Terri Lyne Carrington Transforms the Culture

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“There are plenty of guys who would vote for a woman president before hiring a woman in their band,” Terri Lyne Carrington said.

(Photo: Jimmy & Dena Katz)

What would jazz without patriarchy sound like? It’s a provocative question—and one that drummer Terri Lyne Carrington seeks to answer.

To this end, she founded the Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice at Berklee College of Music, inaugurated at an open house at the Boston campus on Oct. 30. Through the institute, Carrington, who serves as artistic director, and her board of prominent thought-leaders will help to guide select groups of music students across the rocky terrain that lies at the intersection of jazz, gender and our modern culture. No small undertaking.

To start, one must understand that “the work of achieving gender justice is not ‘women’s work,’” said Dr. Farah Jasmine Griffin, author and professor of English, comparative literature and African American studies at Columbia University. In her keynote address at the open house, she stated the case clearly: “Gender justice implies a politic where boys and girls, men and women, cis- and transgender, gender non-conforming and non-binary persons—everyone is valued equally and shares in the equitable distribution of power, knowledge and resources.”

Despite the clarity of Griffin’s explanation, the phrase “gender justice” might not conjure up ready images for many people. So, in a post-launch interview, Carrington spoke to some common misconceptions about gender justice and how the institute will enact it: No, the institute won’t be about all-female ensembles and segregating musicians into washroom categories. But it will be about musicians all along the gender spectrum—female, male, non-conforming and non-binary—working together to create music that rises above social constructs based on seeming biological differences. In large part, this work will be corrective, Carrington said, and a challenge to the basic underpinnings of patriarchy, the system by which women and non-normative individuals are disenfranchised.

“I loved how Farah commented [in the keynote] that we could have said ‘jazz without sexism’ instead of ‘jazz without patriarchy,’ except that sexism is really just a by-product of patriarchy,” Carrington said.

Patriarchy, a hot-button word in and of itself, is not a topic that often comes up in jazz circles. The omission has puzzled Carrington, given that jazz musicians were at the forefront of political activism during the civil rights era in the States.

“Why is [jazz] so ass-backwards when it comes to gender?” she asked. “Racial justice mattered to many of the people who created this music because it was affecting them directly. And gender justice may not be as important to the men at the helm of this genre. But all of these [justice issues] are interconnected. I don’t see how you can be concerned about racial justice and have no concern about gender justice.”

How men in positions of authority treat women—a core issue at the heart of many discussions about patriarchy—came to dominate the national dialogue in late 2017 with the rise of the #MeToo movement, when millions of women globally took to social media to speak out against sexual harassment and abuse at all levels of society. In joining this conversation, several female jazz musicians began to talk publicly about the harassment they had experienced at some of the country’s leading jazz schools—Berklee among them. (See sidebar on page 28.)

While the timing of the institute’s launch seems propitious in light of the #MeToo movement, Carrington had begun laying the groundwork in 2015. But the galvanizing event that spurred her to action was a meeting of the Women in Jazz Collective in 2017, during which female Berklee students spoke about the same kinds of harassment and denigration that, in the wake of #MeToo, would result in the firings of numerous high-profile men in the fields of politics, media and entertainment.

“What led me to the work [on the institute] were the stories that I heard,” Carrington, 53, said about the meeting. “It made me think that I’ve got to try to do something. Because I would get angry listening to these young women talk about [their experiences]. ... I thought, I can’t rest just because I have a nice career. And it’s more than asking, ‘What can I do about it?’ It may start there. But the problem is so huge.”

Carrington, who has a double album set for release in the spring under the banner Terri Lyne Carrington and Social Science, could be accused of modesty when assessing her career. She’s won multiple Grammys as a drummer and producer, including one for Best Jazz Instrumental Album—the first woman ever to win in the category—for Money Jungle: Provocative In Blue (Concord). She has toured and recorded with legions of jazz luminaries.

Carrington received an honorary doctorate from Berklee in 2003 and currently holds the Zildjian Chair in Performance there. She serves as artistic director for various jazz organizations and continues to record, tour and educate. In truth, it’s hard to think of any jazz drummer of her generation who’s accomplished as much.

By her own admission, though, Carrington’s experiences as a female musician have been different from those of the young women who study at Berklee today. Her father was a drummer and saxophonist; she started playing saxophone at age 5 before switching to drums. Later, she took private lessons. At 11, she attended Berklee on scholarship. As a preteen, she was working professionally and had her union card; she’d jammed with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and pianist Oscar Peterson, and received mentorship from saxophonist Wayne Shorter, drummer Jack DeJohnette and producer Quincy Jones. Because of her precocity and the benefits of tutoring during her formative years, Carrington was able early on to claim a professional spot in the male-dominated jazz scene, a spot most female musicians are denied at any age.

“It’s not that I liked being seen [as one of the guys], it’s more that I felt accepted being seen that way,” she said. “I didn’t feel that I wasn’t accepted by that community. I saw it as the way—the primary, maybe only way—to have a career. To make sure that you play as well as the next guy.

“For me, that meant that I had to embody everything that I’d heard in jazz, which also meant that [I was] embodying the male aesthetic in some way. ... That’s not just about playing louder and faster and busier. It’s about a sense of ownership in the music. Meaning, this is my music as much as it’s the next person’s music. It’s as much my music as it was for the great jazz innovators. ... I feel that way as strongly as any other person who’s ever played [jazz]. I have ownership in it, and I have a stand in it, authentically.”

Despite Carrington’s legitimate claim to mastery and the backing of several jazz titans, she found that some male musicians would default to stereotypes in their dealings with her (even, surprisingly, when she was on stage as Herbie Hancock’s drummer). Some assumed she was a singer or pianist, or perhaps the girlfriend of one of the musicians. Others would challenge her expertise, either unaware of or dismissive of her bona fides, which usually surpassed their own. Carrington was quick to note that these sorts of knee-jerk biases aren’t as bad as what some female jazz players have endured. Still, cumulatively, over time, she said, these interactions were exhausting and exacted a personal toll.

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