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James McBride's Advice For New Writers: 'A Simple Story Is The Best Story'

McBride's most recent novel, Deacon King Kong, is set in a Brooklyn housing project in 1969. "Time and place is really crucial to good storytelling," he says. Originally broadcast Feb. 29, 2020.

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Other segments from the episode on March 5, 2021

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 5, 2021: Interview with James McBride; Review of jazz CD; Review of film 'Raya and the Last Dragon.'



This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Our guest, James McBride, first became known for his memoir, "The Color Of Water," about growing up in a Brooklyn housing project. He's the son of a white mother and an African American father who died shortly before McBride was born. When McBride was a teenager, he discovered his mother was Jewish, the daughter of an Orthodox rabbi. In 2016, President Obama presented McBride with the National Humanities Medal for, quote, "humanizing the complexities of discussing race in America."

McBride's novel "The Good Lord Bird," set just before the Civil War, is about a young boy who joins John Brown's abolitionist crusade. It won the 2013 National Book Award for fiction and was adapted into a series starring Ethan Hawke. Spike Lee adapted McBride's World War II novel, "Miracle At St. Anna," about a Black soldier in Italy during World War II.

McBride's latest novel, "Deacon King Kong," is now out in paperback. It takes place in 1969 in a Brooklyn housing project similar to the one McBride grew up in. It's a character study of a community where hard drugs are starting to move in. The action begins when the 71-year-old church deacon, who lives in the projects, shoots the young man who's become the project's main drug dealer, and no one understands why.

Terry spoke with McBride last March.


TERRY GROSS: James McBride, welcome to FRESH AIR. It is a pleasure to have you on the show.

JAMES MCBRIDE: Well, thank you. I'm delighted to be here.

GROSS: I want you to read the opening of the book. But before you do that, the book is set in 1969 in a housing project in Brooklyn. Tell us why you set it there and then.

MCBRIDE: Well, because I - you know, 'cause I was born in a housing project in Brooklyn, and I still - I'm still connected to my old housing project. And it seemed like 1969 was a good time because that was before crack. It was before neighborhoods began to fall apart in New York.

GROSS: OK. So read the opening paragraph for us.

MCBRIDE: (Reading) Deacon Cuffy Lambkin of Five Ends Baptist Church became a walking dead man on a cloudy September afternoon in 1969. That's the day the old deacon, known as Sportcoat to his friends, marched out to the plaza of the Causeway Housing Projects in South Brooklyn, stuck an ancient .38 Colt in the face of a 19-year-old drug dealer named Deems Clemens and pulled the trigger. There were a lot of theories floating around the projects as to why old Sportcoat - a wiry, laughing, brown-skinned man who had coughed, wheezed, hacked, guffawed and drank his way through the Cause houses for a good part of his 71 years - shot the most ruthless drug dealer the projects had ever seen. He had no enemies. He had coached the project's baseball team for 14 years. His late wife, Hettie, had been the Christmas Club treasurer of his church. He was a peaceful man, beloved by all. So what happened? The morning after the shooting, the daily gathering of retired city workers, flophouse bums, bored housewives and ex-convicts who congregated in the middle of the projects at the park bench near the flagpole to sip free coffee and salute Old Glory as it was raised to the sky had all kinds of theories about why old Sportcoat did it.

GROSS: And that's a question we don't really find out until the end (laughter).

MCBRIDE: That's right.

GROSS: I mean, we don't find out the answer until the end. So you said that a lot of the characters in the book are based on people who you knew growing up in a housing project in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn. So was Sportcoat based on somebody who you knew?

MCBRIDE: He's kind of an amalgam of characters that I knew over the course of my life. When I was 15, my mother sent me to Kentucky to live. And I hung out on a corner there, and there were some really interesting characters on that corner. Also, when I went to college - I went to Oberlin. But when I went to college, I came home to Philly. And my mother, you know - I lived in Philly, so there were a bunch - I mean, in the '70s, Philly was loaded with characters. So Sportcoat is an amalgam of the - you know, the old Black man who drinks like a fish and, you know, dies at 20 and lives till he's 80 drinking.


GROSS: Yeah. Were you - like, Sportcoat has a big heart, but he's drunk all the time. Were you able to see beneath the alcohol in the people like that who you knew?

MCBRIDE: Yeah. I've never been one of those who's had a really bad experience with alcoholism because nobody in my - drinking wasn't a big part of my life. So most of the times when I saw alcoholics, they were out. You know, whether - it was either, you know, after church or, you know, just out and about. So, I mean, I saw the dangers of it as a - you know, as a young man that's - you know, who got into trouble, and also as a musician, I could see what happened when people got drunk. But I thought there was always a charm to the old alcoholics who would say, you know, stay in school, you know...

GROSS: (Laughter).

MCBRIDE: Don't drink. You know? So I just - I've always thought there was a magic in that part of the culture.

GROSS: So as we mentioned, the novel's set in 1969. You were 12 in 1969. So was it an eventful year in your life or in the housing project where you grew up?

MCBRIDE: Well, that's a good point. When - I left the housing project when I was 7. I used to go back in the summer because my godparents lived there.


MCBRIDE: And so my - you know, my father died when I was - before I was born. And my stepfather was - raised - you know, raised me. He worked in the housing projects as well. So I had a long history of being in Red Hook during the summer. And so during those years, you know, there was just - there was a freedom to being in Red Hook that I didn't experience in Queens, where we lived, where we had moved to. The church was there. My godparents were - they were strict, but they were fun, and they were very religious.

GROSS: The church was in Red Hook.

MCBRIDE: Yeah. They lived in the projects. So there was just a freedom there that I didn't really feel anywhere else. And there also - there was also a sense of community in Red Hook that I felt, you know, that didn't exist elsewhere.

GROSS: When people think of housing projects, they think more of crime and danger. Maybe I'm talking about people who don't live in housing projects see it that way. They think of crime and danger and drug dealers. And that's part of what's in your book, too. So I'm interested in the fact that you sense a - felt a sense of freedom there.

MCBRIDE: Well, I mean, because you know who everybody is. You know who not to mess with. You know who, you know - this one, you don't fool with him. That one, you know, her son got in trouble, so she's not in a good mood. This one, you can trust her. And his mother better not do nothing bad when she's showing up 'cause she'll - you know, she'll light you up. So it was a sense of - the sense of being in a village and a sense of us against the world, a sense of, you know, the police not being there for you but rather looking over your shoulder or looking down on you.

There was always the sense that, you know, we are kind of together here. Now, granted, you know, it was kind of like - you have to kind of remember; you have to let people have their own space. So you just ignore things that you just don't want to see. And you'll see someone doing something wrong, or you'll see someone who's dating someone they shouldn't be dating, and you just kind of look past it because everyone deserves their own space. But there is a togetherness that comes with that. I'm in Red Hook all the time now because I run a, you know, program there at my church. And I'm there at all hour...

GROSS: You teach music.

MCBRIDE: I teach music. Yeah. I have 25 students in my church program and four teachers and so forth. I'm there all the time. I'm never afraid. Yeah, you always hear about someone getting shot or someone getting hurt, but most people are not - they're not there to hurt you. They're just trying to get through the day.

GROSS: You mentioned the police. There's a cop in the book who is - he's a good man. He's a white cop. He's a good man. And I'm interested in that character, too.

MCBRIDE: Well, I mean, I think the narrative that shows police - that dehumanizes policemen is dangerous. And it puts them as people and us as a public in a bad place. I've had many experiences with police. Most of them have been, you know - most of them, I'm fortunate enough to, you know - to walk away not arrested. And it's just my nature to look to the good side of things. My mother tells a story about when my sister was lost at the circus in New York. And it was just so many people around. She was just so panicked. And then out of the throngs of people, this cop stepped out holding her by the hand. And she never forgot that act of kindness.

And I think that during the course of my career - in the housing projects and outside of it, I've always defined my life - tried to dictate my life by the fact that I believe we have more in common than we are different and that most cops - for example, in terms of policemen, most cops are good people. They're not paid well enough. They're not respected enough. They're not treated well. And if you just - you know how to talk to them, most of the time, it'll be fine. Now sometimes, it's not your lucky day. Well, you're just going to have to eat that one. But in general, you just can't - you can't be a novelist - you can't be a creative person if you are so cynical about the world that everything you say and write is negative.

So I don't put the cloak of evil on policemen. You know, there's a good cop in my book. He's an Irishman, you know, lots of good Irishmen in New York, lots of good Irish cops - during that time and now. You have to emphasize the positive. Otherwise, why write about people at all?

GROSS: So in 1969, the year your novel's set in, you describe it as the year that drugs came to the projects. And one of the main characters, Deems, who's shot by the deacon, he is dealing heroin. And he's, like, the biggest dealer in the projects. Do you remember drugs coming to the projects?

MCBRIDE: No. I mean, you have to remember...

GROSS: Or drug dealers coming (laughter) to the projects.

MCBRIDE: Well, I remember when drugs started in New York in general. I remember when - you know, first it was reefer. You know, we called it weed. And then it sort of graduated to acid. And then it was a little - then it got deeper to heroin. In those days, guys who went to the Army would come back hooked - you know, hooked on drugs and messed up forever. So I remember when drugs...

GROSS: This coming back from Vietnam?

MCBRIDE: Yeah, came back from Vietnam - you know, those that came back. So I remember when those who graduated from weed to booze to heroin - I remember that transition and how the edges of the community became sort of sharp-knived. It became a different - there was a lack of trust. And the younger kids coming up seemed harder and more concerned with money and with - I won't say power but with quick influence. There was a - you have to remember Martin Luther King had died, and the civil rights movement was really going the other direction. It was dying down. It was dying slowly. It was dying a long, slow death because Malcolm was dead and Martin was dead. And the communities began to change.

And so yeah, I remember that. And I remember there was an innocence to that period. And the reason why I use that word because when white people talk about the '60s and The Beatles and - they always talked about the innocence, as if innocence didn't exist in Black America. But, you know, you could walk down the street in Brooklyn and go see Sonny Stitt for free, you know, for nothing.

GROSS: Where'd you see him for free?

MCBRIDE: Oh - so you know, a club. You know, you could see him in a jazz club. I mean, you didn't have to pay...

GROSS: Oh, oh, right.

MCBRIDE: ...Thirty dollars.

GROSS: Right - got it.

MCBRIDE: ...And sit there.

GROSS: Got it.

MCBRIDE: You know, you go see jazz now, you know, the concert starts at 7. You pay $60. They play for three hours. You look at your watch - it's 7:15. And you're like - because they're not playing anything with melody. And it's just a whole different - it was just a different time.

GROSS: So I want you to read a paragraph about Deems, the young man who's the biggest drug dealer in the projects. And just as a reference point, the projects - it's the Cause projects. So you'll hear a reference to the Cause in this.

MCBRIDE: (Reading) Deems Clemens was the new breed of colored in the Cause. Deems wasn't some poor, colored boy from down South or Puerto Rico or Barbados who arrived in New York with empty pockets and a Bible and a dream. He wasn't humbled by a life of slinging cotton in North Carolina or hauling sugar cane in San Juan. He didn't arrive in New York City from some poor place where kids ran around with no shoes and ate chicken bones and turtle soup, limping to New York with a dime in their pockets, overjoyed at the prospect of coming to New York to clean houses and empty toilets and dump garbage, hoping for a warm city job or maybe even an education care of good white people.

Deems didn't give a damn about white people or education or sugar cane or cotton or even baseball, which he had once been a whiz at. None of the old ways meant a penny to him. He was a child of the Cause - young, smart and making money hand over fist slinging dope at a level never before seen in the Cause Houses. He had high friends and high connections from East New York all the way to Far Rockaway, Queens, and any fool in the Cause stupid enough to open their mouth in his direction ended up hurt bad or buried in an urn in an alley someplace.

GROSS: Did you see a big generational divide between the older people who had migrated to New York from the South and the younger people who grew up in the projects?

MCBRIDE: Absolutely. Yeah, of course. That was really where the big break happened - because the old folks who grew up in the South, who understood how hard it was to pick tobacco and went to these schoolhouses where they had to stop at the eighth grade and had to walk, you know, five miles to school, they didn't understand what it was like to grow up in New York and to be part of that New York culture. And then the young people who were behind them didn't care about the old ways of the South. That happened in my house as well. So...

GROSS: Tell me more about how it expressed itself in your house.

MCBRIDE: Oh - because my mother was all about church, you know? It was all about church and school. And if you didn't take care of those things, it didn't matter what you did. And you know, she was old-fashioned, believed in spankings and all that stuff. You know? It was none of this, what are you feeling inside? And none of that, you know - no psychological care for you. You just dealt with it, you know? And if the teacher didn't like you, well, you just stayed in the class, you know, until you got to the next grade - so - because she came from that era where you just had to just deal with it.

GROSS: And she grew up in Virginia.

MCBRIDE: And she grew up in Virginia, yeah.

GROSS: Although, she immigrated to the U.S. from Poland when she was 2 with her family.

MCBRIDE: Yeah. Well, my mother's story is unique because she was a white woman raising all these Black kids.

GROSS: Yeah, yeah.

MCBRIDE: You know, she had 12 children. And there, you know, was not a lot to go around. But in terms of her psychological approach to raising us, she was pretty much just like the Black mothers in the neighborhood. She didn't want to hear it, you know? Go to church, and that's it.

GROSS: That actually plays a big role in the book - the idea of what you do to keep somebody on the straight path. Do you punish them in a physical way that could be really physically harmful? And if you do that, is that a good thing? Are you protecting them? Or are you harming them? So I'm interested in your thoughts about that and what it was like for you to be spanked. I don't know if it was a little, you know, a pat on the tuchus. Or whether...

MCBRIDE: (Laughter) Well, my mother was...

GROSS: ...Whether it was like a real, like...

MCBRIDE: No. Well - (laughter).

GROSS: ...Take a stick and, like, whack them.

MCBRIDE: Well, no, my mother would wear us out. I mean, sometimes, you know, she'd get so mad, she'd start spanking you for something that happened, like, three weeks ago if she forgot to spank you - I mean, if she lost her temper.

GROSS: (Laughter) Yeah.

MCBRIDE: And, you know, she'd swing. And, you know, you'd jump under the bed. You'd hang - you'd cling to the springs like a monkey, with your feet and toes on the bed springs while she swung underneath the bed (laughter). But, I mean, we weren't spanked an extraordinary amount. It was the threat of spanking that kept us in line. Whether that's a good thing or not - I mean, look; a child can tell whether their parent loves them. And most of the time, there's no need for you to spank a child.

In the case of my mother, she had so many kids, she couldn't keep track of all of us. She had to look at the big picture. And the big picture was if you're going to school and you're going to church, you're OK. Now, that didn't really work out, you know. For me and some of my siblings, we just did - we just jumped ship. But at bottom, we knew she loved us. And at bottom in this book and in this community, people generally love each other. They generally respect each other. And that goes a long way. It's not something you can easily quantify. But it goes an extremely long way.

GROSS: Church is central to your new novel. And one of the main characters, Sportcoat, is a deacon in the church. His wife was the Christmas Club treasurer. Your parents founded a church in New York before you were born. And your father died while your mother was pregnant. Tell us about that church. Did you go to that church?

MCBRIDE: Yeah, I went to the church as a kid. And even when we left Red Hook, I would go back and visit. My godfather was the minister - he was associate minister at the church. I got married in that church. All my big life events happened in that church. And so I - you know, I guess about five or six years ago, there was some issue about nobody's coming and they didn't have a Sunday school, and there were no kids. So I started a music program in that church. So I'm still there every weekend now.

GROSS: So you started the music program, in a way, to bring people back to the church?

MCBRIDE: To bring young people back into the church, yeah. I mean, I have a lot of issues with the Baptist church, really - I mean, you know, the death extravaganzas, you know, the homophobia, all of that. I just - I have enormous differences of opinion with that. But, you know, you have to just - you've got to stay with the horse that got you into the gate. You got to just - you can't just say, I hate this, and I'm going to walk away. You have to work with something.

GROSS: So what are you doing to bring young people back into the church? What's the music program like?

MCBRIDE: Basically, all I do is I start - see, we didn't have an - the church didn't have an organ player. And they were trying to find these guys to play organ. And every time they'd find - look for the one - because I helped look for them - every time you get on the phone with this, you know, guy, he'd say, oh, I can't make it. Oh, I need a whole bunch of money. And then he'd close with this. He'd say, have a blessed day.

GROSS: (Laughter).

MCBRIDE: You know, when they say that, that means that you're talking to some jive cat, you know?


MCBRIDE: Have a blessed day - that means get lost. So I said, why are we trying to find organists all over? Let's just train our own. So we started a program to train organists. That's what this program is.

So we started this six years ago and just let the word be known around the projects that, you know, we were giving free music lessons. And so we started out with buckets and sticks, and then we got some pianos and stuff. And, you know, just kept - I kept adding instruments to it. Now we have about maybe 10 or 12 pianists. We have four or five bassists, and the rest are drummers.

And we just, you know, we teach them basics of music - how to read and, you know, chord structure and all that stuff. And now our two oldest, one goes to LaGuardia Performing Arts High School. And the other one, he's not in high school yet. But they're just about ready now to learn how to play organ. So that's what it was. It was just to start - to get us an organ player. What has happened is that we have a program. We have people running through - we have young people in the church.

GROSS: Your mother's father was an Orthodox rabbi, couldn't find work as a rabbi, ended up opening a store - like, a grocery?

MCBRIDE: Right. Yeah, in Suffolk, Va.

GROSS: In an African American neighborhood...


GROSS: ...Where apparently he overcharged people and sounds like he was kind of a racist.


GROSS: And I'm - it's just that - so interested in what it must have been like for your mother. I don't know if they lived in the African American neighborhood or just had their store there. But she worked in the store, so she was often in an African American neighborhood where there was probably a lot of tension between the customers and her parents. And she ends up leaving her family and moving to New York, moving to Harlem and marrying your father, who is African American, and then marrying your stepfather after your father died, who is also African American. It's like - it's such an interesting dynamic for her.

MCBRIDE: Well, I didn't appreciate that until much later. But you have to remember that when she was coming up in the '20s and the '30s, you know, the South was much - it was quite different.

GROSS: Well, it's segregated.

MCBRIDE: It was segregated. And even though their store was in the Black side of town, they weren't welcome in town, either, you know, because they were Orthodox Jews. They were - you know, they were very religious Jews. And her father, although he was a - you know, he was a rascal, he was quite Jewish in his style and in his bearing and in his life, as was her mother. Apparently, the Black people in the community really liked her, and they liked her mother, my grandmother, because they were kind people.

They were isolated. You're talking about isolation upon isolation. They were isolated in the South. They were - there weren't that many Jews in Suffolk. It was a small synagogue. And the only place you could get a job was in a small town like that where they couldn't - they didn't have the pick of the litter in terms of...

GROSS: Oh, so he was a rabbi there?

MCBRIDE: Yeah, he was a rabbi there. Yeah.

GROSS: He worked as a rabbi? Oh, OK.

MCBRIDE: Yeah. But eventually, they got rid of him because he - you know, he was running a store. But yeah, he was a rabbi there at the local synagogue. And so they, you know - her life - the kindest people in her life were African American. Her first boyfriend was an African American. And then she moved to New York, and she almost got hooked up into prostitution with some - you know, some rascal who was running around. And my father worked for her aunt. And she was working in her aunt's factory, and my father kind of got her out of that. And he straightened her out, and she ended up joining the church in Harlem. And then later on, they started a church in Brooklyn that was named after the Harlem minister that married them.

So, you know, she dove into the African American life because of an element that exists in African American life even today, and that is this whole business of kindness. Probably the most raw feelings I get when I think about the stereotype of African American life is that Black people are mean - you know, this whole thing that, you know, we're hard. We - you know, we're kicking butt; we're taking names. You know, this whole - I can't stand that because that's just not true.

My mother loved Red Hook. And she loved it in part because when my father died - and she had seven kids and was pregnant with me - she came home from the hospital and there were - the - she said the apartment was full of food and chickens and ham and just - people just were so kind. She never forgot that, and she made sure we never forgot it, either. So that business of kindness in Black American life is something that was stamped into my consciousness and into the consciousness of my siblings from the time we were little.

GROSS: What was it like to grow up with 11 siblings? It's like growing up in a small class.

MCBRIDE: Well, I hate them. You know, I'm sick of them. No.


MCBRIDE: Well, you know, you learn to fend for yourself. You learn to take care of what - the little bit that you have, you know, your little shoes, your little - you have your clothes in a little pile. You don't - you learn to take - you become self-sufficient very quickly. And you learn how to be the center of attention if you need to be.

GROSS: Your mother went to college when she was 65...

MCBRIDE: Yeah, she went to Temple. Yeah.

GROSS: ...And got her degree in social work.

MCBRIDE: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: I'm interested in why she wanted to, like, pursue more learning at...

MCBRIDE: Well - at that age?

GROSS: I think it's a beautiful thing. Yeah.

MCBRIDE: Well, first of all, she liked to be active. She liked to learn. She did get hired at Planned Parenthood in Trenton.

GROSS: It's interesting that she got a job at Planned Parenthood. She's the mother of 12.



GROSS: Planned Parenthood, which is famous for contraception.

MCBRIDE: Well, that's true. Look - we're all walking contradictions.

GROSS: I'm not totally comfortable asking you this, but do you think she had 12 children because she really wanted 12 children or because she didn't want to use birth control?

MCBRIDE: (Laughter).

GROSS: Is that OK to ask you that?

MCBRIDE: (Laughter) Yeah. Yeah. Well, she just said, you know, after a while, they just dropped like eggs. I mean, Mommy really liked having kids. She loved having children. She used to say, I never get weary of watching the miracle of a child growing up. It was just - it was really where she belonged. So I don't think that she worried about birth control. I think she worried about feeding the kids when they got older.

And I don't think she thought that far ahead, you know. She wasn't of the generation where she worried about her - you know, her pension and all that business. You know, she worked for Dime Savings Bank, and they gave her a little check every week, and that was it. And she would cash it and - so I think she just - I don't think she worried about birth control. You have to remember, that generation, they didn't - they - we lived from week to week, you know? We just - we lived from one week to the next.

GROSS: What was it like for you each time a new baby entered the picture?

MCBRIDE: I got - I was - less for me, you know? I mean, geez. Can we cut that out please? No, I mean, you know...


MCBRIDE: It was less for me. But my siblings and I, we loved each other, and we were very close. And we had some differences, but we were a very busy house. It was - you know, this one was dressed up in - with football helmets, and he was clogging out the door with cleats, and this one - there was always a lot going on, and I miss that. I miss that.

GROSS: So when all the kids were grown up, did that change your relationship with your mother? Because she no longer had to be taking care of 12 children.

MCBRIDE: Yeah, I think so. She was more curious, and she had more time to do the things that she liked to do. She was always afraid that she wouldn't be able to get out. So, you know, always kept a nice car. You know, she...

GROSS: Get outside?

MCBRIDE: Get outside to do things. She always wanted to run. Even when she was a girl, she always liked to be outdoors and moving around. So till the end of her life, she was driving around and going - she saw "Avatar" the week she died. I mean, she - you know, "Avatar" the film. She just was not a person who liked to stay stationary.

So it did change my relationship with her also in the sense that I got to know her as a human being, you know, as a person, which is quite different than knowing someone as your mother. And I just loved her. I mean, she was so interesting. I used to look at her - when she got sick, I said, you know what? People are not going to believe she was my mother, even though I had written the book already. People just won't believe that someone so interesting was my mother. And I don't believe it. You know, her death hit me pretty hard, but - I mean, I was prepared, but it - my life changed really quickly.

GROSS: Did writing the book about her - your memoir, "The Color Of Water" - change your relationship with her? And were you able to ask her things for the book in a kind of interview context that you couldn't have asked her about in just a regular, you know, mother-son relationship?

MCBRIDE: Absolutely. Well, first of all, she didn't want to cooperate. And the only reason why she cooperated - because I reported around her. I did the reporter thing; I reported around her. And I'd say, you know, the courthouse was - you know, was blue, and it had shutters. And she said, no, it didn't. It was not blue. It didn't have shutters. It was on such and such - you know, she would correct me.

But yeah, it changed my relationship with her because there were things that she couldn't really talk about, and so she would write it on a piece of paper. And, you know, when she talked about being molested, she just wrote it on a piece of paper and put it on the table. And then I kind of worked around that. And then sometimes she would talk in the car, and then she would get out the car and she would wander off. She would be so blown away by the remembrances of what had happened, what she talked about - because she never talked about it - that she would just wander in the wrong direction.

GROSS: She had a lot of things she had to keep secret.

MCBRIDE: Secret...

GROSS: Or she decided to keep secret.

MCBRIDE: Well, she didn't have a lot of choices. You know, she didn't - my mother was a young Jewish girl in the South in the '30s and '40s. And people forget that anti-Semitism was a - was and remains a huge piece of business in this country and in this world. So a lot of her secrets were self-preservation. She had to keep secrets because if you open your mouth in the wrong direction, bad things would happen to you.

GROSS: James McBride, it's been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

MCBRIDE: Well, thank you for having me.

DAVIES: Terry Gross speaking with James McBride last March. His novel, "Deacon King Kong," is out in paperback.

This is FRESH AIR. Saxophonist and composer Julius Hemphill, who died in 1995, was born in Fort Worth, developed his music in St. Louis, then moved to New York, where he was a founding member and principal composer for the World Saxophone Quartet. Later, Julius Hemphill had his own saxophone sextet, but along the way, he led and wrote for a variety of bands. A new box set surveys his life's work. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead has a listen.


KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Julius Hemphill on alto saxophone in 1979, mixing the abstract and the earthy with Baikida Carroll on trumpet, Dave Holland on bass and drummer Jack DeJohnette walloping that backbeat. It's from the seven-CD Hemphill box "The Boye Multi-National Crusade For Harmony," eight hours of newly released 1970s and '80s music from the composer's archives, curated and annotated by Hemphill scholar and sometimes sideman Marty Ehrlich.


WHITEHEAD: This new Julius Hemphill anthology, comprised of live, studio and rehearsal recordings, touches on many aspects of his wide-ranging work, but not all of them. There's nothing for saxophone ensembles, a key part of his legacy.

There is music for a variety of small bands - solo sax over prerecorded junkyard percussion, a little chamber music and a few duos, including a couple with poets.


MALINKE ELLIOTT: All right, all right, all right. You do the listening in the sun, and I'll try to tell you in the sun. Then you can go home, and you can forget it. You can just forget it.

WHITEHEAD: A tiny snippet of poet Malinke Elliott.

The Julius Hemphill box also includes plenty of spirited improvising tinged with the blues. Hemphill's scalding alto sax is often entwined with the trumpet of Baikida Carroll, an ally since their early days in St. Louis. One of the real finds here is a 1977 studio session where they're joined by drummer Alex Cline and the trio Janus Company.


WHITEHEAD: In the new jazz of the 1970s and surrounding decades, a certain raggedy quality came with the territory, and there were a few places in the Julius Hemphill box where ensemble passages can sound a little out of tune. Still, rough edges have their place. They can give the music the air of early jazz bands, where everyone might play the melody a little differently.

That raggediness (ph) can make a small band sound bigger, like a three-horn quintet with Baikida on trumpet and the great clarinetist John Carter, who directed Hemphill's junior high school band back in Fort Worth. This is "Dimples: The Fat Lady On Parade."


WHITEHEAD: Julius Hemphill's other essential ally in numerous bands was Abdul Wadud. More than anyone, Wadud popularized the cello in improvised music. He might treat it like a baby bass or strum it like a slippery rhythm guitar.

The new Hemphill anthology includes an hour of new music from their duo with Julius sometimes on soprano sax.


WHITEHEAD: Julius Hemphill kept Abdul Wadud's cello style in mind when he arranged three Charles Mingus compositions for string quartet in the 1980s. Cello on the bottom strums chords in stop-time on Mingus' "Better Get Hit In Your Soul."


WHITEHEAD: Sprawling, a little uneven and with variable sound quality, "The Boye Multi-National Crusade For Harmony" might not be an ideal introduction to Julius Hemphill's music, except that a few of his classics like "Dogon A.D." and "Coon Bid'ness" are out of print. Happily, New World Records has made each disc from the box available as a separate download. I'd recommend Volumes 2, 3 and 7 as places to start, roping in the duo with Abdul Wadud, the trio Janus Company and the quartet with Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette. Julius Hemphill was one of the key jazz composers of the late 20th century, a modernist with deep roots. His music should be part of any informed listener's jazz education.


DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead is the author of the new book "Play The Way You Feel: The Essential Guide To Jazz Stories On Film." He reviewed the "Boye National Crusade For Harmony" (ph), the new seven-CD box set of the music of Julius Hemphill.

Coming up, Justin Chang reviews the new Disney animated film "Raya And The Last Dragon." This is FRESH AIR.


This is FRESH AIR. Our film critic Justin Chang says the new Disney film "Raya And The Last Dragon" is not just for kids. He calls it a gorgeously animated fantasy adventure with a hopeful message for this moment. The movie begins streaming on Disney+ today.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: "Raya And The Last Dragon" is a lovely, moving surprise. Its big selling point is that it's the first Disney animated film to feature Southeast Asian characters. But like so many movies that break ground in terms of representation, it tells a story that's actually woven from reassuringly familiar parts. I didn't mind that in the slightest.

The movie, directed by the Disney veteran Don Hall and the animation newcomer Carlos Lopez Estrada, brings us into a fantasy world that's been beautifully visualized and populated with engaging characters. And it builds to an emotional climax that I'm still thinking about days later.

The story is a little complicated, as these stories tend to be. It takes place in Kumandra, an enchanted realm inspired by various Southeast Asian cultures and divided into five kingdoms named after a dragon's body parts - Heart, Fang, Spine, Talon and Tail.

Before they became extinct centuries ago, dragons once roamed the land and served as friendly guardians to humanity. Their magic lives on in a jewel called the Dragon Gem, which is kept in a cave in Heart. But the other four kingdoms covet its mighty powers. One day, all five factions come together and try to reach a peace agreement, but tensions erupt, a fight breaks out, and the gem shatters into five pieces that are scattered across Kumandra. This opens the doorway to an ancient enemy called the Druun, a terrible plague that turns people to stone.

Naturally, a hero must rise and save the day. Her name is Raya, and she's a young warrior princess from Heart, voiced by the excellent Kelly Marie Tran from "Star Wars: The Last Jedi." Raya manages to escape the Druun, though her father, her ba, who's the leader of Heart, isn't so lucky. Now Raya must recover the pieces of the Dragon Gem, reverse the damage and banish the Druun for good.

This isn't the first time we've seen a brave young character embark on a quest for magical baubles, and "Raya And The Last Dragon" is rooted in traditional fantasy lore, with "The Lord Of The Rings" and "Game Of Thrones" being just the most obvious influences. The movie's intense scenes of swordplay and hand-to-hand combat give it a tougher, more grown-up feel than most Disney animated fantasies. My own young daughter had to cover her eyes a few times. Like some other recent Disney princesses, including Moana and Elsa, Raya has a bold, adventurous streak and isn't all that interested in romance. Unlike them, she doesn't even have time to sing a song.

That said, the movie still has plenty of lightness and humor. The screenwriters, Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim, have provided the usual Disney array of cute critters and lively supporting characters. None of them is more colorful than Sisu, a friendly water dragon who is magically resurrected during Raya's journey. She's the last of her kind, and she has a crucial role to play in the story. She's voiced delightfully by Awkwafina, doing one of her signature chatterbox comedy routines and selling every one of Sisu's anachronistic wisecracks.

In one scene, she touches a piece of the Dragon Gem and magically lights up, which Raya sees as a hopeful sign.


KELLY MARIE TRAN: (As Raya) You're glowing.

AWKWAFINA: (As Sisu) Oh, thank you. I use aloe and river slim to maintain my...

TRAN: (As Raya) No, no. Look.

AWKWAFINA: (As Sisu) Oh, this - this is my little sister Amba's magic. I got that glow.

TRAN: (As Raya) Your little sister's magic?

AWKWAFINA: (As Sisu) Yeah. Every dragon has a unique magic.

TRAN: (As Raya) Oh, OK. What's yours?

AWKWAFINA: (As Sisu) I'm a really strong swimmer.

TRAN: (As Raya, laughter) Wait, wait, wait. You touched this gem piece and it gave you powers. You know what this means, right?

AWKWAFINA: (As Sisu) I no longer need a night light?

TRAN: (As Raya) What? No. You're still connected to the gem's magic, and that means you can still use it to save the world. If we can get all the other gem pieces, you can reassemble it...

AWKWAFINA: (As Sisu) I can reassemble it...

KELLY MARIE TRAN AND AWKWAFINA: (As Raya and Sisu) ...And blow the Druun away.

TRAN: (As Raya) And bring my ba back?

AWKWAFINA: (As Sisu) And bring all of Kumandra back.

CHANG: Raya and Sisu's journey takes them to all five kingdoms of Kumandra, all of which are so vivid and transporting I found myself wishing they really existed - or that I could have at least seen them on a proper movie screen. There's the town of Talon, which is built at the edge of a river, and the desert wasteland of Tail, where Raya and Sisu must enter a cave of obstacles straight out of an Indiana Jones adventure.

As the two of them search for more Dragon Gem pieces, they, of course, pick up a few friends along the way. There's a street-smart boy who cooks a mean shrimp congee and a toddler pickpocket whom I found more creepy than cute. But the movie's most intriguing character is Namaari, a rival princess from Fang, who's voiced by Gemma Chan. As a side note, Chan and Awkwafina both appeared in "Crazy Rich Asians," which, like this movie, was co-written by Adele Lim. Namaari and Raya used to be friends until the fight over the Dragon Gem ripped them apart. Now they're bitter enemies, and their emotional dynamic is fierce and complicated in ways that relationships are rarely allowed to be in children's animated films, especially between women.

By contrast, Sisu is all feel-good vibes. She's a dragon, after all, with little understanding of how treacherous humans can be. She doesn't get why Raya and Namaari distrust each other so, why they can't just set their differences aside and defeat the Druun together. It's Sisu's sincerity and purity of heart that makes the story's finale so unexpectedly stirring, especially now. Our fates are closely bound together, it reminds us, as it builds a case for forgiveness, reconciliation and mutual sacrifice.

The emotional power of "Raya And The Last Dragon" sneaks up on you. Its lessons aren't new exactly, but it makes you feel like you're learning them for the first time.

DAVIES: Justin Chang is the film critic for the LA Times.

On Monday's show, we speak with Walter Isaacson. His new book is about discoveries related to RNA, the molecule at the heart of the gene-editing tool CRISPR, which is being used in the fight against genetic diseases. RNA is also the basis of the Pfizer and Moderna COVID vaccines. Isaacson was part of a double-blind clinical study of the Pfizer vaccine. I hope you can join us.


DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our engineer and technical director is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.


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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