Regina Carter may be the most popular jazz violinist playing today, having recently won the 2015 Downbeat Reader’s Poll for violinist. As a youngster, Carter played in the youth division of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and took master classes from both Itzhak Perlman and Yehudi Menuhin. Carter moved to New York City in 1991 as a relative unknown, and got work accompanying such artists as Aretha Frankly, Mary J. Blige, Billy Joel, and Dolly Parton. She played with Max Roach and Oliver Lake and toured with Wynton Marsalis in his Blood on the Fields tour. In 1995 she released her first album as a leader, and since then has released eight more, including one with pianist Kenny Barron.
In the early part of the new century she was invited to Italy to play a concert using Paganini’s Violin, made in 1743 and bequeathed to the city of Genoa. Carter was the first jazz musician and the first African American to play the instrument. Afterwards, she released an album of classical music entitled Paganini: After a Dream. In 2006 Carter was awarded a MacArthur Fellows Program grant, which is often called a “genius grant.” The awarding committee noted her mastery of improvisation, and her wide range of musical influences. Carter has released a series of albums that reflect her journey in life: Motor City Moments, an homage to her hometown; I’ll Be Seeing You, a tribute to her mother; and Reverse Thread, a collection of modern and traditional songs of Africa.
Her latest release is Southern Comfort, which explores the music of her grandparent’s South. Her grandfather was a coal miner in Alabama, and she takes on music from the coal-mining world of the Appalachia’s, which she discovered through research at the Library of Congress. There she searched the field recordings of renowned folklorists such as Alan Lomax and John Work II. The album includes tunes such as Honky-Tonkin’ by Hank Williams, and traditional songs such as See See Rider and Miner’s Child. While researching her personal history, she did some DNA testing and discovered that she is part Finnish, which will undoubtedly provide her with more potential material.
I was able to talk with her in January of 2015, when we were both on The Jazz Cruise. The following is a slightly edited version of that talk.
LE: As I understand it, violin was not your first instrument. How did you go from piano to violin?
RC: Well, piano was accident. I had two older brothers and they were both playing piano. The oldest played piano and trumpet and the next oldest one piano and clarinet. They said that one day I walked up to the piano and started playing one of the pieces my brother had been practicing. The teacher was there and said “How does she know that? Who taught her?” They were shocked and said they didn’t know I could play. So she tested me and found out I had a gift to hear music. So my mom enrolled me in piano lessons. But… I like to create, so I never learned my lessons. I’d go in and say “Here’s a tune I wrote.”
LE: How old were you at the time?
RC: Two (chuckling)
LE: Oh my goodness
RC: So my teacher said, “Let’s take her out of lessons. Let her create her own, I don’t want to kill her creativity. When she gets older, maybe I can come back.” Then when I was four Suzuki (method of teaching) was offered for the first time. She called my mother and said told her to enroll me in Suzuki violin because they teach by way of hearing first. She thought it would be great for me. I fell in love with violin, the whole method, and here I am today (laughing) a hundred years later.
LE: You learned classical music first. How did you go from European classical music to jazz?
RC: In high school, my best friend Carla Cook, who’s a wonderful singer, and I met in ninth grade, and we sat next to each other in Spanish class. She’d come to school and talk about Eddie Jefferson and Miles. She was a big Eddie Jefferson fan. I had no clue about who any of these people were. So she’d bring records of Stephane Grapelli, Jean-Luc Ponty, and Noel Pointer, and that was my first introduction to this other music, other than European classical music.
LE: As played on violin
RC: Yes, and I was thinking, “Wow, you can do this on violin? Well count me in.” (more laughing)
LE: At the show last night you mentioned Stuff Smith (a pioneer of jazz violin). Are there artists before Stuff Smith that you learned about?
RC: Well yeah. When I was doing research there was Papa John Creach, even out of the South there were a lot of slaves playing the fiddle for entertainment. Even doing the research for my latest record, Southern Comfort, I was learning about those artists. It’s just been part of the music, the evolution.
LE: Once you started to play jazz, was there anything different about technique, or the way you thought about music, from the European classical approach?
RC: Every genre of music is like learning the slang of your own language for a different language. If you want to fit in, you have to learn that slang. So I just had to learn the slang. I’m still trying to learn it. It’s a little bit different vocabulary, and the way you approach it, so I had to really listen and try to learn the way they pronounced words and the pattern of how they said it. So I approached it just the way I learn a language.
LE: The albums that you’ve put out have all been somewhat thematic: one with your Mom’s favorite songs; one for your hometown of Detroit; one for Africa. Now you have Southern Comfort. Is there a particular reason you take that approach?
RC: In the beginning, when I was signed to a label, I wrote most of the music for the first album and most of the second. That was on Atlantic, and when I signed to Verve, my A&R guy said, “No, we don’t like your original music. It sounds too much like the music that was on Atlantic.” They thought that theme records gave the publicity department something to work with. Then, I took about a year or so off, after I got the MacArthur grant. My mother died right before that, so I had a lot of life changes, and asked myself, “What do I want to put out? What do I want to say?” So I guess the theme records are my journey, trying to figure out who am I? Why do I play? What am I doing here? Because, I think we all have a purpose here.
LE: You mentioned the MacArthur grant. What did that allow you to do? It has no strings to it, as I understand.
RC: That was really hard to accept at the beginning. (laughing) I though what? No one ever just gives you anything. In the beginning it gave me time off to maybe mourn and to figure out what is it that I really want to do, without anyone telling me what I really have to do. That’s really powerful. And… I think that’s when the search really started, so that’s what my music, and my records, look like now. I’m finding out (the answers).
NOTE: This is one of the songs on Southern Comfort
LE: On Southern Comfort, you looked back at some of the music your grandfather heard, was there anything that was particularly surprising that you discovered?
RC: What I discovered was that some of this music I thought I had heard, maybe it was something form my grandmother. I didn’t know my grandfather. He died before I was born. So I when I went back to (my grandmother’s) house with my grandmother and all of her sisters, and we’d just be thrown in a bed with a bunch of our cousins. No bathroom, just an outhouse. So it’s a really different way of living. Someone, not necessarily my mother or grandmother, would rock me to sleep at night, and they’d sing these songs. So some of these things I’d hear, and I’d think, I know that. But then we’d travel and go to Europe and people would say, we know that song. All kinds of cultures came (to the United States) and migrated to the South. That’s what make up the Appalachia sound.
LE: Now are you moving on to another project?
RC: I’m trying to dig in deep now with this Finnish part, to see if I’m really Finnish. If I am, then I want to check out that part of my family.
LE: There’s some pretty amazing Finnish music. Lots of fiddle music.
RC: Oh I know, I know (laughs)
LE: Well, thank you so much for your time.
RC: Thank you.