Detroit-born violinist Regina Carter defies categorisation, bringing her masterful skills to every genre, sound and project she takes on. Recipient of many awards, including the MacArthur “genius” award and a Doris Duke Artist Award, she is hailed for her endless drive to extend the possibilities of her instrument. Laura G Thorne spoke to her for International Women’s Day about the power of music to influence political engagement, her post as artistic director of the New Jersey Performing Arts All-Female Jazz Residency, embracing every musical influence of her youth and learning to stay true to yourself:
Thinking of the past year now, what are the moments that inspired you, raised anger or other strong emotions, or led you to want to create or comment as an artist or an activist?
You got an hour? (laughs) For me, I think the pandemic, as it’s been going on and we’ve been shut in, so to speak, I feel like it was the universe’s way of saying, sit down, everybody just stop. Just sit down and look at yourselves. I think for a lot of people who used to say, oh, you’re just complaining about this or this country isn’t racist or this isn’t happening, you know, it gave them a chance, they didn’t have anywhere to go. They were stuck in front of the TV and they got to witness what I’ve witnessed as a black American woman my whole life: George Floyd, Brianna Taylor. The list is so long, the list is just incredibly and horrifically long.
I think for people to actually see that, it was shocking to them, this really happens, you’re not just making this up. So I think they got to really see. With this pandemic and with Trump having been in for four years. He gave everyone, he gave all the racists, he gave everyone permission to take off their hoods and be who they are.
And for me, I prefer that because I want to know who you are, you know, who I’m dealing with. My husband and I, we moved into our little town in 2007. And it wasn’t until Obama ran the second time that we saw where we lived is a very Republican area. We’ve had a few encounters in our town. You see people’s beliefs and try to have conversations with people and say, look, how would you feel if this was happening to you? Do you think you can live off of this little bit of money, you’re maybe well-to-do, but we all want the same thing, we want basic rights.
I wasn’t shocked by what happened at the Capitol. I think other people were and they were, oh my God, I can’t believe that happened. I’m like, really? Are we living in the same country? Some would say this isn’t who we are. This is exactly who we are.
We are seeing exactly who we are right now. And I just…. I think it was necessary because, people in the United States are saying we have to have these talks about race, we have to deal with it. But it never gets brought up as it’s uncomfortable. But if you don’t talk about it, this is what happens. And so here we are.
I thought when the last election was about to happen, what can I do? I can’t just sit here. Just voting is not enough, I have to be involved. And so I wasn’t going to be out there protesting, but I did donate money to different organisations and made a recording that I hoped in some way would inspire those people who didn’t feel like their vote counted, inspire them to get out and vote. I was shocked after the first Trump win at how many African-Americans did not vote.
Are you kidding me? And it had nothing really to do with him. The fact… I’d say to these people… (pause)…There were people that were beaten, they got hosed by the police, they had dogs sicced on them, they were killed. It doesn’t matter who you’re voting for, you have to just do it because they went through so much… For me, if you don’t vote, that’s a slap in the face to them.
As an artist, how did you connect with those events? Clearly, part of that came out through your most recent album ‘Swing States’. One of the things I was struck by was what an American feeling it had…I don’t even know how to define that, but it has that feeling about it.
Yes! I attribute that to the arranger, John Daversa, who’s a wonderful arranger, a wonderful trumpet player. And it did. When we started talking about this project with the producer, Kabir Segal, we were thinking of civil rights tunes and maybe writing some other tunes or involving speeches from the civil rights era. Then we realised with the vote coming up that the swing states are so incredibly important. He said, why don’t we choose tunes from the swing states, your state songs? The way John Daversa handled those arrangements… and you’re right – the sound, it has an American, anthem/parade sound to it.
Yes, it absolutely captured that flavour. So that was one of the things that came out in response to the events of last year?
Yes, yes. You know, what was I going to do other than being out there marching and supporting, supporting financially, being more mindful, not just sitting back and saying “they got it”. Really trying to educate myself as to what was going on and to help other people understand, try to have some conversations. Some people listened… some people did.
It’s about grassroots effort and the community being involved
Obviously America is a very divided country right now, but on the other hand, some of the turnout in places like Georgia was extremely gratifying to see.
The thing is, it’s about grassroots effort and the community being involved. And not just in presidential or large elections. Who you vote for or what you vote for in your town is going to have an effect on the big election.
Yeah, I think we’re all getting educated in that regard. You’re from Detroit originally – did you grow up in a politically aware family, was this part of the fabric of your life as a young person?
Yes. My mom was born in 1926 in an area of Detroit called Black Bottom. There were a couple of these areas, Paradise Valley and some others, where black people were forced to live. And if you crossed certain streets or ended up in the wrong place, you could be arrested or killed. And these communities, they were very tight knit. They all helped each other and some were poor, her family was poor, but they didn’t even know they were poor, you know, which is beautiful. And then you’d have doctors, lawyers living there, you know, some of everyone. These were thriving communities.
My mom was an educator and when it was time to vote, she would always discuss with us, my brothers and I, from when we were really young who was running and what they believed in on both sides. And actually, my mother in her kindergarten class, she would educate her kindergarteners – she would have them do an election day and they would line up with their ballots. She wanted them to understand.
We always accompanied my parents when they went to vote. We would hear about the different bills they were voting on, she taught us how some of them are written to confuse you where you think, I want to vote yes but she said no, you have to vote no because of the way it’s written. It was helpful – last year, my husband and I were voting on an educational bill in our area, and we had to look it up because it was tricky to understand.
Civics is so important. Looking at the albums you’ve made, you seem to have such an expansive view of music generally. And I know you started out in the classical world, but it seems like your influences come from many different styles of music. Does that come from your background?
Yeah, it came from growing up in Detroit, definitely, because our radio stations here, they weren’t corporate run. And so, you know, the DJs brought in their own music as well as records that were there at the station. If they got something new, they would just play it and it’d be all over the map. Everything from Jean Carne to Coltrane – it was just varied.
Plus, you know, Motown was here. I had my brothers listening to Motown in the house and the Beatles, the Beatles were popular. So being exposed to all of this music, there was nothing else, it was just all music for me, and there was no division – all of that really influenced me. And when I was old enough to start gigging and working here in Detroit, a lot of times, like if you were doing a Motown, say, a Motown session or a gig, it would be the horn players from the jazz scene and it’d be the string players from the symphony all playing together. It’s just music. It wasn’t until, you know, late in the 90s or maybe the late 80s where corporations started running and programming the stations.
I was thinking about the violin specifically because it has such a distinctive sound, and can weave in and out of many different styles of music. Did playing the violin give you a certain direction musically because of its history as an instrument, or am I reading something into it?
Well, that thought came much later in my life when I recorded “Southern Comfort”, because in tracing my family roots, I saw how the violin was a part of all these different cultures. Especially in the music, particularly in the Appalachian area, you had the Native Americans, the Scots, African-Americans, just some of everyone. And so all of that music and that sound was kind of meshed. I’d find tunes and be in front of an audience from, I think it was from Finland once, there was a busload that came to Birdland and some of them came up to me and said, we recognise that tune “Cornbread Crumbled in Gravy”. But it wasn’t called that and the words were different. And you start to see how, yes, it’s the same thing.
Early on, my mother was grooming me to get into the Detroit Symphony so I could have insurance, pension and all this stuff that no one has (laughs). But by the time I was in high school, one of my closest friends, jazz vocalist Carla Cook, she introduced me to jazz. She gave me records by jazz violinists and took me to hear Stéphane Grappelli live. So that was my first time. I’d heard strings in a jazz context, I was doing these Motown gigs and I was in a little garage band and we played the music of the 70s, which had all those great string parts in them. But I didn’t think violin was a part of all of that until much, much later. Once I heard jazz and heard violin having that opportunity to improvise, I was like, OK, that’s it.
Here we are in 2021 and we’re still just learning about contributions, the important contributions that women have made
We are doing this interview to tie in with International Women’s Day. What does this theme mean to you?
You know, here we are in 2021 and we’re still just learning about contributions, the important contributions that women have made. It’s still very much a man’s world. I think if women were running this world, in this country especially, we’d be in a much better place than we are now. It’s unfortunate that we have to have a day where people recognise us. But I think it’s very important, too, especially for young people to be educated about and to be aware of what we’re contributing to society.
I run an all-women’s jazz camp, which was actually started by another Detroiter, the late great pianist, Geri Allen. And when she passed away, I took it over. We had two years in-person and then last year, because of the pandemic, they decided to go online, which was beautiful, because we got to include some young women that would never be able to afford to fly to New Jersey, pay the camp fee and stay there. And so for me, it was important to see that having this technology, we can not only go back in person when it’s safe, but include people that don’t have the means, but have the talent. And I especially want to reach those young girls – young women, I should say. And this year, the theme – I really want to push self-empowerment with them.
During the pandemic, some presenters honoured their contracts or rescheduled dates. But there were some presenters that had never hired me before who contacted me and said, oh, would you like to do a concert online? We can’t pay you, but there’s a tip jar. The whole tip jar thing, that’s so insulting.
That’s a big subject… I know exactly what you mean.
Yes. And my thing is this: even if you say we can only pay you this amount…the word “tip jar”, just don’t say that. Just say you can charge what you want. I just want these young people to know, don’t give away your merchandise, your gift. You can make money. And there are so many other ways other than performing.
I think a lot of times when we go through school, we’re learning, especially in jazz performance or music performance, we’re learning how to play our instruments and how to audition to either get into a symphony or to teach. But it’s very rare unless you are getting a composition degree to learn, OK, there are all these other avenues where you can make money, be it writing music for games, for commercials. And there are companies that are always looking for tunes. That’s what I want to teach these young people. Stop giving it away for free, because in a minute, you all are young now, but you’re going to go to sleep one day and you’re going to wake up and be fifty, and they all giggle.
But it’s true. It just happens like that. And you don’t want to be in a position of trying to figure out what am I going to do? You want to diversify your talents. And so all of that, for me, ties into International Women’s Day. What can I do as an older woman to empower younger women and show them, help them navigate.
That’s so important because it’s not just about the instrument itself as a professional musician. You need so many different skills. You’ve got to be so smart, right?
Right. And I teach a class for classical string players at Manhattan School of Music, it’s an improv class and an elective. Some of them are only there because it fits their schedule. And I respect that. But this can come in handy, because there have been times when I’ve been doing an orchestra, a jazz gig, and I have some pieces that include either clarinet or cello. But I don’t have those in my band and I want to play those pieces. And so if I say, OK, is there a cellist here that can play these lines and improvise, you would be able to do the gig.
I was looking at your bio on your website and you said that Ella Fitzgerald was someone who inspired you. I thought we should talk about her on International Women’s Day.
I first heard Ella when I was a kid and I didn’t know who she was. There were records lying around my parents’ house and I loved that there was music 24/7. And I went to sleep with the radio on. When I woke up, my mother would turn it up for me in the morning and I’d wake up singing what’s the famous tune ba ba ba ba ba [RC sings melody]…. “Air Mail Special” (LISTEN on YouTube).
They had all kinds of records. I remember some Nat King Cole and movie soundtracks. And I just put this record on and I remember hearing this woman’s voice. And feeling like, oh, her voice, she was hugging me and everything was OK, was like the biggest, warmest hug and everything was OK… I could just leave and go into another space, if you will. And so all I know is this record, this record. I loved her. I was just so enamoured by her gifts. She was unheard of, I say God put a little extra something in her pot!
Every record, it seemed that I would always end up recording one of her tunes. When it’s time to do a record, I’m not always sure what I want to do. And my friend Carla, Carla Cook, she said, well, you love Ella. Why don’t you just do an Ella record finally? And it happened to be for her one-hundredth birthday. Ella recorded so much music and so many genres of music that I wanted to choose tunes that either people hadn’t heard or had forgotten about. So I called it my Ella B side record!
I never got to see her live, unfortunately, but any time she was on television, you know, there was a game show she was on, I just played it for my kids… the panellist would be blindfolded – “What’s My Line”.
I remember her being on that. I remember the Memorex commercial. Oh, yeah, all of that. And back in the day during those times, jazz musicians were really held in high esteem, they were featured in commercials and game shows. Sometimes I would get pushback from the labels – when I was with a label years ago – the A and R person said, your records are all over the place, you have to pick one style because people won’t know what you do. But that’s not that’s not how I grew up, I don’t I don’t want to be boxed in like that. So, I think your marketing team has to figure it out… (laughs)
As long as you do things in love, then that’s what it’s about. You’re OK
It’s not my problem. It’s your problem! Right.
That’s why they’re getting paid the big bucks. I was glad I stuck to my guns with that. Because I look at Ella, and for me, she gives me permission when I get that pushback. She gives me the permission because she did everything with joy and love. As long as you do things in love, then that’s what it’s about. You’re OK. And that’s what I think, I want to be my authentic self. I have a hard time, sometimes I really struggle with that and say, well, this is what people think I am or think I do, and I have to live up to it… And it’s like, no, I can do this as long as I’m being true to myself.
That’s a really important message… that’s a great message for anyone to be hearing.
And I think women, too, especially women, because we tend to be pleasers.
What projects do you have coming up, whether they’re already manifested in reality or are still in your head?
Well, it was really difficult during the pandemic, actually, to be creative, I found, and I started to beat up on myself and said, what’s wrong with me? But then I started speaking to other artists and they were having the same issue. So I was like, OK, it’s not just me then. My husband’s a drummer, so sometimes we would just play together. He had to bring the equipment upstairs into our living room because we recorded a concert and I said, leave your drums here in the living room. Let’s play. And he’s totally in, he loves to play. That’s one idea we had of doing a drum and violin duo project together.
But there’s another project which I started, “Gone In a Phrase of Air”. That title comes from a piece that was commissioned by Lincoln Center that I wrote in 2006 or 2007 about “Black Bottom”, where my mother grew up and the Federal Highway Act of 1956. All of these black neighbourhoods in cities across the US were destroyed, and most of those people were not compensated for the loss of their businesses or their homes. From that, I learned when I was researching, this didn’t just happen in Detroit, it happened across the US. It actually happened in Europe, too.
But the whole project is about the redlining that happened and how it was actually mapped out and what happened in these different cities, Tulsa, the race riot and so on. That’s what the project is based on, and it will include interviews from people who grew up in these areas in different cities.
We couldn’t do the interviews live. But once it’s safe, we’ll move forward with that. We performed it in Reston, Virginia, last week with Carla and the band – Carla read some of the poems and interviews that were collected by phone. And I wrote some tunes for her to sing. So that really inspired me to keep writing.
That sounds great on so many levels. As a lover of history, it sounds like it’s going to be very interesting musically and in every other way too.
Yes. There’s information that people didn’t know, things I learned about Detroit. There’s a wall here (in Detroit) on Eight Mile that I never knew existed until recently. I met a gentleman in Reston, in the audience, who grew up by this wall… it’s still there and he explained, it divided the black and white neighbourhoods in that area.
You know, it’s funny. One of my girlfriends and I were saying, you grow up in a city and you think you know it. But a lot of times it takes a visitor coming in from out of town for you to learn about your own city.
It’s absolutely true. It’s like fish in the water. The fish don’t see the water. Well, I hope that some time when all this craziness is over that you’ll be able to come back to London.
Me too, I miss it. Fingers crossed that we get past this – absolutely.
LINK: Regina Carter’s website