Terri Lyne Carrington Curates Groundbreaking Lead Sheet Book of Female-Composed Jazz Standards: ‘We Can Transform a Culture’

Although women have always played a leading role as jazz artists, they have rarely been given the credit they deserve as writers. Jazz drummer, composer/producer and Grammy winner Terri Lyne Carrington trying to right the wrong with New Standards: 101 Lead Sheets by Women Composers, published by Hal Leonard and curated by Carrington, out September. 15.


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The project spans a century of jazz compositions, including works by seminal artists such as Lil Hardin Armstrong, Dianne ReevesMary Schneider, Cassandra Wilson and Alice Coltrane. The book crosses generations and continents with additional contributions from the bassist/singer Esperanza Spaldingthe Chilean tenor saxophonist Melissa Aldana and the Japanese-American pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi.

The songbook is the latest for Carrington’s Jazz Without Patriarchy Project and the first initiative of the Berklee Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice, which she formed in 2018 with the Berklee College of Music and serves as its artistic director. Having spent the last decade advocating for more inclusivity in jazz and elevating the voices of women, trans and non-binary people, Carrington hopes New standards promotes the conversation about who decides, who shapes the genre.

In addition to the songbook, Carrington publishes new STANDARDS vol. 1 on the newly relaunched Candid Records on Sept. 16. The album features 11 songs from the songbook, with selections chosen to reflect its diversity, both in music and creators.

“Our motto is ‘jazz without patriarchy,’ and that’s what we’re trying to envision,” Carrington says of the Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice. “We don’t have it yet, but it is definitely going in the right direction. We are trying to shift the narratives and set new standards so that we can transform a culture. It is collective work [on] so many fronts with so many people who understand the bigger point – which is that music has not and will not reach its full potential until there is justice in the people who create it.”

As a uniquely American art form, jazz’s history reflects the nation’s innovation and complexity. Before movies and television, public entertainment centered around the theater, and songs from musicals often became popular songs of the time. Black musicians would improvise a swing rhythm over the songs made popular by the likes of Irving Berlin, Cole Porter and George Gershwin to play for their audience.

“Now the fact that women weren’t included very much is because they weren’t writing the music of the time – and if they did, it was more to write the lyrics,” says Carrington.

There were rare exceptions. A trained pianist, Hardin played in King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band as a young trumpeter, Louis Armstrong, joined the band. She encouraged Armstrong to go out on his own, and they would eventually marry. She wrote many of his songs and also played in both his Hot 5 and Hot 7 bands. However, Lil Hardin Armstrong was not credited for her contributions in the liner notes of his work, which referred to her as a ghostwriter. Her 1922 composition “Perdido Street Blues” is the oldest song in the New Standards collection, which includes compositions as recent as 2021.

Lil Hardin Armstrong’s story of being denied credit is far from unique and is just one of the unfortunate common experiences of women in music at the time. It’s just one of the many examples of what Carrington refers to as the “invisible work” women do, not just in music, but in society in general. Restrictions on how women—and specifically black women—could exist in society created barriers to not only developing their talents, but sharing them. Women could not travel alone, and were often considered not as talented as their male counterparts. There were even expectations about what should be considered appropriate instruments.

“Alice Coltrane was the consummate pianist,” says Carrington, who included Coltrane’s “Blue Nile” in New Standards. “She was playing in Europe before she met John Coltrane. It’s hard to say she was in the shadows because she was quite well-known – but if you’re next to a towering figure like John Coltrane, it’s hard not to to be in a kind of shadow.”

Determined to highlight the contributions of women, Carrington sought to find lead sheets of their music. She looked in all the traditional places, including The Real Book. To her dismay, there was little to draw on.

For more than 40 years, students and professional musicians have relied on The Real Book lead sheets for jazz standards. Officially published by Hal Leonard since 2003, Real Book began as an unofficial tome created by a group of students at Berklee. The handwritten charts transcribed popular jazz tunes of the day and were bound into the first edition of The Real Book.

Having made this her life’s work, Carrington already knew of hundreds of women who pioneered the world of jazz and that their contributions were extensive. During the search process, there were some who doubted that her mission was even possible. She laughs as she sums up some comments: “You know, you don’t have to be so ambitious with 101.” “We could do this book with less people, I mean, Is there even 101 female composers?”

“That’s why we’re doing a book—because there’s so much out there,” she continues. “There’s enough music that we could do another edition right away. This [book] was only one song per person. All these people have lots of material. I could do another book without repeating the same composers.”

New standards is also for future generations of musicians. “I feel like that’s why I intentionally have different levels — so you could be a high school student or a college student, a great [player] or an intermediate, a beginner… you can find something here,’ she explains. “So it’s definitely something that we hope will be in a university library and something that high school teachers will use as a tool for their teaching.”

Carrington laments how the male-dominated world of jazz may have prevented so many female artists from developing as jazz players and composers, as they were not given the same opportunities and mentors. “Carmen McCrae, Sarah Vaughan, Shirley Horn, they all played the piano. I often wonder how they would have developed as pianists if this patriarchal idea of ​​who plays the music didn’t exist in the same way,” she asks . “Even though Ella Fitzgerald, with the talent she had as an improviser and scatting next to any man playing a horn and holding his own, dusts them off the stage. I wonder how she would have sounded on a horn. If there was that kind of freedom, maybe she would have taken a horn like John Coltrane.”

It is these “what ifs” that drive the institute’s mission and corrective work. Carrington, 57, also takes that responsibility personally. She met Berklee grad Spalding, whose song “If That’s True” is included in the New standards, while both performed at the school nearly 20 years ago. Having worked together for years, Carrington considers their relationship a “mutual mentorship” across generations, where she continues to learn from her “little sister”.

The value of that mentorship isn’t lost on Spalding, 37. Although she didn’t realize it at the time, Spalding has come to realize that Carrington was mentoring her. “What I now understand is that she could see my potential,” she says. “By immediately inviting me to the concerts, the recording sessions and helping to make music with her, she gave me a chance to develop in several contexts. Her style of leading the band, and co-playing, co-leading – that gave me an opportunity to get real-time feedback and encouragement from someone who was a woman who knew on so many levels what it was like to be on the journey I was on.”

Spalding has learned the value of having female mentors early in an artist’s career. “I realized that it’s not just about having a female role model; it’s about having more female role models,” she says. “What Terri is doing, I pray that it continues to be one of many, many expressions of women in music.”

From Oct. 13 – Nov. 27, 2022, Detroit’s Carr Center will host New Standards, the first installment of the upcoming major exhibition Shifting the Narrative: Jazz and Gender Justice. Developed and curated by Carrington, the project will include live performances, panel discussions, a photography exhibition, archival material and artworks created by jazz artists.


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