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Paul Farmer Examines Haiti 'After The Earthquake'
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, filling in for Terry Gross, who has the
A year and a half after the earthquake in Haiti, there was still widespread
suffering in the country despite an enormous outpouring of sympathy and pledges
of aid. Today we'll get a look at the challenges of rebuilding Haiti from Paul
Farmer, who's known internationally for his efforts to bring medical care to
some of the most impoverished areas of the world.
He's a founding director of Partners in Health, which has worked to improve
health services in a dozen countries, including Rwanda, Lesotho, Peru,
Kazakhstan and Haiti, where Farmer has longstanding personal ties.
After hurricanes and tropical storms hit Haiti hard in 2008, Farmer was named a
U.N. special deputy envoy to Haiti, working under former President Bill
Clinton, which meant that when the earthquake struck in January of last year,
Farmer found himself at the center of international relief and reconstruction
In his new book, Farmer writes about his own experiences and the frustrations
of trying to rebuild the country. Besides his work for the U.N. and Partners in
Health, Farmer is chair of the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine
at Harvard Medical School and chief of the Division of Global Health Equity at
Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. His book is called "Haiti After the
Paul Farmer, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Let's look at Haiti now, a year and a
half later, and I want to talk just a little bit about the condition of the
country, and then we'll talk about why things have unfolded as they have.
First of all, one simple question. There were as many as 200,000 deaths, I
believe. What became of all the bodies?
Dr. PAUL FARMER (Author, "Haiti After the Earthquake"): Well, the question of
what to do about the bodies really was - arose on the night of the quake, just
because there were so many people in the streets of the city and under the
rubble. And you were reminded every day after the quake, starting the second
day, by the smell, really, that the city was full of people - remains.
And so there were some discussions in Haiti and outside of Haiti in the first
48 hours about, like, would there be some way to preserve the bodies, to bring
cooled trailers, et cetera. There was quite a bit of discussion. But I can tell
you, from the general hospital one of the biggest problems was that the main
morgue in the city was - the power was out.
The power, as you know, was out all over the city. In fact, flying into Haiti
after the quake at night, all you could see down below was really small fires
and occasional lights coming from small generators. And when you got out of the
plane, you realized immediately that body disposal was going to be a major
And so in the end, a lot of people who lost their lives initially, who could be
moved, ended up in mass graves. And then after - even to this day, of course,
as rubble is cleared, remains are found, and obviously it's a little bit easier
to dispose of the remains with more respect for religious services, et cetera
now. But in those first few days, it was - you know, it was moving people by
truck into mass graves, very, very unfortunate.
Difficult to know how one might have done it differently, but it was indeed
very tragic for those who lost their family members and would never be able to
bury them properly.
DAVIES: A year and a half later, how much of the rubble has been cleared?
Dr. FARMER: Some estimates are that about maybe 25 percent have been - has been
cleared, which doesn't sound like much, and it doesn't feel like much, but -
and so if you go to Port-au-Prince right now, you'd probably think they just
had an earthquake. But if you had been there right after the earthquake, you
know, 16, 17 months ago, you can see the improvement.
I'd just give an example of - the main building that I used to visit in Port-
au-Prince is the Ministry of Health. There were probably about 29 such federal
buildings in Port-au-Prince, and 28 of them were damaged or destroyed. So
basically the entire federal infrastructure was damaged or destroyed.
And so going to the general hospital from the airport, you know, we would drive
right by what was the Ministry of Health. And you know, it had collapsed, and
you would see papers and records and office furniture spilling out into the
And then a year later, when I went back there, there wasn't a single stone
left. So that rubble has been completely cleared, and that has been the case
for a number of buildings that were wholly demolished during the quake, and
again, a lot of the federal infrastructure, the big buildings, were among
those. And then a lot of them have been cleared.
A bigger problem has been clearing damaged or destroyed housing and commercial
buildings, in part because very often they are abutting buildings that are not
destroyed and sometimes not even badly damaged. So this strange, you know,
fecklessness of, you know, you'll have one building that's intact surrounded by
several that are down, this makes clearance very difficult.
DAVIES: How many people are still without permanent homes?
Dr. FARMER: The estimates right now are that there was a peak at one point
three million in the summer and fall after the quake, that as many as 800,000
are still without shelter all these many months later. And of course this is a
reflection not only of the destruction of the housing stock, some estimates
have 225,000 homes destroyed, but this huge number is not simply a reflection
of what got destroyed in the quake.
It's also a reflection of very poor access to housing for poor people in the
urban areas of Haiti that has been a longstanding problem and as I mentioned in
the book that you were good enough to read.
DAVIES: Right, and we should mention, that 800,000 is out of a country of,
what, nine million, right?
Dr. FARMER: Right.
DAVIES: Right. Now, a cholera epidemic erupted in Haiti last year. First of
all, just explain the illness for us.
Dr. FARMER: Cholera is a waterborne bacterial disease that causes very
distinctive, explosive watery diarrhea, and it can shrivel a very healthy
person, kill them in a matter of hours. It's really one of the few infectious
disease emergencies that we see. It's also, of course, a public health
emergency because it's spread through poor sanitation.
And everywhere it's been the companion of disruption and natural disaster and
war, and for a long time, but in places with really good basic - what's called
in the jargon water security, you really don't see explosive epidemics of
DAVIES: Well, let's talk about them, the state of health conditions and
particularly the cholera epidemic. Is that under control?
Dr. FARMER: No, no, the cholera epidemic is not under control. It is - just a
little bit of background, it's the first big recrudescence of cholera in the
Americas since the end of the - an epidemic that really swept through Peru and
ended in 1993, perhaps. I think that was - the last cases were around then,
But since then, there have not been major outbreaks of cholera, and - but
again, if any country was a mineshaft canary for the reintroduction of cholera,
it was Haiti, and we knew it.
So I would say that the epidemic is not only not under control, but it - you
know, it sort of exploded on the scene like a bomb, causing some hundreds of
thousands of cases. Again, there's poor reporting capacity in Haiti, so we're
not sure how many, and you know, upwards of 6,000 deaths. Again, that's
probably an underestimate on both scores: the number of cases and the number of
deaths. It's a big rebuke to public health and to all of us working in health
care in Haiti.
DAVIES: I know there's a lot of unemployment in these encampments and in the
country generally. What about kids? Are they in school?
Dr. FARMER: Kids are not in school, but again, if you go back to the month
before the quake, December of 2009, I was in a meeting with people working in
education in Haiti, primary education, including the leaders from the ministry
and a number of NGOs working on education, and it was estimated then that half
of all school-aged children in Haiti were not in school.
And it may be that there are as many kids in school now, or will be in the
fall, as there were before the quake. There's a lot of catch-up to do. And
there are many barriers to having children in school, even in the public
system, which is very weak in Haiti and usually related to some kind of fee or
a uniform or the need for books and shoes.
There are a lot of structural barriers in the way of children going to school.
They're not really cultural barriers because Haitians value education very
highly, and that is true of people living in poverty in the rural areas and
people living in poverty in the urban areas.
And in the camps and everywhere I've ever been in Haiti over the last 28 years,
education is highly valued. So the strategy has to be how to remove those
barriers and also how to improve the quality of pedagogy and the number of safe
schools that we have.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Paul Farmer; he's the founding director of Partners
in Health. He's also a United Nations deputy special envoy to Haiti. He's
written a new book called "Haiti After the Earthquake." We'll talk more after a
short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
Dr. FARMER: If you're just joining us, our guest is Dr. Paul Farmer. He teaches
at the Harvard Medical School. He's also the founding director of Partners in
Health, which provides medical services to the poor in many countries,
including Haiti, where he is a United Nations deputy special envoy. He's
written a new book about the country called "Haiti After the Earthquake."
DAVIES: Well, I want to talk about why things haven't gotten better in Haiti or
at least haven't progressed as they should. And this is something that you deal
with a lot in the book. And one of the things that I had forgotten was that
even before this earthquake in January of 2010, things - Haiti had suffered a
couple of other natural disasters in 2008. Remind us of those.
Dr. FARMER: In 2008, Haiti was hit by four hurricanes or tropical storms in the
space of as many weeks. And it wasn't the first time that that had happened, of
course, but it was, you know, a pretty stunning set of blows. In one place, the
third-largest city in Haiti, called Gonaives, the city was virtually underwater
for weeks, and downtown, it was hip-high in the streets. And so Haiti was
really recovering from those natural disasters when the quake happened.
DAVIES: Now, of course one of the things that you note in the book is that
improving health conditions in an impoverished place like Haiti is not just a
matter of will and medical effort, it's a matter of dealing with, you know, the
surrounding poverty and underdevelopment of the economy.
And you write that the government of Haiti was often ignored by international
relief agencies and nongovernmental organizations, and you say that it was
known as the Republic of NGOs, meaning there were all of these aid
organizations, all of them working around and ignoring the Haitian government
itself, and that over time that undermined everyone's efforts. Give us an
example of this and why it is harmful.
Dr. FARMER: Well, let me give an example that's self-critique, because this is
another thing I've learned in trying to write critically about NGOs, is that
umbrage will be taken, and even the most constructive critique is difficult to
get out there in part because a lot of NGOs are defensive in posture.
And I think you could do an analysis regarding why this would be so. They're
struggling for what they regard as scarce resources. I understand all that. So
to use our own example, Partners in Health has been working in Haiti for 25
In the first 10 or 15 years, I would say that we've got a lot of good work done
with our Haitian colleagues. Again, this is all Haitian-led, built up an
organization with the Haitian leadership. All the employees were Haitian,
providing good medical services or at least decent ones, but to a fairly
And we saw that as our medical efforts grew, at the same time a lot of the
public-sector medical programs were failing in the same area. And so about 10
years ago we said, well, what if we end up being guilty of what we're
criticizing - that is, allowing the public health sector to collapse even as we
grow? What if we're also guilty of that, and how could we make plans, plan
better so that we end up reinforcing public health and also public education?
In Haiti, what had happened was the public sector was weak and underfunded, and
people talked a lot about corruption and inability to get things done, and so
they'd build these parallel systems, the NGOs, hence the Republic of NGOs.
So what we did 10 years ago was to decide that all of our expansion would only
occur in the public sector. So what that meant would be we wouldn't build our
own hospitals or clinics but rather rebuild or build public-sector clinics and
move our staff into those clinics and facilities and try to beef up the public
sector that way.
So this is not the only way to strengthen public health and public education in
Haiti. It's just one way. And we've encouraged others to join us in this and
make it less of a cosmetic effort.
Now, after the earthquake, ironically, that argument got harder to make because
the public sector was precisely the group most affected by the earthquake in
terms of personnel, numbers of lives lost, but also infrastructure. So now it's
even a greater challenge to work effectively with the government, and yet it's
even more important to do so.
DAVIES: Help us understand why it doesn't work for private aid agencies, NGOs,
to come in and build their own network. I mean, if you go into central Haiti
and build your own clinic, you hire Haitians, you treat Haitians, you do good
things, why isn't that just as good as the government doing it?
Dr. FARMER: Well, you know, it can be just as good, but take the example of
cholera. Again, cholera exploded, as I said, like a bomb. It also exploded in
some of the very areas where we were working hardest and longest, and that is
not because we weren't aware of the importance of clean water, it's that the
NGO sector can't replace public works and not in, you know, Philadelphia or
Boston and not in Rwanda or Haiti either.
So for some services you can have service providers that are not public. I
mean, the Harvard teaching hospitals where I work are private not-for-profit
hospitals. So I'm not making some ideologically driven critique of private-
sector engagement. It's just to say there needs to be some public safety net.
And I think that's especially true for the poorest, because after all, an NGO
doesn't have a mandate, a legal mandate, to provide basic access to health and
education and clean water for the citizenry of Haiti or the citizenry of
Honduras or the United States. Really, that's a public-sector pact, to provide
The majority of education in Haiti, probably 85 percent of primary and
secondary education in Haiti, is private, and I think it's not an accident that
that system is so privatized, and Haiti is also the country with the highest
rates of illiteracy in the hemisphere.
So there is this connection, I think, and I do believe that Rwanda has again
provided an example of how this can work better.
DAVIES: So you can provide services, you can build capacity, but as private
organizations, you're not going to be able to provide clean drinking water,
probably, for everybody, and you need to - you want an enduring commitment from
public-sector forces so that these things remain.
You know, a lot of NGOs are reluctant to work with government organizations,
particularly in places like Haiti, because they say, you know, they're weak,
they're ineffective, they're corrupt. These organizations have to justify to
private donors how their money is spent. And so one can understand their
reluctance. And Haiti seems particularly bedeviled by a weakness in the public
sector. Why is the government of Haiti and its institutions, why have they been
so chronically weak over the years?
Dr. FARMER: One of the reasons, of course, is too little investment, and I mean
money, I mean money going into the public sector, into the health and education
and into public works, roads, et cetera. Amy Wilentz wrote a book some years
ago called "The Rainy Season," in which she described how the well-to-do in
Haiti, instead of, you know, paying taxes for improving roads, just bought
bigger and better Land Rovers.
That kind of mentality of we're not going to be investing in the public good,
in the commonwealth, is - it does, as you said, bedevils Haiti. And I will go
back to the chronic explanation, but I would like to just give an example to
some numbers, again post-quake, about how extreme this is.
And if - it's hard to know how much reconstruction aid has been really pledged
to Haiti or delivered. We can know how much is pledged, but it's hard to know
how much has been delivered. But on the acute relief after the quake, we tried
to look at some figures, and again this was my colleagues at the Office of the
We tried to look at numbers and came up with a figure of $1.7 billion that went
into direct humanitarian relief after the quake. And Secretary Clinton told me
that more than half of all American households donated to earthquake relief,
which is a pretty stunning and generous figure.
And trying to parse what happened to that massive contribution, about 34
percent of it went to civil and military projects. So for example, we had - and
I describe this in the book, the U.S. naval ship the Comfort was certainly
deserving of its name after it arrived in Haiti on day eight after the quake,
bringing into play about a dozen more operating rooms and a great number of
surgical specialists who saved many lives.
It's expensive work, but I doubt that anyone thought that that was money
wasted. So that's 34 or so percent. Thirty percent - I gave the Comfort as an
example, of course, just one of many efforts like that.
Thirty percent went to United Nations or international NGOs, 29 percent to
other NGOs and private contractors. About six percent were in-kind donations,
and less than one percent went to the Haitian government. So if you feel that
the Haitian government, including the public health sector and the education
sector, are important players in relief, then that number is way too small.
DAVIES: Paul Farmer's book is called "Haiti After the Earthquake." He'll be
back in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross.
We're talking about efforts to rebuild Haiti, where there's still widespread
suffering a year and a half after the earthquake that struck near Port-au-
Prince. Our guest is Paul Farmer. He's a founding director of Partners in
Health, which helps to improve health services in impoverished areas of the
world. And he's a U.N. deputy special envoy to Haiti. His new book about
reconstruction efforts in the country is called "Haiti After The Earthquake."
You have, and your organization Partners in Health, has worked for many years
in Rwanda. Your family now lives there. It's hard to think of a more
destructive experience for any society than the genocidal violence there in the
early '90s. But things have changed. Give us a picture of Rwanda today.
Dr. FARMER: Well, I just returned from Rwanda last night and after the
genocide, say 1994, '95, Rwanda was probably the poorest country on the face of
the Earth and some development experts were all too ready to write it off as a
lost cause. And now it has a rapidly growing economy. It has a great deal of
There's been very significant investments in my areas of interests, which are
health care and education. There's decent infrastructure and it's an
environment where corruption is being tackled as a real priority. And, you
know, you see it - in my line of work, you see just dramatic reductions over
the last several years in infant mortality, juvenile mortality, maternal
mortality, access to primary and secondary education. Plus there is just a, if
I can, an ethos there, a can-do spirit that you can that is really quite
palpable. Even in the rural reaches where we've done most of our work Rwanda is
still a well-kept secret and should be a beacon for recovery for Haiti and for
DAVIES: One of the things you write is that a lot of - that some private aid
organizations didn't like the way the Rwandan government dealt with them,
because the Rwandan government wanted I guess to run things and some NGOs
simply left. Is this a key? Have they learned how to deal with private aid
organizations in a way that Haiti hasn't?
Dr. FARMER: Rwanda has indeed learned how to deal with private aid
organizations in a way that Haiti hasn't. Yes. You said it beautifully. They
are heavy-handed. The Rwandans are heavy-handed. But it's their country and
they're saying look, here is our development plan and you need to get on board
this shared vision or, you know, the airport's over there.
And that happened after the genocide during a very difficult time for the
Rwandan government. All attention was focused on the Rwandans, you know, in the
refugee camps on the, what was then, Zaire. And there's a great struggle inside
Rwanda just to recover and rebuild, and this friction with the NGOs, which was
quite principled from what I can tell, meaning that the Rwandans had a very
good point. We need to coordinate your efforts and it's not optional. That
friction was difficult for them I'm quite sure because they did not have a lot
of allies at the time.
And some of the NGOs that were really asked to leave, they didn't just pack up,
and they were asked to leave, describe their unceremonious departure as a
violation of their rights. And the Rwandans and the government said well, we're
not here to protect your rights. We're here to rebuild our society and we want
partners who are going to play along with us. Now this is really focused at the
The small missionary groups, the....
DAVIES: Can you think of an illustration of this? I mean what would they fight
Dr. FARMER: For example housing policy, resettlement of refugees, how are
people going to live after the genocide? Were there going to be - there were,
after 1996, there were over a million refugees to repatriate. Where were they
going to live? There were contested claims on every bit of property, every
house. That's one example. Another is if there was massive participation in
some groups in the violence, which there was, how would you fight impunity? Are
you going to put, you know, a quarter of a million people in jail? And if so,
how are you going to feed them?
These are all examples of the arenas where everything that the government
proposed was really hotly contested by major NGOs and sometimes there was a lot
of, you know, out of all this heat there was illumination too. There was also
friction that was very difficult. And they stuck with their strategy and
formalized this over the last decade as a development plan they called Vision
2020, where do we want to get by the year 2020?
And as I say in the book, you know, it's not as if they just divorced the NGOs
because that's a long time to draw out a divorce all the way to 2020. They're
looking for the right partners.
DAVIES: We should also note that, you know, the government of Rwanda has been
accused of committing atrocities in Congo. I mean a lot of the, you know, the
Hutus who fled after the government, after the Tutsi government took power,
fled to Congo and there were military operations there. But one of the things
that I wonder is that is the big difference between Rwanda and Haiti affective
political leadership? I mean, Haiti has been paralyzed it seems for so long by
factional strife and ineffective leaders. And the Kagami regime in Rwanda, is
it simply a matter of better political leadership?
Dr. FARMER: Well, if you were to make a list of the top five differences maybe
that would be at the top. But there's still a lot to be done.
I have worked a lot as a physician in prisons in Rwanda and Russia, somewhat in
Haiti. And one of the things that impressed me in the Rwanda prisons was that
first of all the conditions were very poor. But what did impress me was that
there was an orderly way of having - clearing out the prisons through a process
that the Rwanda is called kachacha which is, you know, really their attempt to
have truth and reconciliation efforts on a community level, so very impressed
by it. And Haiti has a very much smaller prison population. But the majority of
people in those prisons have never had any kind of due process. When I say the
majority, over 90 percent.
And I was happy to learn that Rwanda sent four prison experts, one of whom I
know quite well, to Haiti to help with the, again, how can you better improve
the function of the prisons. And that could be - I don't know as much about
that as I do healthcare, but I can tell you that the way that the way the
Ministry of Health in Rwanda is run makes very effective use of a large number
of partners, NGO partners and also pushes forward this strategy that is really
aimed at a similar standard of care in all of the districts in Rwanda. We need
that in Haiti as well. I think there's a lot that could be learned at many
DAVIES: You know, as I hear you talk about this, I mean, I hear you trying to
remain upbeat and give credit to those of goodwill who are trying to help and
be optimistic about the future. But I have to say that as I read the book it
was pretty dispiriting. And the picture I got was one of more bureaucratic
governmental dysfunction than anything and it was hard to feel optimistic that
Haiti will be rebuilt better. Am I misreading this?
Dr. FARMER: No, I'm afraid you're not. I mean, I - for those of us who consider
it a great privilege to work with Haitians, I think, you know, it is a
dispiriting moment. You know, it is not going to be an easy road to hoe and
hey, there's a lot of fair-weather friends. Haiti has a lot of fair-weather
friends, you know, who've already in and out and have left Haiti. And again,
there's still these huge problems of housing, infrastructure, rubble clearance,
basic provision of services, like healthcare and education. So, you know, we
could use more help but it's got to be coordinated and it's got to be, got to
create jobs for Haitians.
That's one of the things that I think should have been easier to do to create
hundreds of thousands of jobs, decent jobs, and that hasn't happened yet. There
have been some tens of thousands of jobs created but not hundreds of thousands
and that's a shame.
DAVIES: It also strikes me that you're somebody who's been really effective at
building effective, you know, medical treatment facilities in a lot of places.
And in this role as a U.N. special deputy envoy, you're having to tackle the
bigger broader stuff, economic development issues, I mean how you govern a
country. You going to stay with that or do you want to get back to something
that's more in your field?
Dr. FARMER: I would very much like to get back to direct delivery of medical
care and really to focus on rebuilding in the healthcare sector and also in
training physicians and nurses. I am full of respect for people who try to take
on these big development questions inside government and outside. And, but the
satisfactions that one gets in direct service are quite gratifying emotionally
And so I think for me and, you know, making sure that there's enough of my time
spent on teaching and delivering care, is really going to keep me in this for
the long run. And I think most of my coworkers, including my Haitian coworkers
feel the same way - that sometimes when the big picture is just overwhelming or
daunting or discouraging there's always the possibility of the little picture,
that is responding to a problem. I mean it's not like cholera is a little
problem. Cholera is a huge problem. But it is within our reach, I think, to
improve the quality of services offered to people with cholera and the quality
of preventive services in a region. And so I want to try and do both those
things and many of my coworkers are doing that as well.
I have now been working with some of my Haitian coworkers for over a quarter of
a century. And many of our American and other partners have been at this for a
long time. There are real insights that these implementers have that should be
shared in policy circles.
So I think it's unacceptable to say well, we just love taking care of patients
and working on specific areas and so we can't be bothered to think about
policy. Because if we do that the policy won't be informed by the insights that
one gets from implementation. So we're not going to stop doing the policy work
or trying to be a voice in policy work, and it's just - it is very draining
sometimes and the rewards are very different from what we do get in direct
DAVIES: Well, Paul Farmer, thanks so much for speaking with us.
Dr. FARMER: My pleasure. Good to be back.
DAVIES: Paul Farmer teaches at Harvard Medical School and is founding director
of Partners in Health, and a U.N. deputy special envoy to Haiti. His new book
is called "Haiti After the Earthquake." You can read an excerpt on our website,
Coming up, Kevin Whitehead reviews and new box set of music by The Modern Jazz
This is FRESH AIR.
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
From Bop To Baroque: The Modern Jazz Quartet
(Soundbite of music)
DAVE DAVIES, host:
From the 1950s to the mid-'70s and on and off after that, The Modern Jazz
Quartet were the height of jazz sophistication. From their tuxedos to their
jazz arrangements of Bach, and original pieces that combine the language of
baroque music with swinging rhythm.
Some folks heard it as a gimmick. But jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says their
classical sound is ageless.
KEVIN WHITEHEAD: "The Golden Striker" by The Modern Jazz Quartet from the 1957
film soundtrack "No Sun In Venice." A lot of jazz people love The MJQ, but
maybe not all the time. Some of them just wait for the parts when vibraphonist
Milt Jackson starts swinging - that was also Jackson's favorite part.
(Soundbite of song, "The Golden Striker")
WHITEHEAD: Milt Jackson riding the irresistible pulse and beautiful blend of
bassist Percy Heath, often used as a third melodic voice, and drummer Connie
Kay, who had his own bright colors that didn't clash with vibes.
I've been listening to The Modern Jazz Quartet a lot lately - even more with
the arrival of Mosaic's seven-CD box set of 13 and a half albums that they made
for Atlantic between 1956 and '64. As good as the swinging numbers are, I'm
more drawn to what some call the band's pretentious side.
Besides a whole lot of blues, John Lewis wrote the baroque-style canons and
fugues, where one imitative line shadows another. These Euro-Renaissance
practices were alien to most jazz musicians, but had been developed way back
when as guidelines for improvising. And three staggered lines made for a clear
ensemble texture. The music had plenty of light.
(Soundbite of music)
WHITEHEAD: John Lewis's music for The MJQ often had that kind of stately grace.
But once the other players got used to his baroque methods, and playing in
scripted or spontaneous counterpoint, they could really fly on the material.
Here Lewis's piano and Milt Jackson's vibes intertwine on "Versailles."
(Soundbite of song, "Versailles")
WHITEHEAD: The Modern Jazz Quartet had an original concept, exploiting two
musical traditions in a very specific way. They may be the best exemplars of
so-called third-stream music jointly inspired by jazz and classical. The MJQ's
interplay was mostly impeccable, and for variety they worked with guests
including soft clarinetist Jimmy Giuffre, loud saxophonist Sonny Rollins,
guitarist Laurindo Almeida and the Beaux Arts string quartet.
(Soundbite of music)
WHITEHEAD: Milt Jackson was never crazy about The Modern Jazz Quartet's high-
art material or John Lewis playing counterpoint behind his solos; he'd have
been happy just to play the blues, which he did extremely well. But the vibes,
with its doorbell chiming, could be hard to get down and dirty on, and
Jackson's gloriously round tone could make a slow blues sound whistle clean.
This is "Pyramid."
(Soundbite of song, "Pyramid")
WHITEHEAD: Not everything The Modern Jazz Quartet recorded between 1956 and '64
is gold; there are a few limp ballads and bossa novas, a couple of meet-ups
with orchestra where the quartet's tighter than the symphony, and times when
Lewis's composer's piano is a little stiff.
MJQ devotees will want Mosaic's seven-CD box partly for Doug Ramsey's detailed
booklet essay; where some annotators barely roll out of bed, he did his
research and interviewed participants and witnesses like a real reporter. But
most of the albums included are already out, and curious listeners might better
start with "No Sun in Venice" or "Pyramid" or "Fontessa," at least until they
get the bug for more.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead is a jazz columnist for eMusic.com. His new book is
"Why Jazz?: A Concise Guide." He reviewed the "Atlantic Recordings of the
Modern Jazz Quartet 1956-1964" on Mosaic.
Coming up, David Bianculli says we're in for some great television this week.
This is FRESH AIR.
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
Heads Up, TV Fans: Great Shows Start This Week
(Soundbite of music)
DAVE DAVIES, host:
After a few quiet months, summertime TV has gotten busy again. HBO's already
started with new episodes of "True Blood," and this past weekend presented the
season premiere of "Curb Your Enthusiasm." But there's a lot more on the
immediate horizon, so much that our TV critic David Bianculli says this may be
the biggest single week ever for fresh quality television.
DAVID BIANCULLI: I know it's hot, and it's summer - but for me, it's been like
Christmas. I've been opening up delivery envelopes filled with preview DVDs of
returning TV series, and it's been one gift after another. I've seen and
enjoyed them all - and now, starting this week, you can, too.
It's a ridiculously rich feast of terrific television shows - but not on
broadcast TV. On the broadcast networks, the only example of intelligent,
involving TV right now is NBC's "Friday Night Lights," which presents its
fabulous finale on Friday. But that same finale was shown months ago on
satellite TV, and has been available for a while as a DVD boxed set, so it's
not exactly new - just prominently recycled. For the record, though, let me
praise "Friday Night Lights" one last time. What a brilliantly acted,
wonderfully understated show.
The other great shows appearing this week are on cable and, like "Friday Night
Lights," are likely to earn a spot on my end-of-year Top 10 list.
On Wednesday, FX begins the final season of "Rescue Me," Denis Leary's drama
about New York firefighters. It's timed to wrap up just before the 10th
anniversary of 9/11 - and it begins with as much audacity and unpredictability
Also on Wednesday, DirecTV - the same satellite service that sneak-previewed
"Friday Night Lights" - becomes the only network, not just the first, to show a
new season of "Damages." That's the drama starring Glenn Close as a ferocious
And on Sunday, AMC presents the fourth-season premiere of "Breaking Bad,"
starring Bryan Cranston as a high school chemistry professor turned meth
manufacturer. With the same network's "Mad Men" not delivering any new shows
until 2012, "Breaking Bad" pretty much holds undisputed title rights as the
best TV show of the year, period.
I've seen three new episodes of "Breaking Bad," two of "Damages" and nine of
"Rescue Me," and they've all been fantastic. "Rescue Me" features supporting
work by Callie Thorne that is so amazing - she displays a lot more talent and
range in her few scenes here than she does as the star of her own cable drama,
the recently launched "Necessary Roughness."
"Damages" features a steal-the-screen recurring role, too - with John Goodman
playing the head of a Blackwater-type military operation. It's a very different
kind of role than he played as a professor in the first season of "Treme" - but
it's another vital, vibrant contribution to another outstanding TV drama.
And what can I say about "Breaking Bad" without giving away key plot points,
almost nothing. But this show simply has to be seen. From the start, it's been
charting the trajectory of Walter White, played by Bryan Cranston, from
desperate antihero to defiant villain. He got into the meth business only after
getting a diagnosis of terminal cancer, and wanting to leave a nest egg for his
family. But even after his cancer went into remission, Walter kept cooking.
At the end of last season, Walter was held captive in his own meth lab, about
to be killed on orders from his equally mild-mannered drug lord, Gus. Walter
countered with the only move he had: dispatching his partner and former student
Jesse, brilliantly played by Aaron Paul, to murder the chemist designated as
That's how last season ended. I won't reveal what happens. But I will say that
Gus, played by Giancarlo Esposito, eventually visits the underground meth lab
to confront Walter who's still held captive. As Walter pleads his case
explaining why he shouldn't be replaced by one of Gus's flunkies, Gus doesn't
say a word. Instead, in a scene that's increasingly intense, he changes slowly
and silently into plastic coveralls while reaching for and unleashing the blade
of a box cutter.
(Soundbite of TV show, "Breaking Bad")
Mr. BRYAN CRANSTON (Actor): (as Walter White) Is that, is that what you want?
This, this short order cook, you're not flipping hamburgers here, pal. What
happens when you get a bad barrel of pre-carcin? How would you even know it?
And what happens in the summer when the humidity rises and your profit goes
(unintelligible)? How would you guard against that, huh?
Gus, you do this, all you'll have left is an $8 million hole in the ground.
This lab, this equipment, it's useless without us - without Jesse and myself.
You have no new product. You have no income. Your people out there will not be
paid, your distribution chain collapses. Without us you have nothing. You kill
me, you have nothing. You kill Jesse, you don't have me.
BIANCULLI: There's so much to love about "Breaking Bad." It's got a pace unlike
any other show on television, and a visual sensibility rivaled only by "Mad
Men." And with a great cast headed by Cranston and Paul, it boasts one of TV's
strongest acting companies.
By the way, this bounty of summer riches, like a sudden display of fresh fruit
at the farmers market, is even more plentiful. I haven't even mentioned TNT's
"The Closer," the Kyra Sedgwick series that launches its final season this
week. Or the Syfy Network's very amiable, fairly clever roster of new and
returning Monday shows. All of these summer series, including "True Blood" and
"Curb Your Enthusiasm," are better than most of the new fall shows the
broadcast networks are about to offer, so enjoy them while you can. The harvest
DAVIES: David Bianculli is founder and editor of TVWorthWatching.com and
teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey.
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.