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Regina Carter has felt the music running through her since Day One

Violinist Regina Carter performs during the opening night concert of the SFJAZZ Center Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013 in San Francisco.
Eric Risberg
The Associated Press
Violinist Regina Carter performs during the opening night concert of the SFJAZZ Center Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013 in San Francisco.

In honor of Black History Month, we are taking a look into the career highlights of African American artists and their contribution to the world of jazz and blues. Robin Lloyd celebrates the diverse artistry of Regina Carter.

Violinist Regina Carter never stands still.

Watch her in performance, and you’ll see that she’s feeling the music throughout her body. Listen to her recordings and you’ll know that she’s still exploring the boundaries of her instrument’s expression.

Regina was only 2 years old when she toddled over to the piano and played a part of her brother’s piano lesson that she had overheard. 

Once she started piano lessons herself, she didn’t want to learn from the book. She brought her own original songs to her teacher. 

Regina started Suzuki violin courses at 4 years old, and then studied with members of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. 

By the time she got to Detroit’s renowned Cass Tech High School, which produced jazz greats like trumpeter Donald Byrd, guitarist Kenny Burrell, and pianist Geri Allen, Regina was fascinated by jazz and its requirements of intuition, swing, improvisation and collaboration. 

She also was mentored by beloved Detroit trumpeter and educator Marcus Belgrave. Eventually, she left her classical studies and decided to focus on jazz.

Regina’s albums “Motor City Moments” and “Rhythms of the Heart” explore the sounds of her hometown and display her mastery of Brazilian and Afro Cuban styles of music.

While firmly into her jazz explorations, she never abandoned the classical tradition. Regina was the first non-classical violinist and the first black musician to be invited to play Paganini’s famous violin known as The Cannon, built by Guiseppe Guarneri in 1743. It inspired her 2003 album “Paganini: After a Dream.” 

In 2006, Regina was awarded a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, known as the Genius Grant. She used the grant money to explore the heritage of stringed instruments, which became the premise for two albums: her multicultural “Reverse Thread,” and her rootsy “Southern Comfort.” 

Most recently, you can hear Regina adding her magic to two of vocalist Karrin Allyson’s recordings: “Some of That Sunshine” and “Shoulder to Shoulder” — celebrating the centennial of the women’s suffrage movement. Regina also is a featured guest on Cuban piano legend Chucho Valdes’ Latin Grammy winning “Jazz Batá 2.”

Currently, Regina is doing research for her next project, an album about the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. That was the law that authorized the construction of a 41,000-mile network of interstate highways. Many of those roads ended up disrupting and causing economic decline in black neighborhoods in major cities, including Detroit. During the 1960s, activists managed to prevent roadbuilders from destroying their neighborhoods. That’s why you still see some urban interstates that just end, abruptly; they’re known as the “roads to nowhere.”

In contrast, Regina Carter is very clear about where she’s going: wherever the music takes her. 

Originally from Detroit, Robin Lloyd has been presenting jazz, blues and Latin jazz on public radio for nearly 40 years. She's a member of the Jazz Education Network and the Jazz Journalists Association.