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Food Critic Ruth Reichl.

Food critic Ruth Reichl. Her new book is called "Tender at the Bone: Growing up at the Table," (Random House) and it's her memoir of a lifelong passion for food. Reichl has been the restaurant critic for the New York Times since 1993. Prior to that, she reviewed restaurants for the Los Angeles Times. She ran her own restaurant in Berkeley, California in the 1970s.

31:09

Other segments from the episode on June 29, 1998

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, June 29, 1998: Interview with Ruth Reichl; Interview with Kevin Whitehead.

Transcript

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: JUNE 29, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 062901np.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Tender at the Bone
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

When my guest Ruth Reichl dines out, she often wears a wig, phony glasses, and uses an alias. She hides her identity because she's the New York Times restaurant critic. We invited her to talk about restaurants and to share some of her own food autobiography. She's written a new memoir called "Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table."

You might think Ruth Reichl's love of food dates back to her mother's wonderful home cooking -- but you'd be wrong. Her mother was not only a terrible cook, she was what Reichl describes as "taste blind."

RUTH REICHL, FOOD CRITIC, THE NEW YORK TIMES, AUTHOR, "TENDER AT THE BONE": Well, she literally couldn't taste whether things were spoiled or not spoiled, good or -- I mean, she -- her taste was extremely limited. So when she -- I mean, the first story in the book is about her waking my father up early in the morning and putting something into his mouth, and having him taste it. And he said it was the single-most disgusting thing he had ever encountered. And he really couldn't swallow it and he spit it out, at which point my mother said: "mm-hmm. Just as I thought. Spoiled."

And I mean, she really didn't know whether it was spoiled. She really needed him to taste it; to figure out whether it was good or not. Of course, the fact that it had mold on the top might have given her a clue, but it didn't.

GROSS: Do you have any memories of a particularly bad dish that she served you?

REICHL: Well, I mean, I think that my whole interest in food came really early because my mother -- I mean, at the age of three, she would put things on the table that -- like butter that she'd left uncovered in the refrigerator for a week, which was nauseating. And I would say: "Mom, I can't eat this." And she would taste it, and say: "mm. Tastes fine to me."

And you know, when you're a child, you see that and you think, you know, there's something wrong in the world. But I think the worst thing, and this isn't in the book, but -- 'cause it's so simple, but she would take the dregs of ice cream cartons and pour them into an ice tray, and put them into the freezer and then serve them so they would be freezer-burned, mushy, and just really revolting. And then she would bring it out for a party and serve it.

LAUGHTER

GROSS: Now, this is the kind of thing that might have ruined somebody when it comes to food. How did it get you to become a restaurant critic? I mean, how did it get you to become a food professional?

REICHL: Well, you know, I mean I really felt that I was sort of shaped by my mother's handicap. You know, I mean, it's the way the children of deaf people are probably more aware of sound. I became very aware of taste because I was so fascinated by the fact that my mother couldn't taste these things.

And then in self defense, I started cooking. And my mother really would make these dreadful concoctions. I mean, she really prided herself on something called "Everything Stew," where she would take everything in the refrigerator, all the leftovers, and put them all together.

And one day I was watching her put in leftover turkey and broccoli and a little, you know, can of mushroom soup. And she's throwing things in. And half an apple pie goes in.

LAUGHTER

And she says -- you know, I'd sort of look at her and say: "Mom!." And she says: "oh, it'll be fine." And then she starts throwing everything in. And you know, in defense, it just -- I started cooking, 'cause I didn't want to eat that.

GROSS: Now, I know your first experiences in the food world as a professional was working in restaurants. One of the restaurants you worked in was L'Escargot. Would you describe the restaurant?

REICHL: Well, this was in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I was going to school at the University of Michigan, and it was a very, very fancy French restaurant for the mid-60s, and certainly for Ann Arbor, Michigan, and certainly for a college town.

And it was somebody's dream. You know, I had the great privilege, really, of participating in this mad, passionate dream of the owner who did everything beautifully, which you can't do in a restaurant. I mean, he bought Baccarat crystal, which is insane. I mean, it all breaks in the first month; and Limoges china and wonderful chandeliers. And he brought a chef from the Four Seasons in New York.

And he got the best grill man as a sous chef. And wonderful, wonderful waiters and waitresses -- real professionals -- I mean, the kind of people that you don't see very much anymore, who were very proud of their profession and very good at it.

And I've always thought that a really good restaurant, when it runs well, is like being on a movie set. The -- you become a family. It becomes a whole life of its own. And this restaurant was like that. We became very tight. And as we watched this restaurant go down...

GROSS: Go down?

REICHL: Well, I mean, it was a dream. Ann Arbor was not a place that could support that kind of a restaurant in those days. It was very high-end French food at very high-end prices. And people would come once for the curiosity, but never come again. And as business really faded, we all pulled together. We really rooted for -- I mean, what happened was the first chef was a real thief, and I learned a lot about how, you know, most restaurants go under because of employee theft, or many of them do. And this guy was a real pro.

I mean, he would take whole sides of meat, wrap them in aluminum foil, bury then in the garbage, and then go out after the garbage had been taken out -- he would come back in the middle of the night and take these pieces of meat and sell them.

GROSS: Wow.

REICHL: And we all really started rooting for the owner. I mean, we -- nobody wanted to see this going on. And it was no good. I mean, ultimately it closed.

GROSS: There was a waiter at this restaurant who kind of initiated you in the ways of...

REICHL: Yes.

GROSS: ... restaurants, and he told you that the restaurant was a "war zone." What did he mean by that?

REICHL: Well, it's a common thing that waiters say. I mean, what he said was that the kitchen was at war with the customers, and we were the go-betweens. And that our job was to make sure that the customers never knew that the kitchen was at war with them.

And this entailed a lot of subterfuge. For instance, if a customer wanted to send a steak back because it was cooked too much, he said: now, you can go back and you can tell the chef that the customer says it's overcooked. And he's going to scream and yell 'cause he's at war with the customer. On the other hand, if you go back and you're very humble and you say: "I made a terrible mistake. He said that he wanted it rare, but I wrote down well done." He'll scream at you, but he'll give you a new steak because he's not at war with you.

GROSS: Yeah, but he might be at war with you if that happens too much.

REICHL: Well, there -- it doesn't happen that often. But it was just a matter of us sort of always taking the blame so that we would get big tips. He also, you know, really felt that it was our responsibility to come up with a good story for the customers. He said, you know, they should go home with more than a good meal. You have to provide an experience for them that is -- you know, that they can talk about.

So, he encouraged me to pretend that I was a foreign student who was here and had not had enough money. And that I needed to work to support myself. And I developed a great story. I mean, I -- my customers would be crying and giving me big tips at the end of it. But he said that this was a good thing because I was really giving them value for their money.

GROSS: Now, you worked as a waitress at a fancy French restaurant. You also worked as a waitress for the lunch-time shift at a Sheraton Hotel in Ann Arbor.

REICHL: Yes.

GROSS: Did you get a different sense of restaurants and of customers in those two different kinds of restaurants?

REICHL: Oh, totally, totally. I mean, the problem with working at the Sheraton was, first of all, you know, by then I had very high-falutin' notions of what it was to be a waitress. But we catered mostly to conventions, and there were these big packs of guys who would come through, and management wanted us to wear very short skirts. And it was pretty miserable. I did not love that job, but I made good money.

GROSS: My guest is Ruth Reichl, restaurant critic for the New York Times and author of the new food memoir Tender at the Bone. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

If you're just joining us, my guest is Ruth Reichl, restaurant critic for the New York Times and author of the new book Tender at the Bone.

You're now restaurant critic for the New York Times. When you were working in restaurants, whether it was the expensive French restaurant or the Sheraton -- the restaurant in the Sheraton Hotel, or the collective restaurant that you worked in in Berkeley -- did you see reviewers as your ally or your enemy?

REICHL: I mean, to tell you the truth, I didn't think about reviewers very much in those days. I mean, I think that the whole profession has become much more visible today than it was in those days. The whole focus on food has become much more intense now than it was then.

And certainly when I was, for instance, at L'Escargot, Maurice the owner never said to us, you know, "this is what the restaurant critic look -- beware of restaurant critics; this is what they look like." It just wasn't -- it wasn't in our consciousness.

GROSS: Now at the New York Times, you're kind of famous for using disguises when you're reviewing a restaurant so that you can't be spotted; so you can eat anonymously. What do you use? Wigs?

REICHL: I use -- not only wigs. I keep buying new wigs. I've now got 11. And I do use those. I also have a lot of glasses. I have fake fingernails. I have whole outfits in different sizes. I mean, I'll sometimes put on, like, three pairs of pants, one over the other; or you know, three skirts so I look much larger than I am.

I've learned -- I'm not normally a makeup person, but I've learned about makeup and you can really do amazing things with -- you can change the shape of your lips and, you know, change the color of your eyebrows. And I do all that stuff.

GROSS: Do you pay cash? Or use fake credit cards?

REICHL: I use fake credit cards.

GROSS: Does the Times help you get them?

REICHL: No, I have figured out my own strategies for getting them. They don't want to know about how I do this. I also often ask the people I'm with to pay, and then I just write them a check.

GROSS: Right. Right. Right.

REICHL: I mean, but if you pull -- start pulling out wads of cash, it's a little tell -- you know, it's a giveaway. I mean, go out to a really expensive restaurant and pull out $500 in cash. I mean, who carries that kind of money around?

GROSS: Restaurant critics and coke dealers.

REICHL: Right.

LAUGHTER

GROSS: Now, not every restaurant critic goes to such extremes to make sure they're not noticed. Why is it so important to you that you're not identified by the staff at the restaurant you're reviewing?

REICHL: Well, I have a really strong belief that I am there to be your eyes and ears when you're at the restaurant. And I'm supposed to tell you what's going to happen to you, not what happens to the restaurant critic of the New York Times who is getting the best table and the chef is, you know, cooking the food specially and the portions are getting bigger and so forth.

I think it's really important for you to know what's going to happen to you. And you can't do that if you're sort of, you know, sashaying in as, you know, someone who's going to have a big economic impact on the restaurant.

GROSS: Ruth Reichl is my guest -- restaurant critic for the New York Times and author of the new book Tender at the Bone.

Something you did that was pretty controversial, I think -- I don't remember when this was exactly, but you -- you took a star away from the restaurant Le Cirque, which I guess had been -- what? -- four stars and you demoted it to three? Do I have that right?

REICHL: Yes, you have it right.

GROSS: I don't even know how the story...

REICHL: And that was right after I came.

GROSS: ... it was right after you came?

REICHL: Yeah.

GROSS: I don't even know how the star rating works and who determines what makes a restaurant four or three stars or whatever. So why don't we start with an explanation of that?

REICHL: Well, the star system is very much up to whoever the critic is at the time. And four stars is the most that you can get, and it's a very exalted -- there are only six four-star restaurants at the moment, and it's -- it's a very big deal for restaurants to be...

GROSS: So when you say four-star restaurant, this is like a New York Times four-star restaurant.

REICHL: Yes.

GROSS: OK.

REICHL: Yes. And it has a lot of weight to the restaurants. When they get a four-star rating, it's a very big deal for them, and it brings them lots and lots and lots of business.

To demote a restaurant from three stars to two stars is not such a big deal. But to demote it from four stars to three stars is -- it's huge. This was right after I had arrived in New York five years ago. I had not had a star-rating system at the L.A. Times where I'd been for 10 years. I wasn't that impressed with the star system at the time. I mean, I've since come to see how, if nothing else, how economically powerful it is for the restaurants.

But I started going to Le Cirque and they didn't know me, and I was not treated well. And everybody had always, you know, jumped up and down about what a great restaurant it was. And you know, I kept -- I had some really terrible experiences there.

You know, I went once with another woman and we were made to wait 45 minutes at the bar for, you know, a supposedly non-smoking table. And we were still stuck in the smoking section. And when I asked for a wine list, a maitre d' came over and snatched it out of my hands after a minute and said "I need that list" and he took it off to some man nearby and I couldn't get it back.

And then I thought, well, I wonder -- after I'd been there a few times -- I thought well I wonder what will happen if, not if I make a reservation in my own name, but just if I go in undisguised. By then, I knew he knew who I was. And sure enough, I go and I have made a -- the only reservation I could get was like 9:45. But I said I think I'll go at nine o'clock and just see what happens.

And we get to the door and there's a huge crowd waiting for tables. And the owner comes -- he parts this crowd. It's like the Red Sea parting -- and he comes through to me and he pulls me forward and says: "the King of Spain is waiting in the bar, but your table is ready." And leads me to a table.

And I thought, you know, this is too wonderful. I've just got to write about, you know, what happened to me as just me, an ordinary person, and then what happened to me at the restaurant critic of the New York Times; and write about the two experiences.

GROSS: Now I could see a restaurant easily explaining this by saying, well, of course we treat our regulars with special care. That's why people become regulars 'cause they know -- they know -- they're treated as like part of the family. We know what they like to eat. We know what their preferences are. We know whether they smoke or not.

And it's lovely -- like at a neighborhood restaurant when you come in all the time. They say hello; they bring you the salad when you sit down. They know what you want. Everybody likes to be treated like a regular.

REICHL: Absolutely. And regulars deserve to be treated. I mean, they've paid their dues and they deserve to be treated better. On the other hand, that doesn't mean that ordinary people shouldn't be treated well.

GROSS: Right.

REICHL: And there's a real difference between -- for instance, not every restaurant can have your table ready when you arrive. I mean, there's just -- they can't always calculate how long people are going to stay at a table. An apology goes a long way.

If they come up to you and say: "I'm so sorry that -- can I give you a glass of wine? Can I somehow make this up to you?" You don't feel badly. You don't feel as if you've been dissed.

On the other hand, if it's just, you know: "oh, go wait over there. We'll let you know when your table is ready." It's a matter of attitude. And Le Cirque at that time was really known for not being particularly nice to ordinary people. I have to say that their attitude has changed dramatically.

GROSS: Oh, have you changed their star rating?

REICHL: I have. I mean, they reopened. They closed for a while and they've reopened in a new location. And I went in many times in many disguises, and they were wonderful. They were just wonderful. I really felt that they had sort of seen that there was no point in not trying to be good to everyone.

GROSS: Now, what's your approach to reviewing? How many times do you typically go to a restaurant? How do you order off the menu?

REICHL: I go endlessly. I mean, I go until I really feel that I've eaten just about everything on the menu; that I've been there with a big group and a small group; on a weekend; on a week night; lunch and dinner. I've had every kind of, you know, combination that you can have.

I mean, I'm very lucky. I work for an institution that is willing to put this kind of money into it. I would never go fewer than three times. I've gone as many as nine. And I really do try and, you know, get the entire range of experiences that you can have from the restaurant.

GROSS: And what kind of impact have you seen your reviews have, for better and worse, on restaurants?

REICHL: Well, I felt very good about the Le Cirque thing. I mean, I really felt that that had an impact; that the taking that star away which really stung -- I mean, it's a wonderful restaurant. The food is terrific. But I think he really thought, you know, times are changing. I think I've seen women are treated better.

I don't think that's just up to me, but I think, you know, it's also changing times. Women are spending more money. There are more businesswomen. The whole sort of cliche about women not tipping so well is not true anymore. But I've certainly seen that change in the last few years.

You know, I don't tend to go back to restaurants much after I've been there. So it's not that I, you know, can see the impact, but I've certainly read, you know, restaurants saying, you know, they got four stars and you know, they got 20,000 phone calls the next day.

GROSS: What are some of the trends you're seeing in New York restaurants?

REICHL: Well certainly -- I mean, this is the most amazingly food-obsessed time that I've ever encountered. And I've -- well, I've been around food for a long time. But people are really -- care more about restaurants now than ever before.

And on every level, there are -- the restaurants are better than they used to be. I mean, New York used to be a city where you got very good, expensive food and it didn't do so well in the mid-ranges. It's now doing very well in the mid-ranges.

GROSS: Ruth Reichl is restaurant critic for the New York Times and author of the food memoir Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table.

We'll talk more about restaurants in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Back with Ruth Reichl. She's the restaurant critic for the New York Times and author of the new food memoir Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table.

I want to ask you a little bit about restaurant etiquette. What advice do you have about how much to tip? And when do you think it's appropriate, if ever, to penalize a waiter if the service isn't good or if the food is bad?

REICHL: Well if the food is bad, you can't penalize the waiter. That's absolutely not fair. It's not his fault.

GROSS: Yes.

REICHL: Now, remember when you're, you know, listening to this answer, that I am a former waitress for a very long time. I'm a very good tipper. You know, I think that you can make someone's day much much brighter by tipping well, and another couple dollars isn't going to make that much difference to you.

And it's certainly OK to penalize a waiter for things that you know are his fault. I would penalize a waiter for, you know, not being helpful; for things that he said; for demeanor. I would not penalize him for food appearing or not appearing on time.

GROSS: When do you think it's OK to send back a dish?

REICHL: It's always OK to send back a dish. You're there to be pleased. I mean, this is your night out. You're paying to get what you want. And I mean, as a restaurant critic, I never send food back because I'm -- I don't want to draw attention to myself. But as a civilian, I feel like I am in the restaurant to be pleased, and if it's not what I wanted, I send it back.

GROSS: From your years as a waitress, what are some of the things that patrons at restaurants do that you know drive the staff crazy?

REICHL: Oh, there are so many things that drive the staff crazy. You know, one of the biggest ones is people who want to change everything on the menu. You know, I want this, but I don't want this sauce -- and I don't want this vegetable. And you've gotta go back to the kitchen and say to the chef: you know, that women out there...

The chef is going to scream at you. It's really awful.

The other thing is that people can be unbelievably rude to waiters and waitresses. There's a whole attitude of respect that you deserve as a waiter, and if you don't get it, it's very annoying and a patron does that at his peril, I think.

GROSS: Did you eat out a lot as a kid?

REICHL: Yes, my parents were older when I was born. My dad was 50. My mother was 40. And they had a life and they sort of expected me to fit into their life. And also because my mother was not the world's greatest cook. We fortunately went out a lot.

And we lived in New York. And my mother, she used restaurants in a great way. Even though she was taste-blind, and she really wasn't interested in food, she was very interested in the theater of restaurants. So I was -- I grew up in the great days of restaurant associates, when they were doing the "Forum" with the "Twelve Caesars" and "La Fonda Del Sol" (ph) and all these really exciting theatrical restaurants.

And we didn't have a lot of money, so we wouldn't go eat in those restaurants, but we would go and have a drink. And sit in the bar and look at the restaurant. And then we would go someplace cheap for dinner.

GROSS: You know, in talking about how your mother liked the theater of restaurants, you like to write about the kind of subculture within the restaurant. For example, a recent review, you wrote: "if you are over 30, weigh more than 105 pounds, favor bright colors, or bite your fingernails, Bond Street could do you damage. No matter how confident you may be in the real world, it's hard to face an entire universe of thin, young, beautiful people dressed in black without wondering what you're doing there."

How much do you -- I mean, do you enjoy writing about the subculture that a restaurant seems to attract?

REICHL: Oh, absolutely. I mean, I think you need to know that. I mean, people say, well how is the food? And that's only a piece of it. I mean, if you're walking into a restaurant, you want to know what the people are wearing; what they look like; how you're gonna feel when you're there. And if you're walking into a really hip scene dressed like Grandma Moses, you're going to feel ridiculous.

I love that whole side of restaurants -- that whole ability you have to walk in and be somebody else for the time that you're there. You know, it's like meeting new people. You get to reinvent yourself. And that's one thing that restaurants do for us. It's like -- it's fun.

GROSS: How often to you eat out now?

REICHL: I eat out six nights a week and five lunches; a lot.

GROSS: That's a lot.

LAUGHTER

That's a lot. Do you have to watch your weight? I mean, it's hard, I think, to be around food without just eating a whole lot of it all the time.

REICHL: Yeah, I have a very fortunate metabolism. I mean, people want to shoot me. I don't watch my weight. I don't exercise. I've never been in a gym. But I'm also not obsessed with food. I eat as much as I want. And I think that if most people gave themselves permission to eat what they wanted, and didn't worry about it so much, they wouldn't overeat.

I mean, I know I always have another great meal coming, so I don't have to gobble up everything on my plate.

GROSS: Now, did you learn how to deal with being around food all the time without eating all the time back in the days when you worked at restaurants?

REICHL: No, I didn't. I had a sort of magical experience. I was a quite overweight teenager. I mean, I was really one of those people that -- I was constantly told "you'd be so pretty if you'd just lose some weight."

And then I met my husband, who actually liked large women. And we started living together and for the first time, I didn't have this pressure not to eat, because he loved large women. And after we'd been living together for about three months -- this was my experience; I'm sure it couldn't have happened that way, but this is how I remember it -- I woke up one morning, none of my clothes fit me. I had lost 35 pounds and I've never gained another one of them.

GROSS: Hmm.

REICHL: And to me, the lesson was: don't think about it so much. When you're thinking "I shouldn't eat that, I shouldn't eat that, I shouldn't eat that" -- all you want to do is eat it.

GROSS: Well Ruth Reichl, I want to thank you a lot for talking with us.

REICHL: Thank you.

GROSS: Are you off to go to a restaurant now?

REICHL: Yes, of course.

LAUGHTER

GROSS: Well, enjoy.

REICHL: Thank you.

GROSS: Ruth Reichl is restaurant critic for the New York Times. Her new food memoir is called Tender at the Bone.

Coming up, our jazz critic Kevin Whitehead tells us about his new book "New Dutch Swing."

This is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Ruth Reichl
High: Food critic Ruth Reichl. Her new book is called "Tender at the Bone: Growing up at the Table," and it's her memoir of a lifelong passion for food. Reichl has been the restaurant critic for the New York Times since 1993. Prior to that, she reviewed restaurants for the Los Angeles Times. She ran her own restaurant in Berkeley, California in the 1970s.
Spec: Culture; Food; Media
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Tender at the Bone
Show: FRESH AIR
Date: JUNE 29, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 062902np.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: New Dutch Swing
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:40

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Why would our jazz critic Kevin Whitehead leave the capital of the jazz world, New York, to spend a couple of years in Holland writing a book about Dutch jazz? Well, to find out more about music like this:

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, JAZZ BAND PERFORMING COMPOSITION BY WILLEM BROYKER)

That's music by Willem Broyker, a track we've often played on FRESH AIR. He's one of the Dutch composers Kevin writes about in his new book "New Dutch Swing." Kevin's book explores how a country so far removed from the birthplace and center of jazz has managed to produce music that is distinct, funny, polished, innovative, swinging and bluesy.

I asked Kevin to tell us more about the book and why he wrote it.

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, FRESH AIR COMMENTATOR, AUTHOR, "NEW DUTCH SWING":
I thought it was time that an American took a look at a thriving foreign jazz scene. As much as Americans talk about jazz as a great cultural export, they don't always pay so much attention to what happens to it after it leaves the United States and begins to mix with musics elsewhere and begins to live its own life a little bit.

Another reason is that from living in New York for several years, every day I was having a discussion with somebody about whether a certain piece of music was jazz or not. And I began to notice more and more that that had become a substitute for discussion, rather than a starting point for discussion.

And Dutch music was an opportunity to take a look at what happens to jazz when it freely mixes with other kinds of music, because the leading musicians there simply don't worry about whether something is jazz or not. They just take whatever they want and use it as they will.

GROSS: Why don't we hear some music that I think will illustrate some of your points here. Why don't we hear something that you've brought with you by Willem Broyker or Broyker as I think he's better known in Holland.

And I -- tell us what you hear in this piece that says something about what happened to jazz when it hit Holland and how it's been interpreted there.

WHITEHEAD: I should mention I wanted to play something by Willem Broyker because he's the best-known of the Dutch musicians in the states. He's done about a dozen tours in North America. One of the things that's really interesting about his music to me is that there is a real absence of traditional jazz harmony in his writing.

In fact, the way that kind of he takes these little short melodic sections for horns and keeps repeating and repeating them, has a lot to do with the kind of barrel-organ music that you hear on the street in Amsterdam; what basically would sound like circus calliope music to an American.

It's one example of how Dutch music draws on the home-grown roots. This is some music he wrote for a Berthold Brecht play in 1973.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, JAZZ BAND PERFORMING COMPOSITION BY WILLEM BROYKER)

GROSS: That's Willem Broyker, one of the musicians written about in Kevin Whitehead's new book New Dutch Swing. Kevin, I think that piece gets to one of the things I like a lot about some of the Dutch musicians I've heard, which is the sense of wit; the sense of kind of fun in the music?

WHITEHEAD: For sure. The Dutch don't take improvised music so very seriously. I think in part that's a reaction to the home-grown improvising styles that were growing up in Germany and England around the same time as in Holland, where the music was much more serious and musicians were either supposed to play as fiercely as possible, in the German model, or as cooperatively with one another as possible in the English model. And the Dutch sort of rejected both of those.

They always liked to swing, which was considered unfashionable in some circles when the European jazz movement started taking off in the '60s. And a lot of the Dutch composers have a nice sense of melody also.

GROSS: I like your point about how you wanted to know what happens to this great export, jazz when it hits other places. So what are some of the things that you think happened to jazz in Holland that maybe give it a different sound?

WHITEHEAD: Part of it is that although the Dutch musicians are very knowledgeable about trends in American jazz, some of the musicians who are very influential in Holland are not necessarily the same ones who are influential in America. Thelonious Monk was a great influence in Holland long before his music became fashionable here. The late pianist Herbie Nichols (ph) has always been a really important composer in Holland. His pieces have been played a lot.

Also the influence of the minimalism, particularly of Terry Reilly (ph) that came into the music in the 1960s. And also, maybe an absurdist strain that comes a little bit from Mischa Mengelberg's (ph) in the music of John Cage (ph).

Mengelberg is known to some as a jazz piano player and jazz composer, but he also has a career as a classical composer in Holland; conservatory-trained composer; went to the Conservatory of Louis Andreisen (ph) who I guess is the best-known Dutch composer in the states.

GROSS: The subtitle of your book New Dutch Swing is "Jazz Plus Classical Music Plus Absurdism Equals New Dutch Swing." And do you think that classical music and jazz came together in Holland in a different way than they have in the United States?

WHITEHEAD: I think there was less pressure to keep the music separate in Holland. And some people in America believe that because jazz is a precious cultural commodity, it should be kept separate from other kinds of music. That never seemed like a very sensible idea to me, for one thing because jazz itself is an amalgam of several other styles. If the people who put together jazz had honored that principle, then jazz would never have existed.

Because the Dutch don't see jazz as their own music, but simply as a style that's worth pilfering from with respect, they're always free to mix it with other things.

GROSS: Let me get to the other part of the equation in your subtitle, and that is absurdism. Why do you think the sense of absurdism -- of dada-ish theater, enters Holland so -- Dutch jazz so strongly?

WHITEHEAD: Well first of all, the Amsterdam improvising scene which is really what I've written about in the book is very small. So certain figures can have a large amount of influence. Mischa Mengelberg for me is really the intellectual godfather of the Dutch scene.

And he was someone who just always -- you know, he's a funny man. He has a good sense of humor and he heard Stravinsky from when he was a small boy and he heard Monk from when he was a teenager. And he always heard this sort of sense of fun in their music.

One thing Stravinsky and Monk have in common is the use of deliberate mistakes, I guess I would call them; things that seem to be mistakes that are deliberately written into the music. Stravinsky would be doing things where when he would repeat a riff, he'd have it start on a different beat of the bar, as if the musician had gotten lost.

Monk used to play a lot of chords that relied on adjacent keys on the piano, which would give some people the idea that he was making a mistake; that he was hitting a key that he didn't mean to be making. Because Mengelberg has such a good ear and also because he comes from a musical family -- his father is a composer and his great uncle was a conductor -- he could always hear in a musical way what was going on in these kinds of music.

So when he heard Monk, he immediately didn't hear it as someone who sounded like he was making mistakes, but someone who had a particular kind of harmonic language that could be developed.

GROSS: Well, you've brought a Mischa Mengelberg composition with you. Would you like to play it for us?

WHITEHEAD: Yeah. A piece from 1990 for his ICP Orchestra -- that's the Instant Composers Pool Orchestra. The piece is called "Bos Pagik Keninihol" (ph) which is Dutch for "Forest Path Rabbit Hole."

GROSS: And tell us why you chose to play this first.

WHITEHEAD: It's got a really nice sense of melody. Like the Willem Broyker piece, it has Jan Bennick (ph) on drums, who's a terrific drummer. It has a very nice, very strange tenor saxophone solo by a guy named Ab Barris (ph), who's idol on the tenor saxophone is the Chicago saxophonist Von Freeman (ph); another example of a Dutch musician kind of latching onto someone who doesn't necessarily get so much attention in the states.

GROSS: Let's hear it.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, ICP ORCHESTRA PLAYING "FOREST PATH RABBIT HOLE" BY MISCHA MENGELBERG)

GROSS: That's music by Mischa Mengelberg, one of the records Kevin Whitehead has brought with him and one of the records discussed in Kevin's new book New Dutch Swing.

I think that's a great illustration of how certain avant garde-isms like, you know, honking, which in certain music might be interpreted as really angry, is used as -- to real frolicking effect in some of the Dutch jazz.

I mean, certainly American composers have done that, too, but I think it is one of the trademarks of a lot of the Dutch jazz.

WHITEHEAD: I think -- I think that's probably true. Another reason I like that piece is that it doesn't try to emulate any American models.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

WHITEHEAD: You know, it's not trying to swing in any kind of conventional sense, although it certainly does have that kind of rhythmic buoyancy that I associate with swinging. It's sort of typical of the Dutch penchant for re-thinking the kind of values that they got from American jazz; kind of remaking things on their own terms.

GROSS: As you point out in your book, some people dismiss European jazz as one more rip-off of African-American culture. And I'm wondering what your response to that is?

WHITEHEAD: I always thought that that -- that idea was completely backwards. It always seemed to me that it was a triumph of African-American culture because here's this African-American art form that people all around the world are drawn to, and want to play, you know. To me, that's like -- what -- could there be any higher compliment to African-American music than that?

It's not like any jazz that's being made in Holland or Australia or Austria or anywhere else takes anything away from the music of Duke Ellington or Charlie Parker or anybody else you want to put on that list.

GROSS: You say, too, that if the Dutch teach us anything, it's that jazz conservatories can relax. They needn't worry about the harmful effects of cross-breeding jazz and other kinds of music. Can you elaborate on that for us?

WHITEHEAD: Well, there -- in Holland, as in the states, there is now a generation of conservatory-bred jazz musicians. And some of them are becoming known a little bit in the United States. The guitarist Jesse Ben Ruler (ph) won the Thelonious Monk competition a few years ago. The pianist Mikhail Borslap (ph) won a BMI composition prize.

These musicians are basically trying to play straight-ahead jazz music. Well after, you know, 35 years of the innovations of the likes of Mischa Mengelberg and Jan Bennick and Willem Broyker, there are all these Dutch people who still want to play straight jazz, then I guess this is proof that jazz is more resilient than some people think.

GROSS: My guest is our jazz critic Kevin Whitehead. He's written a new book called New Dutch Swing. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

Back with our jazz critic Kevin Whitehead. We're talking about his new book New Dutch Swing.

After your book was finished, you returned to the states -- returned to your home in New York; got rid of your apartment and sold a lot of your record collection, which shocked me when I heard you were doing that. It's something that I know -- I know several people with large collections who have toyed with the idea of selling part or all of it. Only one, in addition to you, that I know of has actually followed through on it.

I'm wondering what made you kind of cross the line?

WHITEHEAD: I think the moment I decided to sell off a bunch of my record collection was the moment that I -- the last time I moved in New York; when I moved to Brooklyn, and had 150 cartons of records, or something like that. And it was just ridiculous. You know, a lot of these records I hadn't heard in 20 years anyway.

At this point, I think I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to listen to again and what I didn't. I should mention I'm now down to my skeleton record collection. I now have like 35 cartons of LPs and CDs -- something like that.

Also, from living in America where I had lots and lots of stuff, to going to Holland where I didn't have very much stuff at all, it made me realize that not having so much stuff is a better way. It makes you more mobile. I have a little bit of the -- the aimless drifter in me, I think. And it's just easier to do that if you're not dragging all this stuff through the world with you.

GROSS: Well, you're doing a little bit of drifting now. You're not sure if you're going to live in New York or someplace else, right?

WHITEHEAD: I'm sure I'm not going to live in New York. I -- I would still like to spend two, three months a year in Holland, for sure. I want to live in the United States the rest of the time, but I don't really know where I want to live at this point.

GROSS: I know you've had the chance to hear some concerts since being back in the states, and some of them in New York. I'm wondering if you feel that New York -- the New York jazz scene has changed at all since you left? Or whether you're hearing things in a different way than you did before?

WHITEHEAD: I'd say that on the basis of the few concerts that I've been to since I've been back, it hasn't changed as much as I would have hoped, considering I'd been gone almost three years. Jazz seems to be in a very slow period now. I notice more and more critics are mentioning this in private conversations; that a lot of the things that are happening in music don't really engage them so much anymore.

I think the fact that jazz is so backward-oriented now sort of makes it impossible to advance in a certain way.

GROSS: You mean emphasizing the tradition; drawing on the roots; drawing on the past.

WHITEHEAD: Yeah, yeah -- there -- there's -- if one thing living in Holland has taught me, it's that there's far too much attention paid to the tradition in the states. The jazz tradition will take care of itself because the values that jazz embodies are always going to be there in the music. And if -- if something isn't a good value, it will drop away. But that's OK. Every art form evolves. That's just what happens.

What always attracted me to jazz was the innovative strain, and people thinking on their feet. And I think in recent years, it has been suggested that this is not in fact what jazz was always about; that jazz was always about, you know, swinging rhythm and an elegant instrumental statement. Those things are great, but they're not all of it. And I think jazz is kind of missing that exploratory sense a lot these days.

GROSS: Well Kevin, why don't you leave us with some more music from Holland?

WHITEHEAD: Terry, I brought this device with me today that maybe I could play. It's called a "crackle box."

SOUNDBITE OF CRACKLE BOX

This is typical of a certain kind of Dutch lack of respect for certain traditions. It's a portable electronic music instrument about the size of a transistor radio, which was invented by a guy named Michel Weisswees (ph) in the mid-'70s.

It was basically designed to be a portable, unprogrammable synthesizer. It's an unstable oscillator and part of the circuitry is exposed on the front of the box, so when you touch the -- some pads on the front of the box, you actually enter into the circuit yourself and become what Weisswees calls the "thinking part" of the machine.

SOUNDBITE OF CRACKLE BOX

You can get vibrato on it, which is quite nice, if I could get a note.

SOUNDBITE OF CRACKLE BOX

Once nice thing about the crackle box is it's very hard to repeat something that you do once.

GROSS: How has it been used in Dutch jazz?

WHITEHEAD: It was used sort of a -- as a kind of an anti-jazz ray gun, I guess you would say. It was -- if you wanted another layer of a sort of built-in musical chaos, it was a nice little device to have.

GROSS: Another thing I really enjoy about a lot of the Dutch jazz that you write about in your book is that it's fun and it doesn't feel like it needs to intellectualize about it or be apologetic about it. I mean, there -- there is a group, not everyone in the states -- but there is a group of people who feel that fun equals shallow, and for music to be serious and important, it can't be fun.

WHITEHEAD: Yeah, well then they'd have to throw out an awful lot of Sonny Rawlins (ph) records from the late '50s, early '60s if they really believe that. Obviously, I don't believe that that's true.

But there's nothing -- there's nothing incompatible between having some fun and being serious. You know, you can -- to display some levity when you're making music is not a sign of disrespect. It's a sign that music is good for that also, you know. Why shouldn't music be good for all these emotions that we feel?

GROSS: Since you were talking about the influence of Thelonious Monk on many of the Dutch jazz musicians, I thought maybe we could close with something that shows that Monk influence. Maybe you can choose something like that for us.

WHITEHEAD: Yeah, I have a piece here by the pianist and composer Jus Jansen (ph). It's called "I Mean" which I assume is a pun on the Monk title "I Mean You" and it's sort of a deliberate pastiche of Monk-ish piano techniques.

GROSS: And it's -- it's very entertaining.

LAUGHTER

WHITEHEAD: Glad you think so. Me, too.

LAUGHTER

GROSS: Thank you, Kevin. And Kevin Whitehead is FRESH AIR's jazz critic and author of the new book New Dutch Swing.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, "I MEAN")

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Kevin Whitehead
High: A conversation with our jazz critic, Kevin Whitehead. Kevin's just published a new book, called "New Dutch Swing." It's an in-depth examination of Amsterdam's vital and distinctive jazz scene. Kevin brings along some recordings of his favorite players.
Spec: Music Industry; Europe; Amsterdam; Jazz; New Dutch Swing
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: New Dutch Swing
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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