Interview with Regina Carter for Jazz and the Brandenburg Concertos
Interviewed by Robert Danziger and Dan Ouellette
August 26, 2019
Regina Carter started studying violin at the age of 4 within the Suzuki Method. Here Regina discusses her exposure to the Brandenburg during those lessons.
- Regina –I think for a non-classical listener, or people that aren’t familiar with classical music, I think the Brandenburg Concertos are the most accessible — it’s the perfect entry into that world. I can only speak for myself, there’s so much joy, so much depth to it. It’s just pretty. It’s beautiful, you know? And it’s easy to listen to and it’s got a thing to it, because it’s got its own swing, if you will, or its own vibe. It’s just got a different kind of vibe.
- Regina –On Saturdays, [my teacher], Ms. Rupert was her name, and I studied [with her] at the Detroit community music school. She would line us up or put us in a circle and she would start to make up a melody and when she tapped you on the shoulder, you had to pick up where she left off and continue making up a melody. So she was teaching us about improv. And then when we would sometimes play Baroque quartets and, you know, sometimes the, you know, also playing later, this is when we’re older and can, you know, can read–read some and play, she might have us site read some of the Baroque quartets and, you know, the Brandenburg and–and try improvising over that, you know, which was really difficult because, you know, this is just the first time. You don’t know what to do or what to play and you have to really have studied that. But I wasn’t–I–you know, I’m thankful to her that she did that, that, you know, because I feel like for me, at least, it gave me a–it stopped me from being so fearful of being off the page. It’s the ear more.
- Robert –Outside of the Bach and Brandenburg and all that, one of the things I’ve been really fascinated about just since we did the Ella Fitzgerald tribute video back for the Jazz Festival a couple of years ago is the way that you assimilate music? All the great musicians assimilate all kinds of music, but you seem to do it in a unique way. And I was just curious, when you were–say, when you were touring Africa are different things and you hear some music, you know, what about a piece of music grabs you and goes, you know, I really want to learn how to play that, I really want to understand that music? Is there something that happens inside you when that happens? How does that happen?
- Regina –It’s like my stomach tightens up and — the emotional effect that the music, if I hear something that grabs me like that – – – it’s almost like the emotional impact it has on me is too much for me to handle. I don’t know what to do with it at first. It’s inside and sometimes I have to just walk around the house. If I’m in the house listening — it has a physical affect on me because it’s so powerful and so beautiful. Just all of a sudden I want the world to hear this. The excitement is almost too much, you know? . . . sometimes I try playing it and it’s like, okay, this isn’t–this isn’t really working. Everything is not meant for me personally to try and reproduce or replicate. Some stuff is just meant to be.
- Robert – We asked Christian McBride what was the first classical piece where he heard it and thought, “I have to learn how to play it,” and he said that the–the first thing that got him was the double violin Concerto, which was the basis of work you did with him on Fat Bachs and Greens. And he said that when he was a young player, like junior high school or something, he–he heard that and saw the music and he had never seen so many 16th notes for a bass before. And then he did that tune with you. Did he mention that story to you or did you talk about at all why he wanted you to do that tune with you?
- Regina –No, you know, he didn’t. He didn’t mention that. But that session was so long ago . . . but I think Christian, he hears the blues or he hears that soulfulness in something and definitely there’s a whole lot of soulfulness and Bach? It’s–the piece for me that–and I love that piece, I loved playing when I was younger at the community music school, and sometimes afterwards for the fun of it with other violinists. I would think another favorite of mine is the Chaconne, the Bach Chaconne. That’s another one. It’s like, whoa, you know, it’s so powerful and full of emotion and full of, you know, passion. And it’s–it’s–I have to tell this story. When I was at New England Conservatory, I had a teacher and I remember I was working on the partita in, is it E? Yeah. He kept saying no, you have to play it like this, or you have to play this. There was this strict rule and I just remember at one point I was like how do you know? Did you talk to Bach? It was just like, you know, it’s like very flippant young, you know, 18-year-old. And I just thought the music is not supposed to be caged. That’s not who Bach was. He was an improviser. He was the music of the people. So yeah, I just–at that point, I was like it kind of made me not want to do classical music anymore, and and I stopped playing classical for a long time. Then I met a teacher in New York because I was having some issues, physical issues playing, and I told her I don’t like classical music because–and she said it’s not that you don’t like classical music, you just don’t like the way it was presented to you.
- Robert – Well, there’s–yeah, the, briefly, the story of the Brandenburg is that during the–and we are on the 300th anniversary of Bach beginning to write it this year, and he finished it two years from now, he was in a very content situation. He’d been orphaned when he was 10 years old and then he–at this point several years later in his 30’s, he had a wife and seven children and a brother and they were all living together. He was quite content.
And then he went off to do a tour with the Prince that you do every summer and then while he was away his wife and three of his kids and his brother all died. And the prince’s handlers kind of messed him up over it not telling him in time to go back and see his family and so you can imagine that emotional crescendo there and then he’s in the depths of despair.
And for the first time, he didn’t have to write music for the church because the Calvinist church had banned orchestral music, and that went on for a while. So he was doing completely secular stuff, and during that time, he wrote the Brandenburg and the Well-Tempered Clavier, the double violin Concerto, and a few other things. And then he meets Anna Magdalena, who is a soprano who was coming in to audition for the choir and they fall madly in love and spend the rest of their lives together, have 13 more kids, work side-by-side their whole lives, and that was–and they got married shortly after he finished the Brandenburg.
To me, you know, every great artist leaves it all–all on every note and every page, and so that was the emotional arc that he was going through while he was writing the Brandenburg. And I think that it conveys that range of human experience.
It’s interesting that Carl Sagan selected that to be the first music on the Golden record, which is the first and only, human made object with music on a permanent record to ever leave the solar system and go into interstellar space. And may be the only thing left of earth in the universe 5 million years from now when the sun burns up.
- Regina – Wow
- Robert –And it would be Earth’s first introduction to some as yet unknown beings from another solar system and planet.
- Regina – That’s heavy.
- Robert –So what do you think about that? If you were going to express something about earth, what combination of music would you want someone you love and want to be loved by, what would you play for them?
- Regina –But–okay, so what would I play for them, but helping them to understand what is it that I’m trying to convey to them?
- Robert –The–you know, who–who we are as the people of earth.
- Regina – Well, let’s see, there would be some Stravinsky up in there. There would be some Alice and John Coltrane. There definitely has to be some Aretha [Franklin]. Aretha and James. James Brown, for sure. Ella [Fitzgerald] has to be there. Billie [Holiday]. [Duke] Ellington has to be there. This is another one that would have to be included, which would be Arvo Part’s Tabula Rasa. My string crossing comes from my imitation of that – Gidon Kremer playing it, which is so incredible–such an incredible violinist. Geez.
- Regina – It’s so interesting when you think about Baroque music and think about Bach and certain composers, I think about what if they were alive today and–and I think he’d be one of those people, like Stravinsky I know was really interested in jazz. I could see someone like Bach hanging out with Randy Weston, Chucho Valdes, just so many people, you know?
- Regina – It’s just wild how [Bach’s] music lends itself so well to improvising. It’s always weird to me that with classical musicians, they stopped learning about improvisation. It’s like it’s not unless you maybe studied Baroque music and that’s your major, but they don’t learn that.
- Robert –Would you agree with the statement that the fundamental difference between classical and jazz is that with classical, especially Baroque music, was designed to please the king and not to upset anybody, whereas jazz tells the truth.–Jazz tells–and if–if you’re telling truth to power, you’re telling truth to the audience, you’re telling truth the other musicians, and that is–and that is one of the fundamental differences between the two forms. Would you agree with that?
- Regina – I would agree to that almost–I’d say 90%. I’m just going to say that’s what the music represents. That’s what is supposed to be, and expression, you know, a way to express whatever it is that’s going on. But you know, it’s interesting when you think about radio and what radio became, I think in the 80s or 90s with the and start with the corporations taking control and then thinking about record companies having all the power and telling musicians what they could and could not record or radio station saying we can’t play this because it’s too this or it’s too that. For musicians playing live, yeah, they could express themselves, but I felt like as far as radio went, and still, that’s–they’re saying no. That’s a no-no. So it kind of compares to the classical.