George Varga | The San Diego Union-Tribune (TNS)
A jazz doula?
Violin great Regina Carter has earned worldwide acclaim — and national awards and honors — for her musical skill, vision and ability to shine as a soloist, band leader, composer and first-call collaborator for everyone from Dolly Parton, Wynton Marsalis and Billy Joel to Mary J. Blige, Cuba’s Omara Portuondo and various symphony orchestras.
But few know about the selfless musical pursuit of this 2023 NEA Jazz Masters honoree, 2006 MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” recipient and Manhattan School of Music faculty member.
When Carter is not touring, recording or teaching, she works as a violin-playing doula with critically ill patients in their final months, weeks and days.
“I love that I get to travel the world playing this music,” said Carter. “But I also use my music not only to play on stage, but to do hospice and end-of-life work. Using my music for that is extremely rewarding. I usually do it for individuals, but sometimes, I’ll go into a nursing home.”
Carter’s new avocation as an end-of-life doula is an outgrowth of the more than 15 years the Detroit native has spent doing hospice work in her free time. She cites the 2006 death of her mother for inspiring her quest to use music to provide comfort to those in need at the end of their lives.
“I came off the road from touring to be with my mom (in hospice),” she said. “Seeing how many people — especially elderly people — didn’t have anyone coming to visit them hit me hard.”
Great American Songbook
Carter’s 2006 album, “I’ll Be Seeing You: A Sentimental Journey,” was inspired by her mother. Featuring such chestnuts as “Little Brown Jug” and “St. Louis Blues,” it served as a vital musical vehicle for this three-time Grammy Award-nominee to grieve.
Are there any go-to songs that work especially well to provide aural solace for hospice patients?
“Well, you can’t go wrong with classics from the Great American Songbook, unless the (patients) are very young people. You have to figure it out before you go in. Every situation is different,” Carter replied, speaking from the suburban New Jersey home she shares with Alvester Garnett, her husband and drummer.
“When I was the jazz camp director at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center,” Carter continued, “I’d take young women musicians to play at nursing homes in Newark so that they could see there are so many ways we can use our music for people who can’t get out. It can really feed your soul, playing for others.
“We’d learn tunes (suited) for the age group of the people in the nursing homes and they would know the words and sing along. It was so beautiful. I started doing hospice work in 2007 or 2008. Last year I started training to be an end-of-life doula, with or without music, whatever the family wants. “
Carter’s dedication to using her musical talents to help others — out of the spotlight — is perfectly in character for those who know her well.
“It didn’t surprise me at all, because Regina is one of the most compassionate and loving people I’ve ever been around,” said top flutist and jazz educator Holly Hofmann, a longtime San Diego resident. She has toured and recorded with Carter, who is a close friend.
“Regina has set the standard by which jazz violin is being judged,” Hofmann continued. “There just isn’t anybody else that accomplished and soulful who is engaged in jazz.”
Cajun to Afro-pop
Classically trained, Carter was just 12 when she became the youngest member of the Detroit Civic Symphony’s history. She was 16 when she took a master class with classical violin legend Yehudi Menuhin at the Center for Theater Studies in Detroit in 1982.
Twenty-four years later, in 2006, she was awarded a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” for “pioneering new possibilities for the violin and for jazz.”
Those new possibilities are built on a solid yet flexible jazz foundation. And those possibilities stretch far and wide, as befits a musician whose work is fueled by her seemingly endless imagination.
Carter’s 2010 album, “Reverse Thread,” was a mesmerizing blend of traditional African music styles, Afro-pop and more. Her 2014 album, “Southern Comfort,” dug deep into various American roots music, including Cajun fiddle music, blues, gospel, traditional work songs and honky-tonk country.
Her discography also includes 2000’s “Motor City Moments,” which features Latin-fueled reinventions of classics by Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, and 2017’s “Accentuate the Positive,” a radiant celebration of gems from the Ella Fitzgerald songbook.
Each of Carter’s albums finds her soaring — regardless of genre — and mixing different approaches into a singular blend. Her ability to make melodies sing and dance is matched by her pinpoint articulation, rhythmic agility, lustrous tone and improvisational ingenuity.
But what brought Carter an unprecedented degree of worldwide attention was her 2001 concert in Genoa, Italy, that led to a cross-continental studio recording rather than a live release.
That album, 2003’s “Paganini: After a Dream,” features pieces by Carter, Brazil’s Luiz Bonfá, Argentinean nuevo-tango pioneer Astor Piazzolla, Italian film composer Ennio Morricone and two early 20th century French Impressionist giants — Claude Debussy and Gabriel Fauré.
The violin Carter played on that album is the same one she played at her 2001 concert in Genoa.
Known as “Il Cannone” (“The Cannon”), it is one of the most historically celebrated instruments in the world. It was made in 1742 by Bartolomeo Giuseppe Guarneri and was owned and played by fabled classical violinist Niccolò Paganini, who died in 1840.
Paganini bequeathed the oversized violin to the city of Genoa, where it remains under armed guard in a locked vault with a round-the-clock caretaker. The temperature of the practice room where Carter played it, prior to her Genoa concert, was carefully monitored. Even the size of the table the violin was placed on before she could pick it up to play had to meet specific measurements.
There was considerable debate before various city and artistic officials voted to allow her access to the invaluable instrument. (It helped that the then-mayor of Genoa is an ardent jazz fan.)
Carter became the first woman, the first Black American and the first jazz artist who was permitted to play this invaluable violin. Typically the instrument is showcased in just one performance each year — and then only for a concert by a classical violinist who has won a highly competitive annual contest, performing pieces by Paganini.
“When they brought it to me, it was accompanied by an official violin handler and police officers,” Carter said, chuckling at the memory.
“Because it is so valuable and highly insured, they only allowed me to practice on it for a limited number of hours each day, for two days, before the concert. And they had armed police officers backstage and in the concert hall!”
Her performance in Genoa earned Carter standing ovations and international press attention. As a result, city authorities gave their unprecedented permission for the violin to be flown to New York — accompanied by armed guards, of course — for her to play it at a New York concert and the recording session that resulted in her “Paganini: After a Dream” album.
“That and doing hospice work are two of the three most major things I have done,” said Carter, whose latest album is 2020’s social and politically themed “Swing States: Harmony In The Battleground.” (The third major thing took place in Tijuana in 2018. More on that in a moment.)
Eye-opening Tijuana concert
“Swing States” teamed Carter with such top-notch musicians as drummer Harvey Mason and pianist Jon Batiste, who won five 2022 Grammy Awards, including for Album of the Year.
By design, the songs on “Swing States” — including “On Wisconsin!” and “Georgia On My Mind” — are indelibly linked to states whose voters played a key role in the 2020 presidential election.
“At first we talked about doing an album of civil rights anthems,” Carter said. “Then, we thought to start with a clean slate, using songs associated with different states.”
For her native Michigan, she chose “Dancing in the Street,” the ebullient 1965 hit by Martha and the Vandellas. Carter and her band deftly recast the song as a pensive ballad that exudes a melancholic air.
“John Daversa, who plays trumpet on the album, pretty much wrote all the arrangements,” Carter said. “He came up with the idea for the arrangement for ‘Dancing in the Street,’ and I was pleasantly surprised. I thought: ‘What is he going to do with this song?’ And his arrangement is beautiful and haunting.”
“Swing States” is not the first time Carter has been involved in a musical project with social and political underpinnings.
In 2018, she performed in Tijuana as part of the Arturo O’Farrill and Jorge Castillo-led “Fandango at the Wall” concert. Held just a few feet from the Tijuana side of the border wall that separates Mexico from the United States, the concert featured jazz and traditional music artists from across the U.S., Mexico and Latin America.
The performance resulted in a live album, a book and a documentary film. The film was co-produced by Quincy Jones and guitar star Carlos Santana, who grew up largely in Tijuana.
The concert was preceded by several days of rehearsal in Tijuana. It was the first time both Carter and Mexico City-born jazz drum great Antonio Sanchez had been in the border city, which is located just 20 miles from downtown San Diego.
“That whole experience was life-changing,” Carter said.
“Watching a family on one side of the border wall hold up their child for its grandparents to see for the first time from the other side was mind-blowing. It’s something you can’t really learn about from a book or in school.
“I wish everyone could travel to a culture that is very different from their own and experience it firsthand, rather than from reading articles or watching it on TV.”
Was there a cause and effect between the “Fandango” concert and Carter’s “Swing States” album two years later?
“Oh, there’s definitely a connection!” she replied.
“Kabir Sehgal, the producer of ‘Swing States,’ was involved with ‘Fandango.’ We were having a discussion about people voting. He asked me if I voted, and I felt taken aback. Then, we started talking about the people who don’t vote — and why. Hopefully, ‘Swing States’ will inspire some people to think about things and how much voting counts …
“When I first started making albums, I knew I had to record in order to be able to tour and it was exciting. There was so much music (to consider), and I was like: ‘Oh, what am I going to record?’
“Now, it’s more about: ‘What is it I want to say? What statement do I want to make with my music?’ It has more meaning to me now than just being joyful. There are always the questions: ‘Why? Why are we here? What am I leaving behind? What’s important to me?’ And you use the music to express that. I want to express my integrity and my honest self in everything I do.”
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