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Appreciation: Thelonious Monk

Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead looks at the work of jazz pianist and composer Thelonious Monk. This week, Monk received a special posthumous citation from the Pulitzer Prize committee for "a body of distinguished and innovative musical composition that has had a significant and enduring impact on the evolution of jazz."

06:31

Other segments from the episode on April 21, 2006

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 21, 2006: Interview with John Leguizamo; Commentary on Thelonious Monk; Interview with Steve Lacy; Interview with Paul Motian; Interview with Joel Forrester;…

Transcript

DATE April 21, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Actor John Leguizamo discusses his life and career
DAVE DAVIES, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily
News, filling in for Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of "ER")

Unidentified Actor: The guy is stable.

Mr. JOHN LEGUIZAMO: (As Ernesto Clemente) Maybe. Maybe. But nine out of
100 times asymptomatic patients have lesions that require surgical repair.
How about that, Dr. Pratt? How about that? Talk to me now.

(End of soundbite)

DAVIES: That's actor and comedian John Leguizamo as Dr. Ernesto Clemente in
the TV series "ER." Leguizamo is also appearing in theaters as Sid, the
disrespected sloth in the animated film "Ice Age: The Meltdown."

Leguizamo has appeared in more than 50 films and has built a devoted following
for his stand-up comedy and one-man plays, which draw heavily on his childhood
in an ethnically rich neighborhood in New York.

In a review of his show "Freak," which earned two Tony nominations, The New
York Times' Ben Brantley said that when Leguizamo inhabits characters from his
childhood, it seems less an act of impersonation than an instance of
possession. There's a whole city of people inside this young man's slender
frame.

When I spoke to Leguizamo last July, he had just started a Spanish-speaking
film called "Cronicas." It's now out on DVD.

Although Leguizamo was born in Colombia, he was raised in New York and was
faced with the challenge of acting in Spanish.

John Leguizamo, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

Mr. JOHN LEGUIZAMO: Oh, great to be back. I love NPR and FRESH AIR.

DAVIES: You've been performing a long, long time in English, doing a lot of
Latino characters.

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: Yeah, not Spanish.

DAVIES: Yeah. Was it hard to act in Spanish for you?

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: Oh, yeah. It was one of the hardest things I had to do. I
mean, sure, I was born in Latin America. I was born in Colombia, came here
when I was three. And my parents spoke Spanish at the house, but I spoke
English back. So this was a punishment because I regret I didn't speak back
to them in Spanish because I wasn't as fluid or as free. Luckily, it worked
right into my character that I was creating because this character I was
creating was a journalist, very ambitious, very controlling. And so...

DAVIES: Who lives in Miami, right? And is...

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: Who lives in Miami.

DAVIES: Right.

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: Who navigates between--you know, and people in Miami, those
journalists over there, they navigate between Spanish and English so easily
and fluent in both and, you know, very articulate in both. And so I wanted to
represent that as well.

DAVIES: You've played so many different roles as an actor, and you've studied
acting. But I'm wondering if you had a situation here where part of your
brain had to concentrate on just getting the language right, but if it made it
harder to just sort of let that, you know, that spirit that gets unleashed in
your performances thrive?

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: No. You hit it right, the nail on the head, man. That's
exactly what happened. I mean, I definitely had to focus much more on the
language. I mean, I had to spend, like, weeks memorizing the dialogue in
advance, which I never had to do. I always, like, run my dialogue the morning
of. And I had to get a tutor and a coach, you know, and every time I
improvised, the director yelled, `Cut!' because my Spanish was--you know, it
was kind of--I have a third-grade vocabulary in grammar, you know, and grammar
might be even less, you know, I sound like, `Me want interview you. You
come...' you know?

DAVIES: Wouldn't cut it for Latino audiences.

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: No, I mean, I was supposed to be a college graduate...

DAVIES: Right. Right. Right.

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: ...really bright journalist, really ambitious, not talking,
you know, (Spanish spoken). That wasn't going to cut it.

DAVIES: Well, you know, a lot of your fans know something about your
upbringing from the one-man shows that you have written and performed over the
years, especially...

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: Too much perhaps.

DAVIES: Yeah, well, maybe. One of them, called "Freak," you've described as
sort of--What?--semi-, demi-, quasiautobiographical. You were born in
Colombia. You grew up in Jackson Heights, right, in Queens?

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: Right. In New York City.

DAVIES: ...in Queens...

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: Yeah. Bridge and tunnel.

DAVIES: ...which was a real ethnic mix. And were you a mimic as a kid? I
mean, did you make your parents and your brother laugh?

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: Yeah. I mean, I was always trying to get laughs in the house
because it was the only time I didn't get beatings. So I was always trying to
be mad funny on the street, you know, in school, wherever I was. I mean, I
was kind of a short guy. And I don't know why I got picked on a lot in
school. I don't know why. I mean, my parents and I, we were broke. And you
know how it is in ghetto schools. It's all about your sneakers that you have
and the jeans, and they got to be the right brand. And if you have, like, the
mad, cheap, you know, generic pants and sneakers, you're going to get picked
on. And so I got picked on a lot. And so it made me have to be funny to
defend myself.

DAVIES: And how would that work? I mean, just somebody about to pop you, and
you'd crack them up?

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: I would make them laugh, you know? Yeah. Exactly. I'd have
to make the class laugh and laugh at the other guy, and, you know, put him
down. And, you know, sometimes I had to throw down, I had to fight because
there was a point where laughter's not going to defend you.

DAVIES: Right.

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: You better have some fisticuffs.

DAVIES: So you did some of that, too.

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: Yeah. I duked it out.

DAVIES: Well, in "Freak," we learn--we see some members of your family, and I
wanted to play one cut here. This is--you're re-enacting both sides of a
conversation with your father, who, in this case, has sort of gotten--is
drinking a bit...

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: Oh, right.

DAVIES: ...and is sort of sharing some of his philosophy with you. And,
again, this is my guest John Leguizamo from the one-man show "Freak," and he
is playing both himself and his father in this.

(Soundbite of "Freak")

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: (As father) You're so lucky to have a dad like me. When I
could be out there just (censored) some hot, stinking women. Oh, yeah. But
am I doing that? No. No, because I'm here spending quality time. Come on,
papi, I'll give you a shot. Come on. Oh, it's happy juice. Come on.

(As himself) No, dad! No, dad! It tastes like dukey. Why don't you just
quit drinking, Dad?

(As father) Because I'm not a quitter.

(End of soundbite)

DAVIES: That was my guest, John Leguizamo, from the one-man show "Freak."
It's still funny, isn't it?

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: You mind if I laugh at myself?

DAVIES: It's--go ahead. How close is that to your dad? You know, it's
interesting. He says he's not a quitter. I mean, he was a guy of ambition,
but if this is to be believed, he was really tough on you and your mom. They
split up when you were 13, I guess.

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: Yeah. I mean, you know, I took artistic license with my dad.
But, I mean, it's based on two elements, you know. My dad was great when he
was drunk. He was the friendliest he ever was. And all the other times, he
was a mean son of a bitch, you know. That's the way he was. He was very
ambitious, and he liked the ladies and whatnot. And, you know, but when he
drank, he was, like, friendly and fun. You could goof with him and all that.
So those are the best times I had with my dad.

DAVIES: Now I read that you--at some point when you were a kid, you were sent
back to Colombia to live for a while. What led to that?

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: Well, I was sent back when I was 14 because I was running
with a crew that was kind of tough, and I had gotten arrested and whatnot.
And I was with a rough crowd, you know. And my mom knew that, you know. I
was, you know, hormones had kicked, I was becoming really popular in school,
and I had a lot of opportunities. You know, I was very popular, and I liked
the girls and whatnot. And so they sent me to Colombia to pull me away from
all this and to separate me from that.

DAVIES: Did--and what was the experience like being in Colombia. Was it just
a break from bad...

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: Well, I was depressed.

DAVIES: Yeah.

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: Yeah, I was depressed because I was--you know, I was like--I
was the man here in New York City. I was having such a great time and all of
a sudden, you know, the language was a shock and I was in this, you know, they
put me in this, like, really wealthy school with all these rich socialites,
and that, you know, it was a big cultural shock for me in terms of language.
And, you know, these kids had money and I, you know, I came from not having
money. So it was all very strange and weird, and, you know, it was a lonely
time for me, but it, you know, made me solid. I played a lot of basketball.

DAVIES: Uh-huh. You come back, and what got you into performing seriously,
not just goofing off with your friends?

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: Well, you know, it was a--I think you always have to have
intervention, and I think you always have to have a mentor, especially when
you're somebody like myself. I mean, I was able to make people laugh and I
was funny, but I was also disruptive. And this math teacher, Mr. Zoofah,
whose name rhymes with loofah, said to me, `John, why don't you stop, you
know, wasting your life and your time. Why don't you become a comedian or an
actor? Why don't you do that with your life instead of, you know, just
disrupting my class?' And, you know, I was a punk and I said, you know, `F
you,' but I went home and I listened to him and looked in the Yellow Pages and
I found an acting school, and I started going to acting classes. And from
there, you know, I found myself. I did this one scene about this troubled
youth who was in therapy and all this, and I hit the zone. I got all these
offers to be in NYU movies and it was just--I hit this Zen moment in my life,
this zone where I felt this is what I want to do. This is what I can do.

DAVIES: A lot of humor, too, you developed from, you know, your experiences
in the neighborhood and with your family. And one thing that I was curious
about, you know, your parents broke up when you were 13. And at the end of
your stage show, the "Freak," I mean, you re-enact a pretty tough fight
between your mom and dad. I mean, there's some pretty painful family stuff
here. It's very funny, you know, but it's real stuff. And I'm curious...

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: Yeah.

DAVIES: ...what Mom and Dad saw or thought when they saw their lives in your
one-man show.

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: Oh, they weren't happy at all. My parents were so--they were
devastated. I mean--and the funny thing is that they don't see themselves in
there and they don't see--they think I'm making it up. And I was like, these
are actual words that I recalled my whole life with that, that big fight
between my parents. It was kind of brutal. Those were actual words. I
didn't really add too much to that beat. You know, I added, you know, some
humor here and there on the sides sort of like to, you know, balance it out,
but a lot of those words were, you know, verbatim. And they were just
devastated. And then, you know, then they start to admit that, you know,
maybe they weren't the best parents. And when I heard that, I was very happy.
I liked to hear a confession. It's what I wanted. And I got close, you know,
it was tough at first, but then we got closer. And, you know, this
material--the problem is, when you put material like this out there as so
public, it lives on, you know. They constantly play it on HBO and they
constantly play it everywhere, you know. And all of a sudden, my parents have
to hear it and their friends call them up. And, you know, it--so, you know,
it opens up wounds constantly, you know. That's the problem with that.

DAVIES: Right. The revelation is one thing, but the repetition is another.

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: The repetition wears down--you know, wears down the family
unit a bit, you know. You know, I'll get close to them again. It
always--there's phases. We go through phases. But it's--the fact that it
lives on in perpetuity, that's going to always be, you know, I'll always
constantly have to apologize, constantly have to make up.

DAVIES: Well, I want to play another piece from "Sexaholic...A Love Story."
The one I wanted to play here was where you recount the beginning of the
relationship with Teenie, who is now your wife.

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: My wife, yes.

DAVIES: And she is sort of--this is a whole different kind of relationship
for you. And she's kind of laying down some rules about how she looks at life
and relationships.

(Soundbite from "Sexaholic...A Love Story")

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: (As Teenie) OK, John. Before you get serious, let me tell
you all about myself, OK? I'm very practical. OK? I'm a Jew. And I don't
want anything from you that I can't give back to you, OK? Because I've worked
hard on myself, so you don't have to. I just want you to be there for me
sometimes when I need you, and then we're golden, OK? So let's play it by
ear. Whatever happens, happens. OK? Have fun. Go.

(As John) And I applauded, too, because she was amazing. And I didn't want to
mess this up, so I was really hard on myself to mature. So when my therapist
said...

(As therapist) Congratulations, John. You are now emotionally 12 years old.
Thirteen, here we come.

(End of soundbite)

DAVIES: And all three voices there are my guest John Leguizamo from his
one-man show, "Sexaholic...A Love Story."

You know, the reason I wanted to play that, apart from the fact that it's
funny, is you talking to a therapist. And I read somewhere once that you
had--that you once had to quit therapy because it was ruining your comedy. Is
that right?

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: Right. I mean, I went to therapy, I guess, when I was 17
till I was about 21 and--because the school--the high school required it.
Otherwise, they wouldn't let me back in. And, yeah, you know, I was a class
clown and I was--you know, I constantly needed attention, you know. I was
like a, you know, like a bottomless pit of attention. And therapy sort of
healed me and it took away all that. And all of a sudden, I wasn't being as
funny. I didn't have the desire, you know. I was normal, you know what I
mean? So it was very weird to be normal and not be funny anymore. I kind of
missed my old self, which is--now I see it's--it helps me because, you know, I
have con--I have an on and off switch.

DAVIES: Well, you know, in your earlier stage shows--I mean, in "Mambo
Mouth," I mean, it was based, as I recollect, on seven characters. One of
them was a guy named Yakimoto, who was a Hispanic guy who appears to be
Japanese and is there to show Hispanic people how they can not seem Hispanic
by seeming Japanese. And it sounds like a very funny bit, and you were
accused of reinforcing a lot of ethnic stereotypes. And, you know, one of
your shows was called "Spic-O-Rama" and you used that kind of terminology.
And I'm wondering how you reacted then to this idea that you were reinforcing
stereotypes and whether you feel at all differently about it with some age.

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: Well, they were wrong. I mean, they were wrong. They were
wrong. I thought they were wrong back then. I still think they're wrong.

DAVIES: And they're still wrong.

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: And they're still wrong, even more so. I mean, the piece was
attacking Latin self-hate. That's what I was attacking. It wasn't attacking,
you know, anything else. And Yakimoto, this Japanese guy, you know, I had
slides of, you know, things that people mock us for, that we mock ourselves
for, and it was attacking that. You know, some people walked out of the
theater crying and whatnot. But it was attacking self-hate, and self-hate in
Latin culture is very, oh, it's so built into our culture. It's so part of us
and it's a horrible thing, you know? And it's so hard for them to realize.
You know, for a lot of people don't even realize it. They think they're
white, some people, and they forget that they have Indian and black in them.
And it's very weird for me to--when I see these people, you know, with their
faces like five shades lighter than their necks and, you know, all that kind
of stuff that happens.

DAVIES: Well, John Leguizamo, thanks so much for talking with us.

Mr. LEGUIZAMO: Dave, it's been great.

DAVIES: John Leguizamo, he had a recurring role this season on "ER." He's in
theaters in the animated film "Ice Age: The Meltdown," and he co-stars in
"The Groomsman," which premieres next week at the Tribeca Film Festival.

Coming up, David Edelstein reviews the new film "Look Both Ways."

This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Film critic David Edelstein reviews "Look Both Ways"
DAVE DAVIES, host:

"Look Both Ways" is the first feature by the award-winning Australian animator
Sarah Watt. It's live action but with bursts of animation. It features
Justine Clarke as a watercolors painter consumed by visions of her own demise.
Film critic David Edelstein has a review.

Mr. DAVID EDELSTEIN: "Look Both Ways" begins with news on Australian TV of a
devastating train crash with scores of people buried in the rubble. And
references to the disaster come at regular intervals through the movie. This
is a love story rooted in the imagination of catastrophe.

On a train home, after burying her father, the toused 40ish protagonist Meryl,
played by Justine Clarke, envisions a similar crash and also a tsunami that
swallows her up, sharks that rip her limb from limb and other worst-case
scenarios. Meryl is a painter and her fantasies take the form of headlong
animations that are all of a piece of what she dabs and splashes onto her
canvases. Her visions also resemble the animated shorts that Sarah Watt, the
writer-director, has been making for 15 years. Like delirious, magical
realist watercolors that capture the ebb and flow of female longing as vividly
as any films I've seen. When animation is interpolated into a live action
work to plunge us deeply into the inner world of someone who is clearly placid
on the service, the sudden intimacy is breathtaking.

It's not just Meryl's inner life on display in "Look Both Ways." At an
accident scene, another train disaster, smaller scale, in which a man is run
over, she meets a lanky photojournalist named Nick, played by William McInnes.
Meryl doesn't know what we do, but Nick has just been diagnosed with an
aggressive cancer that has begun to spread. Nick has visions, too, but
they're not cartoons. They are rapid-fire photorealist montages. First of
his past life, then of cancer cells breaking off and embarking on their
journey into the bloodstream.

Nick and Meryl bump into each other a couple more times. You can't, given the
circumstances, call it meeting cute. But when he comes into her apartment and
looks at her paintings, Meryl senses she has met a kindred spirit.

(Soundbite of "Look Both Ways")

Mr. WILLIAM McINNES: (As Nick) I've been seeing death everywhere this
weekend.

Ms. JUSTINE CLARKE: (As Meryl) Really?

Mr. McINNES: (As Nick) Yeah. I just look at people, I see them dying.

Ms. CLARKE: (As Meryl) So do I. So do I. I imagine it happening all the
time.

Mr. McINNES: (As Nick) Do you see it happening when you look at me? Do you
see death?

Ms. CLARKE: (As Meryl) No.

Mr. McINNES: (As Nick) Well, that's good. I don't even know your name.

Ms. CLARKE: (As Meryl) Meryl. Meryl Lee, as in "gently down the stream."

Mr. McINNES: (As Nick) Right. "Row, Row, Row Your Boat." I'm Nick, Nick
McInerney. I invented the song.

Ms. CLARKE: (As Meryl) Right. Do you see death when you look at me?

Mr. McINNES: (As Nick) No. No, I don't.

Ms. CLARKE: (As Meryl) Oh, dear. What are we talking about death for? It's
not like the good old days when you used to ignore the whole concept of it.

Mr. McINNES: (As Nick) You went out and flirted with it, at least I did.

Ms. CLARKE: (As Meryl) Well, me, too. Yeah, embraced it wholeheartedly,
smoking, drinking.

Mr. McINNES: (As Nick) Taking undefinable substances.

Ms. CLARKE: (As Meryl) Lying down in the back of utes at 100K's.

Mr. McINNES: (As Nick) Rugby.

Ms. CLARKE: (As Meryl) Netball.

Mr. McINNES: (As Nick) Handling electrical repairs.

Ms. CLARKE: (As Meryl) Having unprotected sex. Skiing.

(End of soundbite)

Mr. EDELSTEIN: Not everything in "Look Both Ways" achieves that level of--I
can only call it "romantic screwball nihilism." Watt has even larger ambitions
and she over reaches. She has crafted an ensemble piece along the lines of
Paul Thomas Anderson's "Magnolia," with more characters wrestling with the
finite nature of life. A journalist who accompanies Nick to the accident
scene, the journalist's pregnant girlfriend, Nick's editor, the driver of the
locomotive, the girlfriend of the dead man, in three sequences, Watt cuts from
one character to another while the soundtrack throbs with soulful folk rock
songs. It's not that these montages are bad, it's that in context, they seem
rather shallow. The scaffolding shows.

But the love story between Meryl and Nick is indelible. Justine Clarke's
Meryl is given to spasm of babbling followed by spasms of shame, pulling back
into herself and pulling down the shades. The performance is funny, nervy and
endearing, and McInnes is superb at playing a frightened man whose paralysis
masks itself as diffidence. When they begin to make love, they have dueling
visions of disasters. The painter's with expressionist whooshes of color; the
photographer's with microscopic hyperclarity.

The title "Look Both Ways" has two meanings: to be careful when we cross the
street, but also to live with, even embrace the idea that our lives might end
at any moment. If that sounds pat in the telling, it's anything but. In her
debut feature, Sarah Watt enlarges our perception of what cinema can do.

DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine.

I'm Dave Davies and this is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

DAVIES: The great composer and pianist Thelonious Monk was honored this week
with a special Pulitzer Prize citation.

Coming up, we have an appreciation by jazz critic Kevin Whitehead, and we hear
from musicians who were inspired by him: Steve Lacy, Paul Motian, Joel
Forrester and Jessica Williams.

(Announcements)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Profile: Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead, soprano saxophonist Steve
Lacy, drummer Paul Motian, composer and pianist Joel Forrester,
and jazz pianist Jessica Williams remember Thelonious Monk
DAVE DAVIES, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, filling in for Terry Gross.

Earlier this week, the Pulitzer Prize announced a special citation for pianist
and composer Thelonious Sphere Monk for "a body of distinguished and
innovative musical composition that has had a significant and enduring impact
on the evolution of jazz."

Monk was an American original, a unique composer and jazz pianist. In one way
or another, you can hear his influence on a wide variety of American and
European jazz musicians and composers who came after him. And many of his
tunes, like "'Round Midnight," "Straight, No Chaser" and "Mysterioso" have
become jazz standards. Coming up, recollections of Monk from the late soprano
saxophonist Steve Lacy, drummer Paul Motian, and at the piano Jessica Williams
and Joel Forrester. We'll start with this overview of Monk's music from our
jazz critic Kevin Whitehead.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. KEVIN WHITEHEAD: In jazz, a music that places a premium on instrumental
skill, Thelonious Monk is the classic anti-virtuoso. He came up in the 1940s,
alongside the pioneers of the new style called bebop, which trafficked in very
fast, very complicated lines that left fumble-fingered or old-fashioned
players in the dust. Monk worked with the bop greats like Dizzie Gillespie
and Charlie Parker, but he could sound as old-fashioned or fumble-fingered as
anybody. In the middle of an ultra modern tune, he might leap into 1920s
style stride piano with its echoes of ragtime. His dense cluster-like chords
were supersophisticated, but Monk had the perverse wit to make them sound like
the all-thumbs mistakes of an amateur. This wizard who could give the
illusion of bending notes at the piano evoked a magic of that first time a
person sits on the bench, swipes at a few keys and falls in love with the
sound.

(Soundbite of piano)

Mr. WHITEHEAD: Monk's music is so obviously charming, you can forget that a
few decades ago many folks found it difficult. But even fellow musicians who
knocked his piano playing might admire his compositions. Some, like
"Criss-Cross" or "Trinkle Tinkle," could be tricky and abstract, and others
deceptively simple.

The class example is "Mysterioso." It reduces the blues to a bare skeleton,
stripping away its emotional content. The improvising improviser then puts it
back in, as vibraphonist Milt Jackson does on this 1948 version. Check out
the way Monk plays and doesn't play behind Jackson's vibe. Nobody could
accompany the soloist like Monk.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WHITEHEAD: That Monk left space in his music for other musicians to
energize is one reason he worked so well with dynamic soloists like John
Coltrane or Sonny Rollins. Monk's music confirms that opposites attract.
This ultra modern, old-timey dense skeletal charming and abstract music by a
20th century giant whose first name still gets misspelled in The New York
Times. Good that the Pulitzer Prize committee has now seen fit to give him a
special citation just 24 years after his death. The Pulitzers have had a
black eye in the jazz world since over-ruling its music jury's recommendation
to honor Duke Ellington in 1965. Duke finally got his special citation 34
years after that.

The one living jazz musician who won a Pulitzer for composition was Wynton
Marsalis in 1997, for a piece that was already three years old and thus not
even legally in the running. If the Pulitzers are hoping to do right by jazz,
they might pick up the tempo a little.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead teaches English and American Studies at the
University of Kansas and is a jazz columnist for eMusic.com.

The late Steve Lacy, considered by many to be the best soprano saxophone
player of his era, started out playing with early jazz traditionalists like
Pee Wee Russell and Hot Lips Page. But he also found a home in the avant
garde and modern jazz. His most enduring musical relationship was with the
music of Thelonious Monk, which he performed and recorded throughout his
career. And he played with Monk in the early '60s. Terry Gross spoke with
Lacy in 1997.

TERRY GROSS, host:

Monk invited you to join his quartet, making the group a quintet for the four
months that you were there. Do you have any idea why he asked you to join? I
mean, obviously, he liked what you were doing.

Mr. STEVE LACY: Well, I think he was intrigued with the sound of the horn,
the novelty of it. And he knew I was really not an expert but an aficionado
of his music, and maybe he thought I needed the experience. That's what I
like to think. I like to think that he gave me that opportunity to really see
what was happening from the inside.

GROSS: And what did you learn seeing the music from the inside? What were
some things you got from actually playing with Monk and talking with him?

Mr. LACY: I learned to stick to the point and to not lose the point and not
get carried away, and to play with the other musicians and not get all wrapped
up in my own thing and not to just play interesting notes just to be
interesting, you know, or weird notes just to be weird. He mostly told me
what not to do. He never told me what to do, but he told me what not to do
when I did something that bothered him. For example, when I played--when we
were playing together, sometimes he would play something on the piano and I
would pick that up and play that on my horn. I thought I was being slick.
You know? And he stopped me and he said, `Don't do that. That's--you know,
I'm the piano player. You play your part. I'm accompanying you. Don't pick
up on my things.'

You know, I--he got me out of the thing of trying to be too hip. I was trying
to be too hip and it wasn't swinging, sometimes, you know? Then he told me
`Make the drummer sound good.' Because I was playing some things that confused
the drummer because I was confused myself. And so the drummer was not
swinging, you know? And Monk told me, `No, make the drummer sound good.' And
that was an enormous help to me, really. It stopped me cold, really, and
changed my focus. And Monk's thing--he told me `Let things go by. Let
certain things go by. Don't play everything. Just play certain things. Let
other things go by.' It's what you don't play that's very important, really,
and that's extremely important.

GROSS: Kind of intervals of laying out, of the space...

Mr. LACY: Space.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. LACY: Using the space as time and using time and digging time as space.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: That saxophonist is Steve Lacy, with Mischa Mengelberg on piano.
Lacy passed away in 1997 at the age of 69.

We'll continue our reflections on Thelonious Monk after this break. This is
FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

DAVIES: We're celebrating the music of Thelonious Monk today.

Drummer Paul Motian is known for his work with pianists Bill Evans, Keith
Jarret and Paul Bley. In the mid-50s he also played briefly with Thelonious
Monk. It wasn't a gig he was expecting. Last month he told Terry how it came
about.

Mr. PAUL MOTIAN: I went to hear him play. It was in a club in the Village
here in New York. And the drummer was supposed to be Arthur Taylor. And he
wasn't there, he didn't show up, and the promoter of the concert was a man
named Bob Risener, who had seen me around town playing drums. He say, `Paul,
Arthur Taylor didn't show up, man. If you want to go home, get your drums,
you can play with Monk.' So, I ran home, got my drums, came back and played
with Monk that night. And Thelonious paid me $10. I was thrilled to death.
But I didn't know the music that well, so I just, you know, just gritted my
teeth and did the best I could.

GROSS: Did he give you any advice?

Mr. MOTIAN: No.

GROSS: No suggestions of what he wanted from you?

Mr. MOTIAN: No. He didn't say much. One time I did say--we came off--came
off the stage after one of the songs and--one of the sets. And I said to
Thelonious, I said, `Gee, you know. I'm sorry. I think maybe I might have--I
might have rushed the tempo on one of those tunes.' He said to me, `If I hit
you upside your head, you won't rush.' So I paid attention to that. I was
very careful after that.

GROSS: OK.

Mr. MOTIAN: No, he didn't say much.

GROSS: Well, this--this is...

Mr. MOTIAN: But one time he did get up and dance when we were playing so I
thought that I did OK.

GROSS: Did he dance like an--like a--spinning around?

Mr. MOTIAN: Yeah. Yeah, you know, like how you've--I'm sure you have seen
him do that...

GROSS: And...

Mr. MOTIAN: ...most people have seen him do it.

GROSS: Yeah. Yeah.

Mr. MOTIAN: So that meant--to me that meant that the music was happening, he
was enjoying it, and I was doing OK. That made me feel good.

DAVIES: Drummer Paul Motian speaking last month with Terry Gross.

You can hear Monk's harmony, humor and spirit of individuality in pianist Joel
Forrester, who got to know Monk shortly before Monk's death in 1982. Joel
co-founded the Microscopic Septet and wrote the FRESH AIR theme music, which
is performed by the group. In 1997, he visited FRESH AIR for a concert and
interview.

GROSS: We've been talking a little bit about some of the influences on your
playing, and I think one of the greatest influences was the influence of
Thelonious Monk.

Mr. JOEL FORRESTER: Oh, that goes without saying.

GROSS: Yeah. And I'm wondering what it was like when you first heard him. A
lot of people hear his dissonances or, particularly when he first started
playing, a lot of people heard his dissonances as mistakes, as wrong notes.

Mr. FORRESTER: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: As something that didn't sound right.

Mr. FORRESTER: His jazz was just about the first I ever heard.

GROSS: Oh.

Mr. FORRESTER: It sounded exotic to me, but I got used to it very quickly,
you know. There is just something just very beautiful in, for example, this
sound.

(Soundbite of piano)

Mr. FORRESTER: You know, a Monk sound that may be thought of a dissonance,
but it certainly has a lot to do for me with a beautiful melody, just
beautiful melody. And something else, you know. He uses a lot of what in
musical terms would be called "minor seconds."

(Soundbite of piano)

Mr. FORRESTER: If you play it really softly...

(Soundbite of piano)

Mr. FORRESTER: ...and it's must more like a murmur because the two notes
beat against each other.

GROSS: You are, I think, one of the few musicians of your generation who was
lucky enough not only to be influenced by Thelonious Monk but to have met him
and spent some time with him...

Mr. FORRESTER: That's true. I'm that old.

GROSS: ...and had a chance to play for him.

Mr. FORRESTER: Yes.

GROSS: Tell us how you met him.

Mr. FORRESTER: Well, you know, once I finally got introduced to him by the
Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, who was his great fried...

GROSS: And she was a jazz patron.

Mr. FORRESTER: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: She helped keep alive several jazz artists.

Mr. FORRESTER: That's right. And certainly had the largest ears of anyone
in terms of being able to hear music, you know. And she would invite me to
her bizarre palatial pad in Weehawken and there Monk more or less lay in
state, full set of clothes in a daybed that was just as big as the room, and
no bigger. And with a piano right outside. And then it was, I think, the
baroness' hope that in hearing me playing his tunes in my own way that Monk
might come out and correct me and might lead him to play piano more often,
because at that time Monk was only basically rising from his bed to play the
odd concert, and then he would go back to bed.

GROSS: So when you were playing and he was just lying in bed in another room,
did he respond to you at all?

Mr. FORRESTER: Well, yes. You see, the piano was right next to that room,
Terry. I was right on the other side of the door. And so if he liked what
I'd play, he would keep the door open. If he didn't, he would kick it closed.
And I realized about the second time that I played for him--these were like
two or three-hour sessions--I realize, I think in the middle of the second
time--that I was receiving lessons when he would open and close the door 10 or
12 times in an hour.

GROSS: What did he like?

Mr. FORRESTER: Well, he didn't like my interpretations of his music. That's
for sure. I got the slam there.

GROSS: Oh.

Mr. FORRESTER: He enjoyed the fact that I had picked up from him an ability
to not to rely on rubato but to always play in time in some way or other.

GROSS: Rubato means out of tempo.

Mr. FORRESTER: That's right. Because Monk seldom uses it. He also only
used pedal for specific effects. I try to do the same thing, try and let the
playing carry the time forward. I hope that he also liked the fact that I
tried to express the time that I feel in everything that I play.

GROSS: Play--play us a composition, if you would, that you think is inspired
by Monk.

Mr. FORRESTER: Well, you know, Terry, have we ever discussed this piano
player in exile from New York, Bob Montalto? Have I mentioned him? He is a
guy who sometimes whose music we used in a microscopic septet. Good friend of
mine. He pointed out to me that when I wrote a tune called "Gone Tomorrow"
that obviously I'd been listening a lot to Monk's most famous composition
"Round Midnight." Let me play you like the signature rift from "Round
Midnight."

(Soundbite of piano music)

Mr. FORRESTER: And this is "Gone Tomorrow."

(Soundbite of piano music)

DAVIES: Our concert and interview with Joel Forrester was recorded in 1997.
You can find out more about Joel's recordings at his Web site
joelforrester.com.

Coming up, another pianist pays tribute to Monk. Jessica Williams is next.
This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

DAVIES: We're paying tribute today to jazz pianist and composer Theolonious
Monk, who was recognized earlier this week with a special Pulitzer Prize
citation.

Jessica Williams is a pianist who is technically dazzling, musically witty and
intelligent and an exuberant student of Monk's composing and playing.

Ms. JESSICA WILLIAMS: The first time I heard Thelonious it was on a record
called "It's Monk's Time." And the very first time I heard it, I thought that
Thelonious sounded like perhaps he was wearing boxing gloves because I had
heard all this precision piano playing from like Oscar, and this was like a
totally new thing for me. I grew to love Monk's music, and I still do.

I had some questions about how he would do certain things. And I think the
one holdover I did have from my classical training was that I always thought
there were specific ways to do things, right ways and wrong ways, and I
discovered that the only right way is the way that works best for you. For
instance, Thelonious Monk would do a whole to whole tone scale, like hand over
hand.

(Soundbite of piano music)

Ms. WILLIAMS: OK? I know this because I saw a video, but I never saw him
play in person. But when I saw him do that, it just made me realize that this
guy had a way different technique than the one that I was taught.

GROSS: A lot of what you do in your music is what some people would consider
mistakes, you know, dissonance as a...

Ms. WILLIAMS: Sometimes they are mistakes, Terry. I'm sorry.

GROSS: Well, that's not what I mean, though. There's dissonances you use
that some people would perceive as like wrong notes or out-of-tempo things
that some people would perceive as like wrong tempos. And I wonder, coming
from classical music, if you assimilated that really quickly, if there were
harmonies that were foreign to you when you started listening to jazz, or
rhythmic things that were foreign to you and that you learned and then learned
to subvert in interesting ways or if you just kind of naturally felt that as
soon as you heard it?

Ms. WILLIAMS: Well, I think it's pretty natural. There are certain things
that I heard Thelonious do that at first sounded very wrong to me.

GROSS: Like what?

Ms. WILLIAMS: Let's take the way he played "I Should Care." This is very
interesting. I don't play it exactly and I never transcribe solos or learn
things exactly like the record, but I was very influenced by the way he played
it. And I think you'll hear some things in here and I'll try to point them
out...

GROSS: Great.

Ms. WILLIAMS: ...that are very unusual from a Western music standpoint.

(Soundbite of piano music)

Ms. WILLIAMS: That is a minor ninth, but we--the human ear is used to
hearing...

(Soundbite of piano music)

Ms. WILLIAMS: ...that's easy. But this, this way...

(Soundbite of piano)

Ms. WILLIAMS: ...and it's the same notes but they're transposed differently.

Anyway, the way it goes on from there would be this.

(Soundbite of piano music)

Ms. WILLIAMS: I like that.

GROSS: I like that, too.

Ms. WILLIAMS: And so it took me a while, I think, to actually hear those
things as right. I'm sure when I do those things, I have to do them with a
lot of confidence in concerts. I can't look as if I'm the least bit confused
or everybody will think I really goofed.

GROSS: Well, you come down really hard sometimes too on those dissonances.
So they're really standing out, emphasized.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Yeah. Yeah. There was one I remember. I remember a chord
that Monk played on "Ghost of a Chance." He played...

(Soundbite of piano music)

Ms. WILLIAMS: Oh, my God, what a chord! And at first I thought, `Well,
that's totally ridiculous.' And then he played it throughout the entire tune,
and I realized it was exactly what he wanted to do. And that chord for me,
after I heard the record maybe five times or so, I couldn't wait for that
chord to come because it was so different. It stood out like a billboard,
like an orange billboard against a blue sky. It was like, `Look at me.'

GROSS: I want you to play a short version of a Monk tune that you
particularly like...

Ms. WILLIAMS: OK.

GROSS: ...and that's affected your way of listening and playing.

Ms. WILLIAMS: OK. I think I'll play "Bemsha Swing."

(Soundbite of piano music)

DAVIES: A concert and interview with Jessica Williams was recorded in 1997.
You can find out more about her recordings at her Web site
jessicawilliams.com.

That concludes our tribute to pianist and composer Thelonious Monk, recognized
this week with a special Pulitzer Prize citation.

(Credits)

DAVIES: Terry Gross returns on Monday. I'm Dave Davies.

(Soundbite of piano music)
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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