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Terri Lyne Carrington addresses women's omission from jazz canon with 'New Standards'

Terri Lyne Carrington, whose new book <em>New Standards: 101 Lead Sheets By Women Composers</em> <em></em>explores the work of foundational women jazz artists.
Christian Ducasse
Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Terri Lyne Carrington, whose new book New Standards: 101 Lead Sheets By Women Composers explores the work of foundational women jazz artists.

In 2018, Grammy-winning jazz drummer Terri Lyne Carrington founded The Berklee Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice, which launched with a question at the heart of its program "What would jazz sound like in a culture without patriarchy?" For its opening celebration, Carrington asked two students to play some live music.

Carrington's students looked to The Real Book, a collection of sheet music which, for decades, has been the authority on which jazz songs are "standards." Carrington did not find, perhaps unsurprisingly, many women artists within its pages. Her new book, New Standards, goes a long way to addressing those damaging, and still-ongoing, ommissions.

The below has been edited and condensed. To hear the full conversation, use the audio player at the top of this page.

Juana Summers, All Things Considered: So to start off, I'd just like to ask you to describe something called The Real Book and explain, if you can, the place that it holds in the jazz world.

Terri Lyne Carrington: Well, The Real Book started as The Fake Book, a collection of songs that were, in essence, bootlegged for students and teachers to learn from and teach from. Eventually it got published as The Real Book, which Hal Leonard published. Ironically, Hal Leonard is the distributor for my book as well, even the publishers Berklee Press.

But when we looked through it for songs written by women composers – for the opening event of the institute I founded at Berklee, the Berklee Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice – we couldn't find any songs written by women, other than Ann Ronell's "Willow Weep for Me" ... and maybe a Billie Holiday blues [song]. we couldn't find songs written by women.

Was that surprising to you?

Yes, that became the first initiative of the Institute. I was actually very surprised to know that – I hadn't paid attention to that beforehand. Like, I didn't notice that I was mostly playing songs written by men because we are so used to that and we've been socialized through jazz culture to think that that's normal.

Give us an example of a song – something that, perhaps, had really been left behind and forgotten and that you felt was important.

There is a composer, her name is Sarah Cassey, who was from Detroit and lived in New York. She worked for a publishing company but she was a jazz composer and was really kind of well known back in the day. A lot of people recorded her music, but – it's not that there were hit records or anything like that, so I don't think a lot of people today know who she is. But Hank Jones, Herb Ellis, Ron Carter, people like that [all] recorded her music. So we have one of her songs, called "Windflower," in the book and on the album.

You mentioned the idea of jazz without patriarchy and that that's not a space we live in right now. When and if that space exists, what do you hope that it feels like and it sounds like?

That's the interesting part about it. We don't know. We don't know what it sounds like. We're not sure yet because so many of the creators of the music that have been non-male have been replicating these systems. For instance, for me, I felt like I would be successful if I played like a man... and I think a lot of successful women have had that in their mind. So we're all trying to figure out what would it sound like if I didn't have that in my mind, if I were able to just develop musically and artistically from an authentic place that wasn't really worried about acceptance from this male-dominated culture.

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Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.