Terri Lyne Carrington is just 11 years old and hanging backstage at a concert hall with her friend “Ella” — that’s Ella Fitzgerald to us mere mortals — and the jazz legend wants to introduce her to jazz virtuoso Oscar Peterson, who had just finished performing.
“Ella Fitzgerald says, ‘You need to hear her,’” Carrington, now 55, recalls. “She was just somebody who would encourage me and hang out with me. She was shy, and I was disarming because I was a kid. She took a liking to me.”
So Peterson invites the young drummer to perform alongside him before the audience escapes. They jam onstage, impressing the crowd. One attendee — the then-President of Berklee College of Music — was so wowed he offered Carrington a scholarship to the exceptional music school.
“It was really because Oscar let me play but (also) because Ella introduced me to him and told him, basically, he should hear me," she says.
Anointed by jazz legends, literally, Carrington was destined for greatness. Four decades later, she’s proven she is not only great, but groundbreaking.
She’s earning the highest honor bestowed on jazz artists, the NEA Jazz Masters Award. The three-time Grammy winner is nominated for best instrumental jazz album – an award she won in 2014 and is the only woman to do so in the show’s 63-year history. She worked as a musical and cultural consultant on the hit Disney/Pixar animation “Soul,” making sure it portrayed the jazz world accurately. And she’s the founder and artistic director of the Berklee Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice and has spent nearly 16 years teaching at the college, well versed in Zoom thanks to the recent pandemic.
She is the personification of Black girl magic.
“I knew she was going to open some doors since she was around 12 years old,” 11-time Grammy winner and jazz icon Wayne Shorter said. “She’s one of the finest drummers in the world. She has a lot of finesse. She decorates. And she can also drop some bombs.”
Shorter, 87, remembers auditioning 12 drummers for a tour and hearing Carrington play, leaving him in awe.
“When Terri played, she mixed things up,” he said before using his mouth to imitate her drum playing, starting slow then speeding up his rattle. “She made the bass drum sing and the tenor drum sing and the snare drum, not just rattle, she knew how to put pressure, release and have a flowing (set). She knew how to tell a story.”
Carrington, who grew up in Medford, Massachusetts, first played saxophone and piano but fell in love with the drums at 7.
She came to national prominence decades ago as the drummer in “The Arsenio Hall Show” band and earned her first Grammy nomination with her 1989 debut, “Real Life Story.”
Twenty-two years later she scored her second Grammy nomination, and first win, with her fifth album “The Mosaic Project.” And she's honed her skills on the road, playing alongside Herbie Hancock, Al Jarreau, John Scofield, Dianne Reeves, Cassandra Wilson and Clark Terry,
At the March 14 Grammys she could continue to make history. “Waiting Game,” her album with her band Social Science that explores heavy topics like politics, racism, sexuality and police brutality, is nominated for best jazz instrumental album, the award she previously won.
“The jazz instrumental category is a really big category. To have risen to the top of that via jazz critics is something that I don’t take lightly. Especially because I didn’t assume at all that this one would get that kind of recognition from the critics,” said Carrington, who won DownBeat magazine’s Critics Poll for top jazz artist, top jazz album and top jazz group — making the drummer the first female instrumentalist to win in all three categories in the same year in the magazine’s 68-year history.
“Those critics seem to be older generation, I don’t want to say, white guys, is what it feels like ... For them to embrace this album the way they have really taught me a lot,” she said. “Not to judge other people. ... I just felt like, ‘They’re not going to get it.' And they did.”
Carrington spent three years creating “Waiting Game,” which features collaborations with Esperanza Spalding, Rapsody, Malcolm-Jamal Warner, Meshell Ndegeocello and more. “I wanted to surround myself with people that were younger than me, that had their pulse on what’s happening in jazz today,” she said.
But Carrington is still a spring chicken, sort of, in jazz. At 55, she’s one of the youngest to receive the NEA Jazz Masters Award and one of few female instrumentalists to earn the honor.
“As much as I feel honored to have received these accolades and awards, the bigger problem is that it hasn’t happened before. There’s been women before me that have had lots of amazing work out there, one being Geri Allen," she said.
Carrington has a number of theories when it comes to the lack of female jazz instrumentalists on the scene, starting with there just aren't enough of them.
“When slavery ended men could travel. They could go on the road and bring their guitar and play in juke joints around the corner and make money. That was respectable, but it wasn’t for women,” she explained.
“Most of the time (women) have to work harder and don’t have the same access and support. That makes it not fun, so women quit," she added.
It's the reason Carrington wants to make sure she passes the torch to others coming up.
“Eventually I was like, ‘Whoa!’ What am I doing to really help this situation? Once I realized I wasn’t doing very much, I decided that I had a responsibility.”