Terri Lyne Carrington makes music for a better future

She’s internationally recognized and respected as a drummer, composer and producer, and now you can add educator and activist to the list of hats she wears. All of these define the artist that is Terri Lyne Carrington.

She is a three-time Grammy winner who’s been honoured with the Doris Duke Artist Award, an honourary doctorate from the Berklee College of Music, and most recently was named one of the 2021 NEA Jazz Masters.

A year ago, her new group Social Science released Waiting Game, an exhilarating and thought-provoking album that confronts a wide spectrum of social justice issues. Meanwhile, she has been pushing for equity in jazz and beyond as the founder and artistic director of the Berklee Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice.

Carrington joined us to talk about her latest projects and honours.

Congratulations on becoming an NEA Jazz Master. I can’t think of many people more deserving. Did you have any inkling that it was coming before the announcement was made?

Absolutely not. I definitely was shocked. I was the musical director for the event this past year and the year before that, so when they called, I thought it was about next year’s event. I was totally shocked, but thrilled.

What does it mean to you?

It means that my peers and colleagues in the jazz community felt that I was worthy of this award, which is always the first thing that we feel — a recognition of sorts. It’s confirming of the things you worked so hard for and the accomplishments you made. It’s always nice when people say hey, we’ve noticed.

It’s been about a year since you released Waiting Game, an incredible and important project in the day and age we live in now. How did this whole thing come about?

I’d been on the road with [pianist] Aaron Parks and [guitarist] Matthew Stevens, and we would have conversations about what was going on in the world and in our country. I just loved them as musicians and as human beings, and I knew I wanted to do a project with them. The conversations just led to this theme of social consciousness. That’s how it started, and we wrote some music and put some tracks together and one thing led to another. It took almost three years.

What would you say to people who will say to just play music, to stay out of advocacy and politics. What do you say if you get that feedback from people?

I don’t really get that feedback from people. If they think it, they don’t say it to me. But I think that’s one of the roles that artists have traditionally played. Of course there are artists that don’t do that — there’s always been art for art’s sake. But at this point, I think one of the jobs of an artist is to help point people in a new direction, into thinking more transformatively about our future, about issues at hand, to help the imagination move forward and run wild and not be stuck in our silos of day-to-day living. It’s about commenting on our shared humanity. When we do that, we’re able to invoke an imagination in others for possibly a better, more progressive society and world.

Education is a big part of what you do. You’re the founder and artistic director of the Berklee Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice. What’s your hope for this institute and the students that go through there?

My biggest hope is that we won’t need it at some point. I started it basically to create a space for women, men and people across the gender spectrum to have a safe space, a place to go where they’re not having to, say, perform masculinity, or be worried about being ridiculed — the things that people were telling me that they were feeling in their academic environment. The other reason of course is to try to change the culture in jazz, and encourage other people to create a nurturing environment for people who haven’t had that as much as they should. We want to create mentorship and an apprentice-type experience for them. Mentorship is so important, and I wouldn’t be where I am without it, and a lot of women aren’t able to get that experience playing with jazz masters who can help take their playing to the next level. I try to encourage my male colleagues to really start focusing on mentoring other, non-male-identifying artists.

Are you seeing a change? Do you see the differences being made?

I do. I feel that people are really looking at it like, “Wow, we didn’t know.” Of course, there are some people who feel a little bit that by advocating for women, it’s taking away work for them. But that’s the case for any movement or struggle for justice. The other issue in jazz education is racial justice. We’re looking through an intersectional lens. We can’t just address gender justice without addressing racial justice, and looking at how all these justice struggles intersect. You’re forced to look at other areas in a university or college, like admissions and other departments. It has to be a holistic approach. Everybody has to be on the same page or nothing will really change.

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How are you maneuvering through COVID-19? 

I’m here teaching from home, doing a lot of projects, consulting. I’m doing quite a few things that I never dreamed or imagined that I could do so much from home.

You said you’re working on a bunch of projects. Anything you can share with those of us who are looking forward to some new stuff to come from you?

Not necessarily recording projects. I’m a musical adviser and musical director for the HistoryMakers, which is the largest African-American archival organization in the U.S., housed in the Library of Congress. They have their 20-year anniversary coming up, and they’re doing a 20-day online celebration. I’m also a music consultant and producer for the Erroll Garner Jazz Project. I’m the artistic director for the Carr Center in Detroit, and I’m working on online streaming concerts for them. Lots of different things I’m doing.

This interview has been edited and condensed.