Regina Carter started with Dont and Galamian but she only truly found her voice when she discovered jazz. She tells Ariane Todes about the journey, and explains how the best way to learn jazz violin is to listen to horn players
‘Who says?’ exclaims Regina Carter. Perhaps my suggestion, to one of today’s finest jazz violinists, that the instrument doesn’t naturally suit the genre, is a little thoughtless. She laughs wholeheartedly, as she does throughout our conversation the day before her appearance at December’s London Jazz Festival. But she explains why it’s possible to think this: ‘There were so many violinists early on in the jazz tradition. You look at Stuff Smith, Ray Nance, Stéphane Grappelli, Eddie South, Sugercane Harris. Maybe with bebop we didn’t see so many violinists, so people don’t think of it as a jazz instrument.’
The issue is irrelevant, though, really: ‘I don’t think of violin as either a jazz instrument or not. I think of it as an extension of my voice.’ Hearing Carter live is to hear this voice in full blossom. She has a phenomenal technique, but it’s only there to serve a vivid imagination and to power the story of the music. She has magnetic charisma on stage but, as when talking to her, no starriness, and she melts into the background when her colleagues solo. It’s not surprising that she was given a MacArthur Fellows Program grant in 2006, the awarding committee citing that, 'Through artistry with an instrument that has been defined predominantly by the classical tradition, Carter is pioneering new possibilities for the violin and for jazz.
Listening to her recent Southern Comfort CD, which focuses on the music of her paternal grandfather, a coal miner in Alabama, or her recent back catalogue, in which she explores her mother’s favourite jazz standards (I'll Be Seeing You) and the music of her West African heritage (Reverse Thread), you also get a sense of a musical imagination moving forwards constantly. Talking to her, you discover that this voice has been hard won on a ceaseless quest that began with Suzuki, Dont and Galamian, eventually led her to discovering a home in jazz, and that continues among various musical heroes and styles.
‘Jazz gave me the leeway to say, “This is how I feel.”’
Carter was trained in the Western Classical tradition (throughout the interview she’s at pains to describe it like this: ‘I always ask people – whose classical music? Everyone has a classical music!’) She went on to study at the New England Conservatory but never quite felt comfortable: ‘It was so strict and boxed in. “You have to play this way. No, you can’t do that here.” I remember working on a Bach Partita once and my teacher said, “No, it has to be played like this,” and I said, “How do you know? Did you talk to Bach?” It was a smartass thing to say, but I knew I wanted to play it my way. Jazz gave me the leeway to say, “This is how I feel.” Still respecting the music, the melody and what it’s about, but I get to have my say about how it’s going to be played.’
The orchestral experience was also confusing for her: ‘I found it really difficult. I never understood the conductor because he’d give the downbeat and everyone would come in two seconds later and I’d wonder, “Why am I coming in early? They all understand when to come in apart from me.” I find it amazing when I watch a conductor and he’s way ahead, and the orchestra is together but they’re behind him. In a jazz group the beat is right there, where you count it.'
Carter was turned on to jazz by a friend: ‘My girlfriend brought me three records – Noel Pointer, Jean-Luc Ponty and Stéphane Grappelli – and I just started learning their tunes and solos, and put together a basement band. It was easy to mimic them because what they were doing was violinistic.’ What did she learn from each of them? ‘They had three distinct voices. At the time Noel Pointer was more pop-oriented, or soul, which was the music I listened to growing up in Motown, so it was easier for me to transcribe him. I loved Jean-Luc Ponty because he had all the effects and the pedals and it was fun because you didn’t hear that on the violin. Grappelli was the most straight – there were no add-ons, it was just him playing the violin. He played more of the American songbook, so it was simpler to learn standards listening to him. Hearing how he approached them made it easier to understand from a violinist’s point of view.’
‘In jazz you want to have your own voice’
Carter transferred from NEC, which didn’t have a jazz course at that point, to Oakland University in Michigan, which did. Some of the most important advice she had was not to listen to violinists: ‘The head of the jazz department told me to stop listening to violin players because I would start sounding like one of them and I needed to have my own voice. I’m really happy he told me that because back then you could count on your hand the prominent jazz violinists and it would have been too easy to copy them. In jazz you want to have your own voice.’
‘You just have to listen and copy the sound’
So she turned to the great horn players and singers for inspiration, which offered her a whole new range of sound possibilities and forced her to challenge the limits of the violin: ‘The interesting thing about learning this music is that there are no books one, two and three saying, “This is how you bow a swing passage” or “This is how you get the sound.” You just have to listen and copy the sound. For example, as violin players we’re taught to use the whole bow, but with swing or bebop especially, you have to use less bow and be very light on the string. You have to figure out bowings for yourself because some of those lines are not what you expect them to be.’ As for vibrato: ‘I think of it as an effect. You have to figure out how you want to use it or not use it. I love Ben Webster and the big vibrato he has on his horn so I copy that by slowing it down, or sometimes I’ll use a faster vibrato to get an effect, but the regular vibrato we learnt in class doesn’t work.’
Coming out of the discipline of Western Classical music the process was not necessarily easy. ‘I didn’t understand how to learn this music because from a classical point of view you had your book for shifting or your Dont or your Galamian, you had the pieces you were learning, and you could listen to people playing them. You were always working towards a goal, learning repertoire so you could either be a soloist or get into an orchestra. It was very specific. Whereas jazz is a huge umbrella and a lot of styles get shoved underneath it. Where do you start? Back then there were no books, and I felt lost.’
'I need to hear how other people are approaching it'
One particular challenge was jazz harmonies. ‘I had studied harmony but when it came to learning jazz I had no clue. I still don’t have a clue!’ (More full-throttle laughter.) ‘I would study with people and try to learn the theory of “You can play this over these changes,” but to me it didn’t make sense. It’s the same when I learn languages. I go to class and they say, “This is the grammar: the shoes are red. I’m going to the store,” but when am I going to go somewhere and say, “The shoes are red”? I needed to hear it in context. I need to hear how other people are approaching it – to listen to four or five people playing the same tune. Then I understand, “Oh, that’s what a II-V-I progression sounds like.”’
Even now, the process of transcribing tunes helps her in this and she is systematic in this process. ‘I pick tunes – this week it’s going to be Stuff Smith, Ella Fitzgerald and Tommy Flanagan. I have a whole list. I listen to how they approach their solos and I learn them. That’s how I learn my theoretical information. At the beginning it seemed like there were a gazillion tunes so I tried to categorise them into ones that come under specific rhythm changes. And there are ones with different bridges, for example, and then those that are nothing like the rest.’
‘We take on aspects of other people – we can’t help it’
It may seem paradoxical that Carter has found her own voice by exploring the sounds of other musicians, and yet this research has given her the vast palette that is such a distinctive part of her personality. ‘When I’m listening to Ella I’m trying to transcribe her sound. Of course no one else will ever sound like her, but doing that helped shape my voice. The same with Ben Webster or Paul Gonsalves. We take on aspects of other people – we can’t help it. They’re not always violinistic, but you find a way to do it and it becomes yours. It’s like you grow up in your family and when you answer the phone you sound like your father – it’s not that you tried to, but you took it on growing up. Now it’s something you identify when you hear my voice rather than someone else’s.’
‘It’s just a piece of wood that’s got some strings on it’
Surprisingly, her imagination benefitted from the theft of her instrument early on, as she explains: ‘Years ago I had an electric violin with all the equipment – echoplex and wah-wah. It was fun, but it was stolen. When I got another it was an acoustic violin and I enjoyed trying to find the sounds I got using the wah-wah pedal. When I joined the String Trio of New York they played a lot with altered techniques, which I’d never done, and it really expanded my thinking. There are all these sounds you can get out of the instrument if you don’t place rules on it or have preconceived concepts. People have the idea that the violin belongs in Western Classical music, but not necessarily. There are so many possibilities. It’s just a piece of wood that’s got some strings on it, so depending on who’s playing, it can be anything.’
‘It’s a whole community of musicians working together’
Having struggled herself, how does she help young players now that she teaches? ‘There are different ways to teach jazz. Sometimes we’ll just get together and play, or we’ll talk about bowing and I’ll say, “Try doing this with the bowing.” But they have other professors who can talk about, “This is a II chord.” Many university students don’t do a lot of listening. They listen on their phones or tablets, but you can’t hear all the instruments and all the things that are going on, and they’re missing a lot of information. So I bring in pieces and make students transcribe them, but not just the tonality: they have to hear what the drummer, bass player and piano are doing. I want to know how they feel. Someone might want to take the line, and then they support someone else, because it’s important we help each other. That’s part of jazz, it’s a whole community of musicians working together. When you’re at school you get used to someone telling you what to do, so you don’t get that sense of community.’
Defying a lot of negativity around the future of music, Carter is optimistic for her students. ‘People can put out their own music now and not have to have a label behind them. We’re tired of radio stations or record companies or television channels saying, “This is what you’re going to listen to and this is all there is.” We can now hear so many other cultures of music we were never exposed to and it’s opening things up. People are collaborating with other musicians in a way we never thought we’d see and creating some really new and different music.’ And being a niche is an advantage: ‘I think for most of us playing jazz, folk or art music, we’re always going to be able to navigate our way. We’re never going to be the popular music.’
‘People still don’t think of it as a job'
However, she is frustrated by the attitude, increasingly common it seems, and typified by Spotify, that music should be free: ‘For musicians who don’t have exposure Spotify is a way that people can hear us or get to know us, but I don’t think there should be free streaming. There should be samples and then people should have to buy it. People still don’t understand that for artists this is our job. This is how we make money. Coming through customs I gave the gentleman my paperwork and said I was coming for the festival and that I was a musician, and he said, “You get paid to do this?” Yes. I wouldn’t just get on a plane for the fun of it. People still don’t think of it as a job.’
‘It’s our responsibility as musicians to cultivate our own audiences’
Carter puts the onus on musicians actively to seek new audiences. ‘If you don’t understand a certain style of music or how it works then you have a tendency to shy away from it. It’s important for me to do classes or demonstrations for audiences, to show them a piece we’re doing on stage so that they get it, or are more apt to go to another jazz concert. It’s the same with European Classical music. It’s our responsibility as musicians, no matter which form, to cultivate our own audiences.’
One of the keys to this communication, which comes across whether in her playing, her approach to education, or the projects she chooses, is the importance of story telling, as she explains: ‘It’s easy to take an old standard that everyone knows and play through it without any embellishments, and then talk while we’re playing – “Now I’m going to take this solo and I’m having a conversation with the band”. The audience can see how we’re working off one another and that when I’m done I might look at someone or they might jump in. It’s taking something they know and breaking it down to show them how it works. When I was younger and playing in a youth orchestra my teacher would come and tell the stories of the pieces – this is when it was written, this is what it means politically, this is when the bassoons come in, so it made sense and you felt part of the music. That’s really important for an audience with any style of music, and especially in jazz.’
‘I don’t want to bang people over the head’
Her aim on stage, she says, is to create an intimate experience for everyone: ‘I still want there to be a sense of a community, as if we’re all sitting on a porch somewhere, the audience included.’ This is one of the reasons she doesn’t use a monitor on stage and avoids searing volume levels: ‘I don’t use a monitor. I don’t like the sound of most of them and I find that hearing the sound coming out of the monitor below me and not under my ear is strange. The rest of the band uses them but very little. I like them to be quiet. If I can’t hear myself or you can’t hear me then the band is too loud so we need to turn them down. I don’t want to bang people over the head – it’s fine sometimes, but not with this music.’
A sense of story-telling is especially resonant in her latest project, Southern Comfort, which explores the songs her paternal grandfather would have known as a coal miner in Alabama. In researching it she went into the archives of the Library of Congress and the collection of field recordings that Alan Lomax made. She explains her drive: ‘I wanted to dig into my father’s side of the family. I found out that often when they had great tragedies they didn’t talk about it and burnt the paperwork, so unfortunately it’s difficult for African-Americans to get to their history. Knowing my grandfather was a coal miner and the areas he lived, and going on Ancestry.com, I hooked up with other family members who had information. I was interested in the music that was happening during his lifetime and I thought that might give me a better understanding of him and what he had to go through.’
‘I don’t categorise it – it’s music'
The album is full of different folk and jazz influences and Carter refuses to define the style: ‘I don’t categorise it – it’s music. It’s my search, my journey, and I just hope people enjoy it.’ Indeed it comes from an area that itself was a hotchpotch of musical styles, as she describes: ‘It was interesting to see all the cultures that were living in the Appalachia area: Scots, Irish, Native Americans, African-Americans. Their music and art mixed and informed this unique and beautiful music that we call Appalachian.’ How does she reconcile all these different styles with her own jazz vision? ‘I spent so much time trying to listen to it and to be true to it while moving it forward and putting my own take on it. You become a chameleon. I had in mind the sound but I wasn’t trying to force it or be phoney with it.’
Audiences have responded to this powerful history and story-telling: ‘With Southern Comfort I find it makes people think about their own families and how they grew up, and it brings up memories that they forgot about. They start to think, “My grandfather was a coal miner,” or “My grandmother listened to this.” It stirs up memories and that’s beautiful.’ She’s also aware of narratives as she performs: ‘Each tune is a story and I try to have an idea of what that is. If it’s Miner’s Child I try to think of these coal miners working and what they were going through, the songs they would sing and the hidden messages. Or if it’s New for Orleans, which the drummer wrote after Hurricane Katrina, I try to understand the healing process that had to go on.’
‘We all need to be exposed to our own traditions’
Carter sees that many young people have lost touch with their traditions, but she is optimistic that this is changing: ‘For young people popular music is usually what they see and hear on television. They’re not being exposed to their own traditions. Some people don’t want to hear Old Time music but I think if they listen they might hear the beauty and connect to it. Even if they don’t like it, we all need to be exposed to our own traditions. It’s important that people are playing this music. I think there’s a resurgence, with musicians going back to their roots. Everyone’s looking for something, even if it’s not presenting the music in its original form but collaborating with others and coming up with a new flavour. As long as we can attract young people to know there’s more out there than what we see in music videos, to inspire them to be curious.’
Ultimately, getting in touch with traditions like this is part of the original search to find her own voice: ‘What makes me me? What all went into that pot?’ As part of her research, Carter took a DNA genealogy test that revealed that she was 70 per cent West African and 30 per cent Finnish. She jokes, ‘I’ll call my next album “I’m Finnished”. I suspect that she’s not actually joking, but it will be exciting to see where her quest next leads her.
Read Regina Carter's advice for improving your jazz playing