Terri Lyne Carrington Interview: Foregrounding Women In Jazz

There’s been a concerted effort the last few years to address the gender imbalance in jazz, on the bandstand and in the studio but particularly in education. A lot of the heavy lifting in this ongoing process has been done by drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, and a major step forward is coming this month. Born in Massachusetts, Carrington studied at Berklee College of Music, after which she moved to New York, where she was affiliated with the M-BASE collective alongside saxophonists Steve Coleman and Greg Osby, among others, and then to Los Angeles, where she was the drummer for the Arsenio Hall Show band. She’s released about 10 albums as a leader and appeared on dozens of others with artists including Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Diana Krall, Esperanza Spalding, Cassandra Wilson, George Duke, and more.

Carrington received an honorary doctorate from Berklee in 2003 and became a professor there in 2007. She is currently the artistic director of the Berklee Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice, which she founded. It’s under that aegis that she’s put together a book, out now from veteran music publishers Hal Leonard. New Standards contains 101 compositions by women, including Carla Bley, Alice Coltrane, Brandee Younger, Ingrid Laubrock, Hiromi, Jaimie Branch, Sylvie Courvoisier, Marilyn Crispell and 93 others. She’s also recorded 11 of the pieces — by Bley, Sara Cassey, Gretchen Parlato, Shamie Royston, Elaine Elias, Abbey Lincoln, Patricia Perez, Marta Sanchez, Anat Cohen, Younger and Crispell — for New Standards, Vol. 1, out now on Candid Records. (See more about that below.)

I called Carrington a couple of weeks ago to talk about the whole New Standards project and her career overall, as well as her other new album, Live At The Detroit Jazz Festival, documenting a 2017 concert with Wayne Shorter, pianist Leo Genovese, and bassist/singer Esperanza Spalding. (The clip above is from a 2014 concert in Poland by the same group, joined by Herbie Hancock.) It was a fascinating conversation. Note: This interview took place before Jaimie Branch’s death, so we speak of her in the present tense below.

So you’ve put together a book of compositions by female jazz musicians. Tell me about the project and how it came together.

TERRI LYNE CARRINGTON: Well, I started the Institute at Berklee, and when we had our very first open event, four years ago, I asked students playing the event to play some songs written by women, and they looked in the Real Book and the only song they could find was “Willow Weep For Me” by Ann Ronell, and I think at that moment it became my first initiative. And the president of the college at the time, he cracked a joke and said, “Yeah, we need to make a book.” So I said, We need to counter this with songs written by women. And he laughed and said, “Yeah, we’ll call it the Get Real Book.” He and I always joked about that, but I kept thinking about it, and compiling composers that I wanted to include.

Did you reach out to all the composers individually, or did you just put a call out and wait for the music to roll in?

CARRINGTON: No, I carefully selected the people and I mean, I emailed most everybody. We had some volunteers working at our institute, but that was basically after I had chosen everybody, because we needed help then getting the material into [scoring software] Finale and before I could even bring it to Berklee Press they had to see it a certain way, so we had twenty volunteers or something like that step in, students and faculty, helping us get all these — it was going to be 100 songs, but it turned into 101 because I miscounted or something [laughs]. Anyway, we had help getting it formatted, which took a while. This process has been going on for a couple of years, before the pandemic. I wanted it to have different levels represented, so somebody in high school could find songs they could play and someone who’s the most consummate professional could find songs that would challenge them. And different styles within jazz could be represented. So there’s blues, there’s South American and Afro-Cuban music, there’s ballads, there’s odd time signatures, there’s what we call post-bop, there’s people who consider themselves new music composers or contemporary composers, there’s all these different styles represented.

But you mentioned Finale — they’re all written in traditional notation? There’s no graphic scores or anything like that?

CARRINGTON: There’s Jaimie Branch. We have one graphic score from Jaimie Branch. I wanted to make sure we had at least one graphic score.

I know her pieces tended to be just little sketches worked through with the band, so I wasn’t sure how that would transition to paper.

CARRINGTON: Yeah, exactly. And it’s really beautiful to see her write it out, her sketch of it, and how she composes like that. I mean, it’s — I love her work, I love what she’s done, so I’m happy that we’re able to include her score. And there’s some other stuff in there that’s a bit more complicated, like [pieces by] Ingrid Laubrock and Sylvie Courvoisier. Her piece is probably – it’s a good, challenging piece, and then there’s one other that’s challenging.

There’s a piece by Hiromi, too; I know her stuff is often quite complex, progressive fusion.

CARRINGTON: Yeah, she sent one of her easier pieces, which I thought was great, ’cause it will give people that are fans of hers a chance to play one of her pieces. There’s one of Esperanza Spalding’s easier pieces in there as well, just because there’s a lot of people that might want to play her music, young people that need an entryway.

Do you encourage the musicians you mentor and work with to compose, generally? What do you think writing your own music gives you, as an artist, that interpretation doesn’t?

CARRINGTON: Yeah, I try to encourage our students to write, of course, because that helps you develop your own voice, both as a writer and a player. They tend to go hand in hand, but the students that we have, we’re a performance-based program at Berklee, and there’s a lot of going back and forth between tradition and new music and just improvisation, so [we’re] trying to get the tools together so that people can work, go out on the road with people and learn that way. Because I think you become a better player when you’re an apprentice, when you have an apprenticeship with someone else, and often what’s happened with women musicians is they’ve kind of started as leaders very early because they didn’t have as much opportunity to develop with somebody that could really mentor them onstage. So I also want to prepare them to work with others, so that they can really develop a bit in the tradition of developing with people that are better than you and can teach you.

How did you choose the pieces that you interpreted for the album? What were the determining factors?

CARRINGTON: I just, after going through all of these songs by all of these people, some of course just really stood out to me, and you know, if I found that I was humming something, then I knew that it was something that really spoke to me on a deep level. ‘Cause when you’re listening to 100 songs, but you leave humming a few of them, it doesn’t mean the others aren’t great, because I picked songs that I stand behind on various levels, but there were some that spoke to my own musical aesthetic, I guess. I wanted this first album — ’cause the goal is to eventually have all of the music recorded from the book. I don’t have to be the artist, maybe the producer or the executive producer, whatever, but I want other people to be invested in playing this music, so I want to try to make that happen. That’s why it’s called Volume 1, so we can have up to nine volumes. So for this first one I wanted to have variety, but we might come out with one that’s all blues, or one that’s all South American and Afro-Cuban music, or one that feels more post-bop.

The Marilyn Crispell piece that ends the album, “Rounds,” might be the free-est thing I’ve ever heard you play on. How would you describe your approach to free music, as a drummer?

CARRINGTON: That’s an interesting question. I really fall out of the Jack DeJohnette school of playing, and he also has played quite a bit of free music over the years. He was always my biggest mentor on the drums in general, and one of my favorite recordings is one of his later ones, Made In Chicago. Are you familiar with that?

https://tidal.com/browse/track/77720194

Yeah, with Henry Threadgill and Roscoe Mitchell and Muhal Richard Abrams.

CARRINGTON: That first piece, written by Muhal, is so deep. I can’t get past the first piece. I keep going back, ’cause it’s so amazing. It’s very long, and I often play it for my students just to make them have the patience to listen. It’s amazingly long, and the fact that all these men were in their seventies and eighties, playing with this kind of energy, just really blows my mind.

Something I hear in your playing, and I also hear it in Jack DeJohnette, is a strong rock feel even while you’re swinging. Can you talk about the development of your style?

CARRINGTON: Well, first, I wouldn’t say rock, I would say funk. When I grew up, I was definitely dealing with a lot of funk music. My father started me listening, when I first sat down to the drum set, to rhythm and blues, shuffles mainly. Jimmy Smith, Jack McDuff, Richard “Groove” Holmes, but also James Brown, things that just felt good. So he instilled the blues in me before anything else, and I feel that comes out, basically. And I was playing mostly just straight ahead all through high school, and then I got to college and someone turned me on to the Art Ensemble of Chicago. I started opening up in college, still playing mostly straight ahead but coming more out of Miles and Coltrane, Elvin Jones, Roy Haynes, all that school.

And then I went to New York, and I was playing with Clark Terry, but I started hanging out when M-BASE was created. I moved to Brooklyn and started playing more on that scene, and I think that very much influenced me as well. It felt like rhythmically that stuff was funky, but in odd times and all these things. That kind of groove nature of it really spoke to me, but it also challenged me with odd time signatures and melodies that were kind of angular. And I think today, my writing has been very influenced by that — I did it my way, but it was influenced by that stuff. So I’m still developing and growing as an artist, and as a composer. I’m still developing in a lot of different ways. But that funky thing is just part of my roots. I think no matter if I’m playing free or in time or jazz or grooves, I think there’s a dance to it. And the dance is the sheer natural body rhythm that can happen when you’re playing out of time.

In addition to New Standards, you’ve got this live album out with Wayne Shorter. Obviously that was five years ago, so what were your memories of that gig before you had to listen back to the recording and approve it?

CARRINGTON: We felt it was special [then]. I remember Esperanza and Wayne and myself sitting, right after we played in the hotel lobby, getting ready to have something to drink or eat, and we just kind of looked at each other and I had that feeling of, Did you feel it too? Sometimes you just know when something’s special. There’s very few live gigs of mine that I feel are consistent enough from beginning to end to put out. This one was; we just had a connection, and I think as I said in the press release, it’s the connection of our lives over time. It’s more than just a musical connection, it’s more than just a likemindedness. We do have some of that too, a likemindedness about what’s cool that helps when you play music with people, but also a life connection, a personal connection. We allow space for each other and support each other and love each other, and I think that all comes out.

When you’re working with someone as legendary as Wayne Shorter, what kind of expectations and anticipation do you have going in? Is there part of you that’s like, man, I hope he does this, because if he does, I’m gonna do this and it’s gonna be awesome? Is there a fangirl element?

CARRINGTON: [laughs] No, I’ve known Wayne since I was 21, and I’m 57, so that’s 36 years. So I mean, don’t get me wrong, I still remain a fan, but I think even back then, I was always trying to serve the music and the bandleader in a way like, what can I bring, how do I complement this, and it can’t be from a place of being scared, or a place of oh, what’s he going to like? It has to be with a certain confidence of, I’m here for a reason, so what can I bring? And in the early years, that was very difficult; I’ve left many gigs feeling like I was shitty. But I would complain after the gigs and one night, Wayne said, “Music is just a drop in the ocean of life.” He basically told me, stop trippin’. And it really cured me. I was like, yeah, let me develop my life, and the music will come, and I don’t need to be so focused on myself. And I’ve been able to approach most music like that. I still feel like I’m my own biggest critic in so many things, and I’m doing so many things now [that] I don’t have a chance to practice, but I do feel like I’ve developed in many other ways, so the music is still developing and my consciousness is still developing. So that’s all there. But playing with Wayne has been one of the greatest pleasures of my life. And Herbie [Hancock] as well. But Wayne is such a special artist and human being, I’ve learned so much. He’s like a spiritual mentor as well as a musical mentor. He’s a genius, there’s no denying that, and when you hang out with geniuses, you’re hoping some of it rubs off.

You’re doing a lot of work at Berklee, and with this book and album, to adjust the gender balance in jazz. Do you see progress?

CARRINGTON: I absolutely do see progress. I’m actually amazed at how fast I’m seeing it. And very happy about that. Many artists are taking responsibility to help change gender in equity in jazz by hiring women, or having a different attitude toward non-male players. We need to see it change even more in school programs, but my thought is that most musicians are progressive, or at least want to be. And they see that it’s time for a change. 


So do you feel that it will be less of an issue with the coming generations of players, not just students but people in their twenties and thirties?

CARRINGTON: Of course, I’m hoping that it will be less of an issue every year. Those who are students now will become teachers one way or another. People who are young, living in this age of gender nonconformity, won’t be shocked to see a trans or non-binary person playing jazz. I tend to be optimistic, so I think the generation today won’t have the same issues that the older generations have had.

It already seems to me, as a writer, that the jazz press treats female instrumentalists as equals more often now than in the past, and gives them the same type of coverage as their male peers. But do you think it will eventually become a non-issue?

CARRINGTON: What you’re saying is aspirational, and we have to be that way, but it is not quite to the point of being a non-issue. Of course, I can’t wait for the day that our institute is not needed anymore. But that might not happen until patriarchy has been shut down. Will that ever happen? I’m not sure about that. So we may always need social activism that focuses on gender equity. It would be great if the jazz community got there quicker than other communities, and that we could be a shining example to others. But all of this is yet to be told. 

What would that even look like, from your perspective?

CARRINGTON: If you’re asking what it would look like if gender equity is a non-issue in jazz, then it would mean that there is gender balance on the stages, in the studios, and behind the scenes, on the business end as well. How many women have not developed fully because they didn’t have access, or mentorship, or support, or someone advocating for them? Having an extra burden, in comparison to our male counterparts, is simply not fair. So women need to have the freedom and support to be creative, to do their best work. And we all have to be open to a sound of jazz that includes a woman’s aesthetic. We have to be open to the sound of the music evolving in that way.

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