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Brian Carpenter: Eclectic Jazz, Rooted In Americana.

Singer-songwriter Brian Carpenter has cited places like Coney Island and the Florida Panhandle as inspiration for his work. On his latest album, Hothouse Stomp, Carpenter musically travels back to the jazz scene in 1920s Harlem and Chicago.

17:59

Other segments from the episode on April 7, 2011

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 7, 2011: Interview with Ellen Prager; Interview with Brian Carpenter.

Transcript

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Under The Sea, Sex Is Slimy Business

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

If humans were mating the way that some sea creatures do, it would be
considered mighty kinky. My guest, Ellen Prager, says she didn't realize the
extent of the strange sex going on in the oceans until she started researching
her new book. It's called "Sex, Drugs, and Sea Slime: The Oceans' Oddest
Creatures and Why They Matter."

And as we'll hear, the odd creatures she writes about, creatures most of us
never heard of, are beneficial to humans in ways most of us don't realize.
Prager has spent short intervals living underwater. She's the former chief
scientist at the world's only undersea research station, Aquarius Reef Base, in
the Florida Keys.

Dr. Ellen Prager, welcome to FRESH AIR. The title of your book is "Sex, Drugs,
and Sea Slime." Sex, okay. I figured, you know, all species have to reproduce.
Drugs, we're getting some drugs now from ocean creatures. Sea slime. Why did
you want to...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Why did you want to emphasize sea slime?

Dr. ELLEN PRAGER (Author): Well, the truth is, the original title for this book
was something like "Weird and Wild Under the Sea and Why These Creatures
Matter." But as I started doing my research, I discovered some themes that were
quite intriguing, not just there's reproduction going on in the ocean, but
there's a lot of strange sex strategies going on in the ocean.

And as you mentioned, not only are we searching for new drugs through marine
organisms, but also there's a huge number and diverse kinds of animals that are
being used as models in biomedical research. And the other thing is, I could
not believe, even though I knew a lot, how many organisms are either made up of
slime or use slime. And so it was kind of startling.

GROSS: Let's take an example of the hagfish, a lovely name.

Dr. PRAGER: Oh, fantastic.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Describe the hagfish and how it uses slime.

Dr. PRAGER: Well, the hagfish, when it's threatened or in danger or gets
injured, it produces, very quickly, huge amounts of slime. In fact, they found
that in just a few minutes it can fill up seven buckets full of gooey, slimy
gunk.

GROSS: And what's the point of it?

Dr. PRAGER: Well, imagine if something comes to attack you, and you can, you
know, throw globs of slime at it. It might go away. So it's basically either
used as a decoy or to scare off creatures.

But there's a little problem with the hagfish. It can get trapped in its own
slime. So it's had to evolve ways to prevent a very unpleasant death, which is,
you know, death by goo.

So it actually will sneeze its own slime out its nose, or amazingly it will
wrap its tail around its body and slide it up. They kind of look like eels. It
will slide it up just to de-slime itself.

GROSS: Do most of the fish that create slime use the slime as a defense
mechanism?

Dr. PRAGER: Some do. Others use it in a really wide variety of ways. Some use
it to sort of slicken their path and travels. Some use it for protection. One
really cool example is that in the tropics, some species of parrotfish will
sleep at night in the reef and they will spin a cocoon of mucus as sort of a
protective blanket so that things can't smell them or detect that they're there
sleeping.

There's a really amazing sort of swimming snail that creates a parachute,
almost, of or a bubble of mucus, and that's what uses sort of like a net to
capture food particles, and then it slurps it in to eat. So there's really a
wide variety of uses of slime in the sea.

GROSS: Let's get to sex. I have to say, I was so surprised hearing about
lobster sex.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You have to describe it. It's really interesting.

Dr. PRAGER: Well, it turns out lobsters have super-soaker blasters in their
head that they basically use to shoot pee. The male lobsters use it
aggressively. They sort of get pissed off when they fight. But the female
lobsters shoot it as a - like a Love Potion Number 9.

And she shoots - when she comes up to a den that might have a male in it, she
actually sort of soaks it, seduces him with her pee, and instead of clobbering
her over the head with his claw, he says: Come in, come in, and gets all
touchy-feely.

GROSS: But then the female lobster actually molts before sex. She sheds her
shell.

Dr. PRAGER: Well, all crustaceans molt. They molt basically to get bigger.
That's how they grow, because their shells are rigid, and so if they want to
get bigger, they can't just grow linearly. They actually have to shed their
shell and grow another one.

For the female lobster's private parts to become, shall we say, available, she
has to molt. So she has to get rid of her shell. And then she becomes, you
know, acceptable to the male.

GROSS: Well, she's pretty vulnerable without a shell.

Dr. PRAGER: She is, and in fact she will stay in a male's lair for several days
just recuperating from that molt because she's very vulnerable and she can't
really feed or hunt without, you know, hard shells and hard walking legs or
feeding parts.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Dr. Ellen Prager. She's the
former chief scientist at the world's only undersea research station, the
Aquarius Reef Base in the Florida Keys, and she's the author of the new book
"Sex, Drugs, and Sea Slime: The Oceans' Oddest Creatures and Why They Matter."

So one of the chapters in your book is about coral reefs, which are amazing
ecosystems that illustrate all the themes in your book, the sex, drugs and sea
slime.

And you had a unique view of coral reefs when you worked as the chief scientist
at the underwater research lab, the Aquarius Reef, based in the Florida Keys.
Would you describe the lab and where it was?

Dr. PRAGER: Well, the lab is actually the world's only operating undersea
research station. And it sits in about 60 feet of water, just about four miles
offshore of Key Largo in the Florida Keys. And it's a place where scientists
can go and live for one to two weeks to study coral reefs.

We also, surprisingly, get astronauts coming to live there because it's the
closest thing to living in space, is living underwater. And the Navy also
trains divers.

But the real advantage here is that when you're diving from the surface, you
only have a couple hours at the most underwater to do your research. If you're
diving to 60 feet, you might have an hour at a time and maybe one or two hours
a day.

But if you live underwater, you actually have six to nine hours a day diving to
do your work. And then you have to...

GROSS: Why is that?

Dr. PRAGER: Well, because of decompression issues. You just stay down. You
don't worry about decompression until the end of a mission. So let's say you
stay down for two weeks. You don't worry about decompression. The 60 feet or 50
feet where the habitat, sort of the living space is, becomes your surface.

And so until you're ready to come all the way back up, you don't have to worry
about decompression, which you do at the end, and you have to go through 17
hours.

GROSS: Would you describe what the lab looked like and what your view of the
coral reef and the rest of the ocean was?

Dr. PRAGER: It kind of looks like a cylindrical, extended underwater mobile
home. It's kind of a big cylinder that sits on legs that sit down in the sand,
and it's pretty tight. It houses six people at a time, but they're close, not a
lot of privacy.

You've got sort of a big main area that has a lot of controls for life support
and communications. But you have a little kitchenette and a table. I mean,
there's a bunk room.

And outside it has very - fairly large view ports, and one of the really
special things about living underwater is you feel like you're part of the
coral reef. You don't feel like you're just a temporary visitor.

So one of my favorite times is when the coral reef goes from night to day. And
so you get to watch the water go from black to royal blue and shafts of
sunlight flickering. And the fish that are nocturnal, you get to see them
coming back to the habitat, where they may spend their days, and it's kind of
like shift workers changing on the reef.

So you get to see things that you typically don't see if you're just spending,
you know, an hour diving from the surface.

GROSS: So enough sunlight penetrates down to 60 feet so that you can actually
see during the daytime?

Dr. PRAGER: Oh, definitely. It's quite light. But I will tell you, there is
weather underwater just like there is above on the surface. Cloudy days are
darker. Windy days, when there's waves, you can feel the pressure change as the
waves go by you.

So you know, some days are better than others. Some day - you also have changes
in visibility. But it is plenty light at 60 feet, even down to 100 feet.

GROSS: Now, why are coral reefs so important as ecosystems?

Dr. PRAGER: Well, coral reefs provide sort of the habitat for an amazing
diversity of life, from small microbes to the fish to the worms to the algae.
It's like if you were to look at a city, it would be the condos of a
metropolis.

And within that then you get food for those creatures. You get protection -
very, very important. And so you have one of the richest places for life in the
sea.

GROSS: So let's skip ahead to, literally, the sexy stuff.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Let's talk more about the reef. You describe coral reefs as having group
sex. What does that mean?

Dr. PRAGER: There's an awful lot of this going on under the ocean. But for
corals, some corals, the majority, in fact, are what we call broadcasters. They
release eggs and sperm into the water, they float to the surface, they mix and
get fertilized.

Well, if you're a coral, and you want to mix your eggs with the sperm of
another coral of your species, guess what? They'd better be released at the
same time. Otherwise that's not going to happen. So coral reefs release, or
they spawn, synchronously throughout the world at different times, depending on
where you are, but all those corals release their eggs and sperm at the same
time.

And it's kind of a mystery. We don't really know how they all know to do that.
You know, there's no enticing mating dance or, you know, enticing language
going on. We think it has something to do with the season, the temperature.
It's usually around a full moon.

There may be chemical cues. You know, maybe one starts releasing and there may
be chemical cues for the other. It's a very interesting process.

GROSS: So what does it look like?

Dr. PRAGER: You know, it's kind of like an undersea snow storm, because the
eggs look like little tiny, often pink balls, and they all start floating up.
And then the other thing that happens is that coral spawn is yummy fish food.
So worms and other things come to feed on it. So you also can get a sort of
feeding frenzy in the water at the time.

GROSS: So you know, the title of your new book is "Sex, Drugs and Sea Slime."
We talked a little bit about group sex on a coral reef. Let's get to the sea
slime. What's one of the creatures on the reef that use slime, that secrete
slime?

Dr. PRAGER: Well, interestingly enough, corals are also friends of the slime.
They actually have a coating of mucus over their top surface, that when
particulate matter and things land on it, they just exude more, and it sloughs
off particles so that they don't get smothered.

There's also research that suggests bacteria in that mucus or slime is a very
important mechanism for protecting the coral from disease. Some corals use
their slime to capture particles that they may eat.

And I will tell you from experience that if you disturb corals through
something like drilling - one time we were taking a coral when I worked for the
U.S. Geological Survey, and we were drilling coral cores, and the corals start
to exude huge quantities of slime. And you come up just covered in the stuff.
And we like to call it sort of - because it comes out kind of - you see it sort
of stringing off the corals. We like to call it coral snot.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. PRAGER: It's really disgusting.

GROSS: And is the purpose of that to try to keep you away?

Dr. PRAGER: That's right. It's a protective response to disturbance.

GROSS: And corals have other ways of protecting themselves. You describe these,
like, tentacles that corals have.

Dr. PRAGER: They do. They have - actually have a couple ways of protecting
themselves that most people don't know. It's really interesting.

You know, on the reef, space is very limited. And they have to protect
themselves from things growing over them or, you know, growing next to them and
trying to attach to them.

So they can do two things. They have these filaments that they extend from
their stomachs, actually, and they attack the invaders with digestive enzymes
from their stomach, and they eat away at the invaders, which is really kind of
strange. And some corals are pretty aggressive with what we call the
mesenterial filaments.

Corals also have extremely long tentacles, more than their sort of regular
tentacles that we call sweeper tentacles, and they kind of go out at night and
protect the perimeter, you know, sort of act like guards at night so nothing
can try to overgrow them or come too close.

GROSS: My guest, if you're just joining us, is Dr. Ellen Prager. Her new book
is called "Sex, Drugs, and Sea Slime: The Oceans' Oddest Creatures and Why They
Matter." We're going to take a short break here, and then we're going to talk
some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Ellen Prager, author of "Sex,
Drugs, and Sea Slime: The Oceans' Oddest Creatures and Why They Matter."

We're going to be talking about the mating habits of these odd creatures. So
parents, if you haven't yet told your children about the birds and the bees,
they may not be ready to hear what the ocean's oddest creatures are up to.

Now, there's a lot of unusual creatures living on coral reefs, including
sponges, and you say sponges are stunning to look at.

Dr. PRAGER: Sponges are some of the most beautiful creatures on the reef. They
come in the most amazing shades of color.

There's this one sponge called a - it's a vase(ph) sponge, and it almost looks
crystalline, kind of a bluish purple, it has very delicate ridges, and
sometimes if the sunlight hits it, it almost seems iridescent, really
spectacular.

There may be bright red sponges, yellow sponges, purples sponges. The colors
are just amazing.

GROSS: And what do the sponges do? Do they move?

Dr. PRAGER: Well, they look like they're just sort of sitting there, but it
turns our sponges are very active organisms. They pump water through holes in
their body. Essentially, it pulls the water in through the holes, and then they
take out oxygen and food particles. They filter it, and then they release the
seawater back into the ocean.

And they're continually pumping. And I will tell you, some researchers that I
know discovered that a very large barrel sponge, they can actually pump as much
as the volume in an Olympic-size swimming pool in one day.

GROSS: Wow, and what function does that have within the ecosystem of the coral
reef?

Dr. PRAGER: That's a great question. We don't really know. And that's actually
- there's one group of researchers from the University of North Carolina,
Chapel Hill - that's exactly what they're studying because if these sponges can
pump so much, they must have an impact on the chemistry of the water on the
coral reef, and that's one of the things we're trying to understand right now,
as coral reefs change around the world.

In the Florida Keys, it appears that we may be seeing more sponges growing on
the reefs, rather than corals. And so obviously that's going to change the
chemistry of the water. So that's a really big question right now.

GROSS: Now, you say sponges are stunning, but sometimes they erupt like
volcanoes.

Dr. PRAGER: Remember how I said the corals were broadcasters? A lot of the
sponges are broadcasters too, in that they will release their sperm into the
water and other sponges will basically suck in that sperm and fertilize their
eggs.

So it looks like smoke coming out of the sponges, and you kind of look and you
go: What the heck is going on? They're broadcasting sponge sperm.

GROSS: So you talked about how colorful sponges were. Do the colors serve a
function?

Dr. PRAGER: You know, I'm not sure. The very bright coloration in many things
underwater we think is a warning sign to other animals not to eat them. So the
sponges often have spicules of silica in them, and some of them can secrete
acid. And so they're not - for many organisms, they're not something that they
want to eat.

They also - because they don't move, their defense is chemical, and it's also
why sponges are one of the most important animals in drug development, in
looking for new drugs, because they're attached to the sea floor.

They don't have sharp teeth. They can't run away. They can't swim. So the only
way they can defend themselves against predators is mainly chemicals. And so
scientists have been looking at sponges to see if those chemicals can be used
as pharmaceuticals.

And I will tell you that there are anti-cancer drugs in development, some
already on the market, that are derived from research on marine sponges.

GROSS: One of the unusual creatures living on coral reefs is the parrotfish,
which you describe as transgendered. What makes the parrotfish transgendered?

Dr. PRAGER: Again, this is just - you know, amazing things going on down there.
So if you have a harem of parrotfish - so let's say you have a group of female
parrotfish, and it has one dominant male, something happens to the dominant
male, it dies.

Amazingly, within several weeks one of those females can change to a male. And
in fact, some of them change to what we call super males, become big and
extremely colorful and aggressive. And so they then become the dominant male of
the other female parrotfish in the harem. So I like to say: It's not only
transgender, it's transgender on call.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: What's the difference between the male and the female parrotfish?

Dr. PRAGER: Well, we think that change happens by hormones. I should say one
other interesting thing is once you go from female to male, it's irreversible,
you can't go back. But we think hormone drives that change. And obviously as a
male you develop different body parts, and you can produce sperm, whereas
obviously the females can produce eggs.

GROSS: One of the things I took away from your book is how creative sea
creatures are in reproducing, I mean how creatively designed they are.

Dr. PRAGER: They are. And I have to tell you, one of my favorite stories from
the book comes from Al Stoner(ph), who is a conch biologist, kind of serious
guy.

But I sent him an email. I said: Hey, you know, Al, you got any really great
stories about queen conch? Which I knew he'd been studying for years. And he
sends me back an email that says: There's a real advantage to studying the
reproductive biology of an organism that is big, slow, mates for hours on end,
and has a penis half its total body length. I couldn't believe it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. PRAGER: So I started doing a little bit of research, and it turns out in
the conch they call the penis its verge. The verge has been the thing of
limericks and poems. The biologists know all about this.

And not only is it exceptionally long, but because the queen conch is this
really big snail - you know, most people have seen their shells - the male
sidles up to a female on the sea floor and he has to get his verge outside of
his shell and around and under the female, so that's why it's so long.

But there's a little problem: When it's outside of his shell, crabs and eels
are all too happy to take advantage of his vulnerabilities. Yum, yum, yum.
Well, poor conch. But turns out he loses one, he just grows another.

GROSS: Wow, talk about adaptability.

Dr. PRAGER: Exactly. So talk about really strange things. I was fascinated. It
was amazing.

GROSS: Ellen Prager will be back in the second half of the show. Her new book
is called "Sex, Drugs, and Sea Slime: The Oceans' Oddest Creatures and Why They
Matter." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Ellen Prager, the former
chief scientist at the world's only undersea research station, Aquarius Reef
Base, in the Florida Keys. She's the author of the new book "Sex, Drugs, and
Sea Slime: The Oceans' Oddest Creatures and Why They Matter."

We have a slideshow of some of these odd creatures on our website,
freshair.npr.org, so you might want to take a look as you listen.

So, you know, we've talked about - your book is called "Sex, Drugs, and Sea
Slime." We've talked about sex and sea slime with sea creatures. Let's talk
about drugs. And you say, for instance, that the coral reefs are being
considered now like the rain forest of drugs. You know, a lot of the drugs that
we use or the things that drugs are based on come from ingredients in the rain
forest ecosystem, and now that's true of coral reefs, too. Give me some
examples.

Dr. PRAGER: Well, I think one of my favorite examples is an organism that is
found in places other than reefs, but mainly in coral reefs, and it's called
the cone snail. The cone snail is an amazing - it's just an amazing creature.
They, you know, are just like snails. They are slow moving on the bottom, but
they have evolved amazing weaponry. They actually have harpoon-like teeth that
are on a tether, and they have venoms. And not only do different species have
different venoms, one individual cone snail can switch its venom between
strikes. And here's the slow-moving snail, some of them eat fish. So they have
to have very strong venoms.

Turns out that scientists think the cone snail, more than any other animal in
nature, has potential for pharmaceuticals. And, in fact, there's a new drug,
non-opiate painkiller on the market called Prialt that comes from the cone
snail. And the beauty of this is people who are allergic or get addicted to
opiate-derived painkillers can now use this Prialt, which comes from the common
snail.

GROSS: So this is on the market already?

Dr. PRAGER: It is on the market already.

GROSS: And what kind of pain is it used for?

Dr. PRAGER: The same kinds of things that morphine would be used for.

GROSS: Hm.

Dr. PRAGER: And they're also looking at it - other uses or other venoms, as
well as Prialt - to combat inflammation associated with other diseases, a wide
range of applications in medicine.

GROSS: Is it mostly the venoms that are being used for medicine?

Dr. PRAGER: In terms of the cone snail, yes. Because, you know, they are very
selective. They're diverse, and they can target specific cells processes. And
so that's of great interest to scientists and people who are looking for new
drugs to fight things like cancer and inflammation and diseases. But I will
tell you that only a few of the venoms from the cone snail have been studied in
any detail, and so people think that there's just huge potential for these one
organisms.

The other one is the sponges. The sponges have already produced several drugs
that are on the market. Many are now in development. And, in fact, AZT, which
is used in HIV, was developed based on compounds found in the marine sponges.

GROSS: You know, it wouldn't have been very long ago that we would've thought
of sea sponges as, well, they're odd and they're beautiful, but they're maybe
not of any use to us. And now you're mentioning these drugs that are coming
from them, and they actually have life-saving value to us now.

Dr. PRAGER: I mean, even the most bizarre creatures, and I give you - this one
is really crazy. So, in the deep sea, there's something called an anglerfish -
a deep sea anglerfish. And the females, you know, they're kind of small, soft
and they swim around, trying to catch food. The males are dwarfs, and they're
tiny little males, and their whole goal in life is to find a female. They swim
around looking for the females. When they find them - I call it the never
ending kiss. They bite into them, and their lips get fused to the female, and
they end up sort of living as a parasite on the female just providing sperm.

Well, it turns out scientists are really interested in the immune system of the
anglerfish, because how come the females body doesn't reject the male?

GROSS: Hm.

Dr. PRAGER: So even the strangest thing. Even the hagfish are a lovely, slimy,
eel-like hagfish. Because they feed on sort of the dead and dying of the sea,
they get exposed to a lot of bacteria and microbes, but it doesn't impact them.
So scientists are studying - not only studying their immune system, but they've
found several antimicrobial compounds in the hagfish that might be of use to
humans.

GROSS: One of the ocean creatures you write about is krill. And krill are
becoming - formally obscure krill are becoming superstars of the ocean now.
They're being used in food supplements and as protein additives. So let's start
with: What are krill doing in your book about ocean oddities?

Dr. PRAGER: Well, one of the first chapters I call sort of the invisible crowd,
the smaller creatures of the sea that we don't necessarily see with our own
naked eye, but are incredibly important to the ocean and the creatures that
live there.

And krill, you know, we can actually see them with the naked eye, but they're
really part of the plankton and incredibly important sort of packed with
protein, not just for the creatures of the sea. A lot of things survive based
on krill in the oceans. But now, as you said, people are recognizing that this
is a really potentially important source of protein and other compounds that
can not only help human health, but they're putting in face creams. They're,
you know, new - the new, like, supplements that, you know, you're going to live
longer because you're eating krill - really interesting both in terms of the
ocean ecosystem, but also for the relevance to society.

GROSS: And why are they such a seemingly recent discovery? Why is it now that
they're becoming so popular as protein additives and as food supplements?

Dr. PRAGER: Well, I think it's a - as we progress through our - I hate to say
exploitation of the ocean, krill are very healthy source of protein. They have
omega-3 oils. They have a lot of things that we see as being healthy for
people, and there's a lot of it.

And as we look for populations that we can use for sustenance and to feed world
populations, there's a lot of krill out there. And so it's becoming an
important fishery on the planet, a commercial fishery. And, you know, I just
want to say that while I recognize the importance of krill and all fish as
potential source of food for people, they also have to - it's a fishery that
has to be managed. We can't just take as much as we want out of the sea, of
krill or anything else. And so it is going to be a very big fishery, and we
have to watch how we do it.

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

Dr. PRAGER: Well, thank you.

GROSS: Ellen Prager is the author of "Sex, Drugs, and Sea Slime: The Oceans'
Oddest Creatures and Why They Matter." You can see a slideshow of some of these
odd creatures and read a chapter from Prager's book on our website,
freshair.npr.org.

Coming up, reinterpreting music from 1920's Harlem and Chicago: We talk with
Brian Carpenter, the leader of Ghost Train Orchestra.

This is FRESH AIR.
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Brian Carpenter: Eclectic Jazz, Rooted In Americana

TERRY GROSS, host:

My guest, trumpeter, composer and arranger Brian Carpenter is the leader of the
Ghost Train Orchestra. Their new album, "Hothouse Stomp," reinterprets music of
1920s Chicago and Harlem, music associated with four bands: Charlie Johnson's
Paradise Orchestra, McKinney's Cotton Pickers, Tiny Parham and His Musicians
and Fess Williams' Royal Flush Orchestra. Carpenter put together the band in
2006 after he was asked to be the musical director of an event marking the 90th
anniversary of the Regent Theatre in Arlington, Massachusetts. Since then, the
band has performed regularly in New York. Carpenter also leads the band Beat
Circus, which records original music inspired by blues, folk, spirituals, rock
and circus music.

Let's start with a song co-written by Don Redman and Charlie Johnson.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Brian Carpenter, welcome to FRESH AIR. So what do you love about music
of this period, of the 1920s?

Mr. BRIAN CARPENTER (Musician, Composer, Arranger): Well, the interesting thing
about this is we're talking about a very short period of time here in America,
between 1926 and 1932 in New York and Chicago, when the bands were made up of
nine to 10 people. So they hadn't yet evolved into the 16-piece big bands we
know today, but they were small enough that they kept that visceral, bluesy
sort of sexual energy of early New Orleans jazz, which were mostly small
groups.

But these bands, they were big enough - they had a reed section, sometimes they
had a string section - that they could get more sophisticated in terms of the
arrangements, but they weren't so big that they lost that, you know, that
crude, bluesy thing you get with the small bands. So it can be both
sophisticated and unsophisticated at the same time.

GROSS: So on your new album, "Hothouse Stomp," you have music of bands from
Chicago and from Harlem from the late 20s and early 30s. Is there a difference
in the Harlem and Chicago sound?

Mr. CARPENTER: There is a difference. In Chicago, all the endings are quick.
You know, they're usually bop, bop, bop, you know. And you had the violin. In
Harlem, there's usually not many violins or violas, and the endings are drawn
out. You know, they're usually long, drawn-out endings. So there's a difference
there in not only instrumentation, but also the way that the composers wrote
for the bands.

GROSS: Now you have one foot in the - you have several feet, actually...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I was going to say you have one foot in the avant-garde and one foot in
early jazz. But you have a foot in folk music. You have several feet. But do
you see a connection between the kind of avant-garde jazz that you like and the
early jazz that you play on your new Ghost Train Orchestra album?

Mr. CARPENTER: Well, I think there is a connection there, because, you know,
having played both of it live, what you're trying to get to is you're trying to
get to this visceral thing where there's very little intellectual component to
it. So you play this music enough, and it's immediately accessible to people
because it's just so bluesy and it's very vocal. You know, even if they're
instrumental pieces, it's just a very vocal kind of music. And with
experimental music, free jazz in particular, if you listen to Albert Ayler -
say, of 1960s - you know, he's trying to get to the same thing. He's trying to
get to this visceral - he's trying to transport you.

GROSS: I want to, in a minute, play what is perhaps my favorite track on the
album "Voodoo," which was composed by Tiny Parham, who recorded it with his
band. So tell us who Tiny Parham was.

Mr. CARPENTER: Well, Tiny Parham was an important figure in late 1920s Chicago.
And he had a band that played the vaudeville houses. And he was working in the
Savoy Ballroom, which was next to the Regal Theater. These were both in one
building.

And Tiny Parham started playing organ in theater to film, and basically formed
this band to play in the vaudeville houses. So, you know, you'd have a chorus
line women come out, and you'd have comedians come out and you'd have burlesque
acts and you'd have all these things. And Tiny Parham would be the band that
would play the music between these acts and, in some cases, during the acts.
And so that's why these pieces are so short, because it's a vaudeville show.
You're trying to get from act to act, right?

So Tiny Parham, his music doesn't sound like anything else. I mean, it's very
eccentric. It's very idiosyncratic. You know, you hear - he's got the violin in
there, and he's got these slow, lumbering brass lines and these haunting reed
lines. Some of it's really creepy, you know. And it's also just very beautiful.

And, you know, when I discovered Tiny Parham, I just - I fell in love with him.
You know, there's nothing that really sounds like that.

GROSS: I love this piece. It's got everything. It has this real, like, exotic
sound. Your trumpet playing is great on it. It has musical saw, which sounds
kind of sermon-like. It has, like, woodblocks. There's this, like, group vocal
that the band does, where they're kind of like moaning in unison.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Then there's, like, this like this avant-garde saxophone solo toward the
end that adds to the delirium of the piece.

So this is "Voodoo," the Tiny Parham composition from the Brian Carpenter Ghost
Train Orchestra new album "Hothouse Stomp," which features the music of 1920s
Chicago and Harlem. Here it is.

(Soundbite of song, "Voodoo")

GROSS: That was "Voodoo," the Tiny Parham composition from - was this, like,
1928 or something?

Mr. CARPENTER: 1928, '29. Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Yeah. As interpreted by the Brian Carpenter's Ghost Train Orchestra. And
my guest is Brian Carpenter, and the whole "Hothouse Stomp" album that they've
just put out features music of the 1920s Chicago and Harlem.

Let's take a short break, here, then we'll talk some more.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is trumpeter, composer and arranger Brian Carpenter. His band
Ghost Train Orchestra has a new CD called "Hothouse Stomp," featuring music of
the 1920s Harlem and Chicago. Carpenter also leads the band Beat Circus.

So in addition to playing jazz - and we've been talking about your jazz playing
- you also play circus music and folk-based music. So I want to get to some
other aspects of your musical life. You've recorded two albums in a trilogy.
It's your "Weird American Gothic" trilogy. One album is inspired by Southern
folk and gospel. One is inspired by Dreamland, which was part of the Coney
Island amusement park, and this part burned down in 1911. So how did you learn
about Dreamland, and why did you want to do an album of music inspired by that?

Mr. CARPENTER: Well, the whole idea behind the trilogy was to take American
mythologies and sort of use them as a framework for three records. And the band
Beat Circus, it's very narrative and stylized. And so Dreamland was a natural
choice, because the American circus is filled with stories, fact or fiction.
And Dreamland is a real place that opened in 1904 in Coney Island and burned
down in a devastating fire in 1911. And some of the stories are just
outrageous. And so I wrote this little song cycle based on the characters that
hung around Dreamland, and based on some of the events that happened at
Dreamland.

GROSS: Well, I want to play something called "Coney Island Creepshow," and you
actually have, like, a freak-show, carnival-barker type of vocal in this. Would
you talk about writing the song?

Mr. CARPENTER: Sure. That's DJ Hazard up front as the outside talker. And it's
funny you said barker, because one of the people that recorded on this is Todd
Robbins, who was - worked at Coney Island as the sideshow outside talker for
many years. And he said, no. You don't call it a carnival barker. You know,
that's what you call a dog. You don't - that's like really defamatory. I said I
didn't, you know, I didn't know that, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CARPENTER: He said no, you call it in outside talker. So I said okay, fine.
Outside talker then. And so that's what I wrote in the liner notes, outside
talker. So, you know, his job is to try to pull people in, right. I mean, his
job is to try to pull people into the ride and get them to pay money for the
event. So that's the inspiration for the whole opening.

GROSS: Okay. So you are outside talker number two on this. So you're the second
voice that we hear?

Mr. CARPENTER: I'm number two or number three. Yeah. I don't remember which
one.

GROSS: Okay. Okay. And you're also playing slide trumpet.

Mr. CARPENTER: Yes. I played the slide trumpet on that.

GROSS: Okay. So here we go, "Coney Island Creepshow," composed by my guest
Brian Carpenter, and this is from his album "Dreamland," with his band Beat
Circus.

(Soundbite of song, "Coney Island Creepshow")

DJ HAZARD (Outside talker): Brothers and sisters, ladies and gentlemen, dogs,
where there the bizarre presents to you tonight, the world's largest
congregation of human oddities - living, breathing monstrosities.

(Soundbite of music)

DJ HAZARD: That's right. We didn't ask to be brought into this world or put
into the world that came, guaranteed to be alive or your money back. What in
the world are you waiting for? Step right up, ladies and gentlemen, to the
Coney Island Creepshow.

Mr. CARPENTER: A prince who has no legs or arms, here, an elephant smokes his
own cigars. (unintelligible)

DJ HAZARD: Three dollars, please, for the freak show.

Unidentified Group: (Vocalizing)

DJ HAZARD: Something's (unintelligible).

Mr. CARPENTER: And covered with some bunny hair.

DJ HAZARD: Bernie(ph) the half-man has no life.

Mr. CARPENTER: (unintelligible)

DJ HAZARD: Three dollars, three for the freak show.

Unidentified Group: (Vocalizing)

GROSS: That's the band Beat Circus from their album "Dreamland," one of the
bands led by my guest Brian Carpenter.

Did you play in school bands when you were growing up, and did you hear any
connection between what you played in those school bands and what you compose
now?

Mr. CARPENTER: You know, I wasn't exposed to much jazz until high school and -
when my band teacher got me excited about big band music. You know, he was
playing me music from the '70s, like Stan Kenton and Don Ellis. And we even
tried to play some of that music, which is crazy. It was a very progressive
high school jazz band.

So I think that got me interested in jazz. And then when I got into college,
you know, when you sort of leave to college, you know, you want to forget, you
want to rebel from your parents. You want to kind of forget everything you
learned.

And so I kind of immediately went to outsider music, where I would go to the
record stores and say, you know, what's the most out thing you have in here?
You know, and they'd say, oh, well, there's this Albert Ayler record,
"Spiritual Unity." Nobody wants to buy that. I said that's the record for me,
you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And now you're directing a documentary on Albert Ayler.

Mr. CARPENTER: Yeah, that started a while ago. I put that on the shelf. But
yeah, I have been working on that off and on.

GROSS: So what...

Mr. CARPENTER: That's what brought me to Boston, as a matter of fact.

GROSS: Where you live now. So what else did you get that way in record stores?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CARPENTER: Well, what else did I buy?

GROSS: By asking for the weirdest thing that they had...

Mr. CARPENTER: I got "Trout Mask Replica," of course, Captain Beefheart.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. CARPENTER: And sometimes I would get an Ornette Coleman record, that "Free
Jazz" record, you know, which is like two bands on either channel. And so all
of the stuff was great. You know, and the rest the people that I was going to
college with were listening to, you know, grunge music, which I was listening,
too, and Jane's Addiction. I liked that stuff, too, but that wasn't weird
enough for me. You know, I really just wanted to - I had a hankering for
underground music.

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

Mr. CARPENTER: Oh, thank you so much for having me.

GROSS: Brian Carpenter leads the bands Beat Circus and Ghost Train Orchestra.
Ghost Train Orchestra's new CD is called "Hothouse Stomp: The Music of 1920s
Chicago and Harlem." You can hear two tracks from it, including "Voodoo," the
complete track that we featured, on our website: freshair.npr.org.
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