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
“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.
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 kennedy-center.org 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 arts.gov 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 email@example.com. 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.
In the first part of this two-part podcast, Regina Carter discusses her upbringing and musical education in Detroit. Trained in European classical music, she was exposed to wide variety of music and while in high school, she discovered jazz violin; it was life-changing. She talks about the appeal of jazz, her mentors Marcus Belgrave and Marvin Holliday, her time with the all-woman quintet “Straight Ahead,” her move to New York where she played with a broad array of artists from Chucho Valdés to Max Roach to Dolly Parton, and being tapped by Wynton Marsalis to tour with his Pulitzer Prize-winning oratorio Blood on the Fields.
Next week, we continue our conversation with Regina Carter—we explore her solo career, her collaboration with NEA Jazz Master Kenny Barron, her receiving the MacArthur Award, her time as a hospice worker, and much more!