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)

“[Bassist] Esperanza [Spalding] articulated it beautifully at a roundtable discussion at Winter Jazzfest [in 2018]. How [as women players] we have this guard up, and how [playing together with the late Geri Allen, the pianist in their trio] was the first time that we didn’t have any guard up at all. Fending off a little comment, a slight unwanted advance—they’re just small things, but guys don’t have to deal with them. Or just having to prove yourself [again and again] or feeling like you’re being judged. Working through all those things while on the stage trying to be creative is a lot. It’s energy that pulls you away from creativity. People will say that it’s just in your own head, but that’s not true.”

By the time Carrington met Spalding, she’d worked with only a few female musicians of her own caliber—among them Allen (1957—2017), the first regularly gigging female instrumentalist she’d ever met, and trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, whom Carrington befriended after graduating from Berklee as an undergraduate and moving to New York in 1983. At the time, early in her career, Carrington was solidly entrenched with “the greatest jazz musicians around,” all male, and so she eschewed opportunities to play in all-women projects and festivals. “I didn’t want to be pigeonholed,” she explained.

But the first time Carrington played with Spalding, she had an epiphany that precipitated a shift in her own consciousness regarding female musicians. “The bass and drum connection is so strong, so important ... and I felt [a synergy] from the moment I played with Esperanza,” she explained. “She’s the first female player that I had this kind of synergy with. There was a joy in it, because it was a piece of the puzzle that had been missing for me.

“I had a gig coming up in Israel and I asked Geri Allen to play, and Esperanza, and Tineke Postma, who is a Dutch saxophone player. When I booked these musicians for this gig, I didn’t realize that they were all women. I didn’t do it on purpose; it just happened that way. That was for me a signal that things had shifted. Not just for me personally, but also in the music. There were more and more women playing that I just really wanted to play with.”

Following this impulse, Carrington decided to use these musicians as the unit for an album that she wanted to produce. “But it wasn’t a political thing—it wasn’t a statement of any sort, other than celebrating the talent of all of these women I had been playing with,” she maintained.

That 2011 record, The Mosaic Project (Concord), would go on to earn Carrington her first Grammy and to garner ample media attention. To her chagrin, much of the album’s coverage focused on the fact that the performers all were women—before assaying any commentary on their performances. “I think it’s a good record, no matter who was playing on it,” she stressed.

It was only through discussions with author and educator Angela Y. Davis that Carrington came to see The Mosaic Project as a kind of activism in its own right. “A long view of history reveals that musicians and other artists play crucial roles in encouraging social change,” Davis wrote in an email from Brazil, where she was attending the Brazilian National Congress of Black Women Against Racism, Violence and For Life. “And jazz has always been linked to quests for justice, sometimes in terms of content, but almost always in terms of form. Jazz always reminds us that we have the potential to imagine something very new.”

This vision of “something very new,” according to Carrington and her advisors—Davis among them—is what drives the institute, from its name to its mission. “I love the slogan of the institute—‘Jazz Without Patriarchy,’” Davis added. “Pushing jazz to imagine what it can potentially become when patriarchal obstacles are removed allows us to think not only about the benefit to women, but to the entire field. ... [A]chieving gender justice will allow the music itself to become something new. For those who might assume that this quest is to assimilate women into a musical field that remains the same, we need to emphasize that this is about transformation—not assimilation.”

Undertaking cultural transformation at an institutional level can be a daunting task. Case in point: Carrington and the institute’s managing director, ethnomusicologist Aja Burrell Wood, observed just how deeply gender bias colors common perceptions of jazz musicians in the responses they received to a display at the Berklee library. Wood asked students to post the names of their favorite female jazz musicians, and almost all of the posted names were those of well-known singers like Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Stacey Kent. Only a few students posted names of female instrumentalists.

“I was bothered by that,” Carrington admitted. “But Aja said that this gives us a good idea [of what we’re facing]. This proves our point. So, let’s ask this question again in a couple of years and see if we have some improvement in looking for female musicians outside of the singer category.”

What the library display demonstrates is that even at one of the most prestigious jazz schools in the country, expected gender roles dictate, even if only implicitly, that men play instruments and women sing, with some exceptions allowed for women who play piano, violin or flute. Gendered instruments is “another thing that we need to move away from,” Carrington asserted. “There are a lot of women who were great singers who also played [instruments], and who knows how they would have developed as players if the culture had been different.”

For the coming generation, the institute will provide that different culture, where all musicians will have the space and structure to develop artistically in whatever direction suits them, even if—perhaps especially if—that direction is against expectations. Bucking cultural expectations in favor of authentic artistic expression is how the institute will challenge what Carrington called the “defined norm”—the standard-bearer against which all others are judged. “The defined norm, as I know it, is white, Christian, male, straight, able-bodied and with resources. That tends to be what we’re struggling against,” Carrington contended, going on to label as “totally ridiculous” the notion that good ideas, musical or otherwise, only can manifest through one gender or race.

In Carrington’s vision, challenging the defined norm at the institute won’t be about limiting any one group, but rather about opening up all areas of jazz to those previously deemed outsiders—not only because it’s the fair thing to do, but to prepare for a rapidly changing world. In a March 2017 Time magazine poll, 20 percent of millennials reported that they do not consider themselves cisgender (aligned with the gender assigned at birth) or straight. Additionally, U.S. Census statistics indicate a gradual decrease in the white population relative to populations of color, such that the white population could be in the minority by 2045—just about the time that current first-year Berklee students will be hitting their mid-career stride.

The rise in visibility of women and people of color in other professions—law, medicine, politics—suggests that the defined norm is shifting, but “a lot more quickly than in the jazz field,” Carrington observed, noting that compared to most other professional schools, music schools are behind the curve when it comes to diversity and inclusion.

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Gregory Porter
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