Growing up in Detroit, Regina Carter dutifully studied the classical canon for violin. But today she can proudly say she's on intimate terms with The Cannon of violins.
Ms. Carter is the first jazz musician - and the first African-American - to play The Cannon, the powerful violin with a dark, rich sound used by virtuoso Niccolò Paganini two centuries ago. The instrument, always under guard at its home in Genoa, Italy, is usually played only by a few classical artists deemed worthy of the honor by the Paganini Commission.
Last year, Carter returned to Genoa to make a recording using The Cannon called "Paganini: After a Dream." In May, it hit No. 1 on the jazz album charts. And a third rendezvous may be coming this fall.
But she'll never forget her first performance with the legendary instrument, she said in a recent interview at Scullers, a Boston jazz club where she was playing.
"It was right after 9/11," she says, and the concert in Genoa was to be a fundraiser called "A Night of Healing."
The hall was packed. "I think there were 2,000 people there," she says, recalling that she got three standing ovations.
But when she first went onstage and was handed the instrument, "I just broke down and cried," she says. "Because I thought, 'Wow, who'd have thunk?' As a kid I never would have imagined having this opportunity."
Adding to her emotions was a personal tie to Sept. 11. Her brother, who worked at a bank in the World Trade Center, had made it out just in time. Half of his office colleagues had not.
"So all these things came to me," she says, as she stood on stage. "It was just an incredible experience."
The distinctive deep tone of The Cannon, made by the famous Guarneri workshop, is almost that of a viola or even a cello, Carter says.
"The sound of this instrument is enormous," she says, hence its nickname. Paganini (1782-1840) used it to showcase his astonishing skill, which led some listeners to wonder if he had made a pact with the devil in order to have such seemingly supernatural ability.
Carter had applied to play the instrument at the urging of an Italian friend. The process was long and formal. At one point, her application was derailed because someone found a photo of her on the Internet that showed her using electronic amplification on her own violin. She told the Paganini officials that she was happy to play The Cannon with no amplification.
Finally, the concert was on.
As Carter was walking through the streets of Genoa on her way "to meet" the violin for the first time, she spotted a caravan of cars with flashing lights coming toward her. She briefly wondered if the pope had come to town. But, no, it was The Cannon and its entourage arriving.
She had only a pair of two-hour sessions over two days to practice. Practicing, she says, was like being put in a pitch black room and told you have two hours to learn your way around - but you're not allowed to bump into any of the furniture. Armed guards watched her closely, as well as a Paganini official. They made her hesitant to really explore the instrument. Finally, she asked the official if he would get her an espresso. When she heard the door click behind him, she cut loose.
At the concert, she played what she called "safe jazz," tunes the audience would know, like Billie Holiday's "Don't Explain" and "Chattanooga Choo-Choo" - tunes where "I wasn't going to have to be aggressive on the instrument."
Her CD goes in a different direction, bridging the worlds of jazz and classical music with selections from composers such as Faure, Debussy, and Ravel, as well as an original composition of her own.
Carter started taking violin lessons at age 4, and her mother envisioned a career with a major symphony orchestra for her. At the New England Conservatory in Boston, she started out studying classical music but quietly switched, something her mother found out only when she saw Carter's grades and realized her daughter was majoring in "African-American jazz studies."
Now, after spending much of the summer touring in Europe, Carter is looking forward to reuniting with classical violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg and Celtic fiddler Eileen Ivers on Aug. 25 at Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony. They'll join to perform "Interplay for 3 Violins and Orchestra," by composer Chris Brubeck. "Those girls are so much fun," Carter says.
And if all goes well, The Cannon will visit New York in November, and Carter will play it again, this time at Carnegie Hall.
"I feel that when you play an instrument, there's a part of you that goes into it," she says. "There is a part of Paganini" in The Cannon, she says, and "I put a little bit of myself in there." In fact, she says, erupting in laughter, the next classical violinist who plays The Cannon may think, "Why am I bending these notes" - just like a jazz musician?