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An Interview With A Star: Terri Lyne Carrington

Terri Lynne Carrington’s voice sounds like jazz. It’s low and smooth, with a rich sound that tells the listener, as well as any bio could, that this woman knows music. Of course, her bio is very impressive as well; Ms. Carrington is an incredibly accomplished jazz drummer. She was surrounded by music from an early age; her father played with James Brown, and her grandfather with Sammy Davis Jr., Chu Berry, and other greats. She started out playing the saxophone, until the gap-toothed smile that comes to every child at some point made playing wind instruments a challenge, so she switched to drums. When she was 11 years old, she won a full scholarship to Berklee College of Music. After high school, she spent three semesters at Berklee, and then at the suggestion of her mentor Jack DeJohnette, she moved to New York and began her career. She is now a Zildjian Chair in Jazz Performance for Berklee Global Jazz Institute, in addition to her continuing work performing, recording, and producing music. TEDxBeaconStreet’s Erin Rubin sat down with Ms. Carrington to learn a bit about her before her November talk.

Tell me about your collaborations with pop artists. How do you see the intersection of these different styles?

“It’s honest; I grew up listening to all those other styles. Even though jazz was my discipline, I really enjoy R&B music just as much. It was a very natural choice to do that, because they informed my musicianship and musicality when I grew up. Most of the vocalists on my CD are so great at what they do, and they have a jazz sensibility about them, they all know [jazz] standards. All the choices I’ve made are ones that made sense for what I was doing on this project.”

How do you teach improvisation?

“Most of the time, they [students] already know what their weaknesses are…you point them in the direction, and offer some suggestions. Learning these kinds of subtleties and nuances is a personal journey; nobody can really tell you how to do it, so you have to be willing to accept that this is your mission, this is your job, to figure out how to go deeper, as a student of jazz…We can give you some technical tools, but that’s not going to make you listen better.”

What did you work on as a music student?

“I worked on finesse, maturity, and confidence. If I played with great musicians, I sounded great; if I played with poor musicians, I didn’t sound very good; so I knew that I had to work hard on being the person that elevates the rest of the group. That’s true in life as well as in music, and I’ve quickly learned from working with Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock and that there is no separation between life and music.”

On how to talk about her work; Ms. Carrington will share a poem at TEDxBeaconStreet as well as her music

“I may not even call [what I write] a poem, I may figure out another name to call it. It’s honest thoughts told in rhyme…I don’t like labels, actually, about much of anything. A label puts it in a box.

“I realize that you have to have labels for music to sell it, and for people to talk about it, you have to call it something…But when I studied Duke Ellington, I found that he said, ‘Jazz? We stopped using that word in 1947! Jazz, to me, is freedom of expression.’ And I thought that was perfect. With that in mind, we can merge indie rock, or classical…we can merge all of that, and you can call it whatever you want, you can make up your own name. The music itself communicates what it is to the listener.”

On her slew of Grammy awards; Carrington was the first woman to win a Grammy for instrumental jazz

“It was definitely validation of what I was doing, and I really felt like when I won the first Grammy, it was not just for that record, it was for what I’d done my whole career. The second one was a special one, celebrating women in jazz, and that was a good time for that. I always shied away from celebrating women; women and men have to work together in society and in life, so they should on the stage too, which is why most of the time I have a couple of men in the band. But when I did another show with four women, it just felt like the right thing for the next record, and I thought, ‘There’s other women I’ve been playing with, and I don’t pay attention to the fact that they’re women. This is a great time to celebrate women, because 20 years before, that wouldn’t have happened!’ A lot of it was timing. For me, my current project is my best work. We’ll see how things go, as far as Grammys, but you don’t make music for Grammys. It just so happens that I think it’s my best work.”