Jazz musician Regina Carter resists trappings of traditional violin music
Since childhood, Regina Carter has proven herself, defeated herself, and helped herself help others in ways to further the jazz violin.
The multiple Grammy Award-winning musician is celebrated as one of a small number of professional black female jazz violinists in the world. Her path started with classical violin but diverged to the jazz variety, and she has been taking risks and defying stereotypes since.
In that vein, Carter has quick-changed her source material without dropping the vibrant violin voice for which she’s known. In addition to a collection of traditional Western violin music recorded using the legendary 1743 Il Cannone Guarnerius instrument, Carter has added her musical signature to a variety of projects.
She has recorded music tracing her family’s origins with renditions of traditional African music on Reverse Thread and Southern Comfort. She has honored the spirit of her late mother, Grace, with personal renditions of the matriarch’s favorite period songs on I’ll Be Seeing You. She has celebrated her hometown with a soulful nod to Detroit’s musical sons and daughters on Motor City Moments.
“I have always been fortunate to have a say in choosing producers, and I tried to be as clear about my musical vision and make a decision based on us being on the same page,” Carter says.
Her affinity for vocal legend Ella Fitzgerald and desire to live a life that “accentuates the positive” is evident on her recordings, as well. In a 2017 interview with the Chicago Tribune, Carter says, “I remember putting on some (Fitzgerald) records and hearing her voice and just feeling so warm and so much love. … I would wake up every morning and put on Ella: Ella and coffee, that’s what I needed to get through the day.”
In Carter’s sixth visit to the Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State on January 31, she will present Simply Ella, a program featuring Fitzgerald’s lesser-known works.
“There’s a lot of really beautiful material that a lot of people are either not familiar with or they forgot about,” she says in the Tribune interview.
Carter hopes to inspire creative transformations within young jazz musicians, too. Last summer, she served as artistic director for an all-female jazz residency at Rutgers University–Newark. In addition to jam sessions and lessons on music theory, she led a workshop in which, she says, “The ladies could freely discuss concerns or difficulties they may face in a male-dominated field and learn ways in which to handle them.”
In an interview with the Center for the Performing Arts, Carter shares reactions to some of her experiences, resistance to stereotypes, and her vision for the future of jazz musicianship.
Question: When you emerged on the scene, do you think people were more surprised at the notion of a female jazz violinist, a black female violinist, or a classical-to-jazz violinist?
Answer: I would constantly hear, “There’s no such thing as jazz violin.” When I emerged on the scene, there were only a handful of jazz violinists. Most people were familiar with American jazz violinist Noel Pointer and French violinists Jean Luc Ponty and Stéphane Grappelli. Although there are many more jazz and improvising string players today, I still find some people don’t realize that the violin is a part of the jazz tradition.
Q: From a young age, you’ve broken out of comfort zones and reinvented yourself many times. What obstacles did you face while trying to get to a place within your art that you felt was most honest?
A: My biggest obstacle has always been me. Battling the negative voices that say “you can’t” or feeling like my best isn’t enough can take a toll. I share these feelings I experience with younger musicians because they often feel like they are the only ones dealing with fear-based emotions. Those feelings may never go away, so being more than prepared is crucial. I also tell them that being nervous shows they care.
Q: One of the phenomena of the Jazz Age was the notable influx of women to the workforce. You have said that when you announced your interest in becoming a jazz musician, your mother was not into the idea. How did you win her over?
A: My mother’s initial reservation about me wanting to play jazz was that she felt there was no security. She stayed on me about having health insurance and pension. The pull for me to play jazz was so strong, I didn’t have a choice. When she saw how passionate I was about the music, I think she realized she would have to find a way to accept my choice. After I started gigging on a somewhat regular basis in New York, then touring with Wynton Marsalis for Blood on the Field, I could finally afford to pay for my own health insurance and start contributing to my own pension, finally putting her at ease.
Q: You were invited by the city of Genoa, Italy, to perform on the 1743 Il Cannone Guarnerius violin. You were the first African American and first jazz musician to play the instrument. How did the commemorative recital come to be, and what do you think came out of that experience—for you or for followers of the famed instrument?
A: After hearing a recording of a rehearsal, performing orchestral arrangements written for me by bassist John Clayton, a friend from Genoa had the idea for me to perform a concert of these pieces using (Niccolo) Paganini’s Il Cannone. The mayor of Genoa was a huge jazz fan and immediately agreed, but we experienced some pushback from some others in Genoa. Some people felt that only European classical music should be performed on this instrument. The concert was a huge success, and a lot of the people who were originally hesitant about me playing jazz on the Cannone had a change of heart. They took a chance on something with which they weren’t familiar and ended up really enjoying it. It was an important reminder for me to be open to trying new experiences.
Q: You’ve said that you strive to avoid being pigeonholed. You played violin on a couple of tracks on legendary alternative-rock musician Daniel Johnston’s 1994 album Fun, which featured and was produced by members of psychedelic-punk rock band Butthole Surfers. Can you tell me how that came about?
A: Daniel Johnston and I were both signed to Atlantic Records at the time. My artist and repertoire person played some of Daniel’s music for me, showed me his drawings, and shared some of Daniel’s life with me, which was intriguing. I like participating in projects that are not my norm; it stretches me as a musician.
On Simply Ella:
Q: While lyrics most often are the message in a song, jazz music itself was a sort of protest. Is commemorating Fitzgerald’s music without the lyrics still a form of protest? Or based on your experiences with a nontraditional jazz instrument, is the instrument of protest here your violin?
A: The intent of the songs is still there without the words. During our concerts, I give an explanation and history of the tunes so people who might not be familiar about the songs will get the gist. I also play a sample of Ella’s recording for a couple of the lesser known tunes for the audience.
Q: The Chicago Tribune said you “create albums … not simply to make records but to enrich our understanding … of particular musical realms.” What kinds of things did you uncover in your research of Fitzgerald that were surprising to you?
A: I learned that her first passion was dance; she wanted to be a professional dancer. One of the most surprising things to learn about Ella Fitzgerald was the fact that she was shy. I would never have guessed this by the way she sings. She had a very difficult and abusive childhood and was sent to a reformatory school after being in an orphanage and was not allowed to sing in the choir there because of her race. She ran away and lived on the streets for a while until hooking up with bandleader “Chick” Webb, who became a father figure to her. All of this pain, and yet she gifted us with such incredible beauty.
Q: When you recorded your versions of her songs on Ella: Accentuate the Positive, did that demystify some of the legend, or did it create a deeper understanding and appreciation of her?
A: The process of researching Ella Fitzgerald and recording her music seemed to humanize her. Although she had an otherworldly gift, she faced adversity throughout her life; music seemed to be her savior.
Heather Longley is a Center for the Performing Arts communications specialist.