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2020 NEA JAZZ MASTERS:
A Q&A with Music Director Terri Lyne Carrington

September 14, 2020 | by Richard Scheinin

Terri Lyne Carrington

The fifth of our Wayne Shorter Celebration streaming concerts on Fridays at Five features the Wayne Shorter Quartet filmed in April 2017 with drummer Terri Lyne Carrington standing in for Brian Blade. We look baack at this final installment of a series of Q&A posts by SFJAZZ Staff Writer Richard Scheinin in which he spoke to drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, Music Director of the 2020 NEA Jazz Masters Online Tribute Concert, hosted by SFJAZZ. In advance of the concert that was broadcast on Aug. 20, Scheinin also posted conversations with 2020 Jazz Masters Reggie Workman, Dorthaan Kirk, and Roscoe Mitchell.

Master drummer Terri Lyne Carrington has played with everybody.

Her appointment as Music Director for the 2020 NEA Jazz Masters Tribute Concert is a no-brainer. Carrington knows the music from the inside out. The granddaughter of drummer Matt Carrington, who performed with Duke Ellington and Fats Waller, she was born with “the bug for jazz,” she says. “And I had access through my dad,” Boston-based saxophonist Sonny Carrington. As a child, she sat in with Clark Terry, Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. They spotted her talents and mentored her. And her career took off. The list of artists with whom she has toured or recorded through the years is a long one. It includes Stan Getz, Carlos Santana, Dizzy Gillespie, Herbie Hancock, and Oscar Peterson. It also includes—and this is just a sampling—Natalie Cole, Cassandra Wilson, Wayne Shorter, Geri Allen, Al Jarreau, Patrice Rushen, Pharoah Sanders, David Murray, Dianne Reeves, Peabo Bryson, Aaron Parks and Esperanza Spalding.

A young Terri Lyne Carrington sits in with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers

Given that track record, she understands the history of the music and what it takes to achieve mastery. And she brings that understanding to her role as Music Director of the tribute show, which originally was to have been performed live on stage in April at the SFJAZZ Center in San Francisco. With the onset of the pandemic, plans changed. The tribute concert will now happen online on August 20 (details below), and Carrington has played a key role in making this digital event feel much like a live one.

She has coordinated the production of musical performances that vibrate with energy. As an example, in honoring 2020 Jazz Master Dorthaan Kirk—the jazz advocate and radio guru—Carrington convened a group of musicians to perform the music of Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Dorthaan’s late husband. Trombonist Steve Turre performed at his home in New Jersey; saxophonist James Carter was in Detroit; pianist Gerald Clayton sat at a keyboard in Los Angeles; bassist Kanoa Mendenhall was in Monterey, CA; and Carrington played her drums in Boston. When you log in to the streaming concert, you may be surprised: Despite being physically separated by hundreds or even thousands of miles, the musicians sound as if they are performing together—almost like a “normal” band. And for good measure, when they appear on screen, Rahsaan (in a video snippet) seems to perform alongside them.

Speaking from her home in Boston, where she teaches at the Berklee College of Music, Carrington explained the ins and outs of the virtual production process. She also talked about her connections to the 2020 NEA Jazz Masters. She has known Dorthaan Kirk for 50 years and recalls a barbecue where Rahsaan, who was blind, played basketball. She has performed—no surprise—with vocalist Bobby McFerrin and bassist Reggie Workman who, she reveals, does pushups before gigs.

    Terri Lyne Carrington + Social Science - NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert

She doesn’t know saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell personally. But while living in Brooklyn in the 1980s, she was mentored by the late trumpeter Lester Bowie, who played with Mitchell in the Art Ensemble of Chicago. In our conversation, Carrington described the arc of her career—how she has increasingly gravitated toward situations in which she improvises from scratch, without pre-conceived formats. Many of Carrington’s fans associate her with ferocious grooves—say, behind Herbie Hancock on “Chameleon.” But after decades of experience, Carrington also feels a deep affinity for the open-ended music of Mitchell, Bowie and others who emerged from Chicago’s groundbreaking Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. Roscoe, she says, is “a master.”

She is full of surprises—and, naturally, she is a good friend of singer Dee Dee Bridgewater, who hosts the tribute concert and is herself an NEA Jazz Master, a member of the class of 2017.

Here’s our conversation with Terri Lyne Carrington, who began by describing the production process for the NEA show.

Q: I have a feeling this was a long and complicated process. How’d you do it?

A: (laughs) A little bit of magic.

Q: Did you work around the clock, putting the tracks together?

A: Yeah, I was up a few nights until 4 am, trying to make these deadlines. When you’re working with all these other people—of course, everybody waits to the last minute. So you’re just trying to assemble it in this new paradigm and trying to make it feel like we played together. And it’s harder to do that in jazz, I think, than in other genres where they’re used to stacking their tracks (during the production phase). But in jazz, it’s that feeling that you get from playing together, and I just did my best to get that feeling.

Q: What was the basic process?

A: I basically started off with a Finale demo of the pieces and I played drums with the demo and I was able to send that—so at least everybody was able to hear live drums. And then the people start stacking their parts, and they’re kind of playing to my feel.

Q: Just so people know: Finale is a software program that lets you notate the music— and it has a synthesizer feature that plays the music back for you. So that became your demo, and you then recorded yourself on drums, playing along with the demo.

A: But I didn’t use Finale for everything. For the Rahsaan medley, I wanted to create a six-minute form, and I based that directly on Rahsaan’s recordings: “Bright Moments” and “Dorthaan’s Walk” and “Volunteered Slavery.”

Clockwise from top left: Steve Turre, James Carter, Terri Lyne Carrington, Kanoa Mendenhall, Gerald Clayton

Q: So you pulled six minutes out of his recordings of those three tunes—you picked the parts you needed and edited them together to create the form for the band’s medley?

A: Right, and I played drums to the recordings. And when I sent that to Kanoa Mendenhall, the bass player, I kept the drums in the left channel and Rahsaan’s records on the right. And she basically had two options—to listen to me alone, or to listen to me and the records together.

Q: So she recorded her part and sent it back to you—and now you’ve got the drums, the bass and Rahsaan.

A: And I sent that to the great Gerald Clayton, and he can just listen and play the piano.

Q: So you keep stacking parts, building the music, player by player. And at the same time, you’ve got the video component. Everyone who watches the NEA tribute show will see you and the other musicians on the screen. You’re each in a separate “box,” side by side on the screen, so it kind of looks like you’re all playing together.

A: Another bit of magic.

Q: Who filmed you?

A: Everybody had to videotape themselves while they were playing.

Q: There’s this moment in the Rahsaan medley when James Carter is getting deep into his solo. He plays this multi-phonic thing, hitting several notes at the same time. And when he does that, his image splinters and multiplies—suddenly we’re looking at several images of James Carter playing his saxophone. It’s a great effect.

A: I didn’t have anything to do with that! That’s the film people.

With the video, you’re really just talking about sync—syncing the images to the music. So the only thing I did was to watch and say where it’s not lining up.

I asked all the musicians to do two takes, so I would have options for what to use, and I sometimes would go back and forth between takes on one track. So after the track was finished, I would tell the film people: “At a minute-30, that’s take one, and at a minute-45, it’s take two.” That’s how they would know how to edit the video to match the music.

Q: Complicated

A: Yeah, very complicated

Q: Musically speaking, are you happy with the results?

A: I wanted to make it feel like we were a band in a studio playing. I wasn’t expecting to sound like a working band that’s been playing together for 10 years. But there’s a certain thing people have when you’re playing live; as the producer, I wanted to make sure it had that feeling.

Of course, the problem with producers is that you always want to try something over. I think it was Quincy Jones who said, “You’re never finished with a mix; you just abandon it.” Same thing with a production; you eventually have to abandon it.

But yes, I think we came very close to sounding like we were in the same room.

Q: Tell me about your relationships with the people on the show. Who do you know best?

A: Dee Dee, I know best. Dorthaan, I know the longest.

             Rahsaan Roland Kirk: "Volunteered Slavery" - Paris, 1972

Q: You used to sit in with Rahsaan when you were a little girl. Is that when you met Dorthaan?

A: Yes, I met Dorthaan when I was five years old, because Rahsaan used to let me come on stage every time he came to Boston. So I was on stage, shaking the tambourine on “Volunteered Slavery.” And a year or two later, I started playing alto (saxophone) and he let me play that—just playing a riff, because I couldn’t really play much. And when I was seven or eight, I started playing drums and that’s when I began to discover where my true talent, or interest, lay, and he let me play drums with him. He was so encouraging every time he came to town, and it helped that my Dad knew him.

Q: Hang on: You played tambourine with Rahsaan on “Volunteered Slavery” when you were five years old? And now, 50 years later, you’re playing tambourine again on “Volunteered Slavery,” this time with your virtual band on the NEA show—and with Rahsaan who’s also on the screen, singing along in an old video clip. Talk about coming full circle!

A: Exactly. I meant to tell that to SFJAZZ in case they wanted that in my introduction for the show. But I totally forgot!

Q: Anyway, getting back to Dorthaan Kirk—you were just this little kid when you met her.

A: Oh yeah, we have pictures. I remember the small things, like going to a cookout with Rahsaan and Dorthaan in the neighborhood where I grew up—watching him play basketball.

Q: How could he play basketball?

A: Somebody would tap the basketball hoop with a key and he could hear where the hoop was. And I remember being curious, because he was blind. It’s funny, the things I remember—like watching him eat a turkey sandwich. It was around Thanksgiving time, I think, and he had cranberry sauce on the sandwich and I had never seen that before. Now you see people do that all the time. But for me as a kid, it was like really wild for me to see cranberry sauce on a turkey sandwich.

Q: About playing basketball—could Rahsaan sink a shot?

A: I believe so!

Dee Dee Bridgewater

Q: And coming back to Dee Dee Bridgewater—when did you meet her?

A: I met Dee Dee not that long after Rahsaan—and it was pretty much at the same club in Boston. We had Paul’s Mall and the Jazz Workshop, two clubs in one building. You’d walk down these stairs on Boylston Street and Fred Taylor would stand there and take your admission. And if you walked straight ahead, you were in Paul’s Mall, and if you took a right, you were in the Jazz Workshop, where Rahsaan played. And there was a way through the kitchen—they shared a joint kitchen, and I’d go back and forth. And I met Dee Dee back then; I was probably 10 or 11 and she was at Paul’s Mall. Paul’s Mall tended to have the singers; like I sat in at Paul’s Mall with B.B. King, Grover Washington, Jr., Les McCann—and Dee Dee, too, I think. Whereas the Jazz Workshop, I would sit in with Rahsaan, Elvin Jones—oh boy, everybody. Art Farmer. Roy Haynes.

Q: And did you talk to Dee Dee when you were 10 or 11?

A: Oh yeah, she tells the story all the time—about how I said to her, “When I grow up, I want to play with you.” And we did! And the next time I ran into her I was 18 and playing with Clark Terry. We were on a bill together, the same festival in the south of France. We’ve had a long association; she’s been a great friend.

I actually spoke in Dee Dee’s behalf when she was honored at the Kennedy Center a few years ago—when she was named an NEA Jazz Master. At the last minute, the speaker who’d been scheduled—opera singer Jessye Norman—couldn’t come. So I was asked to give some remarks about Dee Dee.

Q: What did you say?

A: I explained how I met her when I was a kid. And I talked about how she is an amazing educator and mentor to so many musicians, including myself—and that she really gives back to the community, which is an important part of jazz and the continuum of the music. I said that she’s just like an instrument with her voice, able to embody the spirit of jazz instrumentalists—and not every singer is able to do that. She is a master.

Q: How about Reggie Workman?

A: I played with Reggie back when I was living in New York; I’d say some time between ‘84 and ’88. Of course, you run into people here and there. But I didn’t play with him again until more recent years; we did something together with (pianist) Marc Cary.

Q: Tell me more about Reggie and how you feel about his music.

A: He’s so inspiring, because even right now—Reggie, he’s 80-something, and he’s just in it. He calls me, and he’s still teaching and doing admin work for the New School, and he’s still playing. He does pushups before he plays! I was at a gig with him—I had never seen anybody do that. So that alone was inspiring. But look at these records he‘s made—classic records in the tradition of bop and post-bop, but then also experimental music, avant-garde music, playing totally free. He really covers the whole gamut, and there are not enough musicians who are willing to do that and able to do that, and who do it all so well, like Reggie.

Reggie Workman (photo by John Sharpe)

Q: Reggie’s segment on the NEA show includes a couple of Wayne Shorter tunes that feature Morgan Guerin, the saxophonist. I’d never heard him before. He sounds great.

A: Doesn’t he? Morgan had studied with Reggie, and he also plays in my band, and I just thought it would be a beautiful thing for one of Reggie’s students to be part of this tribute.

Morgan also plays bass later in the show—on “Sightless Bird,” the segment honoring Bobby McFerrin.

Q: I guess Morgan plays a bunch of instruments?

A: Yup, he plays drums, too; he’s one of those. I heard somebody say, “Morgan just makes me feel stupid!” And I related.

Q: How old is he?

A Oh God… 21? Maybe he’s about to turn 22.

Q: Reggie’s segment also includes one of the great saxophone elders, Oliver Lake. Do you know Oliver?

A: After Geri Allen passed, we did a couple of things honoring her. But, yeah, I’ve known Oliver for years—I used to live around the corner from Oliver in Brooklyn, and his wife Marion is a clothing designer. She made a coat for me, one of my favorite coats.

Q: What did it look like?

A: It was almost like a cape, but a very heavy material—kept you very warm, and then it could come up over your head.

Q: There are a lot of connections between the people on this show.

A: I know! And I wish I still had that coat.

The Art Ensemble of Chicago
(L-R: Famoudou Don Moye, Roscoe Mitchell, Lester Bowie, Joseph Jarman, Malachi Favors)

Q: Tell me about Roscoe Mitchell.

A: I don’t know Roscoe. I’m sure I met him back in the day, because I was very, very close to Lester Bowie; he was one of my mentors. I used to be over at Lester’s house every day, when I lived in Brooklyn.

Q: You both lived in Fort Greene?

A: Yes, and Lester and (his wife) Deborah’s house was like my second home.

Q: Are you an AACM fan?

A: Oh yeah. When I was hanging out with Lester back then, I was more of an inside player. But there were things pulling me in other directions. I played a week with Lester at the Vanguard, and I just felt I wasn’t ready. I was a little too bound by structure.

So after all these years, I’ve become less bound by structure and I’ve become a huge fan of all of the things the AACM stands for. And one of my favorite recordings that Roscoe’s on is called Made in Chicago, where Jack DeJohnette got some of his colleagues together like Muhal (Richard Abrams) and Henry Threadgill and Roscoe. And Roscoe is like—man, his playing on that is amazing. I am sorry this NEA tribute wasn’t done in person, that I couldn’t interact with him, because I really do admire what he does—his playing, his composing. He’s a master.

Q: Roscoe’s plays his piece “Nonaah” on the NEA show with his own quartet. You weren’t involved with that?

A: No, he kept with his band and it was self-contained, so I didn’t have to do anything.

      Terri Lyne Carrington with 2018 NEA Jazz Master Dianne Reeves, 1997

Q: Okay, we haven’t yet discussed Bobby McFerrin.

A: I’ve known him over the years. But I really only played with him a couple of times.

There was one concert I played with Bobby—I wish I had the opportunity to do it again and do it better. Because this concert was just him and me and Dianne Reeves, just two voices and drums. And at that time, I just wasn’t free enough outside of a standard format. I know that now I’m happiest when I’m improvising—just making something up, not having a form and being totally free. When I did that concert, I don’t think I was in that headspace yet. That was over 15 years ago.

And there was one other time. I just remember playing with Bobby briefly, a jam we did at Jack DeJohnette’s 70th birthday party, which I helped to organize.

Q: Will you describe the NEA segment honoring Bobby—you mentioned “Sightless Bird.”

A: I helped with that and helped to arrange it. Originally, when this was going to be a live show at SFJAZZ, Bobby’s children—Taylor, Jevon and Madison—had planned to sing “Sightless Bird.” Then everything got cancelled, but they did it anyway and put it on YouTube as a 70th birthday present for their dad.

                                  Bobby McFerrin: "Sightless Bird"

Q: Bobby did that song on his first album, almost 40 years ago.

A: And when the tribute went online, his kids had already recorded it. I just added some light drums, and I added Morgan Guerin on bass, and I brought in some special guests—Lisa Fischer and Christian McBride. I wrote a vocal arrangement and just wanted to enhance it overall.

And the last thing I will say is about Bobby. He’s a true vocal master; he’s unparalleled. When I met Bobby the first time, he was with John Hendricks. So I met him a long time ago, and to be able to see how he could do all that Hendricks-style singing and then develop into his own solo artistry—again, amazing.

And I loved the record that John did—one of the later records—with Bobby and Al Jarreau and George Benson. That’s an amazing record, because they all sing the solos from Miles’s Kind of Blue. What’s that tune? (She sings the melody to “Freddie Freeloader,” which is also the title track of Hendricks’s album, from 1990.) You have John singing the Coltrane solo, and Al Jarreau is doing Miles’s solo. It’s incredible. And George sings Cannonball’s solo and then Bobby does Wynton Kelly’s solo. It speaks to all of them—their artistry, going past genre boundaries, not just sitting inside a box.

The 2020 NEA Jazz Masters Tribute Concert will take place on Thursday, August 20th from 5-6PM PT. It can be streamed without charge at SFJAZZ.org and arts.gov.

A staff writer at SFJAZZ, Richard Scheinin is a lifelong journalist. He was the San Jose Mercury News' classical music and jazz critic for more than a decade and has profiled scores of public figures, from Ike Turner to Tony La Russa and the Dalai Lama.

Originally Posted August 19, 2020