Terri Lyne Carrington is a rarity in jazz. She is a female drummer. She is also one of the best drummers in the world: Jazz Times called her “prowess and power” undeniable. And even though she’s resisted being pigeon-holed by the “female” drummer label for 40 years, her latest CD, “The Mosaic Project,” is an all-female collaboration. The critically acclaimed project won the 2012 Grammy Award for Best Jazz Vocal Album. Now, she’s focusing on the future of jazz as an art form and as a business.
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BOSTON — Terri Lyne Carrington was a prodigy. She was born in 1965 to a musical family in Medford. Her grandfather, Matt Carrington, was a Boston session drummer who played with Duke Ellington and Fats Waller. He died before Terri Lyne was born. But his drums stayed in her family’s house. The kit was there, waiting for her, when she first picked up a set of drumsticks at 7 years old.
“I started playing his instrument, and I felt a connection with him,” she said. “I feel like somehow his spirit came into mine.”
It wasn’t long before her mother, Judith, and her father, saxophone player Sonny Carrington, realized their daughter had jaw-dropping natural talent.
“I’d go to clubs with my dad and sit in with people like Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Dizzy Gillespie and Clark Terry — a lot of jazz legends because my dad knew them,” Carrington recalled. “And they were curious to hear me play.”
Not just curious. They were astounded. She was only 10, barely tall enough to see over the drums, when she played the Wichita, Kan., Jazz Festival in 1976. A year later, Lawrence Berk, founder of the Berklee College of Music, heard her play and offered the 11-year-old a full scholarship.
Carrington took it and thrived. She wasn’t even a teenager, walking the halls and jamming with musicians twice her age. It could have been a difficult transition, but Carrington said she was cushioned by her family and supportive teachers.
When she turned 18, she was ready to leave the nest. Carrington headed for New York and immediately started playing with jazz giants: Pharoah Sanders, James Moody, the New York Jazz Quartet, Stan Getz, the list goes on.
“Then I moved to LA,” Carrington said. “I started playing with Wayne Shorter, David Sanborn, and those years I was touring, mostly with Herbie.”
That would be, you guessed it, legendary pianist Herbie Hancock.
Off stage, Carrington is an understated presence. She is serious, controlled and somewhat enigmatic. When she’s listening to music, her large, powerful hands are in constant motion. Beyond that, there’s little about her demeanor to indicate her explosive talent.
That may be exactly why she’s been so successful in a world dominated by men. For Carrington, it’s the music that matters, not her.
“I didn’t think it was that odd that I was a woman playing, even though I didn’t see a lot of women playing. I wasn’t getting gigs because I was a young woman, but the female part made it a little more intriguing,” she said.
Her male mentors were the best in the business. Carrington said they, too, never made her feel her gender was much of an issue. It was her ability that amazed them. Even at a young age, her drumming elevated everybody’s play.
“There’s a lot of prodigies that don’t make it later on. They don’t play well with others,” Carrington said. “But in jazz, there’s a certain sense of maturity, of wisdom, of creativity, and all these things that come into play because you’re constantly being creative with a group of other people. How do you support other people? And that was the thing I think people marveled at with me.”
In the ’80s, Carrington expanded her repertoire to writing and producing. She was 23 when she got her first Grammy nomination for her album, “Real Life Story,” which featured Wayne Shorter and Carlos Santana. She smiles when she remembers she was up against Miles Davis and Pat Metheny that time around.
Last year, she finally capitalized on the intrigue of being a female jazz drummer. She received another Grammy nomination, and this time, she won. “The Mosaic Project” is a celebration of women in jazz, featuring Esperanza Spalding, Sheila E. and Cassandra Wilson, among others.
However, as the Jazz Times noted, the album is so good “it never gives a listener any reason to mull over the fact that it was crafted entirely by women — or, at least no more than one would give thought to the fact that the vast majority of jazz recordings are made exclusively by men.”
The observation dovetails perfectly with Carrington’s two core beliefs about jazz as an art form. First: Never play down to the listener, respect them. And second: Jazz is a spiritual act.
Carrington’s spiritual mentor, legendary saxophonist Wayne Shorter, called it “seeing eternity.” Hancock told her it’s “playing life, not music.”
And yet, over her long and stellar career, she said she’s felt that sense of transcendence only once, playing with Hancock in the early 2000s:
I felt for a moment like an observer. Like I was watching us. And it was only for a moment, because as soon as I realized that’s what was happening, I went back to the present tense, you know? As opposed to this third realm that I was experiencing. And then when we got off stage, [Hancock] just looked at me and said, “Now you’re doing it.”
Carrington is 47 years old now. Her spiritual connection to the music matters, because, after taking home the Grammy this year, she could have cruised, touring and making money off the novelty appeal of an award-winning all-female jazz album.
She did not.
Instead, she focused on the future of jazz: her students at the Berklee College of Music, where she’s been since 2003, the same place her career took off more than three decades ago as an 11-year-old wunderkind.
“But most of [my students] don’t have the people in their life, like I had in my life,” she said. “So that to me is the responsibility to pass on the information, not just the technical end of it.”
As she said, great jazz is a synergistic effort. While that synergy came naturally to Carrington, for many of her students it takes practice and guidance.
“She doesn’t say, ‘OK, play this note here, or play this snare at that point.’ She always talks about how we can get better together,” said flutist Sarpay Ozcagatay. “When we add her experience into ours, it’s totally something new and perfect.”
Carrington is also sensitive to the fact that the music industry her students will enter is profoundly changing. Record deals are scarce. Musicians have to be their own managers and marketers. Carrington herself had no record deal when she self-produced and self-funded “The Mosaic Project.”
By teaching, she honors jazz as an art form. To push jazz forward as a viable business, Carrington has co-founded a new media company that’s crafting new ways of creating, marketing and distributing interactive digital content.
“It’s harder and harder to sell music. It’s really about getting to a point where your brand can sell whatever,” she said. “Because selling records is really not that much of a business anymore — for a jazz musician, especially.”
Case in point: even after winning the Grammy, Carrington still hasn’t turned a profit off of “The Mosaic Project.” Maybe not a financial profit, but her influence is certainly paying dividends for jazz lovers.
For the last song at a recent student rehearsal, Carrington takes over on drums. It’s thrilling to watch. Her body hardly moves, but her hands are a blur. There’s an elegance, authority and ease in the way she plays.
The students feel it. They are inspired. And for a moment, following Carrington’s lead, the students play as if they, too, were prodigies.