Like many teenagers, violinist Regina Carter had to keep a secret from her parents.
No, it wasn't a boyfriend, a bad report card or an all-night party. In her case, the secret was an interest in jazz.
"When it came to jazz, my mother said, 'Absolutely not!' " Carter said from New York City, where her neighbors are drummers Elvin Jones and Max Roach. "Mom was from the old school. She thought all jazz musicians were on drugs, that they had no money and no health insurance. She wanted me to have a steady income and a better lifestyle."
So Carter, even while pursuing classical violin at Boston's New England Conservatory of Music, concealed from her mother in Detroit the fact that she'd added jazz to her studies.
Even so, the scarcity of jazz-playing violinists didn't make it easy. The Conservatory "really didn't have a string program for jazz. I went to some of the jazz instructors and asked them to explain it to me but most of them were over my head. I literally knew nothing about jazz."
But she would learn. Carter, who brings her quintet to Founders Hall at the Orange County Performing Arts Center on Friday and Saturday, has emerged in the last five years as the genre's most-visible violinist, more in the tradition of departed masters Stuff Smith, Eddie South and Stephane Grappelli than the jazz-fusion violinists of the 1970s and '80s who first inspired her. With four major-label recordings to her name and a host of live and recorded guest appearances in a variety of styles, Carter is one of the few young musicians to rate mention, however brief, in documentary filmmaker Ken Burns' recent 10-part series, "Jazz."
She began playing violin at age 4, learning on the child-sized instrument used in the lauded Suzuki style of instruction and performed with the Detroit Civic Symphony while in high school. Growing up in Detroit in the '70s and '80s gave her plenty of chances to hear a variety of music. But her violin instructor and her mother forbade her from listening to jazz.
"I was only allowed to listen to classical music. I didn't know Miles Davis or Charlie Parker or any of those people. But, of course, my brothers listened to Motown, and my dad was into easy listening. And there was such a diversity of cultures in Detroit, a huge Latin population and Greeks and Arabic people, that when I was in these neighborhoods, I got to hear those types of music. And it eventually all seeped into my playing."
Carter was 16 and a student at Detroit's Cass Technical High School when she first heard jazz played on the violin.
"It was the early '80s when I was introduced to the records of [violinists] Noel Pointer and Jean Luc Ponty. And I thought, 'What are they doing?' I'd never heard anything like it on my instrument, having a band, a rhythm section, behind you while the violin actually grooves."
Carter went to Boston to continue her classical studies, but the situation didn't agree with her, even as she began to pursue jazz.
"After two years there, I just hated the city, so I came back home."
Her mother, realizing her daughter's interest in jazz was legitimate, then tried to help. But as often happens with well-meaning parents, she almost destroyed her daughter's budding love.
"My mom went down to the record store and asked the clerk to recommend some CDs for me. Well, the guy gave her his favorites, some really far-out stuff like [saxophonist] Eric Dolphy's 'Out to Lunch,' Ornette Coleman's 'Dancing in Your Head' and Miles Davis' 'Bitches Brew.' I listened to them and thought, 'If this is jazz, forget it.'
"My ears weren't ready for this kind of stuff yet."
But her ears were ready for the music she heard in Detroit's local club and loft scene. She began sitting in with organist Lymon Woodard and through him met trumpeter Marcus Belgrave. Belgrave held rehearsals for the city's aspiring young musicians at his home during the summers. Carter and others, including Branford Marsalis and bassist Bob Hurst, took full advantage.
She also discovered the relative slim history of jazz violin and players, including Duke Ellington trumpeter-violinist Ray Nance and Smith, to whom her aggressive style has been compared, and South, the classically trained violinist who turned to jazz when racial barriers prevented him from joining the orchestras of the day.
"Eddie South's 'Classics' recording [reissued as 'Eddie South, 1937-1941' on the Chess label] was a real inspiration. I still listen to it just for enjoyment," Carter said.
Her career took off quickly. She became a member of the all-female quintet Straight Ahead in the early '90s, then moved to New York in 1994, where she joined guitarist James Emery and bassist John Lindbergh in the adventurous String Trio of New York.