DATE August 24, 2000 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Richard Rosenthal discusses police life differences
between big cities and small towns
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
After 20 years on the New York City police force, working as an undercover
agent, homicide detective, helicopter pilot and heavy weapons instructor,
Richard Rosenthal gave up big-city police work. Since 1990, he's been the
chief of police in Wellfleet, a beautiful village on Cape Cod populated with
fishermen and people who have given up city life. In the summer, they share
their town with vacationers. Rosenthal made another big change in his life.
He started to write. He has several published novels and non-fiction books
about police work. His new book, "Rookie Cop," is a memoir about his
first assignment on the NYPD.
In 1969, just before he was to be sworn in as a cop, he was told that he would
work undercover to infiltrate the Jewish Defense League, the extremist
militant group led by Rabbi Meir Kahane that was arming itself against
everyone it perceived as enemies of the Jewish people. In order to avoid
blowing his cover, Rosenthal had to lie to his friends and tell them that he'd
decided not to become a cop. I asked him what he did tell them.
Mr. RICHARD ROSENTHAL (Writer): I was fortunate in that I didn't have that
many friends in the area. I had just come out of four years of military
intelligence having served in the Air Force as a Russian language specialist.
I spent about a year at a local school in New Jersey. My parents had moved
there ultimately from Brooklyn some years earlier. And so when I joined the
NYPD, I really didn't know anyone in the New York City area. However, when I
was first interviewed for the position of undercover officer, they made it
quite clear that I was to tell people I was no longer interested in being a
New York City police officer, and, in fact, only perhaps half a dozen
detectives, my parents, my sister and my wife were the only people who knew
that I was, in fact, a police officer in New York City.
GROSS: What do you think would have had happened to you if your cover was
Mr. ROSENTHAL: I could have gotten into some real trouble. Understand that
when I was out in the field, I did not have any backup. That would not have
been possible. My assignment was a deep undercover intelligence gathering
assignment. Now on TV and in the media, you read about the police
intelligence or undercover officers. What that generally refers to are
individuals who go to a police bureau, leave their shield and ID in a drawer,
go out and do whatever they're doing, come back, pick up their shield and ID
and then go home for the day. In my case, I was basically on the job 24 hours
a day. As I had no police identification, there was no way to know what my
job was as a police officer. In fact, my cover was that of a taxi driver and
a part-time student at Brooklyn College. But it was a very different kind of
intelligence gathering task than most police officers would ever come near.
GROSS: What were some of the most dangerous things you found out about that
the Jewish Defense League was up to?
Mr. ROSENTHAL: Well, within five months of my entering the organization and
through a series of lucky chances and serendipity, they put me in charge of
their weapons. And they had over a hundred assorted firearms--handguns,
rifles, shotguns--plus, quite a bit of bomb-making equipment. And when I
first became--I was put in charge of their weapons and the training of their
personnel. We didn't know how to make bombs, and so I think one of the most
dangerous parts of my task was when I hung around these people when they were
fiddling around with the various chemicals trying to get something to explode
and ultimately when we succeeded making viable--a couple of explosive devices,
I was told by members of the bomb squad that the way they were going about
making these devices should have caused them to blow up right there.
GROSS: Right in your faces?
Mr. ROSENTHAL: Yes. And these were formidable devices. These were rather
large pipes, capped both ends with very powerful chemicals inside. And when
we did detonate them, they did some horrific damage to the test objects that
we set them off by.
GROSS: So what was the outcome of your mission?
Mr. ROSENTHAL: Well, I was under for about two years, and, ultimately, I
went before a federal grand jury and a series of indictments came down on the
key players within the Jewish Defense League. Arrests were made, and,
ultimately, for complicated reasons, which I'd be pleased to go into, a deal
was struck with the leadership of the JDL, and they surrendered their
firearms, their bomb-making equipment, a case of dynamite. And, you know, I
basically disappeared for a few months and then went to the police academy
some months after that.
GROSS: What was it like to become a cop in a uniform after starting your
Mr. ROSENTHAL: Surrealistic. The undercover assignment was rather special
in that I had a tremendous amount of responsibility. I had a very successful
mission. I had virtually no oversight, and now I went back into the unwashed
masses, as it were, as a police officer. I entered the academy not as a
probationary officer, because I was well beyond that time frame. So I wore a
blue uniform while the probationary officers wore gray. As an aside, another
half dozen or so undercovers surfaced at about the same time, and so I was
basically going to the academy with members of the Black Panthers, the
Students for a Democratic Society--let me see--Communist Party and I
believe the Young Lords. It was quite an interesting and eclectic luncheon
group we had.
GROSS: Hmm. I'm interested in the fact that you retired from the New York
City police--I think it was in 1990--and made a decision to move to a smaller
town. You became the chief of police in Wellfleet on Cap Cod...
Mr. ROSENTHAL: Yes.
GROSS: ...in New England. And it's hard to imagine a bigger shift, you know,
from this huge city with a lot of violence in it to a small town that has a
lot of tourists in the summer and vacationers, but it's a small, lovely,
quiet, peaceful town for the most part.
Mr. ROSENTHAL: Oh, you don't know its underbelly. No, I'm only kidding.
It's very nice. In fact, it was a very deliberate move on my part. I was
coming up to my 20th year in the NYPD. I'd made a conscious decision that I
was getting a bit tired of the Machiavellian goings-on at the upper echelons
of the NYPD. I wanted to have my own sandbox to play in, if you will. I also
wanted to continue my professional writing. So right on my resume, I believe
I wrote something to the effect of, `My goal was to take charge of a
low-population-density police department and continue professional writing.'
So, in fact, I accomplished my goal.
It was simply a matter of chance that I secured the position in Wellfleet. I
had never been to Cape Cod prior to going for my oral interview there. And I
just happened to have stumbled upon one of the most beautiful Cape Cod towns
that there are, which is 65 percent or 66 percent of the property of Wellfleet
is owned by the National Park Service, so it will stay pristine forever. And
we have a lovely bay on one end, and the Atlantic Ocean on the other end.
It's a lovely, lovely place to be. So both my wife and I are very pleased
that this decision was made, and I've been there for almost 11 years now.
GROSS: How big is the Wellfleet police force that you watch over now?
Mr. ROSENTHAL: My year-round size is approximately 13 sworn officers, plus a
number of dispatchers and...
GROSS: Excuse me, I feel like I have to laugh. It's so small.
Mr. ROSENTHAL: It's great. It's--you know, I run it like a detective squad.
My first 12 years in the NYPD, I was a detective, and I was used to how
detective squads functioned. They tended to be less formal, less structured,
and it was almost a family relationship. So here I am in an organization
that's very much similar to a detective squad in both its size and its
responsibilities. Because detectives, by and large, have to deal with
perceptions of problems, and they've got to placate people. Yes, they do
solve crimes, that's one of their functions, but they also have a public
relations function. And very much in Wellfleet, what we do is--we can't always
accomplish a specific goal, but we can make people feel more comfortable that
their problems are being addressed, that we'll do the best we can to deal with
whatever situation arises.
And so, I guess you'd have to say that I run my police department very much
the way I'm used to a New York City detective squad as being run--a little
less formal. My door's always open. Any officer can come in. We can sit
down. We can chat. I have regular meetings with people. I listen to ideas
and--'cause I've got some pretty bright guys working for me, and women--and
it's just a nice--I try to keep it to be a nice atmosphere within the
department, because I think that ultimately works its way down to how the
officers interact with citizens.
GROSS: Richard Rosenthal is my guest. He spent 20 years as a cop on the New
York City force, and now he's the chief of police in Wellfleet on Cape Cod.
He's also an author, and his latest book is called, "Rookie Cop: Deep Uncover
in the Jewish Defense League." And this is about the very first assignment he
Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Richard Rosenthal, author of the new memoir, "Rookie
Cop." In 1990, after 20 years with the NYPD, he became the chief of police
in Wellfleet, a small town on Cape Cod in New England.
So what are the typical crimes that you see on a daily or weekly basis? And
how do they vary during the summer season and during the rest of the year?
Mr. ROSENTHAL: In the summer, we have many families come, so we don't have,
say, crimes of violence. I've never known of a stranger assault in Wellfleet,
where a person who didn't know another person either assaulted, mugged or
somehow did something that was so inappropriate as to really raise one's
eyebrows. It's quite a safe place to be. Having said that, we have had some
situations where we have family matters that have be dealt with. We'll have
neighbor disputes. They can cause all kinds of problems because, frankly, the
people live next to each other and it just doesn't go away. And we'll have
the more mundane problems of parking matters, skateboarders, skateboarding
inappropriate locations. Sometimes children do malicious acts of damage.
Nothing much more exciting than that.
GROSS: Yeah. I'm wondering how the lack of crime affects how people live? I
mean, for instance, in New York, you have many bolts on your door. You have,
you know, a Club on your car, an alarm system. You don't walk around at night
if you can avoid it. You know what hours is comparatively safe to take the
subway. I mean, in some ways your whole life is regulated by when it's safe
to do certain things and how to do certain things safely. What about in
Mr. ROSENTHAL: Well, we don't lock our house. My car is never locked. I
know many people in town don't lock their houses. We have something called a
reassurance program where a person who's coming on an age either calls us in
the morning--if we can't contact them by 10:00 we go out and see how they are.
And I would say about 80 percent of the homes that we go to are unlocked.
GROSS: I'm wondering if you feel your opinion about human nature has changed
since living in the small town of Wellfleet compared to how you felt about
people living in New York City when you were on the police force there.
Mr. ROSENTHAL: Well, I find people to be remarkably similar. I find that,
as a species, we tend to be terribly xenophobic, regrettably tribal. We like
to find differences so that we can distinguish one group from another, protect
ourselves from the other groups. We're just so resistant to diversity it's
really remarkable. In Wellfleet, though, there seems to be less of that kind
of acrimony. Groups tend to function a bit more smoothly together. And it
seems to be a pleasant--I think it's a pleasant environment for people to grow
up and live in. And, frankly, it's idyllic as far I'm concerned, because
really anyone could walk the streets anytime of the day or night. They won't
be molested by anyone. And it's about a safe a location as you can find in
GROSS: I want to ask you, from your point of view, about a controversy that
was written up in a Cape Cod newspaper. This was something that happened
earlier this year. An African student in Wellfleet was stopped on a bike path,
I think for looking suspicious, and he thought that he was being stopped and
that he had a gun pointed at him for racist reasons. What's the story from
Mr. ROSENTHAL: That was a holiday day. I was working that day. I can just
tell you the story from my perspective. I was sitting in my office doing some
paperwork, and I see a sergeant of mine running out of the office, and happens
to be an African-American sergeant. I'd asked Frank what he was doing, and he
said there was a pursuit going on at the bike path. So I left with Frank. I
jumped into my car. Frank jumped into his. He was ahead of me. And Frank
took the bike path. I stayed on Route 6. And the officer who first saw this
young man was attempting to find him again, as the young man had run from him.
I ultimately found the young man as he was crossing Route 6, and I
challenged him. He just looked at me. I challenged him again. He started
coming toward me. I took my gun out at--when he jammed his hand in his
right-hand pocket, which was a very, very bad thing to do. Turns out he had a
Walkman on which I didn't see. Ultimately...
GROSS: And he was trying to turn the Walkman off?
Mr. ROSENTHAL: Yeah, exactly. But I don't know that. I don't have a
Mr. ROSENTHAL: At any rate, according to the officer who did the initial
stop, he saw this fellow walking--he'd seen the fellow earlier that day. It
was nothing unusual. But when he saw him walking down the bike path, he had
disappeared in an area where we had a series of problems--some burglaries not
too much earlier--and he drove his car over there, saw the fellow, asked him
to come over, and the fellow basically bolted. The officer attempted to
pursue him. The fellow basically circled around in behind the officer. The
officer saw him again and then pursued again. Meanwhile, both the sergeant
and I were en route at that point, because he was calling in over as a
So this is one of those situations where the African student thought that he
was being picked on because of his color, and the officers believed they were
doing their job in ascertaining who this person was. Why did he flee from the
police? And, in fact, flight is an indication that someone is doing something
inappropriate or wrong. So it's one of those situations that is very
difficult to resolve. Ultimately, I had a series of meetings with the people
who this young man was staying with, and, in fact, that's even going on as we
GROSS: To tell them what?
Mr. ROSENTHAL: Well, we discussed the issue. They certainly believed that
it was a racial matter. I don't believe it was a racial matter, but, frankly,
perception is more important than reality these days. So I've invited the
woman, who the young man is staying with, to speak at an upcoming citizens'
police academy--and that should be happening sometime this September or
October--and she can discuss various issues about how police comport
themselves with people of color. And it should be an interesting discussion.
GROSS: Now this is the kind of misunderstanding that, in a large city, could
really get out of control. And I'm wondering if you think that there's
different ways of addressing it in a small town, things that you couldn't do
if you were in New York?
Mr. ROSENTHAL: Well, I certainly have put in a lot of time on this. And, in
fact, I learned a great deal. Because one of the problems that I've
discovered, after speaking to a fairly large number of African-Americans, is
their perception of how the police interact with them. And I really hadn't
given it much thought, frankly, but, for instance, the issue of racial
profiling. It's less a matter of whether, in fact, it exists or not, but the
fact that there's a large population of Americans of color who think that, in
fact, it does exist. So the burden, I think, falls on the police to deal with
And one of the points that I make to fellow officers is that we have a very,
very large population of middle-class and upper middle-class people of color
in this country, that they're politically powerful--which I think is
important--and that they have to be listened to. Not listening to that group
would be akin to not listening to a large group of white middle-class people
who had some grievance with the police, and it's an issue that has to be
addressed. The question is: What's the best way to do it? And I think we're
struggling with that question right now.
GROSS: Is there anything you miss about being a cop in New York City?
Mr. ROSENTHAL: I miss--there was quite a bit of adventure there. I did some
interesting things. Homicide was an interesting line of work. Robbery squad,
going after heavily armed robbery teams got the old adrenaline going. And, of
course, flying helicopters for the NYPD had its moments. But I think, as a
trade-off, I'm living a very high quality of life. My wife enjoys it. I
enjoy the people that I work with, and I'm not at all sorry that I made that
kind of a decision.
GROSS: Has your physical health changed since moving to Wellfleet from New
Mr. ROSENTHAL: My wife commented that--when I was a homicide detective, we
were a fairly busy unit. We weren't the busiest in the Bronx, but perhaps
we'd have 75, 80 homicides for the small squad that worked out of our area.
And it's amazing what human beings will do to other human beings. And after
you've done enough homicide investigation and examining crime scenes and
seeing enough battered bodies, it does have an impact on you. And I think it
caused me to become quite jaded and unemotional. And I think that, since
coming to Wellfleet, I've since kind of relaxed and not had such a hard shell.
I think I've opened up a bit.
GROSS: Which is hard to do as a cop probably.
Mr. ROSENTHAL: It is, for a whole bunch of reasons. Understand that when
we get to the scene of an emergency, the last group of people you want to see
upset are your public safety responders, whether they be EMS, fire or police.
There could be mayhem around these people and you want them to comport
themselves in a professional, unhurried, unexcited way. And so you've got to
train yourself that, regardless of what you're seeing, regardless of who's
screaming around you, you must do certain things and you must do it in a
certain order. Anything else and you're not serving the public. But what it
does, it does have an impact on your psyche as a human being.
GROSS: Well, Richard Rosenthal, thanks so much for talking with us.
Mr. ROSENTHAL: My pleasure.
GROSS: Richard Rosenthal is the chief of police in Wellfleet on Cape Cod. His
new memoir about working undercover with the NYPD is called, "Rookie Cop:
Deep Undercover in the Jewish Defense League."
I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Saxophonist James Carter discusses his career and how
he got interested in jazz
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Saxophonist James Carter has been praised for his ability to evoke earlier
eras of jazz in his playing. He's been recording since the early '90s when he
was in his early 20s. Before leading his own groups, he played with Lester
Bowie and Wynton Marsalis, who discovered Carter when he was still in high
school in Detroit. Carter has two new CDs. One features an electric band.
The other features music composed by and inspired by the guitarist Django
Reinhardt. It's called "Chasin' the Gypsy." Carter plays bass saxophone on
the popular Django Reinhardt composition "Nuages."
(Soundbite from "Nuages")
GROSS: James Carter, welcome to FRESH AIR.
Mr. JAMES CARTER (Musician): Thanks a lot for having me, Terry.
GROSS: Now you play bass saxophone on "Nuages." Why don't you describe the
bass saxophone, which I have a feeling some of our listeners haven't seen or
Mr. CARTER: Very important instrument. First off, the bass saxophone is the
very first saxophone that was ever made off of Adolphe Sax's drawing board.
It started with an experiment on the superimposition of the bass clarinet
mouthpiece on to a keyed bugle instrument of bass proportions called the
offaclide(ph). And from this, you got saxophonistic sounds without any
overtones. And then, of course, with a little finagling and finally patenting
it, you get the bass saxophone circa 18--I guess you could say 1840, but 1846.
I feel that a saxophonist really hasn't lived until he's played or at least
held a bass saxophone because it's the mother instrument pretty much. After
that horn was made, all the other sizes--13 in total--were made.
GROSS: Now you said a saxophonist hasn't lived until he's held a bass
Mr. CARTER: Or played.
GROSS: The times I've seen it played, it's been, like, wheeled out on stage,
it's so big. I'm not sure if you actually hold it or if it like sits on the
ground while you play it.
Mr. CARTER: No, I hold it.
GROSS: You hold it.
Mr. CARTER: A bass saxophone winds up becoming a machine if it's on a stand,
you know, and then you don't have that personal feeling. You don't have the
closeness of it, the vibrations of the horn. It's not one with you if it's on
a stand. And, of course, certain people can't deal with it from time to time,
but, of course, if you can muster up the strength to hold it, just like it's
alto or a tenor, then I think that would be all the better.
GROSS: Now you also play the F mezzo saxophone. How does that compare to the
more familiar saxophones, like tenor and alto and soprano?
Mr. CARTER: The F mezzo saxophone was made by a con circa 1928 through 1930
actually, and this saxophone was made to be in competition of the alto and
soprano for a lead voice. The quirk of timing that it was made, at the onset
of the Depression, I think, kind of played into the demise of the instrument.
With the Depression, at this time, I guess you're looking at--there's a
one-two punch that's going on because swing music was getting ready to come in
in the form of big bands, so all the instrument companies were pretty much
catering to that, meaning that altos, tenors and baritones were primarily
made, and everything else, such as sopranos and basses and other sizes of
saxophones, were eventually dropped from production, including this F mezzo.
And, of course, along with the Great Depression, they had to buckle down
anyway on what was really selling, so the instrument met a precipitous death.
I mean, it was sad that it happened that way, and it wound up becoming the
equivalent to a crash test dummy in instrument repair schools.
GROSS: What's the sound of the mezzo?
Mr. CARTER: It's in between alto and soprano. It's actually a step above
alto, and it's very lyrical, almost exotic, very great be-bop horn. It has a
large throat in it that just speaks all over the place, and it's--mm.
GROSS: Why don't we hear you playing the F mezzo on "Oriental Shuffle," which
is another composition by Django Reinhardt. This is from James Carter's new
album "Chasin' the Gypsy."
(Soundbite from "Oriental Shuffle")
GROSS: Saxophonist James Carter from his new CD "Chasin' the Gypsy." What
era of jazz were you first exposed to?
Mr. CARTER: I actually--my first few albums were from the early '30s, I would
say. "The Billie Holiday Story, Volume 3," which was on Columbia, represented
the mid-'30s to 1942 of Billie Holiday's career, and that got a good chunk of
her and the coupling of her and Lester Young together. And I was very heavily
influenced by her and Lester and the cohesiveness that they had in their
recordings. And also, "Duke Ellington's 70th Birthday Concert," Basie's "Jam
3." Those are the first three albums that I had really been exposed to on
a more personal basis.
GROSS: So when you heard Billie Holiday with Lester Young, did you hear
yourself on the Lester Young part? Is that what you wanted to do?
Mr. CARTER: I heard it all, actually, and like, for example, "Mean To Me"--I
always thought "Mean To Me" went the way that Billie Holiday sang it until I
heard this Broadway version of it and I was like `Huh?' And it just really put
into me the feeling and the nuances that she was able to evoke at the drop of
a hat. It just turned me completely out, you know.
GROSS: Did you know any musicians when you were growing up?
Mr. CARTER: Other than my family? One particular musician that was very key
in me finally settling on the saxophone was a boarder that we had in the house
by the name of Charles Greene. And he had his collection of instruments at
his house with us, and at any given time, when the family was on another floor
or out of the house altogether, I would sneak up and check out his
instruments, in particular this gold-plated alto that he had that just looked
like--it was eye candy personified. I mean, it was just all gold and it
looked like the golden chalice that, you know--whoo! So I had like several
rendezvous with this horn, you know, in private and all, and I was pantomiming
like I was playing on it, and finally, on one of these rendezvous, I got
caught red-handed with this horn and--by him, actually, and he noticed that I
was holding it properly, and so he didn't get entirely mad, but he was like,
`Hey, man, you know, come on, man, you know.' But it wound up being the spark
that made him--he helped pick out my first horn. That's what it boiled down
GROSS: So did you have a teacher when you were starting out?
Mr. CARTER: Oh, yes. And I owe it all to him, really. His name's Donald
Washington, and if it really wasn't for him, I wouldn't have found out about
the joys of saxophone and how it could--just the joys of music in general, and
also, he hit me to National Public Radio, so he's hit me to a whole lot of
things as far as that goes and just across the board and how I've been able to
apply it to playing the saxophone in just general life.
GROSS: My guest is saxophonist James Carter. We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is James Carter. He has two new CDs, "Layin' in the Cut,"
which features an electric band, and "Chasin' the Gypsy," which features music
composed by and inspired by Django Reinhardt.
Did your teacher share your interest in earlier periods of jazz or did he try
to push you in the direction of more contemporary music?
Mr. CARTER: He shared my interest in everything; in particular, jazz.
Because when I first started in a controlled institutionalized environment,
which we're looking at the fifth grade, we had a teacher that was pretty much
teaching rudimentary stuff out of a method book, like "Mary Had A Little
Lamb," "High Seas Duet(ph)," "Hot Cross Buns" and all that stuff, you know.
GROSS: It could be pretty discouraging, don't you think?
Mr. CARTER: Especially for s...
GROSS: Excited about this new instrument and you have to play "Hot Cross
Mr. CARTER: Especially for somebody that just the night before was listening
to "Duke Ellington's 70th Birthday Concert" and went through the whole
compass of his instrument and now has to settle with, `All right, new note
today is B.' So you're looking at somebody going from playing (imitates
saxophone) or at least trying to play anyway and just going all over the horn
and then, all of a sudden, having to come in the following day--(imitating
saxophone) toot, toot, toot, toot, toot, toot, toot. It's one heck of a
Mr. CARTER: So anyway, while I was warming up off of things that I had played
the previous night before, there was a sense of discouragement in what I was
playing, you know, because it wasn't along with what everybody else was trying
to play. Like everybody else was trying to brush up on what was on the page,
and I was out there just going (imitates saxophone), you know, just playing
all over the horn on what I had just heard, you know. And this guy was not at
all supportive. In fact, he was saying that--at the time, my reading wasn't
so hot and it's like, `Oh, you'll never make it,' this, that and the other.
And there was this poster that he had up of Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp, which
was a music camp in Twin Lake, Michigan, saying, `Oh, you'll never make it
there.' You know, it's just very discouraging and stuff, you know.
GROSS: So I know you went to this jazz camp. You ended up teaching at the
jazz camp. I think it was when you were in high school, Wynton Marsalis
taught a workshop in your school and took an interest in your playing. What
did you get out of that workshop?
Mr. CARTER: He came into town to play as soloist with our symphony, the
Detroit Symphony Orchestra, and it was decided that he was going to have some
extra time, so our high school hosted a citywide get-together for all the fine
arts departments in all the schools. And our jazz band was particularly
hosting him coming to our school and just having a Q-and-A with us, you know,
with everybody that attended. And I got into talking with him afterwards and
just chewing the fat with him, you know, `I've been listening to this, that
and the other,' and he sat down at the piano and started playing chords, and I
was just telling him what he was playing, you know. Like he'd go `bling,' and
I was like, `OK, that's D-minor with a flat-five,' and you know, `bling,'
`That's E-flat with such and such inversion.' `Bling'--that's, you know--and
he was like, `Dang, the kid got ears, you know.'
So he was like, `Play off of this,' so he started playing some D-minor modal
passage, and I started playing along with him and he dug what he heard. We
exchanged addresses and that was it. So later on that year, late-November of
'85, Wynton's manager calls up--Vernon Hammond at the time--and was saying
that Wynton would like to have you come down for a gig at Blues Alley in
December. So I was, `OK,' you know, playing along and stuff. And that's how
that went down. So I played from that point off and on until summer of '87,
and that was about it.
GROSS: One of your other characteristics is that you're a real snazzy
dresser. You often wear a hat, or at least used to, when you performed. Some
really sharp suits--I mean, for instance, on the "Chasin' the Gypsy" album,
you're wearing this really bold black and white plaid suit with really wide
lapels, very eye-catching. I'm wondering if you always were a good and flashy
dresser, or if that had more to do with your sense of performance, of what
kind of image you wanted on stage.
Mr. CARTER: I think--well, actually, that came a little later, because when I
first started playing, I had like decent suits and whatnot, but when it came
to when I had to coordinate something, I had some wild combinations that were
going on, even during the time that I was with Wynton. It was like I was kind
of hid on stage and all, but I started paying attention. I had my
subscription to GQ and all that, and started catching sales, and just got hip
all around, you know. I'd say circa late '86, going into '87, stuff started
turning around for me and all as far as fashion was concerned. And the whole
purpose for that, I think, was to just mirror what the music was about. You
know, even if I'm not playing anything, the dress is going to say something,
the dress is going to be that statement; like, you know, it's going to be
bold, it's going to be whatever contingent upon my mood is.
You know, it could be tone on tone black, a tone on tone white, you know, that
could just say something about the neutrality in my music or in my life at
that particular time. I mean, just like they say, you know, life imitates art
and dress definitely imitates art in this instance, and dress imitates life.
It's just a part of the accessories that are needed to get this music across
and to get one's self--help with one's self-esteem and...
GROSS: What about the hats?
Mr. CARTER: Hats actually started coming along as of--after I got my hair
together actually, because there was one particular point where I fell in with
what was supposedly popular at the time and had like the Jheri curl thing and
all that stuff going back--anyway--ah, what days they were and all that, you
know. Sitting up on...
GROSS: Well, now that you've made that confession, yeah.
Mr. CARTER: Yeah. That's--I'll go ahead and say that, you know, but thank
heavens, we've gotten past them and back to a natural head of hair that can
take a hat as opposed to putting it on top of a Jheri curl, which would have
probably ate it up over a given amount of time, you know, because it certainly
did a number on a bunch of my shirts and the collars and stuff. I mean,
GROSS: What does it do to them?
Mr. CARTER: Just renders them useless, particularly if it's o...
GROSS: Does it stain them or...
Mr. CARTER: Yeah, it stains them something terrible, I mean, particularly if
it's something that's white. Forget it. You might as well use it as a dust
rag or something.
GROSS: So you got rid of the Jheri curls, cut your hair and were able to wear
a hat. Was it also like a nod to Lester Young or Ben Webster?
Mr. CARTER: It just seemed like--maybe a slight nod to them as far as--it
seemed like everybody had hats on back in the days--I mean, G-men, gangsters,
the whole bit, you know. It wasn't just about musicians having hats on and
stuff. I mean, it certainly helped, but it was just being able to--and it was
also a rite of passage, I think, in that sense, too. So, yeah, that's what it
mostly was, a rite of passage by being able to have like a--what I would
consider to be a big man's hat on and stuff like that, you know, and to
finally be able to fill that crown up and to sport that brim, and it was like,
GROSS: I want to thank you very much for talking with us about your music.
Mr. CARTER: Thanks a lot, Terry.
GROSS: James Carter has two new CDs: "Layin' in the Cut," which features an
electric band, and "Chasin' the Gypsy," which features music composed by and
inspired by Django Reinhardt. Coming up, our linguist, Geoff Nunberg, on the
pleasures of great punctuation. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
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Commentary: Finer points of punctuation
TERRY GROSS, host:
Punctuation. We think of it as a topic only a linguist could love. FRESH
AIR's own linguist, Geoff Nunberg, wants to share his love for great
punctuation because punctuation has been getting a raw deal for decades.
GEOFF NUNBERG reporting:
I was telling a friend the other day that I was getting bogged down in the
middle of the Philip Roth novel, but that I always give Roth the benefit of
the doubt. `What do you see in him?,' she asked. I said something about his
intelligence and energy and then, because that sounded kind of vague, I added,
`Also, he's a great punctuator.' I realized that this puts me solidly in what
you could think of as the Stradlaterian school of literary aesthetics. You
remember Stradlater, Holden Caulfield's roommate at Pency Prep. He asks
Holden to write an English composition for him and then adds, `Just don't do
it too good is all. Don't stick in all the commas and all in the right
place.' And Holden says to the reader, `That's something that gives me a
royal pain, I mean, if you're good at writing compositions and somebody starts
talking about commas.'
It wasn't until years after I read "The Catcher in the Rye" that it occurred
to me how odd it was that Holden should assume that an interest in punctuation
was a sign of the literary Philistine, or that the rest of us should so
readily agree. But just imagine a composer getting huffy because somebody
suggests that the art of musical composition has something to do with putting
rests in the right places. How did we get to the point where even our
composition handbooks deal with punctuation under the heading of `mechanics'?
One reason why we moderns can take punctuation for granted is that we've
shrunk the playing field to the point where the game doesn't seem to be much
of a challenge anymore. Our sentences have gotten so short and so simple that
punctuation seems to have a lot less work to do in holding them together. The
tendency is easy to document. Not long ago, the sociologist Todd Gitlin wrote
a piece in The Nation where he reported a study he'd done that showed that the
length of the average sentence in novels on The New York Times Bestseller List
has decreased by more than 25 percent over the last 60 years, while the
average number of punctuation marks per sentence has dropped by more than
But what should we make of this? Gitlin made no secret of his view when he
called his article `The Dumb-Down.' But that doesn't necessarily follow and,
in any event, the tendency isn't limited to popular books. To satisfy my
curiosity, I made my own little study, but instead of looking at
best-sellers, I looked at the prestigious journal Science. The effect was the
same. Over the last hundred years, the average sentence has gotten markedly
shorter, and the number of punctuation marks per sentence has decreased by
half. But you wouldn't describe that as a dumb-down. At least I don't know
anybody who would say that science has become an easier read over the past
Serious fiction is no exception. It's true there are still a lot of writers
who are at ease with the complex sentence rhythms of classical fiction. You
think particularly of English writers, like Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis or of
David Lodge, who turns this ornate syntax on and off at will. But most
American writers come to the dinner table holding only a comma and a dash to
chop up their thoughts with. And that's not to mention writers like Raymond
Carver, who seems to think of sentences as a kind of finger food; that every
comma he had to stick in was a small defeat for minimalism.
When you mention simplified punctuation, people immediately start to talk
about Hemingway. But there's nothing particularly Hemingwayesque about most
modern prose fiction, even if it's held together with the same spare set of
resources. You can do an astonishing range of voices with nothing but commas
and dashes to work with, the death pirouettes of Lorrie Moore, the ambling
periods of David Foster Wallace, the jagged riffs of Don DeLillo, or, for that
matter, the deceptively rambling chatter of J.D. Salinger.
Still, I have a weakness for writers who build up their sentences with a full
panoply of tools, writers who aren't diffident about occasionally dropping a
semicolon into the middle of a parenthetical. That sort of punctuational
virtuosity has a particular appeal in a writer like Roth, who manages to do it
in first person narratives that don't evoke the august impersonal rhythms of
19th century writers like George Elliot or Meredith(ph). For all its
complexity, it's a decidedly conversational and modern voice. You have the
sense of watching thoughts as they ramify, double-back on themselves, break up
and come together again. They're like little prose arias, and I sometimes
stop to go back and hear them over again. The sentence is the expression of a
complete thought. That's what Mr. Painter(ph) taught us back in the ninth
grade, and I've been noodling it over ever since. You wouldn't think there
could be so many different ways of putting thoughts together, so many right
places to stick in commas and so many wrong ones.
GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist at Stanford University and the Xerox Palo
Alto Research Center.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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