I started on the piano by accident! When I was two years old, my older brothers were taking lessons. During one, I sat down at the piano and played one of the pieces they were learning. Their teacher was pretty amazed and I began lessons too. But I wasn’t interested in learning to read music, I just wanted to make-up my own songs and my teacher thought better I should wait a couple of years. At four, I began Suzuki violin classes and loved it.
I’d say my first strong influence was my grandmother. She graduated with a degree in piano pedagogy in 1915! Because of her, both education and music were very important in my household growing up.
In high school, I played in masterclasses with Itzhak Perlman and Yehudi Menuhin. Both made big impacts on me. Particularly Menuhin. When my school music teacher commented that I was ruining my chances by playing jazz all the time, Menuhin picked up his violin and played a blues riff and told my teacher, “Leave her alone.”
My introduction to jazz was via jazz violinists Stephane Grappelli, Noel Pointer and Jean-Luc Ponty and later, the great Ella Fitzgerald. Their recordings blew me away, thus began my love for and desire to explore this music. In the late 80’s, I applied for and received a NEA grant to study with John Blake, another great jazz violinist.
I remember many standout experiences! Touring with Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center orchestra performing Blood on the Fields really put me on the map. As did touring with Ray Brown. Performing concerts in Genoa and New York with Paganini’s violin and making a recording with his Il Cannone were also incredible experiences.
I’ve gotten more pushback for playing jazz violin than for anything else in my career. Several radio stations would not play my first CD stating their listeners didn’t like jazz violin. Radio program director, Steve Williams was instrumental in helping me with that hurdle. I have had challenges on my journey, as we all do but I have kept my focus on getting the job done. My mother likened challenges to speed bumps and always said speed bumps determine if you really want something. And I have always looked at things like bias and discrimination as speed bumps I needed to move past. Because playing jazz was something I really wanted. I’ve also learned over the years to set boundaries. As a woman, particularly as a black woman, giving myself permission to put myself first and to say no came late in life and I’ve come to realize, I don’t have to accept everything, I can say no. That is so important to remember.
I’m appearing at the Kaufmann Concert Hall, 92NY on April 28th. Hope to see all my 802 brothers and sisters there!
Grammy-nominated artist Regina Carter explores the power of music through the voice of the violin in a wide range of genres — including jazz, R&B, Latin, classical, blues, country, pop, and African and is a recipient of the MacArthur “genius” award and a Doris Duke Artist Award.
Her albums include Paganini: After a Dream (Verve, 2003); I’ll Be Seeing You: A Sentimental Journey (Verve, 2006); Reverse Thread (E1 Music, 2010); Southern Comfort (Sony Masterworks, 2014); and Ella: Accentuate the Positive (OKeh, 2017). Her latest release is Swing States: Harmony in the Battleground (Tiger Turn/ eOne, 2020), with trumpeter John Daversa, pianist Jon Batiste, bassists Alexis Cuadrado and Kabir Sehgal and drummer Harvey Mason.
Regina tours with her own group and has appeared frequently as a guest soloist, including with such performers as Kenny Barron, the late bassist Ray Brown, Akua Dixon, Arturo O’Farrill, Steve Turre, Stefon Harris, Mary J. Blige, Joe Jackson, Billy Joel, Dolly Parton, Omara Portuondo, Sweet Honey In The Rock, Rhiannon Giddens and others. She has also been a guest soloist with several major symphony orchestras, including the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the Boston Pops, and the Orquestra Sinfônica do Estado de São Paulo.
Regina is artistic director of the Geri Allen Jazz Camp, a unique summer immersion program sponsored by NJPAC for aspiring women jazz professionals. She is currently on the faculty of the Manhattan School of Music and New Jersey City University and is artist in residence at the Oakland University School of Music, Theatre, and Dance. Past positions have included resident artist for San Francisco Performances and resident artistic director for SFJAZZ.
Along with performing, recording, teaching, and mentoring, Regina is passionate about bringing music into nursing homes and hospice settings and being a comfort to the actively dying. As part of that commitment, she trained to be a hospice volunteer at Hospice of New Jersey.
This interview by Martha Hyde and Sara Cutler first appeared in the March 2023 issue of Allegro, the magazine of the NYC musicians’ union Local 802 as part of a feature called “Women’s Lives, Women’s Stories”