Regina Carter: Improvising a Life in Jazz

AAJ Staff By

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I found out you have to study the culture of the music as well in order to learn jazz.
Regina Carter's mother had everything planned out. Her precocious daughter, whose violin teacher was so impressed with Regina's musical potential that she was placed in an accelerated Suzuki program at age 4, would become a classical violinist. Regina would play in a respected symphony orchestra — preferably in her hometown of Detroit. She would earn a fine salary with a pension and health benefits that would provide her with plenty of security for the future.

Thankfully for jazz fans, things didn't turn out quite the way Regina Carter's mom had diagrammed her daughter's future. As a teenager, Regina musical tastes began to expand well beyond her classical studies on violin. And when she was 16, Regina Carter had the chance to see jazz violin legend Stephane Grappelli perform live. It was an event that would change her musical direction — and her professional career.

"By that time I had started to listen to something besides European classical music, recalls Carter, speaking for her home in New York City as she prepared for the tour that will bring her to Columbia and the Blue Note on March 2. "I was listening to records by Jean Luc Ponty, Noel Pointer and Stephane Grappelli for about a year before I saw that concert — and before that I had gotten into some Motown music that had strings on it. I wasn't totally into jazz by any means, but I think seeing Grappelli live in concert — feeling the energy of the music and actually seeing and hearing the musicians rather than hearing a recording was what pushed me over the edge.

It took a little more time for Carter to actually make the leap over the edge into jazz. After graduation from high school she attended the New England Conservatory of Music to study classical violin. But she soon found herself hanging out with fellow students who were attending the Conservatory's jazz program. By the end of her second year, she had made the switch to a jazz curriculum.

I began sitting in on some gigs with friends of mine in the Conservatory's jazz department, says Carter. "And by the second semester of my second year, I decided I was going to switch to a jazz major — unbeknownst to my mother. She didn't find out until she got my grades and saw some of the courses I was taking. She was worried about the life style I might have as a jazz musician, so there was some turmoil in my house at first. But after awhile, she saw my heart was so there, and that there was nothing she could do because I was definitely going for it.

Carter needed plenty of support in her early days as a jazz musician. As she soon discovered, playing jazz was very different from playing classical music. In addition, she also found out that playing jazz on the violin was a real challenge — even when dealing with jazz musicians.

"When I first started playing jazz, I really didn't understand the music, she explains. "My only references were records of jazz violinists — I hadn't really heard of anyone else. I felt like jazz was some kind of big secret. Unlike classical music, you couldn't study books one, two and three and then you've got it. I found out you have to study the culture of the music as well in order to learn jazz. And the other problem I had was that no one really knew what to do with me because so many musicians didn't even know much about jazz violinists — even though the instrument has been part of jazz music since the beginning.

Frustrated with her progress in the New England Conservatory jazz program, Carter decided to transfer after her second year. She headed back to the Detroit metro area, enrolling at Oakland University in the nearby suburb of Rochester. There she found a unique way into the "big secret of jazz — by becoming part of a sax section in a big band.

"The big band instructor at Oakland put me and my violin in the sax section if the band, says carter. "He told me to learn the alto sax charts and to mimic them on violin. He told me to copy their vibrato, and to breathe when they breathe. Having the sax players on either side of me and hearing how they phrased the music really helped. He also told me to stop listening to jazz violinists and to listen to horn players and singers. I also found out that I had to do more than transcribe a horn solo to figure it out. I also had to understand what was going on underneath that solo — to listen to what everyone else in the band was doing and how they each section was relating to the others. It was a gradual process, but I was on the right track.

Carter also found an excellent teacher in trumpet player Marcus Belgrave, a fixture on the Detroit jazz scene since the late 1950s who has performed and recorded with the likes of Ray Charles, Max Roach, Charles Mingus, Ella Fitzgerald and Wynton Marsalis. Belgrave was the original jazz faculty member at Oakland University, founded the Jazz Development Workshop in Detroit and was an important mentor for many young musicians in the area — including Carter.

"I used to go over to Marcus' house with Rodney Whitaker and other young musicians almost every day, recalls carter. "If we were writing music, we could bring it in and play it so we could actually hear it. Marcus would give us pointers on it, and also teach us about improvisation. He used to get us on his gigs and he helped me to get a job working in the band of Lyman Woodard, who played organ and used to be the music director for Martha and the Vandellas.

Once Carter began to make a name for herself on the Detroit jazz scene, she joined the all-female quintet, Straight Ahead. The quintet gained a strong local following and signed with Atlantic Records, releasing two recordings that included Carter, Look Straight Ahead and Body and Soul But by 1991, Carter had decided to make the move from Detroit to New York City, and began to move in a different musical direction.

"I always felt if I really wanted to be serious about jazz, I had to live in New York or LA in the beginning stages of my career,' she explains. "The more I learned about music and the style of jazz I wanted to play, I knew New York was the place. So when an opportunity presented itself, I packed up a U-Haul and 21 hours later I was here. I didn't know how I was going to pay the rent or anything. I just came.

Carter began making calls to every musician she knew, and took whatever work she could find to make ends meet. She ended up working with the artists as diverse as Dolly Parton, Billy Joel and Mary J. Blige — and doing a wide variety of radio and TV work as well. Carter joined the String trio of New York and also worked with the Soldier String Quartet, performing avant-garde compositions. She also tried to sit in on as many jam sessions as she could at the Blue Note and other clubs.

Atlantic signed her to a solo contract, and her first two recordings as a leader showed flashes of her brilliant technique and swinging style. But the production style — heavy on pop-funk and smooth jazz elements — made the recordings hit-and-miss affairs.

A major turning point in her career came with her appearance on Blood on the Fields, the Pulitzer Prize winning opus by Wynton Marsalis. Carter received strong critical acclaim for her work on the recording, and the subsequent tour gave provided her with a strong solo turn and one of the memorable highlights of the concert version of the work.

"Blood on the Fields really put me on the map in the jazz world, she explains. "After that, Verve offered me a recording contract, I got the chance to do have more freedom in the studio and I got to get out and tour with my own group in 1998 after my first Verve album, Rhythms of the Heart, was released.

Carter's 2000 follow-up recording, Motor City Moments, proved to be her strongest yet, blending unique interpretations of tunes by Motown greats such as Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye with compositions by jazz greats Thad Jones and Milt Jackson. Her latest recording, Paganini: After a Dream, documents her playing the famed classical legend's own 1840 violin, known as the "Cannon for its huge tone.

The success of her recent recordings has kept Carter on the road almost continuously over the past couple of years, and her visit to Columbia marks a tour swing designed to bring a fresh musical flavor to her music with a shakeup in band personnel.

"I love my regular group, but I've basically been working with them for the past six years, says Carter. "I think it's good to change who you're playing with every now and then, so I'm changing things up, bringing Xavier Davis on piano, Matthew Parrish on bass and Gilad on percussion. I don't even have a drummer picked out for sure, but I'm looking forward to working with the new musicians on this tour.

By the way, in case you were wondering Regina's mother is just fine with her daughter's choice of a career in jazz.

"The only thing she made sure I did after I came to New York and started to do well was to call me up and insist that I get health insurance right away, says Carter. "So she's very supportive of my music now.

Photo Credit
Giorgio Scola


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