A consummate insider who’s shaking up the jazz scene, Terri Lyne Carrington checks into the SFJAZZ Center for a five-night run that embodies her transformative vision.
Presenting a different program each night from Feb. 16–20, the Grammy-Award-winning bandleader, drummer, producer, composer, and NEA Jazz Master is both a pillar of the cultural establishment and an activist dedicated to pulling down old structures that have kept women on the margins. While she maintains a host of other projects, her primary commitment these days is running the Berklee College of Music Institute for Jazz and Gender Justice, which launched in the fall of 2018 with Carrington as the founder and artistic director.
Even as the pandemic upended many of her plans for the Institute, her programming has quickly filled a void, shining a spotlight on the hurdles women (Black women in particular) face in jazz education and beyond. For most of her career, Carrington has let her playing make an eloquent and incontrovertible case for women as an essential component of jazz. There was little inkling that she would end up leveraging her panoptic perspective on the scene into a position dedicated to radically reconfiguring the view.
“Even 10 years ago, it wasn’t something that I saw in my future, but it’s become a huge part of what I’m doing,” said Carrington, 56. “The work never stops. Once you look through this lens, you can’t unsee what you’ve seen. The Institute started at Berklee to help students there and help the culture of the college. It’s become the foundational base to dedicate a lot of my life’s work to this issue. Hopefully, it won’t be an issue forever and I won’t have to think about it anymore.”
In many ways her resident artistic director stint at SFJAZZ provides a kaleidoscopic look into the many ways she’s trying to make her Institute irrelevant. On Wednesday she and Angela Davis, who’s written widely about jazz and blues as a vehicle for Black women’s resistance, sit down with pianist and SFJAZZ Director of Education Rebeca Mauleón on the Miner Auditorium stage for a conversation and listening party.
On Thursday, she returns with her volatile band Terri Lyne Carrington & Social Science, a group with a dense, hip-hop inflected, electro-acoustic sound that propels narratives keyed to the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements. Featuring guitarist Matthew Stevens, keyboardist Aaron Parks, multi-instrumentalist Morgan Guerin on bass, tenor saxophone, and EWI (electronic wind instrument), vocalist Debo Ray, and rapper DJ, and producer Kokayi, the band delivered an incendiary performance at the Monterey Jazz Festival last summer, focusing on material from the 2019 Grammy-nominated Motéma release Waiting Game. Hailed as the year’s best release by many critics, the project led to her 2020 trifecta in Downbeat magazine’s critics poll, winning top honors for artist, album, and group of the year.
Friday’s show is the West Coast premiere of New Standards, an ensemble she assembled to play tunes by a disparate array of women composers. Joined in the rhythm section by Social Science guitarist Matthew Stevens, bass star Linda May Han Oh, and pianist Kris Davis, Carrington draws on the Bay Area’s deep talent pool for the front line. Trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and flutist/vocalist Elena Pinderhughes, who are both illustrious Berkeley High alumni, come together for their first performance as adults (Akinumusire presents his own ambitious four-night resident-artistic-director program at the SFJAZZ Center March 3–6).
Carrington realized she needed to compile an alternative to the standard repertoire when she was presenting a student ensemble at an early Institute for Jazz and Gender Justice concert. Looking for some songs written by women in the Real Book, a collection of lead sheets for jazz standards, the only piece she came across was Ann Ronell’s “Willow Weep for Me.”
“I see, it’s even down to our repertoire,” she said. “We need to have some gender diversity. I started thinking about people I know and looking for some people I might not be familiar with. One of the editors from the publishing company asked ‘Are there really 101 women composers?’ I thought, ‘This is why we need this.’ And now we’re working on volume two.”
Introduced last year as an ebook, New Standards: 101 Lead Sheets by Women Composers will be published in the fall by Berklee Press and Hal Leonard, spanning a century of compositions from Lil Hardin Armstrong, Mary Lou Williams and Melba Liston to Carla Bley, Eliane Elias, Hiromi, and Anat Cohen. (Berklee is offering a free download sample of 10 songs on its Institute of Jazz and Justice website.) It’s the kind of simple but profound move that changes the landscape, putting options in the hands of young musicians so that playing tunes by women becomes unexceptional.
Carrington has presented various iterations of the New Standards ensemble over the past two years. When Akinmusire performed with an early version at Berklee he found Carrington’s work at the Institute “really inspiring, seeing her take on different roles and blow so many different things open,” he said. “What she has going on is revolutionary. I’ve taught everywhere, I mean, all around the world, but when I walked in that environment it was so perfect and nurturing and real. I think that’s due to Terri’s vision.”
The mutability of Carrington’s musical vision manifests Saturday with the premiere of the multimedia program Musing Emanon: Wayne Shorter’s Orbits featuring flutist Nicole Mitchell, guitarist Brandon Ross and pianist/keyboardist David Virelles. Inspired by Shorter’s Afrofuturist three-disc album and graphic novel Emanon (named best album of 2018 in the NPR Jazz Critics Poll), the project involves the ensemble performing along with video shot by Carrington and Mitchell of Shorter reading from the work.
“We’re treating it more like Wayne’s group does, mostly improvising, and even though there are themes, it goes everywhere and anywhere,” Carrington explained. “We’ll be improvising based on the recording and whatever we improvise is in the spirit of the book.”
Her residency closes on Sunday with Genius, Grace, and Fire: A Tribute to Geri Allen. A nonpareil pianist and composer, Allen (1957-2017) and Carrington performed widely together in a trio with bassist Esperanza Spalding. For the tribute, she’s assembled an all-star quartet featuring saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, bassist Dave Holland and pianist Jason Moran (who’s also in town for the Feb. 17 West Coast premiere of Two Wings: The Music of Black America in Migration at Zellerbach Hall).
She premiered the project with tap dancer Maurice Chestnut and Afro-electronica DJ Val Jeanty in 2019 at the Kennedy Center (where Moran is responsible for jazz programming). Narrowing down the set list posed a steep challenge because “she had so much music and was such an amazing composer,” Carrington said. “I pick stuff that’s challenging but not so challenging because you only have the day of the show to rehearse.”
Carrington has never lacked in creative ambition. While she became the second youngest person ever to receive an individual NEA Jazz Masters Fellowship in 2021, she’s more interested in accelerating than basking in what’s usually a career-capping honor. Jazz drummers in particular have a knack for staying vital well into their autumnal years, from the supernatural Roy Haynes (96) and Tootie Heath (86) to Louis Hayes (84) and Billy Hart (81), who’s accepting his NEA Jazz Masters award at the SFJAZZ Center on March 31. Her mentor, Jack DeJohnette, turns 80 on Aug. 9. Carrington has every reason to “feel like I’m just getting started in some ways.”
“At 18 I was only interested in playing straight ahead,” she said. “Jack opened me up, and at 21 I was playing fusion with Wayne Shorter. My interests have always been really open thanks to Jack, and I’ve been all over the map. Part of it is that I didn’t get a major record deal that would have thrust me more quickly into a leadership role. I’m not saying it should have gone any other way, but because it didn’t go that way I was open to these other things. I feel like women have needed to find alternative ways to do what they want. With fewer labels involved, with fewer gatekeepers determining who makes records, you can be more true to your authentic self.”
Now that she’s in a position of real power, Carrington is propping the gate open, working to ensure that women can find their own paths as 21st-century jazz artists.