Soul, Spirit and Sound

Regina Carter's musical journey

Volume 117, No. 4April, 2017

Photo credit: Christopher Drukker

For Regina Carter, a member of Local 802 since 2009, the violin isn’t simply an improvisational vehicle. It’s a passport to unexpected realms, cultures, sounds and worlds. Three decades ago, Carter was a member of the all-female pop-jazz quintet Straight Ahead. She appeared on their first three albums before leaving the band in 1991 and moving to New York. Almost immediately, she was tapped for session work with Aretha Franklin, Mary J. Blige, Lauryn Hill, Billy Joel and Dolly Parton. During her rich career, she has also performed and toured with Wynton Marsalis, Ray Brown, Kenny Barron, the String Trio of New York, Cassandra Wilson, Oliver Lake, Steve Turre, the pop singer Joe Jackson, and many others.

In 2001, Carter traveled to Genoa, Italy and made history by being the first jazz musician, as well as the first African American, to play the legendary “Il Cannone” violin, made by Guarneri Del Gesu in 1743 and once owned by Paganini. This once-in-a-lifetime experience inspired her recording “Paganini: After a Dream,” which featured works by Ravel, Debussy and the Italian film composer Ennio Morricone. A few years after making the album, Carter won a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant.” The foundation wrote on its web site that Carter “captivates her audience with the passion and spirit of adventure intrinsic to her approach to music” and that she is “pioneering new possibilities for the violin and for jazz.”

One of Carter’s major inspirations is Ella Fitzgerald, who would have turned 100 this month, on April 25. Carter’s forthcoming album and tour will celebrate this legend. Carter remembers, “Growing up in Detroit, there was always music playing in our home. While there was a variety of music I enjoyed, there were a few artists I found consistently captivating – Ella Fitzgerald was one of these exceptions. To this very day, whenever I hear an Ella recording it grabs me at my core. I’m entranced by her voice, her melodic improvisations and the passion and artfulness with which Ella sings a song. In a word, Ella is sublime, and she is at the top of my go-to list when learning a jazz tune.”

Local 802’s Bob Pawlo recently sat down with Regina Carter to hear about her life in music.

Bob Pawlo: How did your journey in music begin?

Regina Carter: The story about me is that when I was two years old, my two brothers had a piano teacher. She came by to give them a piano lesson, and I walked up to the piano and started playing one of the tunes that they had been working on, and everyone was shocked, because I had just absorbed the music by listening to it. When I was four, I started Suzuki lessons on violin. I really took to that method. Through my music school, we got discount tickets to go see the Detroit Symphony and even had master classes with Itzhak Perlman and Yehudi Menuhin. My teacher at the time sat in on a lesson once and told Mr. Menuhin, “Regina wants to play jazz and she’s going to destroy her career.” And I remember that Mr. Menuhin picked up his violin and played a little blues lick and said, “Leave her alone.” Later I went to Cass Technical High School, a four-year university preparatory high school. I played violin, viola and oboe in the orchestra, and also performed in choir, jazz band and some other groups. The days were long and intense, but I loved it. I think when you’re in that kind of environment where everybody shares that same passion for something, it’s really positive and really helps with your creativity.

Bob Pawlo: How did you get into jazz?

Regina Carter: My first jazz records were given to me by one of my best friends, Carla Cook, who’s a phenomenal vocalist. We met in ninth grade at Cass, and she would always talk about Eddie Jefferson, Sarah Vaughan, Miles Davis…and I didn’t know who these people were! She also had records of jazz violinists – Noel Pointer, Jean Luc Ponty and Stephane Grappelli. We’d listen to the music and learn the tunes. When I was 16, Carla bought tickets for us to see Stephane Grappelli perform at a place called P Jazz. I saw how happy he was when he played, and I wanted that joy. He happened to be playing jazz, so I think that’s what really pushed me in that direction. I also got to hear jazz violinist Noel Pointer play at another famous Detroit jazz club, Baker’s Keyboard Lounge. I was too young to go to the club unaccompanied, so my mom took me and another violinist friend of mine named Sylvia Davis. I was extremely shy. I would never talk to anyone, but she said, “C’mon, let’s go meet him.” He ended up using one of my bows, because he played through two of his!

Bob Pawlo: Was this around the time that you knew you were going to make a life out of music?

Regina Carter: I guess in my mind I thought so. After I graduated from high school, I went to the New England Conservatory. After my second year, I transferred to Oakland University, about a half hour outside Detroit, so I was back in my hometown. Detroit had such a thriving jazz scene back then, and the big band at Oakland University was run by saxophonist Marvin “Doc” Holladay, who had played with Dizzy and others. I remember meeting Barry Harris, Donald Walden, Walt Szymanski, Chris Pitts, Marcus Belgrave, Lawrence Williams, Charles Boles…just so many people. It was a really great scene and those musicians didn’t mind that I played violin. They all liked the fact that I wanted to learn music; that’s all they cared about. It was a loving and positive environment, and that was really important to me. I’m so glad I had that experience. I eventually became part of the jazz in scene in Detroit. I played with organist Lyman Woodard and pianist Ken Cox, and I played in Donald Walden’s jazz orchestra. I played the Detroit Jazz Festival and other gigs. I was pretty much learning on the bandstand. I graduated from Oakland in the mid-1980s and taught for a while. The Detroit Symphony had a program where they would send string teachers into the public schools. But after a while, I felt like my life had become too structured. I just needed a break. So I went to Germany, where my aunt, uncle and godparents lived, and I stayed for two years. I performed there, met some people (including the trumpeter Duško Gojković), and then on the night before I was supposed to go back to America, my instruments were stolen. So I came home, I remember applying for a job at the fast-food burger place Hardee’s. The manager said, “You can’t work here. I’ve heard you play music and you would hate it here. I can’t see you doing this. Just give yourself some time and see what happens, and if you find that you can’t get something else, then come back here.” I never forgot that. I thought that was really heavy. My luck changed at that point. My dad bought me a violin and I started playing gigs again.

Photo credit: Christopher Drukker

Bob Pawlo: Can I ask you what was the reaction to a young, brilliant, female violinist playing jazz? Did you experience any sexism? Or did people try to box you into a certain category?

Regina Carter: In Detroit, I never experienced anything like that. It wasn’t until I got to New York that I experienced it. I remember going to a club that will remain nameless. It was with my friend, the vocalist Miche Braden. We signed up to sit in at the jam session, and I remember the musician in charge of the session said, “Oh, what’s she going to do with that little violin?” So, I thought, O.K., you know what? I don’t have to deal with that. I’m not going back there anymore. When I first moved here, I had to pay the rent, so I played in some funk bands; I played in downtown bands. I was just doing everything, and someone suggested that I should be careful because people won’t think I’m serious about my music. And I said, “I’m not going to worry about that.” And I think it served me well not to try and box myself in.

Bob Pawlo: Your resume is vast…you’ve played with everyone from Aretha Franklin to Billy Joel to Dolly Parton and everyone in between. In the jazz world, I know you worked with Max Roach and also with Wynton Marsalis. What was it like playing with each of them?

Regina Carter: With Max Roach, I was playing with the Uptown String Quartet. That was pretty intimidating, because that music was not easy. It was bebop and those tempos were up there, and there wasn’t a whole lot of rehearsal. I was petrified, but it was such an incredible experience. With Wynton, the opportunity came up for me to go on tour with him. It was an incredible experience, and it really put me on the map. It opened me up to a whole new audience, and right after that, the Verve label signed me.

Bob Pawlo: What happened next in your career?

Regina Carter: My mom became very ill. When she was in the hospital, I spent about three months with her, and she was at a point where she couldn’t communicate verbally. I would bring in recordings and play them for her. When I would put on one tune, her vital signs would go up or go kind of crazy, so I’d turn that off and put something else on, and she would settle back down. I figured out what kind of music was right. You always hear that music is powerful or that music soothes the soul. It sounds like a cliché, but when I saw music in action and how powerful it actually is, it blew my mind. After my mother passed away in 2005, I took a music therapy course and then starting doing music in hospice situations for people who were dying. I saw how many elderly people didn’t have family members or anyone coming to see about them. It really tugged on my heart. And I wanted to be there for people. I’m not doing this work as much anymore right now, but I still want to. It’s not only about the music; it’s about just being there for other people. It puts your own life in perspective and reminds you what’s really important.

Bob Pawlo: Can you tell us about your current group and recent recordings?

Regina Carter: I just finished recording a tribute album to Ella Fitzgerald. When I was growing up, I always remember that when I listened to Ella, I felt love, just this warm feeling of love, and it put me in a really good space. Then as I matured, I realized what an incredible instrument she had. Her voice was just amazing. I love the fact that she recorded all kinds of music, not only the Great American Songbook, but pop music, doo-wop music – everything. She just loved music, and she seemed always to have this positive outlook on life. This year is the 100th anniversary of her birth, so I thought it was the perfect time to celebrate Ella.

Bob Pawlo: How important is the union to you?

Regina Carter: I’m a union baby. I grew up in Detroit where we have a lot of strong unions. I believe in unions. I think they can be really helpful and I think they are important. When I was younger, I would roll my eyes when my mother would say, “You need some pension and health insurance!” But it’s true – we do! It’s important to contribute to the union’s health and pension fund. The union also goes to bat for you when someone doesn’t want to pay you. Sometimes large stars or companies want to pay musicians pocket change and want to bypass the union. It’s a real shame.

Bob Pawlo: Lastly, what advice would you give to young musicians who are starting out in the music world today?

Regina Carter: I think everyone should take a business course. You should know a little bit about dealing with contracts. If it’s a difficult contract, you need to take it to someone and have them look it over. There are some simple things you need to know, including loopholes and other stuff to look out for. If there’s someone who you really want to play with, make yourself known to them; know their book. Show up on time when anyone hires you. Be professional. Learn how to compose and arrange. When you’re teaching, ask your students, “What is it that you want to get from me? What can I offer to you?” Teaching is really just sharing information. I’d just say really be open to all styles of music. Don’t close yourself off, because you’ll work more if you’re able to play more styles.