Terri Lyne Carrington on the Power of Betting on Yourself

BOSTON — When officers from the Doris Duke foundation called the drummer Terri Lyne Carrington earlier this year to tell her that she had been selected to receive its $275,000 Artist Award, she didn’t pick up.

“I thought they were calling me to do something for them,” Ms. Carrington, 54, said over tea this week at a coffee shop next door to Berklee College of Music’s downtown campus. Typically, she said, “I’ve sat on panels and helped decide who else gets the money.”

But in the past few years, Ms. Carrington has become an obvious contender for the highest accolades in jazz. She stands out as a kind of model organizer, educator, agitator and stateswoman — as well as virtuoso instrumentalist. The award from Doris Duke, she acknowledged, felt like a sign that the world was starting to “catch up” with what she’d long been espousing: stylistic openness, social engagement and an unerring belief in jazz’s power to unite. “If I could convey it to my students,” she said of her own rising status, “it’s a lesson in perseverance and always doing what you believe, and betting on yourself.”

Ms. Carrington is now in her second year as the director of Berklee’s Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice, a watershed program that she founded in 2018 to address the history of sexual harassment and gender-based inequities that have long dogged the jazz scene. Her role there has been heaped atop what was already a very full plate: She is a member of the Grammys board of trustees, a musical director for major touring productions and a side musician for assorted jazz illuminati.

On Friday Ms. Carrington will release her seventh album as a leader, “Waiting Game,” and the first with her newest group, Social Science, which embodies the idea of crossover in just about every way possible: gender, generation, style. At the double-disc album’s core are the pianist Aaron Parks and the guitarist Matt Stevens, each in his 30s. Both of them have a way of building worried atmospheres through warm, tolling harmony. Lined up against the prowling, thick-stroke style of Ms. Carrington’s drumming — which reflects the influence of her primary mentor, Jack DeJohnette — it creates a mix of simmering tension and restless forward movement.

“It felt important to do something that was acknowledging the moment that we’re in right now,” Mr. Parks said in a phone interview, explaining the motivation behind the album’s political themes. Ms. Carrington had already proposed that he and Mr. Stevens assemble a new band with her when Donald J. Trump won the presidency in 2016. “We definitely all wrote each other the morning after the election and said, ‘O.K., let’s actually do this,’” Mr. Parks said.

Sound-wise, “Waiting Game” is of a piece with the rough-gloss, high-powered fusion albums Ms. Carrington has made since the 1980s, both under her name and as an accompanist for Wayne Shorter, John Scofield and others. But it’s also a fiercely contemporary record, in terms of both its electroacoustic textures and its trenchant political commentary. (Song titles include “Trapped in the American Dream” and “Pray the Gay Away.”)

The first disc collects 11 tracks, mostly originals by the group’s core members, with Ms. Carrington cutting sharp grooves underneath the sky-opening harmonies of Mr. Parks and Mr. Stevens while a range of vocalists carry messages of indignation and historical memory. The only cover is of Joni Mitchell’s “Love,” which Ms. Carrington described as “an antidote” to the dogged insistence of the originals.

“With music, you want to make people think, but you want to make them feel something first of all,” Ms. Carrington said. “If they feel something, you can get them to think after that.”

So even on this album, the messages are not all made explicit. The second disc is a freely improvised, four-part instrumental suite, with the core Social Science trio joined by Ms. Carrington’s friend and frequent collaborator Esperanza Spalding on bass.

Disc 2 also proudly bears Ms. Mitchell’s influence: Ms. Carrington took inspiration from her epic song “Paprika Plains.” On that track, from 1977, Ms. Mitchell recorded her piano and voice in a wandering, liberated style, then allowed the arranger Mike Gibbs to overdub orchestration. On her own suite, titled “Dreams and Desperate Measures,” Ms. Carrington enlisted Edgar Colón to overlay strings onto the group’s improvisations. The result feels both chancy and lush.

Born in Malden, Mass., in 1965, Ms. Carrington began playing professionally before she was an adolescent. Her grandfather Matt Carrington had played drums with Duke Ellington and Fats Waller, and her father, Sonny, was a professional saxophonist. Her first professional gig, at 10, was in the band of the famed trumpeter Clark Terry, another Ellington alum.

She earned a scholarship to Berklee just a year later, and began taking classes part-time. She graduated from high school third in her class, at age 16, and enrolled at Berklee as a full-time student. But she dropped out before receiving a degree to move to Brooklyn, where she fell in with the young musicians who would eventually unite under the name M-BASE, seeking to loop the influence of contemporary hip-hop and R&B into a historical, Afro-diasporic interpretation of the jazz tradition.

She became a regular member of Mr. Terry’s band, then joined the touring ensembles of Mr. Shorter and Herbie Hancock. She moved to Los Angeles in 1989 — the same year she released her own debut album — to take the drum chair in “The Arsenio Hall Show” house band. But the job meant staying put for much of the year, and she soon left, feeling hemmed in. Over the next 17 years, she became known as one of the most respected musicians in Los Angeles, though she had trouble finding acceptance as a bandleader. On multiple occasions, executives at Blue Note invited her to submit a demo recording, but ultimately declined to sign her.

Starting in the early 2000s, she began to funnel her decades of experience into leadership work — sometimes self-financing her recordings when she couldn’t find sufficient label support. In 2011 she released “The Mosaic Project,” a landmark recording featuring a cast of all female musicians, which won a Grammy for best jazz vocal album, Ms. Carrington’s first of three wins in various categories.

Ms. Carrington had spent much of her career shying away from invitations to play in women-only bands; the offers that came from promoters and festivals often felt gimmicky or forced. But by the time she thought to record “Mosaic,” she said, “I looked up, and that was who I was calling for gigs anyway” — musicians like Ms. Spalding, the pianist Geri Allen and the saxophonist Tineke Postma.

A few years later, with the #MeToo movement picking up, Berklee was rocked by reports of sexual assault and harassment by faculty members, and the jazz world at large began coming to terms with broader issues of gender discrimination. Ms. Carrington, who had been on the school’s faculty since 2005, thought about mounting an institutional response.

“I feel ownership in this art form — this is my music — and there’s no man, no woman, no anybody that could ever tell me that this isn’t my music and I don’t belong here,” Ms. Carrington said.

Through conversations with the activist-academics Angela Davis, Gina Dent and Anika Simpson, she sketched a concept for the Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice, where a predominantly female faculty, staff and student body are now working to advance — as the institute’s saying goes — a practice of “jazz without patriarchy.”

“We say ‘jazz without patriarchy,’ but life without patriarchy is really what we’re striving for,” she said. “And jazz is our microcosm.”

Articles in this series examine jazz musicians who are helping reshape the art form, often beyond the glare of the spotlight.

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