"When I first moved to New York," she recalls, "I would go to jam sessions, certain places, and sometimes, I remember one cat said, 'Oh, look at her with her little violin, now what she gonna do?'"
What she's gonna do, she's done.
The five-foot-tall Detroit native has found her niche playing jazz, a music that doesn't sell, on the violin, an instrument few want to hear outside of a concert hall.
She has done it so well that she was named world's greatest jazz violinist by Downbeat magazine for four straight years.
Daughter of a Ford autoworker and a teacher, Carter grew up in the 1960s in a middle-class Detroit neighborhood where classical music and education were in, and everything else was out.
At the age of 4, she was writing her own music, caring not a whit that it broke all the musical rules: "When I get something in my head that I want to do, I see it," she says. "And I've always seen, as a child, I would see things very clearly that I wanted."
So when she was enrolled in a violin class that featured the Suzuki play-by-ear method, she responded.
"I think," she says, "if children have an ear and they can play a tune right away, they're gonna be more excited about playing that instrument than if they have to start learning that, 'OK, this note is a G, and that's where it is on the…' If it's too technical, I think it's a turnoff."
Her mother, Grace, says she didn't set out to foster a musician. She just wanted her children to be exposed to music.
When her daughter announced that she was interested in jazz, Grace Carter advised her not marry another jazz musician. When their children complain about hunger, Grace predicted, their father will tell them, "Well, I didn't get a gig. Did your mother get a gig?"
Turning serious, Grace explains: "Well, you play in an orchestra, then you have Social Security and a pension. I guess that's my Depression-era thought."
At the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, where Regina was studying to become a proper classical orchestra member, she discovered French musician Stefan Grapelli, the viscount of the jazz violin.
"I just felt this freedom I had never felt in music before, Regina recalls. "And he was having such a good time. And I wanted that. I wanted that feeling all of the time. And I wanted to be able to give that feeling to people."
Today, she works around the world, trying to give that feeling to audiences.
"I think I would like to have a family," she says when she talks of slowing down. "It would be great just to be able to pick and choose the concerts that I want to do and just, maybe stay in one place longer than I do now. A lot longer."
Last year, Regina Carter was awarded an honor never bestowed on a jazz musician. She was invited to play the 250-year-old Guarneri violin once owned by composer Nicola Paganini. It resides in heavily guarded splendor in Genoa, Italy, and is played only once a year by a chosen classical virtuoso.
In a gesture of friendship to New York after 9/11, the keepers of the instrument chose Regina to play in the annual festival, because she now lives in New York and is not a classical musician.
"I was scared of it," Regina recalls of the day she picked the instrument up. "I didn't want to touch it. And I said, 'Oh my God, what am I going to play? What am I gonna play?' and then my mother came to mind and said, 'Play Amazing Grace.'"
Before the concert, some members of the Paganini society had expressed outrage, claiming the instrument would be "debased" in the hands of a jazz musician. But throughout the concert, the audience was on its feet.
Regina insists her idol, Stefan Grappelli, was there in spirit, as was Paganini.
Nicola Paganini was there?
"Yes," Regina says, "saying, 'It's about time.'"