When I look back on my life there are a lot of instances where people, especially women, have told me how much I inspire them, seeing me as fearless and daring. This was not always comfortable because I always felt like I was just being me. Factually speaking, I am a drummer, playing an instrument predominantly played by men in a male-dominated music industry, so I have had to be fearless and daring or I would not have gotten very far in my field. What I find interesting is how I’ve had to present myself in order to be accepted in this community. This was not a fully conscious effort on my part.
I was always pretty good at reading personalities and figuring out what needed to be done or said in order for a situation to produce or fulfill its maximum potential. My personality is strong, not uncommon for women in my field, and often people find that intimidating, so I naturally developed a way to present a more softened version of myself – a “me” that I actually grew to be quite fond of as well. Still, what repeatedly rings in my ears is my mother’s voice scolding me as a child for being too concerned with what other people think. And later in life, I recall my dad’s voice remarking on how it was the veteran musicians – one or two generations before mine – that hired and supported me the most, indicating that I was never fully accepted by the majority of my peers. And to be noted, I was nearly peerless on my instrument.
I believe that we are continuously coming into our own as human beings. This evolution can be a wonderful process. During the period that I worked with mostly musicians of a previous generation, I learned more than I could have ever imagined if they had not mentored me. Jack DeJohnnette, Clark Terry, Wayne Shorter, Lester Bowie, Herbie Hancock, Bernice Johnson Reagon, as well as my big sister-friends that were hovering around 10 years my senior; Dianne Reeves, Patrice Rushen, Cassandra Wilson. All of these people helped to create a nurturing community that I called home, literally and figuratively. I was able to be open, honest and a work in progress, while still trying to figure out how I fit into the dynamic of the male centered jazz culture.
As I matured, I discovered that a big part of the “me” had developed for the comfort of others. I toed the line of what would be considered acceptable social behavior for women in the ’80’s and ’90’s, and the far less acceptable behavior of a woman that wanted the same societal freedoms of her male counterparts, comfortably going toe to toe with them as well, a balancing act that can be tiresome. Well, now in my 50s, as cliché as it may sound, I am finally daring to be my fabulous self, however that turns out, without regard for other people’s expectations.
I am finally realizing how much time I spent and wasted on trying to fit into various boxes–from worrying about who likes me, or who doesn’t, to worrying about my pant size or my hairstyle. Dianne Reeves once told me that I spent too much time trying to find “what is hip?” and that I did not realize that I am “what is hip!” I thought about that one day and the truth in her statement brought me to tears. Though I am confident, intelligent, strong-willed, and relatively outspoken, I have felt very much misunderstood over the course of my life and I finally get that I have some responsibility for that. I see that it takes a lot of courage to discover and to be your authentic self in an environment that is constantly telling you how to be.
Most of us are complex people that find it difficult to be free enough to outwardly show the beauty and neurosis of our many complexities, whether in our personal relationships, career, or society in general. I know now that the freedom I’ve been looking for has always lived within, and that I have been my own road block to fully accessing it. This kind of freedom is a real possession. Though I still struggle to bring it to the exterior, I know that I have to in order to live my life genuinely, because it is not something that someone else will grant me.
I have had many examples that have brought these principles to light for me. When I tried to make a CD after the success of my Grammy-nominated debut CD in 1989, I could not get arrested. I went over 10 years without label interest, but when I invested in myself, produced and paid for it on my own, my career trajectory changed to being a solo artist that has since won three Grammy awards, creating the art autonomously.
With all the praise, awards and critical acclaim I have received over the years, outward reinforcement of my being “fabulous” never really stuck with me because career accomplishments alone did not make me feel complete. It is my personal growth and discovery of self that makes me feel more fabulous every year, and contributes heavily to my faith, confidence and perseverance. Without these things, I could not successfully pass down my knowledge and experience to others.
The one event that has made me feel especially fabulous is my decision to raise a child, which has now been an 11-year journey. Having a child, something that is simple for (or even expected of) many women, has presented its challenges, but I would not trade the experience for anything in the world. It takes work, sacrifice and commitment to adapt – regularly. I had romanticized parenthood, but now I see how fabulous mothers truly are. It is the hardest thing I have ever done! Although co-parenting is not always easy, we are both grateful and proud to be parents to an amazing little boy. I had faith that the right “child spirit” would choose us, and I still believe that to be true. Though my family is being formed alternatively, there is a natural joy and sense of purpose that comes with this, and I am so glad I did not allow the business of my career to rob me of this experience.
I moved back to my hometown a little over 10 years ago, and I am now far away from everything I knew and loved in Southern California, but this chapter is still being written and I trust the universe to unfold the future as it should. I am now the Zildjian Chair in Performance at Berklee Global Jazz Institute, so my life has come full circle, teaching at the same college I attended over 30 years ago.
This is who I am – an artist, a mother, a hope-to-be grandmother, as well as a daughter and a teacher, and I dare to be fabulous!
Terri Lyne Carrington was given her first set of drums at the age of seven, and by the age of 11, she received a full scholarship to the prestigious Berklee College of Music. She has toured with Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Stan Getz, Al Jarreau and others, and is a three-time GRAMMY award-winning artist and producer. She is also the Zildjian Chair in Performance at Berklee Global Jazz Institute.