Q&A with Regina Carter: Detroit dominates jazz masters cohort, set to shine at festival

There's a certain Detroit pride that comes with attending the Detroit Jazz Festival, which takes place over the Labor Day weekend this year. Maybe the source of that pride, that good feeling, is the festival’s global impact. Or it could be that attendees get to experience internationally-revered jazz musicians like pianists Johnny O’Neal and Jason Maron, Wayne Shorter’s alumnus Brian Blade, John Patitucci, and Danilo Perez. Or perhaps it’s discovering new faces on the block like vocalists Veronica Swift and Grammy-winner Samara Joy, and the crème de la crème of Detroit-based jazz musicians for free.

Chris Collins, the Detroit Jazz Festival Foundation's president and artistic director, is always very intentional about making sure both national and local artists from the city are highlighted in some capacity during the festival. He says every year the festival’s homecoming series features returning artists who have come from Detroit and gone out and made their mark on the world. 

Once in a while, he says he finds ways to bring a certain group together because of what's happening on the scene and that the Detroit scene is making an indelible mark on the whole jazz world this year. This year’s festival is momentous because hometown jazz royalty saxophonist Kenny Garrett, violinist Regina Carter, and drummers Louis Hayes and Karriem Riggins are the centerpieces, with Garrett, Carter, and Hayes recently crowned 2023 National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters. 

"Three of the four NEA [National Endowment for the Arts] Jazz Masters are from Detroit,” Collins says. “I don't think any city could say that in the past. And of course, Karriem Riggins…here's a guy who's come up as a modern force in jazz drumming and then turned his attention to these modern genres of hip hop and electronica. And we're all going to get a chance to witness three different performances over the course of the festival so it's going to be special."

Karriem Riggins (Photo supplied). Riggins, a renowned jazz drummer, producer, DJ, and EMMY Award winner, graces the festival as the Artist-in-Residence this year and will support Detroit Jazz Festival Foundation educational initiatives, community engagement activities throughout the year, and perform with three different groups.

Carter first attracted national attention as a member of the all-female jazz ensemble Straight Ahead, recording classic jazz albums for Atlantic Recordings before she embarked on a solo career. As a bandleader, Carter has performed R&B, Latin, classical, blues, country, pop, and African music with dazzling aplomb, releasing on Verve Records several highly touted recordings like “Something for Grace”, “Motor City Moments”, and “Free Fall”. 

Her list of accomplishments includes being awarded a MacArthur Genius grant and she made history as the first non-classical violinist to play Niccolò Paganini’s Il Cannone (“The Cannon”), the legendary violin built by Giuseppe Guarneri in 1743. 

Model D caught Carter a few weeks before the festival to discuss her new title as NEA Jazz Master, the impact Detroit has had on her career, and what Detroit Jazz Festival goers can expect from her performance.

Regina Carter (Photo supplied).

Model D: You were recently named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master for 2023. What does it mean to you to have been named an NEA Jazz Master and to be in the company of two other Detroit NEA Jazz Masters?

Regina Carter: I'm just blown away. It's such a high honor and the fact that the three of us are from Detroit says a lot. Oftentimes Detroit is kind of left out of the history books and people still sleep on Detroit. And we had and still have a very vibrant, strong jazz scene. When you look back, all the great musicians would come to Detroit to perform at clubs that don't exist anymore.

Pianist Barry Harris talked about how pianists would come in to play gigs. They'd all get together; him, Tommy Flanagan, whoever was in town, just a bunch of pianists. They were learning from each other, and it was such a community. And the whole mentoring of younger musicians has always been extremely strong and vital in Detroit. So, whenever I go anywhere, it doesn't matter where on the planet and people say, "Where are you from?" and I say "Detroit." They say, "What is in the water in Detroit?"  

There are many great musicians that have come out of Detroit many of whom have stayed here like Marcus Belgrave. They're the ones who have prepped musicians such as Kenny Garrett, Karriem Riggins, and yourself to be on the national and international stage.

I think a lot of times when musicians don't leave their hometown, even their own cities will overlook them. There's almost a stigma for staying there. But I'm grateful because if we didn’t have those musicians that stay there and nurture the rest of us, we wouldn't have the careers that we have. For instance, Marcus's camp, which was at his house. 

He would come up to Oakland University and work with the students. Folks like Donald Walden, who had the World Stage back in the day. Barry Harris used to come in and do his master class here during the festivals and other times of the year. Wendell Harrison, Pamela Wise, there's so many of them that stayed and they're extremely important to the scene, and if not for them most of us might not have the careers we have.

You are coming back home to Detroit to perform at the jazz festival. How does it feel to be coming back to the place that prepared you to become the musician you are today?

Detroit is my home. I live in New Jersey now. I lived in New York, but no matter where I live, Detroit is still my home and I love coming home. And I get excited and a little bit nervous because I feel like the city of Detroit is like my parent, and folks have watched me grow up in the music there. When you come back to Detroit, you have to bring it. 

The beautiful thing about Detroit is that they know the music and the fact that it's a free festival, that's pretty great, and that it's a jazz festival because there are so many jazz festivals that don't have a single jazz artist, it's all pop. I'm really thankful for Gretchen Valade and Chris Collins and all the folks that help run and keep the festival together and keep its integrity.

Education and mentoring have always been at the forefront of your career as a musician. And Detroit is known as a hub for musicians mentoring others from each generation. What are some key pieces of advice you learned from Detroit musicians like Marcus Belgrave and Harold McKinney that you may still use today? 

I learned a lot about the business from musicians like Marcus Belgrave and Wendell Harrison. And you can learn a lot of things just by watching people and how they operate. I learned to be honest with the music, don't try to be anyone else. Take care of the business, learn the business and understand, that's so crucial. I try to pass that on to students, even something very basic as having things written down, doing a budget to see if you can afford to take a gig. And just how you present yourself on stage. Sometimes I see the younger ones come out on stage dressed a certain way. But for my bandstand, I have a certain way that I want folks to dress because people see with their eyes. And mentoring, just learning that mentoring the younger generation is extremely important. Also, one thing we used to do with Marcus and one of my teachers at Cass Tech, Pat Terry Ross, we would go into nursing homes and do gigs. That for me was really important: community service. 

When I was running the Geri Allen camp in New Jersey, I would have the young women go to a nursing home nearby and perform. We need to get paid for doing our job like everyone else gets paid. But community service is just as important. It helps keep you focused, understand why it is that you do music and it helps put everything in perspective. 

What can fans expect from your performance at the upcoming Detroit Jazz Festival?

The piece that I'll be performing in Detroit is a continuation of a piece that I wrote years ago and performed at Orchestra Hall. It was originally called "Black Bottom," and it's now called "Gone in a Phrase of Air," which is a title from a poet Leslie Reeves, who is also from Detroit. She conducted several interviews with folks in Detroit that grew up in Black Bottom and my mom grew up in Black Bottom. My mother would always tell us about how the communities were so tight-knit and if someone needed something, they really looked out for one another. When the 1956 Highway Act was signed, the freeway was built. It destroyed those Black communities and I thought that it only happened in Detroit. But in doing my research, it happened in pretty much every urban city across the United States. 

And it's still happening. After the race riots in Tulsa, they built a freeway through that same area destroying them again. And it just destroyed communities and it's always Black and immigrant communities that they would just destroy. Folks didn't own their homes or if they were compensated, it wasn't enough for them to really relocate.  So, it not only destroyed those physical communities, but it also destroyed their spiritual communities as well. So, you get spread out and it's really difficult to recreate that again. And like I said, it's still happening. So whatever city I'm going to, I will include information about that city, and I will get photographs and show some parts of the videos are photographs of different areas before they destroyed it. That is what I plan on doing at the festival this year.

Model D's top picks from the Detroit Jazz Festival
  • Samara Joy - 9/4
    • Every so often a new vocalist graces the jazz scene and blows everyone away with their distinctive style, charm and dexterity. Samara Joy is that new voice that’s giving new purpose to the music. The 23-year-old has released two stellar records, and earlier this year she won two Grammy awards: Best Jazz Vocalist and Best New Artist. As someone who’s witnessed her perform twice, her live performances are just as breathtaking as experiencing her on wax. For many musicians that’s not so easy, but she does it effortlessly. She'll be gracing the stage on the last day of the festival on the Chase Main Stage and is not to be missed.
  • Karriem Riggins "J Dilla Lives Forever" 9/3
    • Karriem Riggins, a native Detroiter, is a jack of all trades. As a veteran drummer, DJ, and music producer, his sound crosses a multitude of genres from jazz to R&B and hip hop. Riggins has worked with some of the biggest names in the industry, including Diana Krall, Common, Erykah Badu, Paul McCartney and Steve Lacy. As this year's Artist-in-Residence, Riggins is bringing his versatility to the stage a number of times during the festival, and the one we're most looking forward to is his set "J Dilla Lives Forever" where he will honor the legendary hip hop producer.
  • Danilo Perez, John Patitucci, Brian Blade - Children of the Light 9/2
    • Having lost their bandleader and mentor, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, earlier this year, pianist Danilo Perez, bassist John Patitucci, and drummer Brian Blade, have been channeling their grief into their music. All are accomplished musicians in their own right and take improvisation to a new level during their performances, but their central focus was as members of Shorter's legendary quartet. The trio will be celebrating Shorter's music and performing songs from their album Children of the Light.
  • Johnny O' Neal and Sullivan Fortner - Tribute to Detroit Piano Masters - 9/3
    • Pianists Johnny O Neal and Sullivan Fortner may be from different generations but when they come together, the Detroit piano gods will be smiling down on them. O'Neal, a native Detroiter, has accompanied everyone from Art Blakey to Sarah Vaughn and Carmen McRae, and is a vast entertainer, nonetheless. Fortner is just as awe-inspiring with his master skills on the ivories. During their set they will honor Detroit pianist giants like Barry Harris and Tommy Flanagan.
  • Veronica Swift - 9/3
    • Veronica Swift is another vibrant chanteuse that steals the spotlight with her soulful, yet elegant vocals. She made her debut in 2019 with her album Confessions and since then has been traveling the world dazzling audiences with her staggering ability to transform jazz standards and imitate jazz greats like Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald with her infectious scatting skills. This is her second time performing at the festival, and it will take place on 9/3 at the Carhartt Amphitheatre stage.
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