Terri Lyne Carrington: A World of Sound Waiting for Us
Terri Lyne Carrington was practically born into jazz, but she is not a traditionalist. By embracing elements from rock, rhythm and blues, and hip-hop into her own compositions, she is making music that is very much about the present moment. And in founding the Berklee Institute for Jazz and Gender Justice and now partnering with New Music USA on the new Next Jazz Legacy program, Terri Lyne hopes to build a future that dismantles the jazz patriarchy and eliminates the gender imbalance among instrumentalists.
NEA Jazz master and three-time Grammy Award-winner Terri Lyne Carrington was practically born into music. Her father was a saxophonist and her mother played piano. Plus her grandfather, who died before she born, was a drummer who played with Fats Waller and Chu Berry among others. In fact, his drum set was the first set Terri Lyne played on at age 7. Being raised in such an environment gave her access to just about everyone in the scene and at the age of 10 she was already performing on stage with Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, in the process become the youngest person ever to be issued a union card in Boston!
But that doesn’t mean that Terri Lyne Carrington is a hardcore jazz traditionalist. Growing up, she listened to everything from Earth, Wind & Fire to Michael Jackson, and that music ultimately also seeped into her own vocabulary.
“People can’t just tell you to choose,” Terri Lyne says during our conversation over Zoom on a Sunday afternoon in later October. “It’s all part of my experience.”
Not choosing, or rather choosing everything, makes Terri Lyne’s own musical language extremely expansive. By embracing elements from rock, rhythm and blues, and hip-hop into her own compositions (as well as occasionally interpreting more recent popular songs with the same level of creativity that characterizes the most exciting jazz renditions of classic standards), she is making music that is very much about the present moment and it is extremely vital. However, at its core, she still thinks of her music as an extension of musical practices that go back many generations.
“There’s a historical and cultural context that the music was born from, and that has to be acknowledged as well,” she explains.
Also, either through including singers and lyrics or pre-recorded samples of spoken texts, her music frequently contains pointed social messages. Some of the songs on Waiting Game, the most recent album she recorded with her band Social Science, such as “Trapped in the American Dream,” “Pray The Gay Away,” or “No Justice (for Political Prisoners)” are a powerful soundtrack to our extremely complex and fractured zeitgeist. But none of them offer simple solutions.
“People are going to come to any of these issues differently,” she realizes. “They’re going to come in there wherever they are at the time, and so it leaves a bit more of an open door, an open palette for people to discover maybe what they need at the moment. I don’t know if it’s about changing minds, because most people that are hateful may be a little difficult to change. If you’re just ignorant, then it might be easier to educate, with satire and the hook.”
One of the things that Terri Lyne hopes to change is the gender imbalance among jazz instrumentalists, why is why she founded the Berklee Institute for Jazz and Gender Justice and has now partnered with New Music USA to create the Next Jazz Legacy program.
“There’s always been a bit of a nurturing environment for men to be creative, and women just never had that same support,” she says. “Young women and, of course, also the transgender and non-binary community, people on the margins of what’s been normal in jazz, don’t have as many opportunities; that’s just the way it is. … There’s a world of sound waiting for us that hasn’t necessarily fully been developed, fully tapped into within this genre; it’s coming.”
I believe in themes, but I also believe that the themes don’t have to be narrow.
Terri Lyne Carrington
If it's constructed well, you are able to hear different things every time you listen.
Terri Lyne Carrington
I'm not sure I would call it jazz if I can't hear any history or lineage in what they're doing.
Terri Lyne Carrington
Once labels got out of the way, and people were able to be independent and produce and release the music that they really wanted to, what was really in their hearts, I feel like it opened things up, and it's such a creative and fertile time for jazz.
Terri Lyne Carrington
I'm totally into how the industry has shifted ... It's a new frontier. ... There'll always be the haves and have-nots, and the people more privileged than others, but there's also an opportunity there.
Terri Lyne Carrington
I've done a lot of free things. It's all just putting me in a place that more people can experience, and it all works together in the end.
Terri Lyne Carrington
Most musicians are hearing their own symphonies, but everybody has the barrier between what they're hearing in their head and what they're able to actually produce.
Terri Lyne Carrington
There's always been a bit of a nurturing environment for men to be creative, and women just never had that same support.
Terri Lyne Carrington
If I turn on the radio, If I look at advertisements or flip through music magazines, I don’t see myself represented. If I thought I needed that support, then yes, it's going to make me shy away from wanting to pursue this.
Terri Lyne Carrington
I didn’t need to see myself represented because I had no identity when I started. Like I didn’t think, "Oh, I’m a woman playing drums." I was a kid. So I had no gender identity, basically. When people told me, "You're good for a girl," they made that association, but I didn't because I didn't feel like a real girl. I didn't feel like a little boy, I just didn’t know, you know. I was just playing. And I gravitated to tomboyish things. So I had no problem inserting myself with boys.
Terri Lyne Carrington
There’s a lot of masculinity that's made the sound of the music making music what it is. And I love it. I love what it is. I also possess some of that, though. I have to if I'm going to go out on stage.
The mentors need to be men, only because men need to participate in solving some of these issues. If women just mentor women, we're still siloed and siphoned into a bucket of women jazz musicians.
Terri Lyne Carrington
There's a world of sound waiting for us that hasn't necessarily fully been developed, fully tapped into within this genre; it’s coming.
Terri Lyne Carrington
Read the Full Transcript
Frank J. Oteri in conversation with Terri Lyne Carrington
Sunday, October 24, 2021—Noon DST
Via a Zoom Conference Call
Transcribed by Julia Lu
Frank J. Oteri: I know you’ve recently been touring Waiting Game, which must feel a little strange–to tour a record that’s two-years-old. But, the last two years have been even stranger, right?
Teri Lyne Carrington: Well, it doesn’t feel weird because I could keep playing that music after the record is kind of technically not new anymore, because things remain relevant. And the musicians are very creative, so we find different things and keep letting the music evolve. We’re working on some new music now as well, so we’ll probably put in new music, but keep some of the old music, too. So, it’s okay to still tour that record.
FJO: Wonderful. I would love to hear this music live. I’m used to it from the record, and there’s a lot of stuff about it that’s about production, so I’m very curious about what it’s like live.
TLC: Well, it’s impossible to duplicate it exactly, of course. We take a lot more liberties live, like any band. Even the mood changes sometimes. Some songs are a little faster or slower than others. We keep trying to make it fresh for ourselves. Sometimes we have different guest artists, so that makes a difference, too. But we try to capture the spirit of the record, without exactly duplicating it.
FJO: It would be awesome to have a live album of this group just to hear you stretch out on various things.
TLC: I’ll think about that.
FJO: I’m just starting going to concerts again, only in the last few weeks. It’s still kind of a surreal thing being out again amongst people. But hopefully everywhere you’re playing is being very safe and cautious with everything.
TLC: Yeah. We can only hope. It’s kind of daunting to get back out there. You’re just kind of hoping for the best and hoping that everybody is honest and and careful. You feel like your life is at stake almost, just to work. So it’s a little crazy right now, but we’ll get through this somehow.
FJO: I actually got [Waiting Game] on LPs. I’m so thrilled that you issued the LPs. I know on CDs, it really is parsed into two discs and Dreams and Desperate Measures gets its own CD. And it’s almost like it’s two different albums in a way. On vinyl, that only gets one side so that there’s room for everything else. So I was a little disappointed that there wasn’t a fifth side. But what can you do?
TLC: Oh yeah. I don’t know. I didn’t make those decisions.
FJO: Of course not.
TLC: I just kind of rolled with it; people wanted to do it.
FJO: But, I wonder, having these two very different statements in terms of the live gig, it’s almost like it’s two sets by two different bands, even though it’s the same band, because the music is so different, in some ways.
TLC: I think it really points to the diversity of the musicians. Most jazz musicians I know are diverse musically and for so long, we’ve been told to stay in a box and do projects that are more easily marketed. I believe in themes, but I also believe that the themes don’t have to be narrow. I just had the idea of wanting to do an improvised album. Along with some new songs.
FJO: What’s so wonderful about it is, in a way, it’s sort of two roads in. Maybe people who are more into the heavy improv stuff will latch onto it that way and hear these more popular sounding songs, and vice versa. The people who hear the songs will hear the stretch out long-form music and get into that.
TLC: Exactly. And that’s partially what I thought as well. I mean, initially I just had the idea I wanted to do it because I felt it represented the band well. And then my second thought was, like you said, it’s two ways in.
FJO: And those songs, they’re so topical. They were so topical to the moment that album was released and, for better or worse, probably worse, I mean, good for the record, but bad for our society, those things haven’t gone away at all. In fact, they’ve been magnified.
TLC: Exactly. I have some friends that say it’s almost like you predicted the moment and what was going to be happening, because we started writing that material in 2017. But I think it just speaks to: yeah, of course, they haven’t gone away, but also to go back, you know, they’ve always been there.
TLC: A lot did not change, but in 2020, a lot of things came to light and there were more people seemingly concerned. We were so much more able to be in our bubbles. You know, good people, just moseying on with their lives. I could be guilty of that as well. I am guilty of it. So there’s so much privilege that we have as musicians, to be able to pursue this dream of being creative for a living and not always dealing with some of the more mundane matters of life that many people have to deal with. So I think it was a good wake up call for everybody, people that are conscious and people that are unconscious, to really look at our society the way that it is and not through rose-colored glasses.
FJO: One of my favorite of the songs on the album is “Pray the Gay Away.” It’s such a powerful song, and part of it is it’s got this energy and it seems happy, but it’s anything but happy. It’s talking about a horrible reality in our society. I wonder if the idea is to change people’s minds who hear it, who might have a skewed view of what humanity should be. Or if it’s for people who already are of the same mind and somehow hearing this will be a call to action for them.
TLC: Well, I think music is for both. You can make an artistic statement. You put it out there. And different people are going to hear it and experience different things. So it’s for both sides. People that hopefully hear it and start to think a little differently. The song doesn’t have a lot of lyrics, but it has speeches and that kind of thing that tell you what the message is. An underlying message is really in the bridge, the trumpet solo, bridge part where it says: “Pray the hate away. You need to pray the hate away.” And that’s really the underlying message. I almost think it’s more powerful as an instrumental piece with the spoken clips in there, without trying to construct a lyric other than you know, the hook that’s there. People are going to come to any of these issues differently. Right? They’re going to come in there wherever they are at the time, and so it leaves a bit more of an open door, an open palette for people to discover maybe what they need at the moment. I don’t know if it’s about changing minds, because most people that are hateful may be a little difficult to change. If you’re just ignorant, then it might be easier to educate, with satire and the hook. At first, when I wrote it, some people thought that I was saying to pray the gay away. And I was like wow. So that’s when we added the bridge that says you need to pray the hate away just to make sure people didn’t misinterpret it. Commercial art kind of just tells you everything. That’s what it is. But I think with creative music you have to be–what’s the word I’m looking for? I don’t want to say clever, but just leave more for interpretation.
FJO: More ambiguity. More subtlety.
TLC: Exactly. Absolutely.
FJO: Something like this makes a powerful statement the first time you hear it, but you get more and more out of it the more times you listen to it. I have to confess, I didn’t catch the “pray the hate” until like second or third time in. The first time around, I was listening on a surface level and hearing the tunes and hearing the hook, and not distinguishing. The way people take music, if they’re hearing it in a place, and they’re not completely focused on it, maybe they’re not going to catch all the words. Or they’re going to catch part of something. But when you return to it, you have this deeper relationship with it.
TLC: That’s also why I think it’s important to write good music. You know, messages are great, but it’s the music itself that’s going to make someone return to it, the music and the marriage between lyric and music. If you just look at the lyrics of any song on paper without hearing the music, it could be amazing poetry that you want to re-read, but for the most part, it’s the marriage with the music that makes you keep returning to it. Because you are able, if it’s crafted well, if it’s constructed well, you are able to hear different things every time you listen. That’s the kind of music I like. So I try to produce in that way as well.
FJO: An album like Waiting Game plays on so many different genres, and it seems like a culmination of stuff you’ve been doing. I’m thinking back to The Mosaic Project, which is really all over the map stylistically, in a wonderful way. But it somehow all holds together, even though it goes through so many different kinds of music.
TLC: You’re talking about the first one.
FJO: The very first. Yes. Exactly. I’m thinking about going from “Transformation” which clearly begins with a jazz groove, and then the last track has a hip hop vibe–“Sisters on the Rise.” But then there’s that incredibly beautiful cover of “Michelle,” the Beatles song, which I’m floored by every time I hear it, the way that voice enters unaccompanied and just is so vulnerable.
TLC: Aw, thank you. I’ve been accused my whole life of being all over the map, so what I’ve tried to do in these later years, starting with The Mosaic Project is to try to pull influences together in a way that feels cohesive to people listening. Before Mosaic Project, I didn’t quite maybe know how to do that exactly, but that’s been my goal. And hopefully I’ve done it at least on some of my records. I believe in themes, but I can’t help it. I was born in the ’60s, and have always kept an open heart to all these different genres. I’ve always thought there are only two kinds of music—good and bad.
FJO: Yeah, that wonderful Ellington quote. Good music or the other kind. Right?
TLC: Exactly. Yeah, so why wouldn’t I let it all influence me. And I never really had–well I did in my first album–a major label deal, but after that, I didn’t really have major label deals, so I have the freedom to try to let myself out of any boxes that I might have fallen into.
FJO: A lot of people mis-infer and think of jazz as a style. But jazz is really an approach. It’s an approach to performance. Any piece of music can be re-imagined as jazz. And then when you say jazz, well what is imagined as jazz? It could be swing, it could be bop, it could be free, it could be fusion, it could be somewhere in between all of these things, and then something totally different. But it’s about the personal expression of the interpreters in the moment.
TLC: I agree a hundred percent with what you said. I’ve never actually said it like that. You know, I’ve never actually thought about it as a style. Any music can be interpreted as jazz, which is true. I do feel that there’s other things that make it jazz, even if you’re not playing those other things, it’s that somebody actually studied through this history, understood swing, bebop, and post-bop. And it’s a long time to master those things. So a pop musician that didn’t study any of that could also approach something like jazz, but I’m not sure I would call it jazz if I can’t hear any history or lineage in what they’re doing. So, I think, there’s that element, too. It’s because there’s a historical and cultural context that the music was born from, and that has to be acknowledged as well. And then there’s all of the incarnations and the evolving nature of it. So it’s kind of like you have to know all of the history before you can change it. There’s a lot of work involved with all of that, and so jazz musicians sacrifice a lot because it’s much easier to choose not do all that, like how to be a technician, if you’re playing classical music. You’re interpreting things, too, but basically you have to really play an instrument well and read well. [With] rock and pop, it’s more connected to just whatever’s happening at the time which the masses tend to gravitate to. And jazz has always been the harder road. I guess in the ’20s and ’30s, it was popular music and the ’40s maybe, too, so maybe the masses at that time gravitated to it. As jazz evolved, the masses have not gravitated to it, so it’s a decision that you make this a harder road to travel for sure.
FJO: Well, in the ’20s through the ’40s, I’d say jazz was in this constant dialogue with the popular music of that time: the famous pop songs, Broadway show tunes, movie tunes, and took that to another level. You know, even through say the ’50s and ’60s, John Coltrane playing “My Favorite Things” took it to this other zone that it was never in, in The Sound of Music. It’s a great song in that show, but he turned it into a symphony. He turned it into a late Beethoven quartet. Unbelievable, but it was that dialogue and I think maybe something happened in history where there isn’t this dialogue. You are dialoguing with the popular music of our time, and even the songbook of rock and roll of the last 50 years. I brought up “Michelle,” but on this trio album you recorded that was released just last year with Tim Ray on piano, you did “Paint It, Black” by The Rolling Stones. And it totally works as a standard.
TLC: Yeah. That was Tim’s idea. That’s his album. I can’t take any credit for that. But I hear your point, as far as the dialogue part–that’s true what you said, but also I think, rhythm was important in the swing era. It was popular. I don’t think it was because it was in dialogue with Broadway songs and all that. Most of the big bands were writing original material. But it was the fact that you could dance to it. It was in the ballrooms and before it moved from that, from being a danceable form where people were–they went to move and dance, and it moved to the concert hall. You sit and listen. That changed things to some degree, you know. Of course when that happened, even more dialogue started happening with the popular show tunes and all that. But the point for me really is that jazz musicians have always been on the cutting edge of creative music, the cutting of edge of personal expression through doing music, having often the most tools in their toolbox, which can actually be a detriment if you’re trying to be popular.
FJO: In terms of being open to all these styles, your life story is so interesting, because you grew up immersed in jazz. Your father was a saxophone player and your grandfather was no longer around when you were born, but his drum kit was. So it was this presence from the moment you were born, and to be so immersed in that tradition, then to be so open to all kinds of music, I think is a very interesting thing for you.
TLC: Jazz was in my house. It was my father’s music, right. It’s my music too, but it’s really, you know, his music. It’s what he grew up with. It’s what he played all the time, but I also had friends and I was in high school and junior high school, listening to Earth, Wind & Fire, and Michael Jackson, and anything else that was popular at the time. I can’t ignore those things. People can’t just tell you to choose. You know what I mean? It’s all part of my experience. So I think, more and more, that’s what’s making jazz so interesting to me these days. Once labels got out of the way, and people were able to be independent and produce and release the music that they really wanted to, what was really in their hearts, I feel like it opened things up, and it’s such a creative and fertile time for jazz. Like in the ’80s, it felt not as creative and fertile.
So I really appreciate–even though it’s kind of sad in some ways for some people–that labels have disappeared and music has changed. They never got paid very well anyway, labels and royalties and all that. You know, a few did. But now with streaming and people always bellyaching, that’s not really the word, but about what’s happened with streaming and all of that, I think it’s made an extremely creative time for a lot of people. And it kind of levels the playing field, for so many people. You either sink or swim. So I’m totally into how the industry has shifted, and I’ll get used to it. And we’re back to having to play to make a living, you know. You can’t make a living, the average person, from selling records or being a studio musician. So I think it’s an exciting time. It’s a new frontier. And we’re all able to figure it out. There’ll always be the haves and have-nots, and the people more privileged than others, but there’s also an opportunity there.
FJO: Of course, over the course of the last 18 months, it was almost impossible to play live, in front of an audience.
TLC: Exactly. But we did start to figure out streaming more. And that needed to be done, you know, as far as live concerts. Streaming and live performance. And it also globalized things more.
FJO: That’s definitely true. I could check out concerts happening in Estonia and Hong Kong, and it’s amazing. But the other part of it is there’s still no great answer on how to monetize all of that. A lot of people were giving these concerts and they’re free. So how are you gonna be able to survive doing that?
TLC: Well, that’s the part we’re figuring out. There were some people making some money, too. Maybe there’s a new standard that will be created from streaming concerts. That’s yet to proven, but I think the pandemic made us be resourceful in that way. And even if you did end up streaming things for free, if you were able to reach people all over the world, and that was something we weren’t necessarily doing as much of before, then it also gives you opportunities down the road. I’m not saying that exposure is enough, but I’m saying that it all starts to come together. I’ve done a lot before the pandemic. I’ve done a lot of free things. It’s all just putting me in a place that more people can experience, and it all works together in the end.
FJO: The way I look at it, and I’m a nut, but some people still buy albums. I still buy albums. I’ll hear something streamed on some service, and if I like it, I want to have it. I want to be able to listen to it on better speakers. I want to be able to listen to it and not have my computer on, because when my computer is on, I’m working. But when music is on, I am transported to another space.
TLC: But you are not the normal person, meaning, that’s a small group. But the good thing is that small group, if you can get to more of that small group, in other countries, then it’s still better for you as far as presenting–whatever you want to call it–“high art” or “quality music”–to audiophiles.
FJO: But I want to go back to you deciding to play the drums. You started out playing saxophone, and moved to the drums, but you also play piano, and to this day, when you write music, you write at the piano. So I’m curious about the different modalities in terms of the different parts of your music making: the composing, the performing, and how those evolved for you from your earliest time.
TLC: I would never say that I play piano. I do write on keyboards. I used to write on piano, and I’d have a pencil and write it out on paper. But once I started understanding how to use computers, I mostly write on just a small, little, two-octave keyboard because I can travel with it. What’s helpful is I can hear the sounds that I’m writing for. So that’s very helpful in the process. I only went to Berklee for three semesters I believe. So I didn’t study composition too much. I mean I took a couple of arranging classes, but most of it’s been trial and error. And knowing and trusting that what I hear is okay. If I could just hear something and then you could just hear it, that would be amazing. We would hear all kinds of things. You know, if we could do telepathy or something, but since that’s not possible, I have to figure out how to get what I’m hearing in my head out. That process is really what all musicians do, because I imagine that most musicians are hearing their own symphonies, but everybody has the barrier between what they’re hearing in their head and what they’re able to actually produce. And it’s interesting. Some people have more of a barrier than others, it might take longer or it may never come out the way they hear it in their head. It may never reach that place. And other people know so much that they stop hearing in their head, and they just go to what they know. So it’s finding that balance. If I sit down at the piano, I start to play the same chords over and over because I’m not a pianist. So it’s much better for me to just not do that and hear the music in my head, and then sit down and figure out on the keyboard what those notes are.
FJO: The drum set in a way is kind of an orchestra under the control of one player. There are so many different sonorities of the different instruments, with the cymbals, with the drums, the way you hit it, and the way you phrase it. One could theoretically think of a whole ensemble from the drums, I would think.
TLC: Yeah, but that ends up being a percussion ensemble. You know what I mean. It’s definitely like an orchestra, and that’s what I try to do: orchestrate on the drum set when I play. So that if I were doing a session, my goal is always if I were doing a session, and you muted the other instruments, and you’re just hearing the drums, it’s still engaging, that there’s enough color. There’s an orchestration there. But no matter how you slice it, you’re not able to hear chords; you’re limited with the tones. But rhythm is so important and underrated. I can’t say it’s the most important of the elements, of rhythm, and melody, and harmony, but it’s really important. I’d rather have something great rhythmically, than something great melodically or harmonically. If I had to choose. You know, because it’s what makes you dance. If somebody played the piano by themselves, or a horn by themselves, and you start grooving to it, it’s because they’re feeling rhythmic. Rhythm is a foundation.
FJO: But it’s interesting that there have been so many drummers in the history of jazz who’ve led ensembles and who’ve done amazing transformative things. I mean the two things that come to mind immediately, canonically are: Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers–generations of players went through that; that was like jazz university for generations. Then Max Roach, first with the quintet he co-led with Clifford Brown, which really gave the blueprint for what a modern combo is even to this day. But later on with We Insist!, the Freedom Now suite, that is one of the most powerful records ever made and, for me, one of the greatest statements of the Civil Rights era. He’s a drummer, but envisioned that whole thing.
TLC: Well, he’s a drummer with vision. He’s a producer and a composer. He could sit down at the piano and play much better than me. So he had all of those things going on. I think there’s a myth that drummers are just dealing with rhythm. Most of the great drummers are also dealing with melody and harmony and can play other instruments. So many. Some can’t, but just because they can’t play it, doesn’t mean they don’t know its function, know exactly what it’s supposed to do, and how to write for it.
FJO: And Max Roach’s solos are melodic.
TLC: He’s the most melodic drummer of his time. Period.
FJO: So that takes me to another whole area, the whole question of role models. Finding role models. Obviously, before you were born, Max Roach and Art Blakey were these iconic people. I’m wondering how you found role models. Role models are important for whatever endeavor we do, but particularly for music, and particularly for jazz which is so collaborative, to have mentors and role models.
TLC: The key to my success, I think. My biggest mentor and role model starting off was my dad. His relationships with literally everybody in jazz really gave me access literally and figuratively to the jazz stage. And without that, I for sure wouldn’t be where I am now. Because of his relationships and the trust that musicians had in him, they gave me a chance. And also, once they saw or heard my potential, they nurtured it. I find it almost impossible for me to be successful without that. A lot of women don’t have that opportunity, because they just don’t have the access. It can be difficult for them, and a lot of women quit. Apparently because it’s not fun. They don’t want to go through the extra steps, and why should they. We go through extra steps, or just extra ridicule or less support, just all the things that make it difficult to thrive, just to relax and play and just hone in on your craft. It seems like there’s always been a bit of a nurturing environment for men to be creative, and women just never had that same support. That way of thinking, it’s changing, and it’s what we’re trying to dismantle, because it’s still there, even though it’s changing. It’s difficult to get people to think differently when for so long, things have been presented a certain way.
FJO: The shocking thing is we talked about Max Roach. He was the drummer on Money Jungle, an amazing trio album with Duke Ellington that you recreated and for which you won the first Grammy as a female jazz instrumentalist for best album. That was only seven years ago. I mean it’s a great album, but hell, Mary Lou Williams never won a Grammy. Carla Bley never won a Grammy. You know, Joanne Brackeen never won a Grammy. I mean, what’s up with that?
TLC: Geri Allen.
FJO: Geri Allen. Totally. You know, why didn’t The Nurturer win a Grammy?
TLC: Exactly. Or even be nominated?
FJO: So, in terms of finding role models, if you’re a woman trying to enter this music, where do you look?
TLC: I’m writing a piece right now that’s titled Everything I See Says I Shouldn’t Be Here. And that’s the reality. So it comes down to your identity. If you’re looking for something that reflects your own identity as a woman, then yeah, you probably wouldn’t see it. You’re starting to now, but I’m going back like when I came up. I didn’t see any women playing drums other than Dottie Dodgion when I was younger. Then when I got to college, I think Cindy Blackman was the next person because she was at Berklee when I got there. She’s a few years older than me. But otherwise, there was nobody, so to reflect on that, and then to move forward 40 years later, and it still be slim pickings as they say. And if I turn on the radio, I don’t see myself represented. If I look at advertisements or flip through music magazines, I don’t see myself represented.
If I thought I needed that support, then yes, it’s going to make me shy away from wanting to pursue this. But I think the key for me was that I didn’t need to see myself represented because I had no identity when I started. Like I didn’t think, “Oh, I’m a woman playing drums.” I was a kid. So I had no gender identity, basically. When people told me, “You’re good for a girl,” they made that association, but I didn’t because I didn’t feel like a real girl. I didn’t feel like a little boy, I just didn’t know, you know. I was just playing. And I gravitated to tomboyish things. So I had no problem inserting myself with boys.
FJO: So establishing the Berklee Institute for Jazz and Gender Justice obviously is about creating a space for having mentors. For having role models. You didn’t need them, but so many other people do.
TLC: Exactly. I was kind of ignorant to all of the real stresses and problems that young women were facing because I was of the mindset, if you’re just going by your own experience, I was like you just shoulder it and trudge on. You just plow through and make it happen. And I can only hope at this point that I didn’t discourage any young women. I think I did discourage a couple with that kind of attitude. But once I opened my heart to other people’s experiences, I understood mine wasn’t normal. And everybody’s not going to be like me, nor should they.
FJO: Well one of the things I’d love to unpack in this and try to think deeper on is there’s a tagline for the program that talks about dismantling the jazz patriarchy. And I wanted to talk about what that might mean in terms of the music sounding different, of the evolution being different. Are there certain things inherently in the music you know, whether it’s trading eights or having a blowing session between Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane like “Tenor Madness.” Is that an inherently male way to do things? Is that a form of mansplaining, if you would?
TLC: Well, the tagline is jazz without patriarchy. And it’s really just pointing to a desire to have not just jazz, but a society without patriarchy. If you look at the history of patriarchy, it’s caused a lot of problems.
TLC: But in answer to your question, we live with gender as a social construct. Right? So cutting sessions, killing it and cutting each other, and hard, strong, loud, fast. There’s a lot of masculinity that’s made the sound of the music making music what it is. And I love it. I love what it is. I also possess some of that, though. I have to if I’m going to go out on stage. When I was young, ten-years-old, I played with Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, and my dad said, “Now when you get up there, kick him in the ass.” So I’m ten-years-old, so okay. That’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to kick Eddie Lockjaw Davis in the ass. You know what I mean? I didn’t shy away from that. And when I met Buddy Rich, the same exact time when I was playing with Eddie Lockjaw Davis, when I was ten. When I met him, he was in a bad mood. He said, “You better not be any good.” And I said, “Well, who’s going to stop me?” And then he took a liking to me because he didn’t scare me. You know, he said, “Hey do you want to come play with my band?”
TLC: You know, so what I’m saying is that thing that I tend to call it a warrior spirit, that thing that you’re talking about, is inherent in a lot of men, because society has demanded that. But it’s inherent in some women as well. There are a lot of men that I’m discovering, young men in our program, and they’re in college, college age, that are rejecting you performance masculinity. And it doesn’t make them any less of a man, you know; they’re just rejecting that, because there’s a lot of pressure. There’s nothing wrong with it because again, you have to think about where the music came from, how it started: the culture historically, and a masculinity that was stripped of a lot of African American men. And here’s now this area, this stage that they can perform it their own way. And nobody can take it away from them. I take that into consideration as well; it’s complex. it’s not simple. Nobody’s saying that that needs to go away. But there’s room for another aesthetic from both men and women.
FJO: I’m thinking of things like the M3 Project that Jen Shyu and Sara Serpa put together where there’s what they call mutual mentorship between generations and people collaborate on things together. It’s a very different kind of model than the very toxic masculine model of: “Oh, this my mentor, and I’ve got to eventually be better than him and cut him down, and play faster, better, go the next step.” It’s a more nurturing environment, which I think could create better music, but above and beyond that, a better society.
TLC: I don’t know much about the program, I do know Jen. That is a term that’s being used a lot more: mutual mentoring. That makes a lot of sense, because that’s what we do as teachers. I think the great teachers, you know the good teachers, we learn as much from our students as we give to them. And that’s why I like teaching. I don’t do anything that I don’t get something out of. I mean, for the most part. I mean, if I give something to somebody, I’m getting something out of it. I don’t mean in a material way. I mean it feeds my soul to be giving. To be excited still, about teaching is of course the desire for the music to continue and the desire to help somebody, to see somebody’s light bulb go off is really a great feeling. But it’s also just because I learn from them. And this generation is very impressive.
FJO: This new program that we’ve just started that you’ve spearheaded and envisioned for us at New Music USA, the Next Jazz Legacy program. What do you hope we can do with this program?
TLC: Well, it really started through these conversations with Vanessa Reed, and I started really thinking about what’s been the keys to my success. And if you use me or my career or trajectory, or any of that as an example, I really started thinking how do we build a program with things that just naturally fell into place for me, and contributed so greatly to my success. How do we build something with those things as part of the foundation? And the first thing I thought of is the apprenticeships that I had with Clark Terry and Wayne Shorter and people that gave me a chance, when I wasn’t even ready yet. Maybe they thought I was, but in looking back, I think it was the potential that they saw. How do we nurture potential? How do we play a role in the development before the continuation of the music? The music will never reach its full potential unless we have this kind of gender equity. We haven’t set an age limit yet. I don’t know what ages make up as far as mentors people that are going to apprentice.
I started when I was 10, so at 40, I could probably really mentor somebody, you know. I’m 56 now, but I would have 30 years of experience already by the time I was 40. With jazz, it’s hard to set those kinds of age limits. But, anyway, thinking about how to match people to give people the resources to develop their potential and how we can match the applicants, the mentees with the right mentors and also in the right apprenticeships. I think about so many things that’s not taught at school, because a lot of these people will maybe have graduated from or probably have graduated from college. And teaching at a college, I also see the things that aren’t taught. There’s so many areas to music business, but even if you read it in a book or are taught through some kind of system, systematically taught some of these things, you’re not going to understand it until you experience it. And so many of these things have so many variables. So I just learn by the school of hard knocks. Mistakes. But mostly by being around people and trying to be a sponge and being around a lot of amazing people that taught me, even without trying, just understanding what they were doing. Watching. Understanding. I have a love-hate relationship with the word short cuts because sometimes I think really there aren’t short cuts. But then if we can provide some short cuts in certain areas, I think that’s amazing. So I hope that this program makes the path from A to B, from college to whatever it is you’re really supposed to be doing with your life and career, making that path a little bit shorter.
The big thing is young women and, of course, also the transgender and non-binary community, people on the margins of what’s been normal in jazz, don’t have as many opportunities; that’s just the way it is. That’s why I keep referencing I had mine. It was still a patriarchal situation, because it was my dad passing what he knew on to me. Most women just don’t have those opportunities so I’m hoping that we’re able to change some lives by providing opportunity that might have been more difficult for them to obtain on their own.
The problem has been too that women have had to pattern themselves after men. So you have so many women that in order to be successful, like a Mary Lou Williams, you had to be as good as the next guy. And reject anything that puts you in the box of being a woman musician or female musician. And you didn’t hire women necessarily because that wasn’t helping your cause. So what that creates is music sections. Women that are exceptional, not to play with all the men. And then, like the NPR Lara Pellegrinelli article says, what happens is you have all these exceptions at the top. Actually, if you look at the top ten, and you say well equity’s getting there. You know, 40 percent of the winners of the critic’s poll are women this year. That’s the top ten, but then if you look down, this is just an example, from ten to a hundred, and that percentage is not there. So what happens is the exceptional women rise to the top, but you need to have equity in all those stages for true equity to be there. Women shouldn’t have to be the very best to make a living. You know what I mean? I had to wake up to realities like that and really see the value in what equity will look like. It will be filtered all the way through.
FJO: One of the things you said that I think is important to all of this is these mentors that these younger female and non-binary musicians need can be women, but they could also be men.
TLC: Oh, absolutely. The mentors need to be men, only because men need to participate in solving some of these issues. If women just mentor women, we’re still siloed and siphoned into a bucket of women jazz musicians. And that’s not the goal at all. That’s why at our Institute, we have probably almost 50 percent men and women with our students. It’s very easy for men to keep hiring other male players, because there’s a lot of them. So how do we get masterful male musicians to really actively participate in the gender justice in the music? A lot of great men musicians, some even my mentors, have said, “Well, I’ll hire a woman if she can play.” And I’m challenging men saying that’s not enough. What are you doing to help this woman that you’ll hire if she can play to get to that next stage of being able to play on your level, or be able to share a stage with you? If you want to see gender equity in the field, then you have to actively do something, because just expecting a woman that has not had the same opportunity as our male counterparts to come fully formed, then you’re still part of the problem.
FJO: I want to see a world where we’re beyond this and just to envision what that music sounds like. So what might the music sound like in a world that has gotten past this problem?
TLC: I just wrote an essay for the Boston Globe basically was saying that I can’t wait ’til the day comes where I don’t have to write these. You know, you don’t have to have black history month or women’s history month, because equity is just in the fabric of our society. What will it sound like? I don’t really spend a lot of time thinking about what it will sound like, because I don’t predict the future. I just do my best to help things evolve and roll with it and I just remain curious. I’m curious about what it will sound like. I can’t predict it, but I’m very curious about it.
FJO: Well, I predict it might sound something like [your band] Social Science.
TLC: Oh, thank you. That’s very kind of you. I just feel like there’s a world of sound waiting for us that hasn’t necessarily fully been developed, fully tapped into within this genre; it’s coming. It’s getting closer.