Regina Carter: Improvising a Life in Jazz
“ 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.