Regina Carter: World-Renowned Jazz Violinist Cherishes Her Detroit Roots

Regina Carter

is an accomplished jazz violinist, a Grammy-nominated performer, a native Detroiter, and an Oakland University alumna. She will be performing at OU on Sunday, February 3 with the OU Jazz Quartet in a family-friendly concert featuring music from favorite Hollywood films.
 
Carter is one of those rare individuals whose life calling happened at an early age and was nurtured from the start. She was born and raised in Detroit and started her career in music at only two years old. She started on the piano – her older brothers were taking piano lessons and one day she walked up and started playing from ear one of the pieces they had been practicing.
 
The child prodigy began lessons with Anna Love at Your Heritage House. She would play her own compositions and Love wanted to nurture that creativity, so when the Suzuki Method for Strings (a music instruction method for children) was offered for the first time in Detroit she thought it would be great for Carter.
 
Carter’s mother enrolled her in the program. “Education was extremely important in our family,” Carter says. “My mom didn’t intend on us being musicians; she just wanted us to have that background.”
 
Carter attended Cass Tech, where her good friend Carla Cook – now one of today’s most accomplished jazz vocalists – turned her onto jazz in her first year. Carter got some records of jazz violinists and Cook got them tickets to her first jazz concert. “I was really taken by the freedom, just the feeling I got being there. I wanted to have that feeling when I was playing.”

She then auditioned at the New England Conservatory of Music and was accepted. She started in the classical music department but ultimately decided she’s rather study jazz and wanted to be in Detroit where the jazz scene was extremely stong. Carter returned home and attended Oakland University, where world-renowned jazz musician Marvin “Doc” Holladay was the first director of the jazz and world music studies department at OU and, by extension, the founder of the first university-level jazz program in Michigan.
 
Through Holladay’s professional connections and by virtue of being the only school in the state with an advanced jazz program, OU attracted some big names. Carter remembers Marcus Belgrave coming in and teaching Master classes and sitting in with renowned jazz musicians like Roy Brooks and Kenny Cox.
 
“It was a really great thing for me,” she says. “The scene [in Detroit] was really thriving … I felt like it was the perfect place for me to be. And no one thought it odd that I played violin and wanted to play this music. They couldn’t really care less. Being from Detroit and being able to hone my skills with those folks was extremely beneficial.”
 
After graduating from OU and teaching strings in Detroit Public Schools, Carter moved to Europe for two years and then to New York. But no matter where she was in the world, she was never far removed from her Detroit roots, running into fellow Detroiters and mutual acquaintances as far away as Munich. She remembers colleagues joking, “What is it about Detroit that all these great musicians come out of that city?”
 
In New York, the professional foundation she received from her fellow Detroiters enabled her to stand strong, even in situations that could break a person and make them quit or go home. “That foundation made me realize that regardless, being a musician doesn’t make us holier than thou,” she says. “[I knew I had to] find the people that [were] going to help me grow and from whom [I was] going to benefit. I really cherish coming from Detroit [for that reason].”
 
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Carter has recorded numerous records throughout her professional career, including three with the all-female pop-jazz quintet Straight Ahead (which was signed to the Atlantic Records jazz label) followed by several solo releases including her 2006 album I’ll Be Seeing You, a tribute to her late mother. In 2006 she won the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, which allowed her to record her most recent release Reverse Thread, a contemporary jazz spin on traditional African music and Afropop that earned her a Grammy nomination (her second, after a collaboration with jazz pianist Kenny Barron also scored a Grammy nomination).
 
At various points in her professional career, Carter has been a teacher, a performer, a composer, a world traveler, and an award-winning musician. She has taught at public schools, universities, even a U.S. army base camp. She has worked with people like Aretha Franklin, Lauryn Hill and Mary J. Blige. She has performed in concert with a violin made in 1743 once owned by composer Niccolo Paganini (the first jazz musician to do so). Her career has continued to evolve over the years and she is now an educator and mentor with a specific interest in how music affects the brain and how people learn music, drawing on her own experiences learning the violin by the Suzuki Method.
 
She is currently an artist-in-residence at Oakland University and returns to the school each year to teach Master classes and perform. “I love my Alma Mater and Detroit. It’s been a wonderful experience for me. When you teach a course, you learn.” She is particularly interested in observing how other people learn in comparison to how she learned. “I could read music but when it came to the theory part – I’m surprised I even got out of school, but my ear is so strong.” She had to understand for herself that all mechanisms of learning are equally valid, so long as they are effective. “All of us learn differently and how we learn is how we learn, as long as we get [there]. I was the only one getting in my own way and judging.”
 
Carter enjoys working directly with the students, especially at OU’s summer camps (which students don’t need to audition for in order to participate). “They really learn to get past being intimidated by the music and they also learn to help each other.” She believes that we are all teachers and benefit the most when helping each other learn. At the summer camp students learn instruments that are new to many of them, including the steel drums. “They really get an experience. It all ties in – it’s all music. It doesn’t matter what music background you come from. You get to stretch out and do things you’ve never done before.”
 
Carter herself will get right in there alongside her students and learns these new instruments too. “They see us making mistakes and it really helps their self-esteem … we have these thoughts and create this [myth around musicians], forgetting that they’re human.”
 
As she becomes increasingly more interested in the pedagogical aspect of music, Carter’s career is coming full-circle in a way that pays homage to her earliest days and her earliest source of support and inspiration: her mother, who was so passionate about her learning. “Learning how I learned is like someone saying, ‘How did you learn to talk?’ I’m still not sure exactly how I want to use it but I know it will be revealed to me in due time.” She still volunteers with hospice patients, which she says really puts her life, and her concerns of intimidation and insecurity, into perspective.
 
Carter is currently working on a new music project called Southern Comfort, an exploration of her family’s ancestry through her own interpretations of Southern music. In the meantime, audiences can see her person with the OU Jazz Quartet, a faculty group comprised of respected local jazz musicians including Miles Brown, Mark Stone and Sean Dobbins, on Sunday, February 3 at 1 p.m. at Varner Recital Hall on the OU campus. They’ll be performing music from popular, family-friendly movies like Cinderella, Toy Story, Cars, the Lion King and more. Afterwards they’ll take questions and talk to the kids about what they do, “Not only to understand the instruments but how music influences the films they watch and how if that music wasn’t there they might not have the same feeling – how music is such a large part of what we experience and feel in our lives.”
 
Attendees are encouraged to dress as their favorite movie characters, and Carter promises that everyone will still be home to watch the Superbowl that night. “You can come and go home before the game even comes on; no excuses!”

For ticket information, click here