DATE September 5, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Jonathan Franzen discusses his new memoir "The
Discomfort Zone," about embarrassing moments in his youth and the
death of his mom; and becoming well-known after "The Corrections"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
After drawing on his life for his bestselling novel "The Corrections," my
guest Jonathan Franzen has written a memoir called "The Discomfort Zone." It
was described by Lev Grossman in Time magazine as a "wonderful and supremely
personal memoir." Franzen's novel "The Corrections" was published in 2001 and
won a National Book Award. It revolved around the lives of three adult
children who lived far away from their aging parents. The opening of
Franzen's new memoir is about returning to the house where he grew up in
Webster Groves, Missouri. His mother had just died. Franzen was about to
turn 40 and his older brothers had given him the job of choosing a realtor to
sell the house. Here's a short reading:
(Soundbite of "The Discomfort Zone: a Personal History")
Mr. JONATHAN FRANZEN: "For as long as I was in Webster Groves, doing work on
behalf of the estate, the liquor shelf would be mine, mine! Ditto the air
conditioning, which I set frostily low; ditto the kitchen freezer, which I
found it necessary to open immediately and get to the bottom of, hoping to
discover some breakfast sausages, some homemade beef stew, some fatty and
savory thing that I could warm up and eat before I went to bed.
My mother had been good about labeling food with the date she'd frozen it.
Beneath multiple bags of cranberries, I found a package of small-mouth bass
that a fisherman neighbor had caught three years earlier. Underneath the bass
was a nine-year-old beef brisket.
I went through the house and stripped the family photos out of every room. My
mother had been too attached to the formality of her living room and dining
room to clutter them with snapshots, but elsewhere, each windowsill and each
tabletop was an eddy in which inexpensively-framed photos had accumulated. I
filled a shopping bag with the haul from the top of her TV cabinet. I picked
another bag's worth from a wall of the family room, as from
Many of the pictures were of grandchildren, but I was represented in them,
too--here flashing an orthodontic smile on a beach in Florida, here looking
hung over at my college graduation, here hunching my shoulders on my
ill-starred wedding day, here standing three feet away from the rest of my
family during an Alaskan vacation that my mother, toward the end, had spent a
substantial percentage of her life savings to take us on. The Alaskan picture
was so flattering to nine of us that she'd applied a blue ballpoint pen to the
eyes of the 10th, a daughter-in-law who'd blinked for the photo and who now,
with her misshapen ink-dot eyes, looked quietly monstrous or insane.
I told myself that I was doing important work by depersonalizing the house
before the first realtor came to see it, but if somebody had asked me why it
was also necessary that same night to pile the 100-plus pictures on a table in
the basement and to rip or slice or pry or slide each photo out of its frame
and then dump all the frames into shopping bags and stow the bags into
cabinets and shove all the photos into an envelope so that nobody could see
them, if somebody had pointed out my resemblance to a conqueror burning the
enemy's churches and smashing its icons, I would've had to admit that I was
relishing my ownership of the house."
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: That's Jonathan Franzen reading from the opening of his new memoir
"The Discomfort Zone."
Jonathan, welcome back to FRESH AIR. You've really captured in that opening
piece how emotionally complex it is to deal with your parent's house after
their deaths. I mean, this piece focuses on putting that house up for sale
and all the emotional and financial issues that it raises. Why did you decide
to write about that?
Mr. FRANZEN: I wrote this first chapter last, and much of the book is about
me as a much younger person in these very ridiculous situations. I'm kind of
the butt of most of the book's jokes. And when I went to try to find
something to say about the modern me, essentially the grown-up me, I was
looking for a moment where I had messed something up, and the story of trying
to sell my mom's house, choosing the right realtor to do that job, made me
look bad and it seemed like, if I was going to find some opening that
harmonized with the ways I looked bad throughout the book, that would be a
good place to start.
GROSS: Why write a memoir in which the unifying theme is `ways in which I
Mr. FRANZEN: Hm. I think the situation I started with was one of at least
being embarrassed by who I had been. It's an interesting and strange fact
that, among my friends, I feel like one of the few people who actually was
more or less happy, especially in high school. And the interesting and
strange thing is that that is actually almost an embarrassment.
You wish you could point to this very cool, fashionable, disaffection--trauma,
even, that you'd been to, and in fact all I had to say about myself was,
`Yeah, you know, I had a nice, middle-class high school experience. I, in
fact, had a good time. I had a lot of friends. We did a lot of really fun
In the literary environment, in the world I inhabit, that becomes this thing I
feel I have to conceal. So it wasn't like I disliked the person I had been,
but I certainly wanted to keep that person under wraps.
GROSS: Well, you know, in the opening scene that you just read, you walk into
your parents' house after your mother has died--your father had already died
before that--and the first thing you do, basically, is you take all the photos
and remove them. And now, you're preparing the house to sell it, but you seem
to want to hide the photos and just kind of get rid of that evidence of who
you were. So what's the difference between the potential discomfort or
embarrassment of old pictures, old photographs, and then writing about
yourself and who you were at a younger time?
Mr. FRANZEN: In that passage, I describe what I was doing as, essentially,
an attack on my mother's religion, and this book is in many ways about
religion. It's a preoccupation in pretty much every chapter, sometimes
directly, sometimes indirectly. And the situation I find myself in, as
someone in his 40s looking back at that time, is feeling, `What happened to
that religion of my parents?' And they weren't believers, they didn't think
they were going to be rewarded in heaven. But there was a whole set of things
they felt with a kind of religious conviction, and that set of convictions was
related to an entire set of values that defined sort of pre-1968 middle
America. And the person who wants to just rip all that out is sort of the
At the same time, there's something--there's a great sadness to doing that,
and I feel caught between a tremendous sense of loss and a sense that there
was no other way I could have behaved; I had to discard this. And once it was
discarded, I felt terrible. And tearing the pictures off the wall was sort of
the same thing. I felt like, you know, `God, I'm coming in and I'm just, it's
this direct attack on that which my mother wanted to surround herself with.'
GROSS: So in rejecting some of your mother's tastes, but coming into
possession of all of her possessions, you had to decide what to keep, what to
give away, what to sell, and what to throw out. And that's a position that
everybody is in when one of their loved ones dies. And given all the
complicated emotions you were feeling about your mother and her taste and her
preoccupation with the home and the home is her shrine, can you talk a little
bit about what it was like when you had to decide what to keep, what to give
away, what to sell, and what to throw out?
Mr. FRANZEN: I took, literally, not one stick of furniture from the house.
I think each of my brothers took one small thing. Almost everything I took
was just boxes of my own stuff. It was really maybe one carton of mementoes
that had some sort of symbolic presence to me, or that I had always loved. I
mean, there were these--my parents went to Mexico for their 25th anniversary
and came back with these carved onyx pieces of fruit. And, you know, when I
was eight or nine or 10, I was fascinated by the onyx banana and the onyx
peach, and so, the same weird way that the week we came back to do all this I
was sleeping in my parents' bed, I mean, which was just bizarre. There I was
in their bedroom, spread out on their marital bed--the notion that I could
actually possess that onyx banana, it was an odd thing.
But to all of this was running not an emotion so much as a dismay over how
little I felt, a dismay over the gulf between what I had been and what I am
now, and the sense of a place being saturated in meaning that I'd had when I
was young, and the sense of being just, you know, another ordinary house with
a too-small kitchen and a really bad bathroom upstairs that was not getting as
much money as it ought to.
Does that make sense, that the primary emotion is a dismay over a lack of
GROSS: Was it a lack of emotion you expected to experience? Were you
surprised at that lack of emotion or was it consistent with how you were
feeling before? I mean, have you thought ahead and think, well, your mother
had been sick. She had a terminal illness. You knew she was going to die.
Had you wondered what you would feel when she died, or did you expect to feel
the way you felt?
Mr. FRANZEN: Much later in the book, I talk about her death a little bit,
and one of the ways in which I was ridiculous in the week following her death
was to feel like, `OK, I've had my cry on day two, day three and day four, and
now it's all better. I'm getting better. I'm pretty much over it now. It's
been five days since she died, I'm over it.'
And much of the project of the latter half of this book is to elucidate the
subterranean ways in which those emotions, that grief specifically, disperse
and then reappear in these odd places in your psychic landscape where you
would've least expected it, so that I found myself obsessively bird watching,
really beginning within 48 hours of her death and then increasingly a couple
of years down the line. And I can't understand things I'm doing five, six,
seven years after her death without reference to the death, even though, you
know, at the time, I thought, `Yeah, this isn't so bad. I've had my cry. I'm
GROSS: Just, you know, getting back to those, like to the onyx banana that
you decided that you would keep. Where did you put it?
Mr. FRANZEN: Where did I put it? The onyx banana often is on the dining
room table. I pretend it's a cell phone and take calls on it. When it's not
there, it's in this crappy thrift store breakfront that I hauled home from a
neighborhood thrift store, along with like a Wedgewood candy dish, a pewter
candle stuffer, a little porcelain sparrow with its mouth open as if
singing--tiny little thing that I'd always liked. And, you know, a handful of
objects like that, a nutcracker, just a metal nutcracker. I have a few more
things in the closet. But almost nothing except one painting of hers on
display, just a tiny little oil painting of a ship.
GROSS: My guest is Jonathan Franzen. His new memoir is called "The
Discomfort Zone." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jonathan Franzen and his new
book is a memoir called "The Discomfort Zone."
In your book, you quote this letter. After you go to--is it Swathmore
Mr. FRANZEN: I did go to Swathmore College.
GROSS: Yeah, you're in Swathmore College and you're studying literature and
your plan is to be a writer, and your parents are disappointed because, you
know, writing isn't--it's not a reliable profession. Who knows if you can
make a living at it. So it's your mother, I think, who writes you this letter
expressing her's and your father's disappointment that you've chosen this life
that might be so untenable. And you write her back a pretty angry letter
saying that this is what you've chosen, and blah-blah-blah. And she writes
you back this really apologetic letter, you know, apologizing for any upset
that she may have caused you and so on. And I thought there was something so
sweet about that, you know. I think a lot of parents would never have written
that kind of apologetic letter. This would have just led to a long fight or
you just wouldn't have spoken about it again. What was your reaction when you
got that letter from her?
Mr. FRANZEN: Oh, at the time I'm sure I couldn't read it, I just probably
read the first line and said, `Oh-ho, she's being emotional,' and stuck it in
a drawer. I literally suspect the first time I read that letter was about
nine months ago. I'd gone into deep storage and dragged out the complete
correspondence and came across that, and I found it sort of heartbreaking that
she had so completely capitulated, and it was an indication of just how
frightened and upset she must have been that winter, that in response to my
testy, really asinine kind of senior-in-college letter back, she had written
just this sort of scream of pain and regret.
GROSS: As if maybe she was afraid of losing you over this?
Mr. FRANZEN: Yes, yes, I think so. And I think...
GROSS: I guess I find it interesting that after probably reading only the
first sentence of this letter, you saved it. You saved it in a place where it
was preserved, and then you had it to later go back and look at as an older
Mr. FRANZEN: I have an archival instinct. Don't know exactly where that
came from, but somehow I find myself in possession of every letter my mother
ever wrote to me, and probably every one my brothers ever wrote, every
postcard. I just kind of save it.
GROSS: Earlier you were telling us that mostly in this book, you focused on
incidents from your younger years that in retrospect are really kind of
embarrassing and make you look foolish, but those are the things you wanted to
write about. Now, later in the book, you also write about your marriage,
which ended, I guess, in the early '90s. In talking about something as adult
as your marriage, and that is so bound up with another person, what approach
did you want to take in discussing that?
Mr. FRANZEN: Well, in the case of the marriage, I wanted to try to say as
little specific as I could, just to protect my ex-wife. But I felt I had had
a weird marriage, and I guess probably everyone feels, secretly, that their
marriage is weird, because once you close the bedroom door, there's this--the
mystery and the horror.
I--I--in the same way that I'd gone through life with the secret of having
actually been happy in high school, I felt oppressed by what seemed to me the
singularity of that particular marriage, the intensity and particularly the
isolation that we maintained for many years. It seemed like something that
was just completely unwriteable, and it happened that there were a couple of
other things preoccupying me when I came to write that chapter. I was also
trying to conceal the fact that I'd become a birdwatcher. It's such a nerdy
thing to do. The words "bird nerd" just trip right off the tongue.
And also, I was becoming upset anew about our environmental situation,
particularly global warming. And I know from experience, from having failed
in the past, that's a very hard thing to write about. It's hard to find any
place to stand where you don't either sound jaded and flippant about the
problem or else horribly earnest in a way that just destroys any page of
writing. That's a terrible place for a writer to be and actually be heard, in
this culture. So I was facing these three unwriteable...
GROSS: Your marriage, birdwatching, and the end of the world because of
global warming, these are the three things?
Mr. FRANZEN: Right. All of which seemed to me unwriteable. And at some
point, I realized like maybe I could just prop the three of them up against
each other, like three muskets by the campfire or something, and none of them
would stand on their own, but I might be able to like get away with it and get
at some of this embarrassing-but-urgent material by putting them all together.
GROSS: In writing about your former marriage, you write about the isolation
of the marriage, how you intentionally just kept to each other. You, during
this period, it sounds like you virtually had no other close friends that
you--it sounds like you hardly left the house at times. Was that kind of
seclusion or isolation natural to you?
Mr. FRANZEN: Partly. I mean, I spend my life in a discomfort zone because I
have strong, conflicting inclinations, and part of me is very social and loves
a party and loves to be around people, and another part of me is looking at
his watch after half an hour, just counting the minutes till I can be back
alone or alone with one other person, just in a quiet place. So, yeah--it's
hard to be a writer if you don't have some inclination to be by yourself,
because that is the thing that's hard about writing, is spending all day alone
in a room.
GROSS: Jonathan Franzen's new memoir is called "The Discomfort Zone." He'll
be back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Jonathan Franzen. He
won a National Book Award for his bestselling novel "The Corrections." His new
book is a memoir called "The Discomfort Zone." As the title suggests, it
focuses on some of the many things that have made him uncomfortable through
Mr. FRANZEN: It's been hard, no question, for probably pretty obvious
reasons. When you feel as if no one has listened to you before and you're
desperately working to write a book that people will listen to, there's this
real urgency to communicate and an urgency to show, `This is what I can do.
This is what I am, you've underestimated me.' Once you've actually hit the
jackpot and gotten that recognition, that urgency falls away and what you have
instead is this acute self-consciousness. `Oh, my God! Everybody's looking!'
And a lot of the freedom that I felt, working in what felt like total
obscurity in the '90s, has been replaced by a sense of, `Wow, there are a lot
of good things that happened, there's also some hostility out there.' Either
way, whether it's expectation of sort of a wish for failure on some peoples'
part and a wish for more of the same on other peoples' parts, it's hard to
clear your head of that stuff.
But I wouldn't want to overstate the self-conscious aspect, because what it
really is about is having lost track of who I am, lost a sense of myself. And
I think most good fiction writing comes out of--you need a sense of self to do
it. It may be a very blurry sense of self. And looking back at the way the
writing that's been alive for me in the last few years has mostly been
nonfiction about myself, it's possible to think I have been trying to sit down
quietly and say, `Well, who am I? Who is this person who will be trying to
write the next novel?'
GROSS: So you think that the success of "The Corrections" changed your life
in such a way that you kind of lost track of who you were?
Mr. FRANZEN: It literally changed me to suddenly be a person who people stop
on the sidewalk and say nice things to. It's completely weird to walk down
the street, feeling anonymous, and have somebody turn and smile and say, `God,
I love what you're doing.' You know, it's sort of like "The Truman Show" or
something, so, `What? Thank you. You just made my day, whoever you are.'
You know? And that's--but you can no longer--maybe it's not that I have a
different self, but that I'm aware of having an objective self in a way that
was usefully absent for the first half of my life. It was possible to go
along, to pretend that I really was in "The Truman Show" and suddenly, you
know, there you are objectively, and there are bad pictures of you and
there're people doing all these speculations about you, who really know
nothing about you. But those things have a life of their own, and they must
be based on something. There must actually be an object in the room, it's not
just this kind of, you know, many-feelered subjectivity. And that's all
GROSS: You know, earlier, you were talking about how one of the themes
through your new memoir is religion and faith, though it's not literally about
religion. And you were saying like for your mother, her religion in a way was
Mr. FRANZEN: Actually...
GROSS: Yeah, go ahead.
Mr. FRANZEN: A good chunk of the book, I mean, there's quite a long chapter
that's literally about religions.
GROSS: The Fellowship?
Mr. FRANZEN: Yeah.
GROSS: Yeah. Yeah. It's about a church group that was a very important part
of your life when you were in your early teens. But what's your substitute?
Like, what is your faith now? I mean, is it religion, is there something else
that has the place of religion and faith in your life?
Mr. FRANZEN: I think I've come to feel that if you're not constitutionally
set up to believe in counterfactual things or in highly unlikely supernatural
things, that a replacement for that can be a passion. It doesn't make any
sense to talk about a faith in literature or even a mystical experience of
nature for me because it's not really faith, it's not--literature is
demonstrably good. It entertains me. It's been important to me. It gives
meaning to my life, both in my effort to make it and as a reader.
Likewise, being out in nature--which has suddenly come alive to me, because
I've gotten interested in birds. That's--I don't think that there's some, you
know, deep nature spirit that I'm connecting with there. All I know is this
gives me real joy, you know, to see the California Towhee scratching in the
dirt. There's something that makes me feel like I'm really alive, that I'm
not just planning how I will someday be alive, or I'm not just creating
theories of why I'm alive. I really am alive at that moment.
GROSS: Well, Jonathan Franzen, I regret we're out of time. It's been a
pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much.
Mr. FRANZEN: Terry, thank you very much, too.
GROSS: Jonathan Franzen's new memoir is called "The Discomfort Zone."
Coming up, Gerald Wilson, a jazz composer, arranger and band leader, who just
celebrated his 88th birthday and is still winning awards. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Gerard Wilson, a trumpeter, composer, band leader,
and arranger, 88 years old this week, talks about how he got
started with the Jimmie Lunceford band and his history
TERRY GROSS, host:
It was 67 years ago that my guest, Gerald Wilson, joined the popular swing
band led by Jimmie Lunceford. Yesterday, he celebrated his 88th birthday.
Wilson is not only still working, he's still winning awards. This year, he
won the Jazz Journalist Association award for Best Large Ensemble. This
month, UCLA is honoring him as teacher of the year.
Wilson is a trumpeter, but is best known for his work as an arranger, composer
and band leader. Among the luminaries he's arranged for are Count Basie, Duke
Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, and Ray Charles. Wilson has been leading his own
band since the mid-'40s. His latest CD, "In My Time," was described by music
critic Francis Davis as his "finest hour." Here's a track from it, called
"Dorian," composed and arranged by Gerald Wilson.
(Soundbite of "Dorian")
GROSS: That's "Dorian" from Gerald Wilson's new CD, "In My Time." Gerald
Wilson, welcome to FRESH AIR.
Now you've been playing in big bands--your own and others--for many decades,
starting in the 1940s, when you joined the Jimmie Lunceford Band. Give us a
sense of what it's like to play or to conduct a big band, what it was like to
do that say in the 1940s when the big bands were still really popular and
there were ballrooms that dancers would go to and you'd be performing and
there'd be a lot of dancers on the floor, which I think is kind of rare,
Mr. GERALD WILSON: Yeah. Yeah.
GROSS: Give us a sense of what it was like for you, as a musician, to be in a
band in that kind of setting.
Mr. WILSON: I joined the Jimmie Lunceford band in June of 1939. And, of
course, I made my trip here to New York City, and they were one of the top
bands in the world at that time, and playing with them was one of the dreams
of my life. I had never dreamed that I'd be able to play with them, but this
was one of my dreams and it was great, loved playing in the band, and it was
wonderful to see the people out there dancing. It was just fun, it was just a
life of fun doing the things that I loved to do.
GROSS: So when you joined the band, did you have to get a uniform? What did
Mr. WILSON: Well, that's very good you asked me that question, because I
arrived here in New York. The first thing I had to do--one of the other
trumpet players in the band met me and then he took me to the tailor here in
New York to measure me for my uniforms. Not one uniform, but for seven.
GROSS: Were they all the same?
Mr. WILSON: No, there was one--the way they--it was the first uniform in the
morning, when we would play morning shows, before--that is before noon, we'd
wear the English walking suits. Yes, these are black jackets that had braid
around them, and then you wear them with gambler-striped trousers. And we had
all seven different. Then the next show, which would be, we'd wear--might
have a sporty uniform on. After that, it would be another kind of a suit. Up
until the last show, which was sometimes we would do seven shows, like at the
Paramount theater here in New York, we'd do seven shows on the weekend, and at
the very end, we would have on our formal dress.
GROSS: So how did you clean all these suits when you were on the road?
Mr. WILSON: Well, we have the valets--we called them valets at that
time--that handled all of that. We had trunks to carry all of that in, all of
our uniforms, all of our shoes, everything was alike. The band, when they
would get on the stand there, every guy was dressed alike. And they would
take them and get them to the cleaners and they would be ready for us whenever
we needed to play.
GROSS: And did you like that aspect of performance?
Mr. WILSON: Oh, I loved every moment of it. This is a dream coming true for
me. And I loved every moment of it that I spent with the Jimmie Lunceford
Orchestra, making records, playing theaters, making movies, you know, we were
in "Blues in the Night," one of the biggest Warner Brothers movies of all
time. We were featured in that. Things like that.
And we played the Paramount here in New York. We were just--we played Lowe's
State. We played the Apollo five or six times a year. We played nothing but
the biggest jobs. And always booked, too, by the way.
GROSS: One of the first arrangements of yours--and compositions--that became
famous was something that you wrote, co-wrote, I guess, for the Jimmie
Lunceford Band, and it's called "Yard Dog Mazurka."
Mr. WILSON: Yes.
GROSS: Let's start with the title. How did you come up with that title?
Mr. WILSON: OK, well, I didn't name that tune. It was--the name was given
to me by a young name who was the writer with the Jimmie Lunceford Band. His
name was Roger Segure. And the way the number happened, it wasn't going to be
an original composition. I was starting to write an arrangement, an
orchestration on "Stomping at the Savoy." So I had written the introduction
out, and I happened to be over at Roger's home that evening here in New York,
and I said to Roger, I says, `Hey, Roger, listen to my introduction here that
I'm writing for "Stomping at the Savoy."' And I played it on the piano for
him, and he says, `Hey, that's very good, Gerald.' He says, `Why don't you
just go on and make yourself a bridge to it and then you'll have an original
composition?' So I thought about that, and I said to myself, `That's a good
idea.' And I said, `Roger, you know, I never would've thought of that.' And I
says, `You gave me the idea, I'm going to give you half of the number.' And I
gave him half of the number, that's why you see his name on there as
GROSS: When you say "half the number," you mean half the royalties?
Mr. WILSON: That's what I mean.
GROSS: Half the songwriting credit and half the royalties.
Mr. WILSON: Yeah, the credit and that, you know. So--which was a good idea,
I still, I would've done it anyway, because I never would've thought of it,
and I would've written an arrangement on "Stomping at the Savoy."
GROSS: Well, why don't we hear "Yard Dog Mazurka," composed and arranged by
my guest Gerald Wilson, recorded by the Jimmie Lunceford Band in 1941. And
the first solo you'll hear, the trumpet solo, is by Gerald Wilson. Here it
(Soundbite of "Yard Dog Mazurka")
GROSS: That's "Yard Dog Mazurka," the Jimmie Lunceford Band, and the
composition was composed and arranged by my guest Gerald Wilson, who also took
that trumpet solo.
You grew up in Shelby, Mississippi?
Mr. WILSON: Yes.
GROSS: Tell us a little bit about what your town was like when you were a
Mr. WILSON: OK. I was born in 1918, as you know, and my mother was a
schoolteacher. She was also a music teacher. She played piano, she played
piano in the school, she played piano in the church, and she taught me how to
read music when I was a little boy--five years old, I'd already started
reading music. And I was into music all my life. My sister was a classical
pianist. I knew all about Rachmaninoff and Beethoven and Bach and Gandhi and
Ravel and Debussy and all of those when I was a little kid listening to my
sister play this music. My brother was also a pianist. He could play jazz on
the piano, he's a graduate from Tuskegee Institute.
And so there it music in my house all day long. That's all I ever heard, was
music all day, and I loved it, and that's what I wanted to be. I wanted to be
a jazz musician.
GROSS: What was your school like in Shelby, Mississippi?
Mr. WILSON: My school, of course, we know that it was segregated. It only
went to the 8th grade. After the 8th grade, you'd have to go away. And in
the case of my sister and brother, they went to other schools. But in my
case, I was happy to, lucky enough to go to Memphis, Tennessee. My home is
only 80 miles south of Memphis, Tennessee. I went to Memphis, Tennessee,
where I studied high--was in high school for three years. And by the way,
it's the same school that Jimmie Lunceford had been a teacher and the football
GROSS: Is that where you first heard of him?
Mr. WILSON: No, well, I'd actually heard of him before that because I'd hear
them on the radio, I used to listen.
GROSS: OK. Uh-huh.
Mr. WILSON: Yeah, I used to listen to all the bands on the radio. I sold
the radio guide in my hometown, I sold the black newspapers, the Chicago
Defender, the Pittsburgh Courier, and the Baltimore African-American
newspapers, so I could keep up with what all the bands were doing, like Duke
Ellington and Chick Webb, and all the great black bands of that time, and I
listened to all the white bands at that time.
GROSS: And then you went to Detroit after that?
Mr. WILSON: Yes, I went to the World's Fair in Chicago in 1934 and I was
certainly taken away with Chicago. It was this big city, more liberty for
blacks, better outlook at life, and I begged my mother to send me to Chicago
after I got home from the fair. And she says, `Well, look, I can't send you
to Chicago, but I can send you to Detroit, Michigan.' So all I wanted to do
was get to the north, so that was great to me. There was a family that had
lived two doors from us in Mississippi, and they agreed to let me come and
live with them while I was attending school in Detroit, Michigan.
GROSS: So the school you attended there was high school, college?
Mr. WILSON: Was high school.
GROSS: High school.
Mr. WILSON: The name of that school was Cass Tech. It's still there, by the
way, and it's one of the greatest schools in the world. In fact, they would
be rated as Julliard number one, and Cass Tech number two. And as I said, we
had music all day. You had to study band, you had to study harmony, you had
to study orchestration, you had to study percussion, you had to play in the
different bands--jazz bands, whatever--at the school. It was just music all
GROSS: My guest is trumpeter, composer, arranger, and band leader Gerald
Wilson. His latest CD is called "In My Time." We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is trumpeter, composer, arranger, and band leader Gerald
Wilson. His latest CD is called "In My Time."
We talked a little bit about bands that you've played with.
Mr. WILSON: Yes.
GROSS: Now you've also done arranging for singers. Some of those singers
include Ray Charles, Bobby Darrin, Nancy Wilson, who else?
Mr. WILSON: Well we would go Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles, as you said,
Carmen McRae, Sarah Vaughan, Donna Washington.
GROSS: How is arranging for a singer different than arranging just a, you
know, an instrumental for a band?
Mr. WILSON: Well, the thing about the way I approach it myself, I stay out
of the way of the singer, I try to, when I have to bring in the band, I bring
it in, I have to--and of course I have to try to use great harmony for them
and to make their voice sound better. I use my pause, if I feel like it. And
I try to--many composers write numbers and they don't know the inside of deep
harmony, so you have to go in and figure that out so--and change it to what it
should be. I do that.
And, as I said, working with these great artists, I just enjoy doing that.
And of course, as you said, Ray Charles' "Modern Sounds in Country and Western
Music," which I did all of the music for that. And again, I think that's a
time when, if they would give us a little attention and sadly, when you finish
singing "You Are My Sunshine" and "Bye-Bye Love" and all of those country
tunes, I'd sure be happy if they'd said my name, that I'm the one who
orchestrated it. And I'd appreciate that.
GROSS: Well, why don't we hear a track from Ray Charles "Modern Sounds in
Country and Western." And the music on this album was arranged by my guest
(Soundbite of "Bye-Bye Love")
Unidentified Singers: (Singing) Bye-bye, love
I think I'm going to cry.
Bye-bye, sweet caress,
I think I'm going to die.
Mr. RAY CHARLES: (Singing) There goes my baby with me someone new
She sure looks happy and I'm so blue.
She was my baby till he stepped in.
Goodbye to romance that might've been, whoah whoah-oh whoah.
Singers: (Singing) Bye-bye, love,
Mr. CHARLES: (Singing) Well...
Singers: (Singing) Bye-bye, happiness,
Mr. CHARLES: (Singing) What you
Singers: (Singing) Hello, loneliness. I think I'm going to cry.
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: That's Ray Charles from an album that was arranged by my guest Gerald
Wilson. For those of us who haven't had the pleasure of actually seeing you
Mr. WILSON: Yes.
GROSS: ...what's your style of conducting?
Mr. WILSON: Different from any style you've ever seen before. I move. I
choreograph the music as I conduct. You see, I point it out, everything
you're to listen to. The people can't keep their eyes off of me.
GROSS: So you're making it sound like you point things out not for the
benefit of the musicians, like, `It's your turn, reed section,' but for the
benefit of the listener?
Mr. WILSON: No, for the benefit of the listener, he sees what everything is
happening, because every time I move, something happens there where I move.
My hands, my two hands here, are showing you where to look. If I want them to
concentrate on my soloist, I concentrate on him. And they--and pinpoint where
they're to look now, and listen as they look. I think that's what I am,
that's the way I can explain it. I choreograph my music.
GROSS: Gerald Wilson, you're 87 now, and that's an age at which most people,
if they're lucky enough to have, you know, live that long, have retired. You
have not. You're still, you know, composing, arranging, conducting, you have
a new CD. So are there aspects of your work that you feel age has interfered
Mr. WILSON: Oh, no, not at all. Not at all. I'm working all the time,
fooling around, playing the piano so that I can get new things going, and so
it hasn't affected me at all. I feel good and I'm hanging in there.
GROSS: Well, Gerald Wilson, a pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much
for talking with us.
Mr. WILSON: It's my pleasure and my honor, Terry.
GROSS: Gerald Wilson. We recorded the interview when he was still 87.
Yesterday he celebrated his 88th birthday. Next month he'll perform with his
band for a week in Manhattan at Jazz at Lincoln Center's Dizzy's Club
Coca-Cola. Wilson's latest CD is called "In My Time."
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross. We'll close with another track from Gerald Wilson's
"In My Time."
(Soundbite of Gerald Wilson performing)
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.