By Diane Newberry
CITIES across the U.S. take pride in claiming their unique identities, their superior recipes, their distinct music. They have different industries, different climates, different demographics. There is, however, one thing that most all American cities have in common: the destruction of Black and minority communities through insidious federal policy. In her Savannah Music Festival debut, violinist Regina Carter will entertain and educate on this theme with her new multimedia piece “Gone in a Phrase of Air.”
Carter – whose impressive resume includes a MacArthur “genius” award and the 2018 Doris Duke Artist Award for Jazz – began playing the violin at the age of four. Though she dabbled in piano and oboe in childhood, the violin has been her steadfast instrument through the decades.
“The violin is so much like a voice,” she says. “I tell people they don’t want to hear me sing, but I sing through the instrument.”
In “Gone in a Phrase of Air,” Carter uses this voice to illuminate history. Accompanied by Xavier Davis on piano, Chris Lightcap on bass, Alvester Garnett on drums, and vocalist Carla Cook, she will play original music inspired by the 1950s and 60s as historical photos and footage show communities dismantled by racist infrastructure policy. The project began with just one geographical focus, Carter’s hometown of Detroit, and the effects of the 1956 Highway Act.
“I started the project years ago; it was entitled ‘Black Bottom’ and it was just about Detroit because I knew about the area Black Bottom and Paradise Valley because my mother grew up there in the 20s,” Carter says. “She was born in Detroit and I would hear all these stories, so a friend of mine, poet Leslie Reese, interviewed several people that lived during that time before the 1956 Highway Act was implemented and she gathered those stories and turned them into poetry and I wrote music around that.”
During the construction of the interstate highway system, planners routed highways (often purposefully) through Black and minority neighborhoods. The government used eminent domain to take property and sought to devalue flourishing minority communities.
“A lot of the areas were very nice areas, gorgeous homes, but those cities couldn’t get federal funding unless they deemed a certain neighborhood a slum,” Carter says.
‘East, West, North, South’
The project explores other injustices, such as the practice of “redlining” that began when the Federal Housing Administration created maps in 1934 that designated certain areas as “low risk” or “high risk” to lend money in for development. Unsurprisingly, minority communities were marked red for “hazardous” and the long-term socioeconomic effects of this are still startlingly clear on maps across America.
While Carter took most of her artistic inspiration from mid century music, some of her compositions sound more contemporary, reflecting the ongoing racial inequities of civic planning.
“The 50s and 60s is the genre of music that I’ve based a lot of it on, although some of it is more modern because it’s still going on, whether it’s the highways or capitol buildings being built, or just people being moved off of their land,” she says.
As she dove into research during the pandemic, Carter gathered photos and interviews from other parts of the country, reaching out to local authors, poets and lyricists to help narrate the emerging collage. Deciding what made the cut became the most difficult part of her creative process.
“It happened in every city across the United States, so I had to really say ‘Ok, you can’t include every single place,’ so that was hard,” Carter says. “I have someone helping me with research and I have this thick folder and it’s just overwhelming. I said ‘Okay, I can’t concentrate’ so she helped me and said, “Let’s just do East, West, North, South.”
The local Savannah neighborhoods of West Savannah, Hudson Hill and Woodville are featured in Carter’s piece. The construction of I-16 plowed through many of Savannah’s Black communities, and an extensive history of structural and economic injustices paints a broader story.
Though the stories of these communities may seem bleak, Carter does not regard “Gone in a Phrase of Air” as a depressing or downtrodden narrative. The music, inspired by decades of Black culture, is not just a medium for storytelling, but also a testament to strength.
“The music isn’t all depressing,” she says. “Some of it is uplifting because at the same time of bringing these issues to light for so many people that don’t know about it, also we’re rejoicing these people that were moved out of their communities, rejoicing their resilience, celebrating their resilience.”
Carter’s previous project, a 2020 jazz album called “Swing States”, was themed explicitly around voting rights and encouraging people to cast their ballots. Though “Gone in a Phrase of Air” explores the ravages of political decisions, Carter doesn’t feel that it’s a political work.
“The last record ‘Swing States’ was definitely the most overt,” she says. “This project, I don’t think of it as a political piece, I think of it as more just an awareness. It’s something that I know about that I’m interested in and music is a way to tell stories. A lot of times people, because of the music, they remember the information. I know for me, that’s my best way of learning. It’s a great way to spread information and to teach. It’s entertaining, but it’s also a learning experience.”
She has found a thrill in performing “Gone in a Phrase of Air” live, and it’s important to Carter that when she records the project in full, she is able to convey the visual archival footage to listeners at home. The music, she said, works in tandem with her research to convey vital historical information that is often brushed aside or forgotten.
“People say that some of the music because it is joyous sounding or upbeat, it is easier to take in the information that’s being shared because it’s not all depressing or angry,” she says. “That’s not the point, the point is just to educate people and say we can do something about this.”
Carter and her accompanists will perform “Gone in a Phrase of Air” on Wednesday, April 5 as part of the Savannah Music Festival. The show begins at 6 p.m. at the Trustees Theater.
Tickets can be purchased at https://www.savannahmusicfestival.org/event/regina-carter-gone-in-a-phrase-of-air/