The term “jazz” conjures the sound of pianos and horns, a drum kit and upright bass. Sometimes a guitar is thrown into the mix. Occasionally an organ or vibraphone appears, or a sax player turns to his flute.
But jazz is an inviting and flexible genre of music. One can produce it on nearly any instrument. That’s why adventurous string players — especially violinists with a penchant for improvisation — might dabble in jazz. And once in a while, a violinist goes all in and becomes a master of her adopted domain.
Like many other violinists, Detroit-native Regina Carter began by studying classical music. In high school, a friend in the orchestra introduced Carter to the music of Noel Pointer, a trailblazing American jazz violinist, the popular French violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, and the musician to which all jazz violinists refer, master gypsy-jazz player Stephane Grappelli.
Carter is one of the headliners of the four-day 2020 Charleston Jazz Festival, which runs Jan. 23-26. Carter started learning piano when, at 2 years old, she wandered to the instrument in the footsteps of her older brother and plucked out a melody she had learned by ear. The family was impressed, and formal lessons soon ensued.
“I had a gift of repeating what I heard,” she recalled. “I didn’t want to learn what was in the book; I always brought (to the lesson) songs I had written.” Her teacher encouraged her creativity.
At 4, Carter picked up the violin and enrolled in a Suzuki course. She took to the instrument well, and soon was studying with Emily Austin, the first female member of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. At Cass Technical High School, Carter began to widen her musical horizons. She was fascinated by the jazz gigs she attended, but it was all a mystery to her, she said.
“I just didn’t get how you learn the music,” she said.
It was not like classical music, which is strictly prescribed and notated in detail. Jazz required intuition, a good ear, an understanding of complex chord progressions, collaborative instincts and an ability to swing.
She enrolled at the New England Conservatory of Music to pursue her classical training and to appease her pragmatic mother, who wanted Carter to find an orchestra job that provided a steady income and pension.
She was not happy there. Fred Hersch, the star pianist-composer, was her jazz teacher and, often, her therapist, she said. So she transferred to Oakland University in Rochester, Mich., to focus on jazz.
“It was better for me,” she said. “Plus it was close (to home), so I could sit in with bands in Detroit.”
Marvin “Doc” Holladay put her in the sax section of his big band and told her to listen to the stylings of the horn players. Little by little, it was getting easier for Carter to swing.
For a while, she taught violin in the Detroit public schools and on a U.S. military base in Germany, then joined the all-female jazz group Straight Ahead, garnering some attention.
In the early 1990s, she moved to New York City and released her solo debut album, “Regina Carter,” a few years later on Atlantic Records. That set off a cascade of recording projects for Verve Records characterized by her dedication to family, her interest in history and heritage, and her devotion to the jazz masters of yore.
In 2006, she received a strange phone call and assumed it was a plea for a financial donation.
“I’m sorry, I don’t have any money,” she replied, but the caller was persistent, so a dubious Carter asked for his name and number, telling him she would call back. She made herself a cup of coffee, then returned to the phone, dialed the number and was shocked to discover she was on the line with the MacArthur Foundation and that she was a recipient of a “genius grant” worth $500,000 at the time.
“I’ve never had anyone react like this,” the foundation representative told her.
She was ecstatic and soon would spend some of the money to make two more records, “Reverse Thread” and “Southern Comfort.” She also signed up for a music therapy course at Western Michigan University, only to decide she was more interested in hospice care.
In 2008, now ensconced in Maywood, N.J., Carter became a hospice volunteer, performing for people weeks, days or even hours away from death.
“I had three hospice patients when I first started,” she said. “I wanted to go into people’s homes. In the hospital, nurses and others are coming through every day. People at home are just alone.”
Carter would visit the home, do the grocery shopping, and get to know the families.
“We’re all going to leave here, and just being with these people helped put my life in perspective,” she said. “It’s easy to complain, and sometimes it’s fun, but I have to realize that I’m very blessed. It helps me to deal with end of life, always a scary thing for me.”
She set up an organization so others could do the work when she was on the road.
In full swing
Over the years, Carter has played with a wide variety of musicians, including jazz veterans such as Kenny Barron and Wynton Marsalis, vocalists Cassandra Wilson and Carmen Lundy, salsa master Eddie Palmieri, and popular music stars Mary J. Blige, Joe Jackson, Billy Joel and Dolly Parton.
In 2017, she made an Ella Fitzgerald tribute record, “Ella: Accentuate the Positive,” focusing on some of the great singer’s B-sides.
“I felt I had more room to mess around with the arrangements without people going nuts,” Carter said. “Certain tunes you shouldn’t touch, but (with) tunes people didn’t know, I had more room.”
Now she is doing research for her next album, which will be based on the social and economic fallout from the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, which resulted in the construction of interstates that disrupted black neighborhoods in many American cities.
In Detroit, Interstate 75 cut through swaths of residential areas, disproportionately impacting African Americans. In Charleston, Interstate 26 and the Crosstown carved through predominantly black neighborhoods in the mid-1960s, setting off a period of economic decline.
“Almost every state across the U.S., in major urban cities, had the same thing happen,” Carter said.
For that, she will call on her regular bandmates: pianist Brandon McCune, bassist Chris Lightcap, drummer Alvester Garnett (her husband), and singer Carla Cook. What will the set list include? Probably some Ella, some Stevie Wonder, some standards. They’ll finalize it as they take the stage, Carter said.