Taking jazz violin on a trip back in time

Boston Globe, January 21, 2007

For all the creativity on display in jazz, there hasn’t been much room for the violin in the genre, at least not since the birth of bebop six decades ago. Violin, cello, and viola found themselves relegated to the occasional string section, and in the 1960s, while “out” musicians took up everything from cowbells to Eastern strings like the oud and sitar, the good old violin remained mainly untouched, as if reserved for classical European playing.

In that atmosphere, to take on a career in jazz violin had to be an act of stubbornness verging on temerity. So it’s gratifying to see Regina Carter, who almost single-handedly has returned the violin to jazz prominence in a 15-year run of virtuosity, headlining a Celebrity Series concert at Sanders Theatre tomorrow. With full respect to other bow-wielders, the terms jazz violin and celebrity rarely figure in the same sentence.

The show also features singer Dee Dee Bridgewater, but this is Carter’s project. The program, drawn from her latest album, “I’ll Be Seeing You: A Sentimental Journey,” features pre-World War II classics from “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen” to “Georgia on My Mind.” It should well suit the dark, ornate confines of Sanders.

The project, Carter explains from her home in New York, is nostalgic for the very best of reasons. It honors her mother, who passed away in early 2005 after a difficult illness, and who was the driving force behind her daughter’s musical education.

“We were extremely close,” Carter says. “When she passed away I went through a whole lot. I wanted to honor and grieve for her. A lot of the tunes were her favorites. Others, I’m not sure if she knew, but they are from that time period.”

It’s also fitting that jazz of that era, much of it performed in big-band settings, made room for the violin and other instruments that later receded. It was a time when key ingredients were still being added to the jazz stew, including classical and Yiddish influences from new emigres.

“I grew up watching the Lawrence Welk show,” Carter says by way of example. “It’s almost a nostalgic sound, with the clarinet and the accordion.”

Paquito D’Rivera and Gil Goldstein, on the latter two instruments, guest on “I’ll Be Seeing You” but are not on the tour; neither is singer Carla Cook. The rest of the group is the same, including Bridgewater, who sings on two tracks, Xavier Davis on piano, Matthew Parrish on bass, and Alvester Garnett on drums.

Carter looks back on making the album in something of a haze. It was a tough time. The passing of her mother hit her hard, and she was also, she says, embroiled in a legal fight over a professional matter that embittered her in regard to her craft.

“It was a very difficult project to do,” she says. “I was still in this legal battle with no time to grieve. I was ready to leave the music business altogether.” She doesn’t go into detail, but it’s clear from her tone that she’s deadly serious.

It would have been a great loss. At 44, Carter, who grew up in Detroit in a middle-class African-American family before moving to New York, has assembled a remarkable body of work with seven albums as a leader or co-leader.

Her work can’t be called avant-garde, like that of fellow violinist Billy Bang, who has worked out in brilliant but difficult jazz his experiences in the Vietnam War, but she is a boundary-pusher in her own right, in particular when it comes to having jazz violin taken seriously in the classical world.

In 2001, she took on the city fathers of Genoa, Italy, requesting to play the Nicolo Paganini violin, known as the “Cannon” for its bold tone, that the city keeps under armed guard and allows only stringently selected musicians to play. Placing this treasure in the hands of a black, female jazz player did not go over well with the Italian media – until they heard Carter play. She went on to record an album on the Cannon, elegantly titled “Paganini: After a Dream.”

So when Carter’s friends rallied around her after her mother’s death to help her “keep it together,” as she puts it, they were doing the music world an important favor, a mitzvah. Little did she or they know that an amazing reward was on the way.

One morning last September, Carter answered the phone to learn that the MacArthur Foundation was giving her one of its so-called “genius grants” – $500,000 over five years to support her creative work, no strings attached.

“It was completely out of the blue,” she says. She didn’t believe it at first: She took the person’s information and went to look up the foundation. “And it was the same number. I called and they connected me … I said, `What do you mean, no strings attached?’ It still hasn’t completely sunk in.”

Carter has at least one plan for the money. “I already knew that I want to go back to school for music therapy,” she says. “I’ve always had some involvement with that my whole life. My mother worked in child psychology and used music a lot.”

“I had a friend who was close to death, I went in and played for her and the [hospital] staff. And when my mom was dying, there was a point where she couldn’t communicate. I would play different music for her. So I know I want to help other people, whether it’s children, the elderly, people in hospices …”

Down the line, Carter says, she’d like to start a program teaching other musicians to share their gift this way. But that’s all for later. In the meantime, she promises not to disappear from the scene.

“That would be dangerous,” she says. “I’m just figuring out what I’m doing next. Once I get school settled, I know that I’ll do another project. Right now, I can only think about one thing at a time.”