by Susan Kepecs
It’s impossible to write about jazz drummer Terri Lyne Carrington without bringing up the gender issue. There's a handful of highly successful women playing instrumental jazz today, but historically even fewer women have had careers in the field than in that infamous man-bastion, the US Congress. Back when ladies could sing the abstract truth but very few dared to play it – and the intrepid ones were all keyboardists, because, you know, it’s kosher for princesses to play piano – Terri Lyne Carrington was a child prodigy on the drum kit in the kingdom of bop. “Oooeee, man, that little girl can play!” Dizzy Gillespie told an Ebony interviewer in 1977, when Carrington was 11. Fast forward 36 years: in 2013 Carrington became the first woman to ever to win a Grammy in the Best Jazz Instrumental category, for her album Money Jungle: Provocative in Blue (Concord Jazz, 2013). It was her second golden Victrola – two years earlier she copped the Best Jazz Vocal award for The Mosaic Project (Concord Jazz, 2011), featuring an all-woman instrumental lineup with a luminous array of vocalists including Diane Reeves, Cassandra Wilson and Gretchen Parlato. On Sat., Nov. 8, the Mosaic Project tour – Geri Allen on piano, Tia Fuller on sax, Ingrid Jensen on trumpet and Lizz Wright and Gretchen Parlato on vocals, plus Josh Hari on bass and Matt Stevens on guitar – takes the stage at the Wisconsin Union Theater’s Shannon Hall, the first event in this season's Isthmus Jazz Series.
To put Carrington in perspective, she’s a third-generation jazz musician. Her grandfather played drums with Fats Waller when the stride piano potentate played Boston; her father mostly played sax, though sometimes drums, and occasionally accompanied, according to the Internet, James Brown, Sam Cooke, B.B. King and Lionel Hampton.
As a teen Carrington studied with legendary drummer Jack DeJohnette, who rose to fame on the definitive fusion albums: Charles Lloyd’s Forest Flower (Atlantic 1966) and Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew (Columbia 1970). With her wide-ranging, fusion-imbued, neo-bop style Carrington went on to make music with emperors: Stan Getz, Pharoah Sanders, Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock are on that list. But she’s been an empress in her own right for a long time now. Her first album as a leader, Real Life Story (Verve 1989) – recorded way back when H.W. Bush was president – featured Wayne Shorter, Carlos Santana and Dianne Reeves, and it got a Grammy nom for best jazz fusion that year.
I caught up with Carrington on the phone last week, at an hour we’d appointed via email. I expected to find her in Boston, where she teaches at Berklee College of Music, but it turned out she was trapped in Europe thanks to an airline strike.
“I'm in Germany," she says, sounding slightly weary. “It's 1:30 AM here. I’m still up, but I’m a little discombobulated.”
CulturalOyster: Like a lot of jazz players, the music runs in your family – but when you were a kid women instrumentalists were rarer than diamonds, and the few who were out there were keyboardists. What drew you to pick up the drums, in particular, given the lack of role models?
Carrington: Well, my grandfather played, my father played, and when you’re young you don’t see that it’s something different, you just go with it if it speaks to you. I was seven when I started and it was just natural. As I got older I realized it was unusual, but I didn’t really care much ‘cause I always had a lot of support and encouragement.
CulturalOyster: You were still really young when you moved to New York and started playing in the big leagues – a kid pioneer in what was still a tough man’s world. Really, what you did was historic. What was that like?
Carrington: Again, I didn’t really realize I was doing it. Now it hits me. I’ll be 50 next year and it’s hitting me that I did some pretty cool things. I’m just starting to be aware of my pioneer spirit. Being the first woman to win the jazz instrumental – all that is adding up now, and I think oh, wow! When I was younger of course I realized it, but I didn’t think about it. I was just worried about the music. You know I felt in some ways like one of the guys, which worked to my advantage.
CulturalOyster: How did Jack DeJohnette come to be your mentor?
Carrington: He came to Boston to play. My dad took me to see him and we got together at a sound check, there was nobody there and I just played a little and he was super cool. He invited me up to visit him at his house. I was 17, I’d just gotten my license so I drove up there and his family embraced me. It was a great time, I met a lot of people and learned a lot.
CulturalOyster: Who else has influenced you most?
Carrington: My biggest influences are Jack and Wayne. Herbie in some ways, too, but Jack and Wayne were the most important because I got with them when I was very young and impressionable. It felt like we were like-minded, to me as well as to them. Otherwise, on drums Roy Haynes was a big influence. I learned from so many, really, all the greats – I tried to take something from each one of them. But I think we inspired each other, it’s really a circle of inspiration.
CulturalOyster: Who are you listening to – who’s got your ear these days?
Carrington: Ah, so many different things. I’ve been listening to a lot of commercial music – I really like Mali Music, it’s pop R&B. [I had to look this up – Mali Music’s the stage name for a singer/songwriter with a gospel background who’s just put out his first major-label release: http://www.malimusicofficial.com/].
At this moment I’m listening to a lot of Tony Williams [Miles’ Davis’ drummer in the ‘60s, before DeJohnette] – I’m in Germany doing a lifetime tribute to him on Saturday. I like a lot of stuff I’m hearing from newer jazz artists like [trumpeter] Christian Scott and [bassist] Alan Hampton, who used to play bass with me when he was at the Monk Institute. Now he’s more like James Taylor, for lack of a better analogy.
CulturalOyster: For the Mosaic Project – the album and since – you’ve brought together a shifting lineup of lionesses, both emerging and established. That’s hugely important, but it does suggest we’re still thinking of jazz in terms of gender. Obviously despite all our best efforts we’re still somehow living in a world of racism and machismo, but how do you see the issue of gendered jazz, and where do you see that going?
Carrinton: Like everyone else we just keep plugging away at those isms, whether it’s racism or sexism or ageism. It’s interesting, I just saw an interview with Tony Williams back in ’69 – no, I think it was ’71 – and they were asking him about the Black Panther Party and he didn’t know anything about it, it really wasn’t part of his experience. I can relate to that. I’m always asked about gender issues but it’s not part of my experience. Of course I deal with it on a daily basis like any woman in a male-dominated field, whether or not you’re directly confronted by it. I’m always on the side of what’s right, and the side of the underdog, but – musically you either like it or you don’t, no matter who’s playing it. It’s up to everybody to support the music they like. They should use their ears, not their eyes.
CulturalOyster: How is the Mosaic Project – I mean the tour, not the album – structured? How much do you take the lead, and how much collaboration goes on onstage?
Carrington: It’s my project, I wrote or arranged a lot of the music, but it has to be collaborative when you get onstage, ‘cause you’re improvising. What makes it the Mosaic Project is multiple vocalists – Lizz Wright is doing the tour a lot, and sometimes Gretchen Parlato, who’s on this one. They come onstage at different times. But I generally have a guy on bass and a guy on guitar [reader: this tour is no exception; please see my opening pararaph for the full lineup on Nov. 8]. It’s important to show that a group can be driven by women, but men and women have to work together in society and onstage too.
CulturalOyster: If you had three wishes to be granted right now, what would they be? *
Carrington: The first, world peace. The second would be health and long life, and third one – the ability to remain being creative and able to grow in the artistic environment.
* Question inspired by Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter and Gary Alderman.