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 said.
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 prestigious 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 was doing some historical stuff,” he continued. “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.”
“We didn’t tell all the other drummers who was going to be the one. We just said, ‘We’ll call you later on.’ And as soon as everybody left, we said, ‘Terri Lyne, you stay here.’”
Carrington, who grew up in Medford, Massachusetts — just minutes from Berklee in Boston — 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, Stan Getz, Cassandra Wilson, David Sanborn, Clark Terry, Joe Sample, Woody Shaw, Diana Krall and James Moody.
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 for 2013’s “Money Jungle: Provocative in Blue.” The only other frontwoman to earn a nomination for that Grammy was Carrington’s mentee, the skilled saxophonist Tia Fuller, for an album Carrington produced.
“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. Other people are really hipper than you thought. I really had to look at myself. 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. Fitzgerald turned 68 the year she entered the famous jazz club and Sarah Vaughan was 65, earning the prize a year before she died.
“It’s always a great honor to be the first to break through something. I think I’ve had a long career doing that,” Carrington said.
But she adds that she “started looking at it differently since I became the first woman to win a Grammy in instrumental jazz. I think from that moment it made me feel like, 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.
“Even with the Grammy, I was the first woman even nominated in that category. That seems really crazy to me and really speaks to how we have to change this. With this triple crown win with DownBeat, it’s the same kind of feeling.”
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.
“There’s a lot of reasons for that patriarchy. We can go back. 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 explains.
Carrington said it was later OK for women to sing or play instruments such as piano, violin or even the flute. “Instruments that feel more feminine, for whatever reason, to a society that gendered instruments,” she says.
“It’s very different sitting at a piano than sitting at a drum set. I sit at a drum set with my legs open, standing in front of a band and leading a band and blowing a horn — that just wasn’t really what was accepted as much.
“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."
Has Carrington ever quit, or thought of doing so?
“Never,” she boldly says, adding: “Well because I had support. My dad was my biggest champion and he knew everybody, and nobody really messed with me because I was kind of protected in that way. I didn’t have to worry about some of the silly stuff. I had access to all these great musicians. I had talent that they were willing to engage with.”
And now she wants to make sure she passes the torch.
“I’m late to the party,” she admits. “I was just really worried about being as good of a musician as I could be and following my dream. Then 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.”