons with another woman who dealt with children, Anna Love. And I would have my lessons weekly. And Anna was trying to teach me how to read music and I wasn't interested. I just wanted to play on the piano. And, Mrs. Love told my mother not to keep me in lessons then because she felt trying to force me to learn how to read would stifle my creativity. So she said, just let her continue to play at home and let's try again when she gets a little older.

Jo Reed: And how did violin get into the mix.

Regina Carter: When I was four. Anna Love called my mom and said, there's a new program being introduced in Detroit called The Suzuki Method and (it’s) for Strings. And she said, I think Regina would be great for it because it's a method where you learn to play by imitating the same way we learn how to speak when we're children. And my mom enrolled me. I don't know why I ended up with the violin, but soon after, maybe a couple of months after I started, my teacher gave everyone a chance to try all the different stringed instruments to see  if we wanted to switch. And I came right back to the violin, and I loved it from the beginning. I just loved playing. I had private lessons once a week. We'd have group sessions on the weekend. And my mom said, from the get go, I was a ham --and I loved being onstage there.

Jo Reed: You know, it sounds like the way you were taught violin is the perfect training for a jazz musician because it really is about learning to listen.

Regina Carter: Yes, the Suzuki method, some folks like it. Some people don't, you know, because they teach us how to read so late, at least my teacher did, that my reading isn't as strong as it could be, but that's something I could work on, on my own. But I feel like it's a natural way to learn music by ear. You think of most cultures of music --when you go to other cultures-- music is a part of their everyday lives, and it's a group thing, a family thing. Even here, you know, in the U.S., going back to the 50s 60s, either everyone had a piano or a guitar,  or people just their families would come together and sing. It just it wasn't a thing separate that you do. It was included in your everyday life. And I feel now that, it definitely helped me. As far as transitioning from your European classical music to jazz, because my ears were so strong I could hear and I wasn't afraid to improvise. I wasn't afraid to be off the paper.

[Jo Reed: Well, you trained as a classical European violinist. Can you tell me just a little bit about that training and how it worked for you.

Regina Carter: Studying the Suzuki method, Suzuki has several books and so you're learning all of these tunes. You're also learning rhythms. But after you get out of the Suzuki books, then you start learning the repertoire for auditioning for orchestras, for auditioning for colleges at a pretty young age. And you're learning all these major pieces. And my teacher, we work on these concertos, and certain Saturdays we would have a workshop and we would have to learn how to talk about the piece, talk about the composer, tell a little bit about the composer, and then play our piece. Even if we weren't finished with it, it just gave us practice to play and perform in front of our peers and their parents.

Jo Reed: You're in Detroit, which has just an amazingly rich musics of all sorts. what were you listening to during this time?

Regina Carter: Well, when I started when I started violin lessons, my teacher, Jean Rupert, would send each student home with a stack of European classical albums to listen to. And so she wanted those records going all day so that we could kind of soak in the music and the vibe of it and even going to sleep. She just said: you can also learn in your sleep by hearing, and it's another way of learning. And that's what I was listening to. And when you finish going through that stack, you take it back to the school and then you trade with another student. But of course, I had two other older brothers, so I heard the Beatles playing in my house, Motown, because Motown was started in Detroit. So if I put the radio on on my own, I hearing all these great, great songs by a lot of people that were from Detroit. So it was a mixture of everything. And Detroit, there were so many people that migrated to Detroit because of the automotive industry. So there was a lot of work there. So people came from the south, there was the Great Migration and there were a lot of immigrants that came to Detroit. So we had, and each, each group of people that came in kind of set up their own community. Of course I went to public school, so a lot of my friends were from these different cultures, or at least their parents. You'd hear all kinds of music, their classical music, or the things that they were listening to.  I had a chance to experience their culture, their food, their sounds. So there was there was a lot that I took in.

Jo Reed: You went to school in Detroit, Cass Technical, home of so many, so many great musicians. Is that where you first really discovered jazz? How did you how did you and jazz get together?

Regina Carter: Yes, I went to the famous Cass Tech High School. And we're everywhere. And when, everyone, anyone, a group of us gets together the people are like, oh, god, not another one. But, the school was humongous. There were 4000 students enrolled in the school. My graduating class was a little over a thousand, and you had to pretty much know what you were going to major in in college when you went to Cass and your grade point average had to be a certain place and stay there. So I was a music major and I took orchestra, all the music classes, plus our state requirements. And there was a bassist in the orchestra. And her name is Carla Cook, and she's a phenomenal jazz vocalist. And Carla brought me my first jazz recordings was of three violinists: Jean-Luc Ponty, Stéphane Grappelli and Noel Pointer. And when I took those records home and put them on, my mind was blown. I said, “This is what I want to do.” And so I just put the records on and listen and listen and learn them and stand in the mirror and play, play along with the records. And Carla took me when we were 16 and she got her driver's license. She took me to hear Stéphane Grappelli live in Detroit. It was a Stéphane Grappelli trio. And I remember just the joy on the musicians faces. And that really struck me. I just said, no matter what this music is called, I want to feel that joy and I want my audience to feel that joy. And so this is what I want to do. And it was so incredibly different than the way I was raised, playing European classical music, because it's such a serious music and no one ever smiles and you stand a certain way and you hold your bow a certain way.  And I, I think I felt really intimidated by that. And also going when I was at the Detroit Community Music School, which is the school I started studying, we would get discount tickets to go see, to hear, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra sometimes. And I remember taking my dad once because my mom was always the one that took me. But I took him to the concert with me and. They were playing a piece and I was so uptight I could barely enjoy the performance because I had to be ready after they played the first movement, to make sure he didn't clap. Because we weren't going to be the ones that everyone turned and looked at, all mortified. You know, that's not what music is about. If you feel good about something, you should be able to say, yeah, or clap or, you know. But all the rules, it just it didn't sit well. It didn't feel natural for me. So. So playing jazz, that was another thing. Just seeing Stéphane Grappelli face and seeing how happy he was and he could let his emotions come through that. That really spoke to me.

Jo Reed: Okay. I'm going to take I'm going to take a left turn now, because when I was young, one of the albums in in my house was an album called Fascinating Rhythms with Stéphane Grappelli and Yehudi Menuhin and I fell in love with jazz violin and listening to that album and then, you know, went on from there. But. Oh, It was so beautiful.

Regina Carter:  Yeah, it definitely was. And the one thing that I love about that album that Stéphane Grappelli and Yehudi Menuhin recorded together is the fact that you have someone here who is from this European classical tradition and he's opening himself up to improvise and to play this other music. And sometimes I find that a lot of European classical teachers or musicians will look down on jazz and other music because they feel it's beneath them. And speaking of Yehudi Menuhin, when I was in high school --I was on to my third teacher, I went back to the Detroit Community Music School, and there was a new teacher there, Dr. O'Pelt, and I was in a string quartet-- and Yehudi Menuhin was in town performing as a guest soloist with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. And my teacher got Mr. Yehudi Menuhin to come and listen to our quartet and coach us. And at the end of the coaching, my teacher said, Yeah, she wants to play jazz, she's going to ruin her career. And Mr. Menuhin picked up his violin and played a blues lick and said, "leave her alone." I never forgot. That was such a huge gift.

Jo Reed: That's a great story. You went to the New England Conservatory of Music. Were you still pursuing a career in classical music? Where you adding jazz to the mix? Tell me about the transition.

Regina Carter: So after graduating high school, I didn't want to go to college. I wanted to practice and to gig. And I just said, I'd work a day job. And my mother always stressed, you have to go to college. So I told my mom, you want me to go to college? You pick. So I had several friends at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. She chose that school. I went and auditioned and I got in. But during my audition for orchestra, they saw my application that I wanted to play jazz as well. And they kept asking, Well, which music do you prefer? Which I had to tap-dance around that answer. So I was there as a classical violinist, and plus my mother said I couldn't play jazz professionally. She wanted me to be in an orchestra with benefits, health insurance, retirement, blah, blah, blah.  So, I was there two years. My second year I didn't tell her I switched my major.  And I just, I did not have a good time there. I don't think I was a mature enough to be at a school without a campus. Back then it was just two buildings across the street from one another, and my dorm room faced the building where all the classes and practice rooms were. And it sounded like an insane asylum because you'd hear opera coming out of one window, a saxophone is blaring out of this one, something else coming -- just at all at the same time. It was pretty crazy, but there was no campus and Boston was very racist. I was walking-- I had an older woman, she had to be at least in her eighties, call me the N-word to my face. I was so stunned, I couldn't even say anything. and just some other things that happened. And I, I just didn't want to be there. So my mom, after two years, said I could come home and go to school in Michigan. So I transferred after my second year to Oakland University, which is in Rochester, Michigan, about a half hour from Detroit. And I remember going to the big band teacher, Doc Marvin Holiday, and I walked in and I said: listen, I want to play jazz, I play violin. And he said, okay, we're going to put you in the saxophone section. You're going to read the alto charts, breathe when they breathe, phrase how they phrase, and stop listening to violin players --because you don't want to sound like them. You want to find your own voice. And that set me on the right path. I'm so thankful for him and for him allowing me to be in that jazz department.

Jo Reed: You also had another great mentor in Marcus Belgrave, he's a trumpeter, who also mentored Kenny Garrett, your fellow NEA jazz master. And I'm curious what he gave you as a mentor.

Regina Carter: Marcus Belgrave was a mentor to so many musicians in Detroit: folks like Kenny Garrett, Marian Haden, Gerry Allen, Rodney Whitaker and the list goes on and on and on. And there were several other folks as well that mentored us. But Marcus would have camp, jazz camp at his house and we'd go during the week, five days a week. And we learn about playing in a group, soloing --and he taught us about the business of music, too. And we would play gigs with Marcus just to get used to actually being on the bandstand. He'd have us compose. We work with dancers. So Marcus was the father of so many of us in Detroit. And I'm really grateful for all that he gave us. And another thing, I think it's interesting, sometimes people can teach you things not by saying, or it's their actions are that teach you. And I remember being with Marcus and all of the musicians in Detroit, I never had any issues with them. They always respected me. They didn't care that I played violin and wanted to play jazz. And so I knew how I should be treated, because here are these people --Marcus Belgrave played with everyone, you know, toured the world, and he decided to stay in Detroit-- and so I knew how I should be treated. So when I got to New York and had some incidents here with musicians, I knew: no, I don't have to be treated this way. And so I would just remove myself from the situation. So I'm really thankful for all my mentors at Marcus for teaching me that lesson.

Jo Reed: You went abroad for a couple of years, and when you returned to Detroit, you came into the spotlight with the quintet Straight Ahead, which is a wonderful group of women musicians playing together. How did, how did you meet up with them? And tell me about that experience of playing with them?

Regina Carter: After graduating college, I went to Germany for a vacation and ended up staying two years and I moved back home, moved back to Detroit. I'd gone to school Oakland University with a drummer, Gayelynn McKinney, whose family they have a long history of jazz musicians. But Gayelynn called me and said, Listen, you know, I'm playing with Straight Ahead. And she said, We're looking for a saxophonist, but we couldn't find one. So I mentioned you on violin and do you want to join? And I said, Sure. So I went to a rehearsal, and all women, and I knew the bass player, our families had grown up [together], Marion Hayden. In fact, our moms met when they were. And so it was a wonderful group. We would rehearse several times a week and that helped me to strengthen not only my improvising but group playing and also soloing and writing. But I told them, I said, I'm not going to be in Detroit for long. I'm moving to New York. And I thought it would happen a lot sooner than it did, but it happened when it was supposed to. But I recorded, I believe, two or three records with them with Straight Ahead. And the first two were produced by the great drummer, Lenny White.

Jo Reed: Oh, and. Was that your first time in a recording studio? Was it with Straight Ahead?

Regina Carter: My first time in the studio was probably. Hmm. I was younger. I think I was still in high school. And actually while I was in high school, in I think 11th grade, there was a group, a pretty big group, like a pop rock group called Brainstorm --and they were touring, opening for people like the Jacksons and Mother's Finest --and I just happened to meet the saxophonist and  he asked, Do you want to join the band? And they had great string arrangements, which I still have here. And we begged my mother, Oh, we had to do some begging. We finally wore her down. And she said, If you keep your grades up, you can go outside, leave on a Thursday and come back that Sunday.  So I was familiar with touring and being in the studio before before I recorded with Straight Ahead. But recording with Straight Ahead was an amazing time because we recorded at a place called the Carriage House up in Connecticut and we stayed there. So it was a house that you could stay in together. And it was just it really helped the vibe of the music as well that we were we were together for that whole time we were recording.

Jo Reed: And you knew you were going to move to New York, all of us behind the decision to go. And I'm curious what you found when you got to New York.

Regina Carter: Early in my life, I knew that if I wanted, well I felt if I wanted, to be a successful jazz musician, that I would either have to move to New York or L.A. And so,  my older brothers lived in New York. They still live in New York. And so I just knew I needed to be there. I felt like I needed to be in New York. So I saved and saved and saved and finally moved to New York in 1991. And I was just terrified being in this new place that was so different, much more. It was much busier than Detroit. Even though Detroit's a city, it still feels like a suburb. But my friend Miche Braden had moved to New York beforehand, so we would go to jam sessions together. We were each other’s support team. And there were a lot of musicians that I knew that graduated from Berkeley School of Music in Boston that were living in New York as well. So I had a community, a support system there.

Jo Reed: And what was the music scene like and what music did you gravitate towards or did you gravitate towards all of this?

Regina Carter: When I moved to New York, I knew I needed to pay the rent. So whoever called for a gig, I was doing it. And so when I had names of people to call and one of the names was the late, great writer Greg Tate. And I called him and just said, look, I just moved here. I'm a violinist, if you hear of anything or need a violinist. And he had he had a group called Women in Love. And it was part of the Black Rock Coalition. And so I played in that band. I went to a lot of jazz jam sessions, but there were places I played in a funk band. I remember making friends with some other violin players, and one of them was playing in a Teranga Band with Afro-Cuban music. And I went and I subbed for him once, and then they pulled me into the band, which was a lot of fun. So it was just whatever, I didn't, and still today I just love music and so whatever it is, I'm game to try it. And I don't want to get stuck playing one music. And I always tell my students that it's very important for them to diversify because it's too difficult to think you're just going to get out here. And just today there's a tour waiting or there's an orchestra seat open for you.

Jo Reed: Well, that really leads to my next question, because you're playing with and listening to Afro-Cuban music, you play with the String Trio of New York, which, if we have to put a label on it, is more like free jazz sort of. And you accompanied performers like Aretha Franklin, Dolly Parton, Mary J. Blige. And you also played with Max Roach. So I'm just wondering what you learned about your own playing during this time and about what you wanted to do as a player?

Regina Carter: I had several opportunities playing with many different great musicians and different styles of music. I had an opportunity to play a week I was subbing for Lisa Terry in the Uptown String Quartet, and it was the double string quartet with Max Roach's quartet and then the Uptown String Quartet. That music kicked my behind. I was scared to death every time I set foot on that stage. And with Max Roach --and Max Roach was like a god, you know? I couldn't believe I was sitting on stage with him and then playing Teranga music and having the opportunity to play with folks like Chucho Valdés and to play music with the Afro-Latin Jazz Organization, with Arturo O'Farrill, playing with Omara Portuondo, Dolly Parton, Mary J. Blige, on and on and on. So my thing was not to limit myself. I just and I think coming up in Detroit and hearing so many different styles of music was very helpful for me because it was just music. It's all just music to me. And so I never wanted to limit myself. And I remember when I first moved to New York, someone said to me: be careful playing all these different styles of music or playing with all these bands, because people will say, you're not serious. And I, I'm like, I love all these different styles and I'm not going to not play them. You know, people are going to say what they're going to say anyway.

Jo Reed: I would love to have you talk about developing your own voice in the violin and what that process was like for you and. I'm just also so curious about the violin itself, because it's one of those instruments that you're holding right next to your ear. There's something there's such an embrace of the instrument as you play it that just has to influence what comes out of it.

Regina Carter: I feel like the violin is an extension of my voice. Because it's a stringed instrument, you can get so many emotions and sounds out of it. And that was one benefit, one of the many benefits. Working with the string trio of New York, I learned about altered techniques, which sometimes might mean putting a paperclip across the strings or playing the ring, the strings with a dowel rod or something. So they're all these incredible sounds you can get out of the instrument. But I really feel like I'm singing when I'm playing the violin. And I've learned I learned through listening to records Ben Webster, Big Nick Nichols and other other folks, that when I would play and I could hear the end of their notes, I make sure I'm breathing because my bow is my breath. And then I have to take another breath in the vibrato, because in classical music, we the first thing we want to learn is had a vibrato and its like "nynyny" [vibrato sound]. And, you know, the thing is, is originally vibrato was supposed to be used as an embellishment, but it became a thing that everybody always uses. And it's just you don't that's like saying to someone, don't blink. They can't help it. And so I learned, even listening to Paul Gonsalves, was to slow that vibrato way down. And it's a [dun dun duuun] and then let it get towards the end or not using it at all. Sometimes it's great not to use it, but not to use it all the time. So whenever I play a tune that has lyrics, I learn the words and I'm actually singing them in my head when I'm playing, so that I'm playing the words. And if someone nails the melody, or even if they don't know the lyrics, they can hear them. They can hear them through my playing. Or at least they get they get the sentiment of the tune.

Music up

Jo Reed: Regina Carter released her first two solo albums Regina King in 1995 and Something for Grace in 1997 which was dedicated to her mother. But 1997 was a banner year for another reason—Wynton Marsalis invited Regina Carter to join the tour of his Pulitzer-Prize winning oratorio “Blood on the Fields.”  

Regina Carter: 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.

Jo Reed: And that’s where we’ll pick up the story next week with NEA Jazz Master Regina Carter—in part 2 Regina discusses touring with Blood on the Fields, her solo career, sharing her family history through her music, working with NEA Jazz Master Kenny Barron, receiving the MacArthur Genius Award at a pivotal moment in her life, her time as a hospice worker, and much much more. That’s all next week in a music-filled part 2 of my conversation with Regina Carter

Regina Carter and the other Jazz Masters will be celebrated at a star-studded tribute concert which takes place Saturday, April 1, at 7:30 p.m. at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. The concert is free but tickets are required…you can reserve them at and if you can’t make it to DC—no worries!  The concert will also be available through a live webcast and radio broadcast. Check out for details.

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 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.

Regina Carter part 2

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  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.

(music up)

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  

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 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.

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