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When Zombies Attack Lower Manhattan

Coulson Whitehead's novel Zone One is a post-apocalyptics tale ofd a Manhattan crippled by a plague and overrun with zombies. He explains that he created the novel, in part, to pay homage to the grimy 1970s New York of his childhood.

21:26

Other segments from the episode on July 20, 2012

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, July 20, 2012: Interview with Colson Whitehead; Interview with Eddie Palmieri; Review of Jesse Davis' album "Live at Smalls."

Transcript

July 20, 2012

Guests: Colson Whitehead – Eddie Palmieri

DAVE DAVIES, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Colson Whitehead's novel "Zone One" came out last year in the middle of a zombie craze, and it became a national bestseller. It's now out in paperback. The book is set in Manhattan after a plague has spread around the world turning many of the infected into zombies.

When the novel begins, the worst of the plague is over and New York's provisional government is trying to restore some semblance of normal life. The main character, Mark Spitz, is part of a team that is supposed to clean out the remaining zombies.

Colson Whitehead is a recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, the so-called Genius Award. His novel "John Henry Days," about a journalist assigned to write about the legendary John Henry, was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. His semi-autobiographical novel "Sag Harbor" is about summering in a middle-class African-American community in the Hamptons.

Terry spoke to Colson Whitehead in October, when "Zone One" was published in hardback.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Colson Whitehead, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's start with a reading from "Zone One." And you want to just set it up for us?

COLSON WHITEHEAD: Sure. In this section, Mark Spitz, our humble protagonist, is hiding out. The end times have come, and he's found a refuge with a woman named Mim in a toy store in Connecticut. And he's mulling over how they got here and trying to process how much the world has changed.

(Reading) The boy that wandered into the cellar of his personality still nursed the naive hunger for a life of adventure. As a kid he'd invented scenarios for adulthood: to outrun a fireball; swing across the air shaft on a wire; dismember the gargoyle army with an enchanted blade that only he could hold.

(Reading) Now he was grown up and the plague had granted him his wish and rendered it a silly grotesque. It was not so glamorous to spend two days doubled over emptying your guts because you'd gambled on the expired bottle of kiwi juice. All of the other kids turned out to be postal workers, roofers, beloved teachers, and died. Mark Spitz was living the dream. Take a bow, Mark Spitz.

And then he goes on to think about all the movies and TV shows he loved as a kid and the monsters in them.

(Reading) He loved the subgenre of misunderstood aliens and mechanical men who yearn to love. He'd always seen himself in them, the robots who roved the galaxy in search of the emotion chip; the tentacled things that were, beneath their muddled puckered membranes, more human than the murderous villagers who hunted them down for their difference.

(Reading) The townspeople, of course, were the real monsters. It was the business of the plague to reveal our family members, friends and neighbors as the creatures they'd always been. And what had the plague exposed him to be? Mark Spitz endured as the race was killed off one by one. A part of him thrived on the end of the world. How else to explain it: He had a knack for apocalypse.

(Reading) The plague touched them all, blood contact or no. The secret murderers, dormant rapists and latent fascists were now free to express their ruthless natures. The timid, those who had been stingy with their dreams for themselves, those who came out of the womb scared and remained so, these too found a final stage for their weakness and in their last breaths were fulfilled. I've always been like this. Now I'm more me.

GROSS: That's Colson Whitehead reading from his new novel, "Zone One." So let's talk about the scenario that you've created. What is the plague that destroys so much of New York?

WHITEHEAD: The plague is a zombie plague, and I'm still trying to get over saying zombie out loud so many times a day. And the infected and dead are about 95 percent of the population, and then there are the survivors. And the plague is running down; they're rebuilding society.

There are camps of survivors here and there across the country, and now they've decided to tackle New York. It's an island. You can go through and sweep out the remaining zombies, the plague-ridden wretches. And our hero, Mark Spitz, is part of a team of sweepers.

The Army has swept out most of the creatures, and Omega Team, Mark's team, is going door-to-door in residential buildings, office buildings, and getting that remaining one percent of the monsters who are lurking in closets and in storerooms so that they can resettle Manhattan and bring the survivors home.

GROSS: So the people who are left include the living, the skels, and the stragglers. What are skels?

WHITEHEAD: The skels are what we know as conventional zombies, slow-moving. They gain their horrific potential in groups. And then there are stragglers, which I added to the mix. And stragglers are malfunctioning zombies. They are the human statues. Once they've been infected, they go to places that were important to them, places that are emotionally charged.

So if you were a lawyer, you might follow your homing instincts and go to your office and sit in your chair and wait for clients who never come. If you are a shrink, you might go to your office and wait for patients who are dead and are probably not going to show up for their 1:00 appointments. So downtown is littered with these stragglers, these human statues who are representing some sort of aspect of their past.

GROSS: And there's something so creepy about that concept.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: If you were straggler, where would you be?

WHITEHEAD: Oh, probably on my couch watching the evening news and unwinding, waiting for a broadcast that's never going to come.

GROSS: Right.

(LAUGHTER)

WHITEHEAD: For a weather report that really had no impact on me.

GROSS: Do the zombies in your book have any consciousness of the fact that they're zombies?

WHITEHEAD: As far as the zombies, we don't know what they're thinking. I doubt it's that complicated. I'm kind of hungry. Whole Foods is closed, so...

(LAUGHTER)

WHITEHEAD: ...I go after this guy right here. Part of what I'm trying to do in the book is erase that line between the infected and the uninfected. The stragglers are tied to emotionally charged places in their past, and so are the survivors.

They're also ghosts haunting themselves, the people they used to be, the homes, their homes that no longer exist. So whether you have the plague in your blood or not, you're kind of zombie-like is what I'm trying to say, I think.

GROSS: Now, Buffalo, New York has become the home of the provisional government, and the best and brightest have been sent there to rewind the catastrophe, and in return they have a 24-hour-a-day generator and uncurtailed hot showers on command, which is a really big deal in this post-apocalyptic world.

And one of the things they're tackling in the provisional government is language, trying to describe the post-plague world; they're rebranding the survival. They have specialists crafting the new language. What were some of your inspirations for this rebranding?

(LAUGHTER)

WHITEHEAD: When I was conceiving the novel, I just had the idea that people are pretty much the same after the disaster, they're just a little more bummed out. And so it seems that marketing will come back pretty quickly, bureaucracy, all those sorts of things.

And if you are trying to marshal a very depressed populace towards a new future, you are going to need a song, "Stop, Can You Hear the Eagle Roar," which is, you know, the uplifting anthem that people are humming under their breath.

You're going to need a name for this new class of people, the American Phoenix, we're rising from the ashes. So it seemed that that kind of corporate sloganeering would come back pretty early along with the desire for gourmet coffee, fresh arugula and all those sorts of nice things that we associate with contemporary society.

GROSS: So the anthem for the new world is "Stop" - exclamation point - "Can You Hear the Eagle Roar," parentheses, theme from Reconstruction, and I love the fact that you've made the anthem a parentheses song.

WHITEHEAD: Well, you know, you love those, you know, all those pop songs that are like "You're Rolling Me" - parentheses - "Like a Pair of Dice."

(LAUGHTER)

WHITEHEAD: So I thought the book would be a lot more - well, hopefully the book is gloomy, but the jokes started creeping in pretty early and I had to embrace that.

GROSS: So can you sing the song - the anthem?

WHITEHEAD: I should probably hire a songwriter to actually make a melody. The lyrics will be fun to write. I should get on that. But it's probably close to, you know, things they play at baseball games or any sort of sports match. I don't actually go to any sports matches. Are they even called sports matches? I'm not sure.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Tennis matches.

WHITEHEAD: Games. Games.

DAVIES: Colson Whitehead, speaking with Terry Gross. His latest novel is called "Zone One." We'll hear more after a break; this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: We're listening to Terry's interview recorded last October with writer Colson Whitehead. His novel "Zone One" is now out in paperback.

GROSS: So why are zombies and vampires so popular now? Why do you think?

WHITEHEAD: I wish I could tell you. I mean, my strange affinity goes back to when I was a kid. I read a lot of horror novels and watched a lot of horror movies: B movies; good horror movies like "The Thing"; bad movies like "Horror of Party Beach." And I was definitely too young to, you know, to see these things. So I saw "Dawn of the Dead" in junior high...

GROSS: That's one of the Romero films, George Romero films.

WHITEHEAD: Yes. The second one, zombie classic, and it was rated X, you know, no one under 18 admitted, but my parents took me and my brother on a family outing, it was very pleasant, and since then I've had zombie anxiety dreams.

I've had zombie anxiety dreams for the last 30 years. And this book started from a dream I had two and half years ago. Finally, one of my dreams was useful. I was out of the country with some houseguests, it was very lovely.

And I had this dream that I wanted to go out into the living room of my house, but I was wondering if they'd swept the zombies out yet. And then I woke up, and usually when you have a dream, and you're sort of aware it's a dream, you think I have to remember this when I wake up, it's going to be a good book and then we wake up, and it's terrible.

This time I woke up and thought: This is a real, actual, logistical nightmare. How do you get rid of the zombies when you're trying to rebuild society? And that's how the book started for me.

GROSS: So when your parents took you to see "Dawn of the Dead," even though it was rated X, and it was rated X because it was so graphic. I mean, the zombies are, like, eating, they're just, like, chewing on legs and arms. It's a really, really gory film. And you had signed the nightmares ever since. So did your parents do the right thing or the wrong thing by taking you to see that exceptionally gory zombie film?

WHITEHEAD: I got a book out of it.

(LAUGHTER)

WHITEHEAD: You know...

GROSS: Thirty years later.

WHITEHEAD: Thirty years later. So it paid off. I mean, I think - we didn't have babysitters, my brother and I. We would just go to Crazy Eddie, which was an old video store in New York City, every Friday and rent Betamax tapes of late '70s splatter movies and classic horror movies, Dario Argento, and have these horror film festivals.

And until - I think until college I wanted to write horror novels. I wanted to write the black "Shining" or the black "Salem's Lot." Basically, if you took any Stephen King title and put the black in front of it, that was sort of my aspiration.

GROSS: So when you were young, you wanted to write the black "The Shining" or any - take any Stephen King novel and put the black in front of it. So what's going on racially in your new novel? Is your character African-American? Is he white? Is race an issue? Is this truly like - is it a post-racial world and a post-apocalyptic world?

(LAUGHTER)

WHITEHEAD: You know, I mean, the use of the word post-racial is so funny these days. Folks think that because Obama was elected, suddenly racism disappeared, you know, the day after, on November 6th. And, of course, it didn't. We don't live in a post-racial world.

However, it seems when folks have the apocalypse on their plate - or at least it seemed to me - that racial differences, class differences, your funny accent, these things aren't as important as finding that last can of peas and maybe a bag of beef jerky that will get you through a couple days food.

GROSS: And making sure that the person isn't a zombie.

WHITEHEAD: Yes. That helps. That helps.

GROSS: Yes, right.

(LAUGHTER)

WHITEHEAD: So "Zone One" is a post-racial world simply because they have more things on their mind than skin color, gender difference

GROSS: Now when you were growing up in Manhattan, you went to prep school. And you said you were often the only African-American in the room. And when you'd go to a bar mitzvah, which you did a lot growing up in Manhattan...

(LAUGHTER)

WHITEHEAD: It was a great time. I mean, that was my introduction to chicken on skewers, finger food. You know, I look back very fondly.

GROSS: Little egg rolls?

WHITEHEAD: Yes. Oh, God.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So how did that shape your sense of what it meant to be black?

WHITEHEAD: It didn't shape my sense of what it is to be black. I mean, it helped with my outsider-ness. And I think if you're an outsider, as you are in a predominantly white prep school, you become a observer.

But that kind of otherness can be found in so many sectors of daily experience, and I try to tackle that in "Sag Harbor." We have this prep school kid who divides his time between New York City, where he's in a mostly white environment in school, and an African-American community in Sag Harbor in the Hamptons, a middle-class, upper-middle-class enclave. And he toggles back and forth between an all-black society and a mostly white society and tries to figure out who he is and who he's becoming.

GROSS: In "Sag Harbor," your semi-autobiographical novel about summering in the Hamptons in African-American summering community there, the character describes his parents as being from the uplift-the-race category. And I'm wondering if you would describe your parents that way, too. And if so, how did that relate to their expectations of you?

WHITEHEAD: There's some of that in their personality. You know, they're the civil rights generation, and I'm the product of their struggles and what they - and their aspirations and what they wanted for their kids. And they're the product of their parents' strivings, being the first doctors, lawyers in their family, this newly emergent black middle class in the '20s.

So they had certain - I think, you know, they wanted me to have a decent job and make a lot of money. And when I told them I wanted to be a writer, they weren't incredibly psyched. I mean, I was fortunate to get a job working at the Village Voice and supporting myself doing journalism, not supporting myself in a very lofty style, but I had money for beer, and that helped.

And even when I was being a journalist, they sort of didn't understand and assumed I would get with the program and become a lawyer. I didn't. I started writing novels. The first one didn't go anywhere.

And I think it wasn't until my first, "The Intuitionist," came out that they were fully on board. They could actually see a review of it in a newspaper and say, oh, it's actually something that's real. And even if you didn't go into investment banking or brain surgery, he can take care of himself.

GROSS: There's an incident that happens in your novel "Sag Harbor," and I was wondering if this is based on anything that happened to you. The main character, who is African-American, is with some kids who are white. A one of the white kids drags his finger across the main character's cheek and said look, it doesn't come off - referring to his color.

And, you know, the kid tells the incident to his father. And the father gets really angry that his son didn't hit the white kid, that his son just kind of took this insult, which the father considered the equivalent of calling the kid the N- word. So is that based on a real incident?

WHITEHEAD: I wouldn't say based. You know, I think - you know, my father's upbringing was definitely more rough-and-tumble, and I think you become more aware of those tiny, insidious moments where the world is teaching you what actually it thinks of you.

I grew up with, you know, great friends, went to a school where I was with the same, you know, gang of kids from kindergarten on, and was definitely insulated from certain realities - sometimes in a good way, sometimes in a bad way.

So in "Sag Harbor," I was trying to pick out small moments like that, things that happened to my friends, happened to me and slow them down and unpack them and try to deconstruct what's going on in these moments of real racial animosity but also just racial misunderstanding.

Some white folks don't understand that, actually, black people don't like have their head - their hair patted. It's just hair. It's just an afro. You find it springy. Wow. That's great. Don't touch me.

So I did endure a certain amount of head-patting as a kid, and trying to, like, figure out what's going on in folks' brains when they reach out and touch your afro was sort of a fun part of writing "Sag Harbor."

GROSS: One of your first book jobs, perhaps your very first book job, was working at the Village Voice, the first - I think it's fair to say the first really big alternative weekly newspaper. And you were, what, assistant book review editor, or assistant to the book review editor?

WHITEHEAD: Yeah. I was about six months out of college, and it was my job to open the 40 books a day we got from publishers, file them, answer the phones. I had to get a phone voice, because I was a big mumbler, so voice literary supplements.

(LAUGHTER)

WHITEHEAD: That was a real milestone for me. And, I mean, it was a great time and a great opportunity. I'm not sure how kids find journalism jobs these days. But because, you know, the Village Voice thought of itself as a writer's paper, if you hung around and badgered folks, you would get an assignment.

And if it was okay, you'd get the second one. And so I started off in the TV section, because the editor seemed like an easy mark.

(LAUGHTER)

WHITEHEAD: And he gave me an assignment, and that led to other stuff. So I never took any creative writing classes in college. I tried to audition for them, and I was turned down both times, which was very depressing. But I became a writer at the Voice, you know, filing once a week.

If you write a good article, you get great feedback. Good job, Colson. If you are too self-indulgent and spend the first four paragraphs talking about your romantic woes or why you're depressed, you hear nothing.

So you know you sort of screwed up, and maybe you should not be so voice-oriented and more attentive to the job at hand. And then that gave me the confidence to start writing fiction, even though I never - I'd only written maybe, you know, four stories in my whole life.

GROSS: Well, thank you so much for talking with us.

WHITEHEAD: It was a lot of fun. It got me out of the house, always a big plus in my world.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Yeah, are you still a shut-in?

WHITEHEAD: Yeah. When you work at home - you know, you write, you work at home. So those are the rhythms of my days.

GROSS: And that suits you?

WHITEHEAD: Yes. I like it just fine.

DAVIES: Colson Whitehead, speaking with Terry Gross in October. Whitehead's novel "Zone One" is now out in paperback. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVE DAVIES, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC BY EDDIE PALMIERI)

DAVIES: Pianist Eddie Palmieri has been given many nicknames. He's been called The Latin Monk because of his Thelonious Monk-inspired dissonances. He's been called The Mad Man of Latin music. And soon he'll be a nationally recognized Jazz Master, accepting the highest national honor that the country bestows on jazz artists by the National Endowment for the Arts. Palmieri has taken many of the innovations of modern jazz pianists and brought them into his Latin bands. But he's never stopped playing good dance music. He grew up in New York, where his parents moved from Puerto Rico and played timbales in his uncle's band when he was a teenager. His brother, Charlie Palmieri, who died in 1998, was also a great Latin pianist. Eddie Palmieri has been leading his own jazz salsa group since 1961.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC BY EDDIE PALMIERI)

DAVIES: Terry Gross interviewed Eddie Palmieri in 1994. He told Terry about growing up in a large Puerto Rican family in the Bronx.

EDDIE PALMIERI: When my relatives all came from Puerto Rico, my uncles, my grandmother, for example, had an open house policy, you know, which meant that on Saturdays you would see my grandmother going down to the Safeway, A&P and doing the shopping. And plus, she would stop at the liquor store and bring about oh, six or eight bottles of different ryes and rums, whatever, merely because my grandfather was also a professional gambler. So on Saturday night, Friday night, the game, the card games would start and by midnight on Saturday, there was no liquor stores open and the only one they had the liquor was grandma. And as she sold you a liquor she would light up a cigar. And then my grandfather was quite unique in playing so he would clean up and they would have a house kitty.

And on top of that, my uncles, who worked in the leather factories, they would bring my father these - my grandfather - excuse me, these armbands and suspenders that he would put on with a little hammer and a copper cup there, he would put the little brass tips on them and that was how he made his living. And on Saturdays all my uncles would get together and then they would take out their guitars and they would start to sing. By 13, I was already playing drums with my uncle Chino y sus Almas Tropicales because I didn't want to play the piano anymore. I wanted to become my brother's drummer.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Now I know when you were growing up, your mother really wanted you to play piano but you wanted to play drums.

PALMIERI: Right..

GROSS: Let's start with your mother wanting you to play piano. Why was she so big on that?

PALMIERI: Well, because she passed the Depression here. And actually, that in 1929, she was here already. She arrived in '25. And a lesson was 25 cents, and the idea was you couldn't - you know, try to get the 25 cents. With $1.25, they made a whole grocery shopping. It's amazing what happened in the years of the Depression. And because my brother was already playing piano and he was nine years older than me, then my mother certainly insisted on me to play piano, too. And I did. And I couldn't thank her, you know, enough for that.

GROSS: Now you studied classical music when you were young, right, on the piano?

PALMIERI: Well, because of Ms. Margaret Barnes, she was a classical concert player and by 11, I gave a concert - a recital at Carnegie Hall recital hall. But remember, all those years, from 11 to 12, I just wanted to play drums. So it hurt me for not really getting into the fundamentals of the instrument as I need to and I do now.

GROSS: Did you resent having to play classical music?

PALMIERI: No. No. I just didn't want to play the piano at all. I mean I wanted to play drums and, you know, you have to be, you have to, you know, contemplate like what's going through my mind because I want to play stickball in the street, you know, and the guys are calling the downstairs, come on, Eddie. Come on, Eddie, you know, and I got to be playing scales, you know, and then trying to, you know, like make my, you know, cheat on my scales and my mother had an incredible ear.

(LAUGHTER)

PALMIERI: I call her Momma Ear Chops. I mean she could hear. She says, eh, you know, that don't sound right, you know, an extra 15 minutes aw, and things like that. And I was missing the game. And I was the first baseman. And then I had to become the manager because if I wasn't the manager, probably, they wouldn't let me play.

GROSS: So when you're playing timbales in your uncle's band what was the atmosphere like? You were, I don't know, 13 or 14...

PALMIERI: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: ...and he was playing in dance halls or...

PALMIERI: Oh yeah. Dance halls and up in the villas. The villas is like that Borscht circuit, you know, the Catskills here, you know.

GROSS: Oh, you were playing into Borscht Belt when you or 13 or 14?

PALMIERI: No. No. But in the Spanish ones.

GROSS: The Spanish Borscht Belt.

PALMIERI: Yeah. They were owned by Spaniards at that time. That was where they called them La Villas. And...

GROSS: So this is in the Catskills Mountains of New York where a lot of summer resorts are?

PALMIERI: This is Platica(ph) off Newburg(ph).

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

PALMIERI: Yeah. And I started working up there in 1950, 1951, you know, I mean it's unbelievable.

GROSS: So what was the atmosphere like? What kind of people did you meet?

PALMIERI: Well, I give you an idea. On the first day I got there I saw - I went to see the pool. They told me they had a pool in this villa and I went to see the pool. There was a cow drinking at one end of the pool.

GROSS: A cow?

PALMIERI: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: What was a cow doing drinking from the pool?

PALMIERI: Well, I don't know. I didn't know. Her name was Elsie at that time so I didn't, you know, I...

(LAUGHTER)

PALMIERI: ...from Borden's Milk. The main thing is that that was the cows that gave you the milk. For $35 you could stay a week at The Villas, room and board and that fresh milk pitcher was there in the morning. And then my uncles and my grandfather would love to go up there because they - excuse me - they could gamble up there, they could play cards all day long or dominoes, and that was their world. And my uncle was booked as the music of The Villas and I was part of that, so that was the way we made our living.

GROSS: Did you drink when you were young?

PALMIERI: No. But my uncle certainly did, and I always tried to, like, grab a drink or so, you know, but it was difficult because all my aunts were there and they would tattletale on my mother.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Right.

PALMIERI: (Unintelligible) my mother.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIES: Pianist and bandleader Eddie Palmieri, speaking with Terry Gross. We'll hear more after break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're listening to Terry's 1994 interview with pianist and Latin bandleader Eddie Palmieri. He was recently given a Jazz Masters award by the National Endowment for the Arts.

GROSS: When you were young you played with Tito Rodriguez. What did you learn about showmanship and running a band from watching him?

PALMIERI: Oh, he was the one. He was the dandy. He was the dandy because no one dressed like him.

GROSS: How did he dress?

PALMIERI: Oh, immaculately man, you know, so hip and he was so sharp. The orchestra all uniform because he was the best singer that we had here as far as a rumbero singer, of an orchestra leader, and he had the preparation just to do it. And he just, kept improving constantly, because of his competitive edge and, you know, that he always had with Mr. Tito Puente. If Tito Puente played vibes, Tito Rodriguez wanted to learn how to play vibes, you know?

(LAUGHTER)

PALMIERI: It was one of those things that he just couldn't stand - you know, one mostly Tito Rodriguez towards Tito Puente. There was something that just irked him, you know, but when I was working with him from the year '58 to '60, I certainly learned a tremendous amount from Mr. Tito Rodriguez, and may he rest in peace, but he knows that he's in my heart.

GROSS: What did you wear in the band?

PALMIERI: Oh, all different kinds of uniforms. Sometimes we looked like waiters...

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: ...you know, and they would ask us for a drink and that, you know, and I would give them my drink and take, you know, take a tip or something like that. The main thing is - or tuxedos but we worked because with Tito at that time then we didn't stay working in the, what they called The Circuit. He went to Vegas and we did Vegas. And he had a show. His wife was Oriental, Japanese, and she sang and he had a Cuban dancer, Marta, and we did a - he was after that Desi Arnaz, Lucille Ball movement since he knew Desi and he knew Lucille Ball, because his wife also came from one of those show cabarets. But he was so sharp, you know, and he could dance and the thing was he could sing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TITO RODRIGUEZ: (Singing in Spanish)

GROSS: When did you feel ready to form your own band?

PALMIERI: 1960, after I left Tito Rodriguez. It took about a year and then by 1961 I started my - different form of the orchestra, La Perfecta started in late '61, which was the orchestra then that stood together for seven, eight years and we had two trombones, a flute, wooden flute and timbales, conga, bass, singer and I were the total of eight.

GROSS: Were trombones unusual for a Latin band?

PALMIERI: At that time, yes. They called us like the sound of the roaring elephants.

GROSS: So did, when people compared your sound to elephants, was that in praise?

PALMIERI: Oh, well, in praise and in annoyance and, you know, it was a combination of both because we were playing up in the Catskills for three summers with that orchestra and that's a really commercial setting. And the orchestra certainly didn't belong there, but we needed to be there because that was the way we would be able to maintain our status in the city by being away for the summer. Like much Machito would go to the Concorde and Tito Puente would go to the President Hotel and lake, in Swan Lake or whatever, and we landed up in Kutsher's Country Club and then I landed up in Brown's and then I landed up in - eventually in '65 in the Raleigh Hotel and that's where they called us the roaring elephants.

GROSS: A lot of the hotels that you mention had primarily Jewish clientele vacationing there.

PALMIERI: Right.

GROSS: So were you used to seeing people who weren't Latin doing the cha-cha or the mambo and everything? And I wonder what you thought of their dancing.

PALMIERI: Oh no, of course, because of the '50s, remember that the Jewish clientele was the clientele in the Palladium on Wednesdays.

GROSS: Oh.

PALMIERI: And what we saw was not only the Jewish clientele dancing to the most incredible dances that you can find, but you saw Marlon Brando there. You saw him playing bongos with Tito Puente.

(LAUGHTER)

PALMIERI: I mean you saw things in the '50s you wouldn't believe. And then the mambo with Tito Puente, again and Tito Rodriguez, and Machito, these were great orchestras that the Jewish clientele followed. On Fridays and Saturdays the Palladium was more Hispanic, and on Sundays it was definitely black. So we had four different days there that we had four different unique ethnic groups coming to dance and they all danced superbly.

GROSS: I want to play one of your classic recordings. I want to play "Puerto Rico."

PALMIERI: Oh, I love it. We just did that in Puerto Rico, just now.

GROSS: Did you?

PALMIERI: Yes.

GROSS: Well, let me play an early recording of it. And this is my guest Eddie Palmieri, his band, he's featured, of course, on piano.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PUERTO RICO")

GROSS: What stage where you at when you recorded that?

PALMIERI: Oh, I was in quite an incredible stage, always with the economical pressures around you. But I found myself in Puerto Rico walking on the beach and looking at those that beautiful ocean and that's what the lyrics say. (Spanish spoken). You know, beautiful island with your blessed waters surrounding you. So that's a special album and a special year you played for me.

GROSS: A Latin music is a lot of repetition that the piano plays. I think - is that called Mantuano(ph)?

PALMIERI: Exactly right.

GROSS: So...

PALMIERI: It's called - it's a Mantuano part but it's called a guajero(ph). You'll hear like (Singing) bom-be-bom-be-bom-be. That would be a guajero that I'm using there and I'll use that the guajero is behind the percussionist because the least amount of harmonic changes in Latin is where we get the...

...the guajeros behind the percussionists, because the least amount of harmonic changes in Latin is where we get the highest degree of synchronization, which is what you're after. We simplify the chord changes and there we get what we call mas acote(ph), which is the synchronization of the rhythm section and the piano and bass so that we're featuring that soloist that is showcasing himself, or that I'm showcasing on the record or in live presentations to the public.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing in Spanish)

GROSS: I want to play something from your new album, "Palmist" and you have a piece on here called "Bolero Dos."

PALMIERI: Right.

GROSS: And it opens with an extended piano solo and, I mean, there's no rhythm behind you...

PALMIERI: Right.

GROSS: ...in this piano solo, which is very unusual in Latin music. I mean, the rhythm never stops in Latin music.

PALMIERI: Well, I've always done that since the start of Latin music that won the first Grammy. Just piano alone.

GROSS: Now, why do you go for that?

PALMIERI: Oh, I mentioned that before, is that I love variations of a theme and I know exactly what's going to come behind me, but it's such a beautiful melody that why not play with the, you know, piano first. And there's never been a piano opening or intro that has annoyed or not brought in an audience.

So when you're in an audience that your rhythm can be, not annoying but complicated, it's wonderful to hear a piano first. And we just, you know, like, I'll just slip it in, you know, like, by playing piano and then all of a sudden, then I'll go into my orchestra. And it's been very, very well accepted and I love to do it and it's pianistic. So it helps me in my direction of getting to know my instrument better and better.

GROSS: Well, let's hear the beginning of "Bolero Dos." This is Eddie Palmieri on piano.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BOLERO DOS")

GROSS: Well, we could hear you growl on that song.

PALMIERI: I told you. I warned you.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: How did you start growling like that?

PALMIERI: Well, let me tell you what happened. My first recording, you know, we started to record years ago. First recorded allegre and all of a sudden I see the owner walk in with the engineer and he walks in and I say what's the matter? He goes what is that? You know, and we were, what is what? You know, and we start looking for something that nobody can, you know, what is what?

You know, we start looking. And sure enough, we go back to recording. He comes back and what is that? You know, and finally we found out it was me. So then they didn't know what to do with me, either gag me or put some kind of a - yeah, they wanted to gag me. Either that or, you know, like, cover the piano.

And they did everything with the piano until later on in the other recordings, you know, I said let it be. That's the way he sounds and that's him. Let it go. Let it go. What are you going to do? You know, don't gag him. You'd probably choke him.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Were you aware of the fact that you growled before the end of (unintelligible)?

PALMIERI: Not like that. You know, really your proof is when you hear it back. You say what is that? But it's just, you know, it's that inner, you know, spirit inside and it gives me, like, some kind of ambience for myself when I play and it humps. And I just can't help it. It's just me.

GROSS: Eddie Palmieri, a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much.

PALMIERI: Thank you, my dear Terry, and I want to wish you the best in the city of Brotherly Love. And now after talking to you it's Sisterly Love.

DAVIES: Pianist and Latin band leader Eddie Palmieri speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 1994. Palmieri has been selected for a Jazz Master's Award by the National Endowment for the Arts. The other 2012 NEA jazz masters are pianist and singer Mose Allison, saxophonist Lou Donaldson, and Lorraine Gordon who runs the Village Vanguard night club in Manhattan. They'll be honored in a ceremony in concert at the Lincoln Center in January. Coming up, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews a new live recording from the Jesse Davis quintet. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVE DAVIES, HOST: Alto saxophonist Jesse Davis came out of New Orleans and began recording under his own name in the 1990s. He also made a few albums with trumpeter Nicholas Payton and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and he appeared in Robert Altman's film "Kansas City." In the last few years, our jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says, Jesse Davis has attracted less attention than he might because he's been living in Verona, Italy.

But he did make a live album in New York last winter. Here's Kevin's review.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KEVIN WHITEHEAD: Many jazz musicians, the kind who wear jackets and ties on stage, are often carelessly referred to as playing bebop. In reality most of them are post-boppers, who build on that dynamic style that burst forth after World War II, without bringing it back in pure form. It's the rare modernist who gets an authentic bebop sound on alto saxophone, who catches some of the raw explosiveness and rapid-fire grace of jazz god Charlie Parker. And then there's Jesse Davis.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'LL CLOSE MY EYES")

WHITEHEAD: Jesse Davis on 1945 ballad "I'll Close My Eyes." Charlie Parker never recorded it, but Davis' version made me check. His bluesy rasp is straight out of Parker's playbook, ditto the way he strings unlikely notes into a pretty melody, his double-time precision, and left-field quotations from other tunes. But Davis speaks that style like a native language; he makes it his own.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'LL CLOSE MY EYES")

WHITEHEAD: This music's from the Jesse Davis Quintet's album "Live at Smalls", New York's other basement jazz club on Seventh Avenue South, two minutes from the Village Vanguard. Davis' music is very New York, even if he came out of New Orleans, a city with its own bebop tradition, personified by Davis' teacher, Ellis Marsalis.

But there are also traces of earlier jazz in Davis' approach. There's a bit of swing altoist Benny Carter in the way he caresses a ballad, and Davis' tune, "Piece of the Apple," is a revamped "Sweet Georgia Brown." On trumpet is his old colleague from the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, Ryan Kisor.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PIECE OF THE APPLE")

WHITEHEAD: Giving venerable tunes a facelift is part of what jazz is about - it's an ongoing mix of old and new ingredients. Jesse Davis is no antiquarian; he brought a couple more contemporary-sounding tunes, including "Journey from the Lighthouse." His bassist and drummer are two esteemed modernists who've been meeting in studios and on bandstands for over 20 years, Peter Washington and Billy Drummond.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PIECE OF THE APPLE")

WHITEHEAD: Jesse Davis quoting there from "I'm A Fool to Want You." The least known player in his quintet is pianist Spike Wilner, who runs the club where the music was recorded, and the label, Smalls Live, that put it out.

I get skeptical when the guy who signs the checks joins the band, but Wilner and Davis go way back, and the pianist acquits himself well, joining in the quotation games. Jesse Davis' "Live at Smalls" features unedited tunes running ten or 20 minutes, with applause and introductions left in - verité touches that don't wear so well on repeated listening. But the album is a good portrait of high-level nightclub jazz in our time.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead is a jazz columnist for emusic.com and the author of "Why Jazz." He reviewed "Live At Smalls," the new album by the Jesse Davis quintet on the Smalls Live label.

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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