Regina Carter is a musician I have admired for years. She’s a jazz violinist and composer whose performances are electrifying. When I found out that a friend could connect me with her, I jumped at the chance. Interviewing her was like speaking with an old friend. She was warm, friendly, and open.
When Regina plays, she radiates exuberance. As she told me, “There’s so much joy when I play music. It’s a gift.”
Although she trained as a classical violinist, Regina primarily plays jazz now. But her first instrument was a piano, which she gravitated to at the very young age of two.
“My brothers are six and eight years older than I am. They were both taking piano lessons. At age two, when one of them was having a lesson, I walked up and started playing one of the pieces they had been working on. The teacher asked: ‘Who taught her that?’ They said: ‘No one. We didn’t know she could play.’ They were all shocked. This teacher tested me and found that I had an ear to play back whatever I heard.”
Because both education and music were important in her family, her mother found a teacher willing to give Regina lessons. The Suzuki Method (a philosophy based on the idea that all children possess abilities that can be developed through support) was offered for the first time in Detroit when Regina was four. Her piano teacher told her mother that Suzuki would be perfect for Regina because students learn to play by ear, in the same way children learn to speak.
“I just fell in love with the violin. I loved being on stage. The rest is history.”
Regina studied classical violin all the way through college, but, sometimes, her “ear” and love of improvisation got her into trouble.
“I would go to my lessons at the New England Conservatory, and I’d be playing a Bach partita. My teacher kept stopping me, and he would say that’s not how it goes, it’s meant to be like this. That’s how Bach wrote it to be. One day I knew this was the turning point when I said, ‘How do you know? Did you talk to him?’ As my mother would say, ‘there goes that mouth again’. I knew then. I wanted to have my own voice.”
Interest in jazz began in high school. “One of my dearest friends, a great jazz vocalist Carla Cook, brought me three records of jazz violinists. That just turned my world around.” Later in our conversation, she elaborated on that introduction to jazz violin. “I think the music spoke to me on a certain level. Just the fact that I can improvise and have my own voice in the music.” Regina grew up in Detroit, which had a vibrant jazz scene, helping to cement her love of the art form, as well as introducing her to a wide range of music and musicians.
One of the world’s greatest violinists reinforced her desire to play jazz violin. “In high school, my quartet had a master class with Yehudi Menuhin. He was in town playing with the Detroit Symphony. My teacher said: ‘She wants to play jazz and ruin her career.’ Mr. Menuhin picked up his violin and played a little blues lick, and said: ‘Leave her alone.’ I was forever grateful to him for that.”
Throughout her career, Regina has pushed the boundaries of what is possible on the violin.
Throughout her career, Regina has pushed the boundaries of what is possible on the violin. She’s performed, recorded and toured with a diverse group of musicians, including Ray Brown, Aretha Franklin, Lauren Hill, Billy Joel, Dolly Parton and Chucho Valdés.
“Because I grew up with so many different musical influences and styles, I feel like a bit of a chameleon.”
Regina’s first big breakthrough was touring with Wynton Marsalis in 1995 and playing his Blood on the Fields jazz oratorio. Since then, she’s received numerous awards. A few weeks before we spoke, she’d been honored at the Kennedy Center as a 2023 recipient of a NEA Jazz Masters’ Fellowship. That award is one of many she has won, including a MacArthur Fellowship, Doris Duke Artist Award, not to mention her three Grammy nominations. When I asked her about those awards, Regina told me: “Receiving these awards is huge. It’s like a green light for me from the universe, saying, okay, you’re on the right track, doing what you’re supposed to be doing.”
Another highlight for Carter was playing Paganini’s Guarneri violin. She was the first jazz musician to play the instrument. These days she plays a German trade violin. “I was at a violin shop years ago, tested out a bunch of violins. It was that violin that spoke to me, and it fit my pocketbook.”
Despite her many successes, Regina’s achievements didn’t come overnight. She told me: “My mother kept every single piece of news article photograph since I was born. I have books, thick albums of everything in my life. Sometimes it’s fun to just sit down, flip through them and say, you know, this has been a long journey. It didn’t just happen.”
When she put out her first album, jazz radio stations refused to play it. They told her their audiences didn’t like violin. Then, a friend from Detroit who worked at a smooth jazz station remixed her record and she started getting play. Later, after she went on tour with Wynton Marsalis, she got a lot of attention from the traditional jazz worlds.
When she put out her first album, jazz radio stations refused to play it. They told her their audiences didn’t like violin.
Her advice to aspiring musicians was far reaching. “I think all aspiring musicians should take a business class. It should be a required course, because what we do is a business, and no one teaches us that. I would tell them to diversify, as far as learning different styles of music, so that you can work when you get out here. Learn as much as you can, especially composition, because that’s where you make your money and royalties. Find your tribe, folks that are going to be there, have your back.”
I attended Regina’s concert, Gone in a Phrase of Air, in New York City. Gone in a Phrase of Air is a multi-modal exploration into the destruction of African American communities across the United States using music, spoken word, and visual imagery. Regina and her quintet have been touring with it across the country. “It won’t let me go. I feel like I’m just starting to get a little bit of traction with it.”
“Gone in a Phrase of Air started in Black Bottom (Detroit); my mother was born and raised there. She told all these stories about her community, how it was so close knit, and then when the 1956 Highway Act was signed, highways came through and it was destroyed.” She continued: “I started doing research and realized the 1956 Highway Act destroyed a lot of Black and immigrant communities across the United States. It was just one form of segregation and redlining. It is an important story to tell.”
Musically and emotionally, the Gone in a Phrase of Air experience was riveting. Regina on violin with bassist Chris Lightcap, pianist Xavier Davis, drummer Alvester Garnett, and vocalist Miche Braden, enveloped the audience in a blanket of gorgeous music. The story, largely unknown, was haunting. The well-deserved standing ovation went on for a very long time!
© Karen Gershowitz (6/5/23) Special for FF2 Media®
LEARN MORE/DO MORE
To learn more about Regina’s work, be sure to visit her website.
Learn more about the Suzuki Method here.
CREDITS & PERMISSIONS
Featured Photo: Taken by Chris Drukker and used with permission.
Bottom Photo: Regina’s Southern Comfort album cover.