Regina Carter is upholding Geri Allen’s passion for music education

Over the past few decades, we’ve seen jazz education move from the bandstand to the classroom — and we’ve watched women move from the audience to the stage.

As an initiative to support these musicians, the Geri Allen Jazz Camp is a one-week immersion program designed to help refine technique, grow confidence and build community among performers who identify as female or non-binary.

Multiple Grammy-nominated and internationally renowned violinist and composer Regina Carter is the artistic director of this camp, and she joined us to tell us more about it.

How did the camp come about, and how did you first become involved in it?

NJPAC had approached the late pianist Geri Allen about starting this camp for young women, basically as a place where young women and those identifying as non-binary could come out and feel safe, and not have to worry about competing with men or having to worry about how they look and all that. In the comfort of the camp, they would develop friendships and learn how to work together. Geri was the director for three years until she passed away. NJPAC asked if I would be interested in stepping into the position, which I was honoured to do. It’s been wonderful to see how these young people come and some of them are very shy, some of them have been there several years in a row, but by the end of the week, you see that they’re exchanging phone numbers and emails. They form these beautiful relationships and friendships that they’ll have for the rest of their lives. You hear the growth of their music, watching them help each other — they’re right there helping each other. It’s beautiful to see, and it’s inspiring to us faculty as well.

I had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing Geri many years ago when she came to Toronto, and I was immediately struck by her passion for education. She was so giving. What does it mean to you as a colleague and a friend to have Geri’s name associated with the camp?

It’s extremely important that her name be attached to the camp, because this was her baby. In Detroit, there’s this support system for all of the young musicians. There were several important musicians but one in particular was trumpeter Marcus Belgrave. For us to be able to turn around and give back to the young generation … I didn’t know Geri when I was living in Detroit because I came to the jazz scene later, but I met her [at a concert] in Germany and I introduced myself. She was so gracious. She gave me her phone number and she was always willing to share information with me. She was just a genuine spirit. She loved sharing knowledge and helping young people to grow and mature as people and musicians.

We’ve seen a lot of changes in the industry. You certainly have been working in a male-dominated field, and even though we’re seeing the changes, how do you approach what some of these young musicians might face as women working in this industry?

We always have one night — but it always ends up turning into multiple nights — where we [talk about it]. We’ve had saxophonist Tia Fuller come in and speak with them. This year, we have the wonderful saxophonist and vocalist Camille Thurman. And all of us [faculty] have been on this scene for many, many years. We talk about some of the things they may face and how to handle it. They’re going to face it whether they’re in the music industry or they do something else — it’s just called life. The thing about it is that we form this bond so that all the faculty are like big sisters and big brothers. They know that they can come to us and get any kind of help or suggestions. And they get to talk to each other as well. I think that’s really important because they really need a chance to talk about things that maybe would be uncomfortable if they were talking about it in front of their male peers.

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The camp is going online. It’s a virtual camp this year. What are some of the challenges and maybe benefits of doing it this way?

The challenges are mostly with us older faculty. [laughs] We have a few younger ones who get it, so luckily we have a great team that handles all of that. It’s funny, when we don’t know how to do something, the kids are right there. It’s great. We’re learning as well. When you’re playing music and trying to teach music, of course it’s better to be there in person. There’s no replacing that. But we do have technology, thank goodness, that we can still have the camp. I found that by holding it virtually, we were able to reach some young people that maybe wouldn’t have had the means to travel to New Jersey and pay for the room and board. That can be expensive. We’re hoping that moving forward, we can do it both live and on the Internet so that we can reach more people.

You’ve been a working musician who’s been stuck at home. How are you doing? Any projects you’re working on? How’s all of that been working out for you?

It’s been OK for me. None of us knew it was going to last this long. In the beginning I thought, Woohoo! I’ve got a month off and I don’t have to feel guilty about it. But then it kept going and going and going. Fortunately, my husband is a drummer … and we would play together at home, make recordings, and we started doing some online concerts together. It’s been OK for us. We still get along, we still love each other.

This interview has been edited and condensed.