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Other segments from the episode on February 7, 2001

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, February 7, 2001: Interview with Mark Salzman; Commentary on J.J. Johnson; Review of hip hop recordings “Live at the Fillmore” and “Restless."


DATE February 7, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Mark Salzman discusses his new book "Lying Awake" and
his research for the book

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, Mark Salzman, describes himself as an agnostic, but his new novel,
"Lying Awake," is set at a Carmelite monastery outside of Los Angeles and is
about faith. Sister John is a nun who has recently begun having divine
visions when she feels the presence of God. Her inspired writings have
her her new respect in the order. But when she learns that her visions may
really be caused by a brain tumor, she descends into a crisis of faith.
Writing about this book in The New Yorker, Lawrence Weschler describes
as having achieved something approaching a perfect little novel. Salzman's
other books include the memoir "Iron & Silk" about his two years in China
studying martial arts and "The Soloist," a novel about a cellist who was a
child protege but has lost his gift.

Let's start with a reading from "Lying Awake." Sister John has gone to a
neurologist because of a headache she's been having. He's run some tests.
this passage, she's waiting for the doctor's diagnosis.

Mr. MARK SALZMAN ("Lying Awake"): `Dr. Shepherd(ph) stepped, greeted her,
then opened her file across his knees. As he turned the pages, a pamphlet
slid out of the file and on to the floor. The cover showed two healthy
looking people smiling at each other. Under that image, Sister John saw the
title: Living With Epilepsy. She felt the blood rush out of her face and
limbs toward her heart, protecting it from the sudden chill. Sister John
come prepared to hear bad news about her health but not about the state of

`She knew quite well that one of the first questions asked of anyone wishing
to become a cloistered nun was: Have you ever been treated for mental
or epilepsy? If the answer was yes to either question, the candidate was
automatically rejected. Epilepsy was particularly feared because of its
reputation for producing compelling but false visions. Doctors and clergy
alike had referred to the disease for centuries as "holy madness."

`Please, God, take anything. Take my life, but don't take yourself away
me. Don't tell me I haven't known you at all. The doctor picked up the
brochure without comment and put it back into the file. "The results of
test are back," he said. "And while it might not sound like good news, I
think you'll see that it's not so bad either."'

GROSS: That's Mark Salzman reading from his new novel "Lying Awake." Mark,
what kind of epilepsy does the nun in your story have?

Mr. SALZMAN: What she has is a variety called temporal lobe epilepsy which
is interesting because it doesn't necessarily cause the kind of physical
symptoms that we usually associate with epilepsy: convulsions, a loss of
consciousness. The seizures can be experienced psychologically. And
something that's really interesting about this disorder, which for a long
was known as Dostoyevsky syndrome, is that some of the changes in
that are associated with it are an intensification of emotional life,
increased concern with philosophical, religious and cosmic matters and a
general sense of illumination, mission and fate. And so I just thought it
would be a wonderful problem if someone who is already dedicated to
life were to develop the symptoms of that disorder in midlife.

GROSS: How would you describe the questions that the novel asks about
religion and neurological disorders?

Mr. SALZMAN: Well, the nun is faced with the question--once she's diagnosed
as having the disorder and the doctor explains to her that the disorder may
causing these intense spiritual experiences she's been having, that's she's
been writing down in poetry and inspiring others with, the question then
becomes for her: Should she have it treated or not, because, of course,
wondering, `Just because there is a physiological explanation for these
experiences, does that mean they're not valid? Are my experiences false
simply because some doctor can say that there is a physiological explanation
for it, or did God intend for me to have this disorder in order to be a
for experiences that inspire others?' Really what it's about is the
of: What is real? What is true? What is valid spiritual experience? And
what is pathology?

GROSS: What led you to frame this question and build a novel around it?

Mr. SALZMAN: Well, it started when I read an article by Oliver Sacks, a
neurologist and wonderful writer, about a patient of his who had this
disorder, temporal lobe epilepsy. And after reading it, I remember
`Well'--in the case of the patient that Oliver Sacks described, he is not
interested in treatment. His seizures give him visual images of his
in Italy that are so intense and so accompanied emotional sense of
and peace and harmony that he's convinced that painting what he sees in
visions is his almost religious mission in life. And so he's not interested
in being treated. It's the best thing that's ever happened to him.

On the other hand, for this nun, the question becomes more complicated
she is dedicated to a life of service and it may well be that if she does
have the disorder treated, her seizures could eventually become convulsive
intractable and then she would be a burden to her community. So the real
question for her becomes: Should I do what is best for me personally, what
enjoy most, or what is best for others?

GROSS: Now how did you learn that anyone wishing to become a cloistered nun
is asked if they have epilepsy and rejected if they do?

Mr. SALZMAN: Well, I read about that. When I started doing some of the
research for the novel early on, I read about that in an article about
contemplative religious life, that this is--the article was actually about
religious and--nuns or monks, who in midlife, develop symptoms of mental
illness and how the community deals with it. And in passing they mentioned
that it's one of the things that is asked of a potential candidate, because
you can imagine in a cloistered community, ability to participate fully in
community life is essential for that community to survive. And so if one
person is not able to control their emotions or their experiences, it can
really be destructive. So I think for obvious reasons it could be--it's a
very high-risk thing.

GROSS: You write that the founder of the Carmelite order, St. Teresa of
Avila, had visions and headaches. Did she also have epilepsy?

Mr. SALZMAN: Well, she's considered a prime candidate for a possible
diagnosis of this--epilepsy--because she did suffer from seizures,
convulsions, comas. She struggled with all kinds of really serious illness
and so quite a few neurologists speculate that she could easily have had
disorder and it would explain the nature of some of the visions she had.
it's too far back in time to make a really positive diagnosis. I mention it
in the book because, of course, for the nun Sister John, the fictional
character, once she learns she has the disorder, if there's any possibility
that the founder of their order could have had the same problem, and it had
not been a problem, it had not been an obstacle to her search for God, it
would leave open the possibility that for Sister John maybe it's not the
thing for her to--maybe it is God's will that she have the disorder. I just
felt that that sort of complicated the situation a little bit.

GROSS: But you write that St. Teresa of Avila called her illness the
greatest teacher, but she also warned against seeking illness as a means of
cultivating holiness. And she went to doctors.

Mr. SALZMAN: That's right. Teresa of Avila, Therese of Lisieux, another
saint from the Carmelite order--they both suffered terribly from illness and
they both felt that in a sense illness had been a catalyst for them for a
deeper understanding of human suffering and the need for God's mercy. So in
sense, it was a grace for them. But they both were very careful to say if
you, in order to experience deeper grace, you go out and cultivate illness,
well, that goes against the whole idea of accepting what you are given, and
that becomes, then, a selfish pursuit. If you tried to make yourself sick
you refuse treatment in order to become more holy, well, that's a selfish
pursuit. You're going against the idea of allowing God to choose what will
happen for you and being as capable as possible of being of service to

GROSS: Now you mentioned in your book that the form of epilepsy that your
character has in the novel is named after Dostoyevsky because he had it,
What were his symptoms?

Mr. SALZMAN: Well, very much like the character in the novel, his symptoms
were that he would experience several hours of almost a crushing pain, a
stiffness of the limbs and a feeling that he was being just swallowed up and
crushed by darkness, but then finally it would burst open in a blinding
of not visual light but almost insight. And this is (technical
quote where he describes what it felt like. He wrote, "There are moments,
it is only a matter of five or six seconds when you feel the presence of the
eternal harmony. A terrible thing is the frightful clearness with which it
manifests itself and the rapture with which it fills you. If this state
to last more than five seconds, the soul could not endure it and would have
disappear. During these five seconds, I live a whole human existence, and
that I would give my whole life and not think I was paying too dearly."

GROSS: Now was he diagnosed with epilepsy or is this in retrospect that we
know he had it?

Mr. SALZMAN: Yes, he was diagnosed. He lived close enough to our time that
he was diagnosed with epilepsy. But, of course, during his life there
wasn't much of--there wasn't the kind of treatment that is available now for
it, so he lived with it till the end of his life.

GROSS: Now along with this kind of epilepsy comes not only visions, which
be quite divine, but also headaches which can be quite painful.

Mr. SALZMAN: Yes. Other unpleasant symptoms can be a sense of dread, a
panic, a wringing in the hears or hearing obsessively little bits of music,
advertising jingles. Unfortunately, most people who have temporal lobe
epilepsy--the symptoms are not pleasant. It's frightening and it can be
destructive to your relationships with others because it's difficult for
to understand what you're going through. But there are occasionally people
for whom the seizures are so ecstatic and so filled with a kind of
difficulties) that they become cherished. And those are the people for whom
the question of treatment really is very complicated.

GROSS: Now, you know, the Carmelite nun in your story has to ask the
question, you know, if she gets the brain tumor causing the epilepsy
will she still have visions and will she still feel as close to God; will
still feel moved to be a nun? And I'm wondering if you think there are
similar questions that writers or other artists take, such as if you're
depressed, as many artists are, and you take Prozac to cure your depression,
how will that affect your art or your writing?

Mr. SALZMAN: Absolutely. I think for every person it's an individual
choice. I think there are--for most people, depression is such a
illness that it is a worthwhile tradeoff to cut a little bit of the artistic
edge off in favor of preserving your ability to carry on healthy
with others, to get happiness from ordinary life as opposed to only from
extraordinary moments of artistic satisfaction. I personally think that
a worthwhile tradeoff for most people, but there are some who disagree and I
think that ultimately it is an individual choice.

GROSS: Have you ever faced a question like that yourself?

Mr. SALZMAN: Well, I think fortunately for me, no, I have not had to face
that kind of decision. I think my ongoing problem is a more common one.
the kind of artist who is a plodding writer. I work slowly. Insights come
very, very slowly. And then most of the insights that I do have turn out to
be cliched and banal and tiresome. And so my big problem is coping with my
disappointment with myself and what I'm able to do. And I'm easily
discouraged, and writing takes a long time to me. The book, for example,
six years to write, and during most of that time I felt lost. I felt
inadequate to the task. And during those stretches of time, I'd just get so
discouraged that I wondered whether really I'm qualified to be doing this at
all. And as far as I know, there's just not much out there that can help in
that situation. It's not that I have to (technical difficulties) I just
simply have to keep plodding on. But I've never had to face the (technical
difficulties) of situation that this character faces, where she is given a
medical option, a decision to make. I think it would be very difficult.

GROSS: It seems from your book that you have a fairly obsessive
and that you're kind of a serial obsessive. You'll be obsessed with cello
during one phase of your life, and have--obsessed with martial arts during
another, and Chinese literature during another and writing during another,
I'm wondering if you've ever thought of your own obsessions as perhaps being
part of a larger neurological problem.

Mr. SALZMAN: No. Well, certainly I suspect that there is a...

GROSS: I mean that partly lightly and partly seriously in the sense that--I
mean, there are people who are really obsessive and, on the one hand, that's
part of their gift.

Mr. SALZMAN: Absolutely.

GROSS: They become so absorbed in their art that they--I mean, nothing can
stop them. And on the other hand, they're that obsessive about the thing
most people wouldn't let bother them, and that really gets in the way.

Mr. SALZMAN: Sure. Oh, I--absolutely. I'm sure that there is a
neurological basis for that aspect of my personality, the fact that I'm so
deeply involved with things and I just can't let go until I've squeezed
whatever it is that I feel is there out of them and absorbed it. And just
you say, there's a good side to that and a bad side. The good side is that
when I start a book, I cannot let go of it until it's done, and that's a
thing. But it also means that little petty problems can really disturb me
keep me from being, you know, open to wonderful experiences. That
is a problem that I have. And I'm sure that there is some--someday they're
going to have an explanation: Well, it's because this area of the brain of
his does this and that. But as of yet, there's not much I can do about it.
just have to live with the flip side to it and appreciate the good side to

GROSS: Writer Mark Salzman is my guest, and his new novel is called "Lying

Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk more. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Mark Salzman, whose new novel "Lying Awake" is about a
Carmelite nun who learns that her mystical visions may be the result of a
brain tumor causing epilepsy.

Mark, how does your character, Sister John, resolve the problem about
to have the brain tumor that may be causing her visions removed or not?

Mr. SALZMAN: Well, I'm afraid that if I answer the question, then listeners
who haven't read the book--it will take some of the drama out of the
experience of reading the book because that is the central conflict.
It's--the central question of the novel is what is the right thing to do?
What I can say about it is that being a nun, of course, she asks God for an
answer, but God remains silent. And so she is forced to rely on her human
instincts to reach the best decision, the decision--what is right? Is it
right to do what's best for her personally, or what's best for others?

GROSS: Now you did some research for this novel, and some of that revolved
around visiting with Carmelite nuns. Would you describe the order?

Mr. SALZMAN: Well, the cloistered Carmelites are an order of nuns
limit the number of members of each community. I think 21 is the top end
because they want it to remain a small community that can remain focused on
prayer and contemplation. They follow a very, very strict schedule
usually 5:30 in the morning--maybe even earlier.

And what they're doing throughout the day is they're alternating between
meeting in choir and reading the Liturgy of the Hours, which is the official
prayers of the church, and then private prayer in their cells, and then
labor. They support themselves through the manual labor, usually making
or jams or communion wafers, that kind of thing. And their mission is to
to search for God by so simplifying their lives, so quieting their own minds
that they then can listen for the richness and the significance that's
contained in any given moment as opposed to searching for it in
moments. And so their life is about trying to find the sacred in the
ordinary. At least, that's my impression.

GROSS: Now there are characters in your novel who have doubts and have to
deal with doubts. Did any of the nuns that you spoke with share any doubts
with you?

Mr. SALZMAN: Absolutely. And I think one of the things that impressed me
deeply about them is that because they must face--they are in a sense alone
with God's silence every day and God's mystery, so to speak, that there can
no deceiving themselves about the truth of the fact that God is silent so
of the time. And in that silence, you have a sense that you're walking
through darkness. There are times in life when you're walking blind, when
don't really know if the path you've chosen is right, and then you do have
doubt. But it is during those moments of doubt that your real faith is
exercised. That's how they put it to me. And so they're very up-front
the fact that--I remember in one of my first interviews with the prioress of
monastery I said, `What do you think is the most difficult thing about
cloistered living--monastic life?' And I thought she would describe certain
details or maybe the physical discomfort and everything. And the first
she said was, `Doubt, because we must face our doubts every day. We don't
have enough distractions to prevent our having to face our own doubts, and
living with doubt--that is the difficult part.'

GROSS: Did any of the nuns that you spoke with have visions that they
discussed with you?

Mr. SALZMAN: I think all of the nuns that I spoke to described--were quite
happy to say that they experienced a sense of God's presence at certain
moments in their lives there. But none of them described those experiences
real detail because I think what they feel is, is that those are the--those
are not the main point of contemplative life. And there are things that you
enjoy and are things you're grateful for, but I think what they wanted to
emphasize to me was the requirement of trying to be attentive mysteried in
even the most ordinary non-visionlike moments. You know, doing the laundry,
washing vegetables--those kind of tasks. That's their real goal, is to try
and feel appreciative of mystery in even those ordinary moments. So they
didn't really dwell on the mystical aspects of their life.

GROSS: Mark Salzman's new novel is called "Lying Awake." He'll be back in
the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Back with writer Mark Salzman.
His new novel, "Lying Awake," is about a Carmelite nun who learns that her
divine visions may really be the result of a brain tumor that has caused a
form of epilepsy.

What did you do for your novel to learn about neurology?

Mr. SALZMAN: Oh, that was fun. Mainly, just call up neurologists and ask
they'd be willing to talk to me about this and answer questions. Reading,
course. But the real fun was meeting with neurologists and having them take
me around the hospital on rounds and letting me hear how they would work
patients with these seizure disorders, and then their telling me stories
patients that they'd had. For example, one doctor had a wonderful story of
woman who came to him and her symptoms were that she was experiencing
spontaneous orgasms. And they could happen at any time. She could be
driving, she could be just watching television. And suddenly, one, two,
three, four, five orgasms. So she went to the doctor and after several
they found that she had temporal lobe epilepsy. The seizures were taking
form of orgasms. That's how she experienced them. And so she asked the
doctor, `What should I do?' And the doctor said, `Well, if I were you, I
wouldn't give up the freebees.' And so she has decided against treatment.
She goes to the doctor about every six months just to make sure that the
seizures are saying localized in that temporal lobe area of the brain, that
they aren't spreading, becoming more serious. But their mutual decision was
that it wasn't harmful. Why not enjoy it?

GROSS: The first paragraph of a previous novel that you wrote, "The
has to do with the same theme that your new book, "Lying Awake," is about.
the first paragraph it starts, `This morning I read an article suggesting
St. Teresa of Avila, a 16th century Spanish mystic noted for her ecstatic
visions, suffered from a neurological disorder known to cause
And then the friend of the main character says, `Well, I bet it's just a
matter of time before they prove that most of those saints had their wires
crossed, along with a lot of artists.' Now do you share that opinion that,
you know, like Joan of Arc was really a schizophrenic who was hearing
voices and that, you know, if you track all the religious people and saints
who heard voices or had visions, you'd probably find there was a
disorder behind it?

Mr. SALZMAN: Well, yes and no. I agree with the idea that there is a
physiological basis for all human experience--all conscious
experience--whether it's extraordinary or not. And so extraordinary
experiences--I think that there--eventually we'll find that there is a
neurologic component to what is going on. But where I disagree is that I
don't think that means that those experiences are invalid. For example, van
Gogh could have had some kind of neurologic disorder, but we don't discount
the validity, the beauty of his paintings because of that.

Recently, there was a magazine article where a group of scientists wired up
Tibetan Buddhist and they were able to visualize with this high-tech
what goes on in his brain during the deepest state of meditation. Now just
because you can do that, though, doesn't mean that that state of meditation
isn't good, that it isn't healthy, it isn't valid. I don't think that a
scientific way of looking at spiritual experience in any way threatens the
validity of it or the beauty of it.

GROSS: You know, you said before that one of the problems you face as a
writer is that you sometimes think your work is plodding and that you're
disappointed in your own ability. You have to overcome that in order to
continue. How do you take criticism? Like, say you send a draft to an
or a trusted friend who functions as a reader for you, and they're being
honest with you. They say that they don't really like it or they don't like
this chapter or whatever. Does that spur you on to rewrite it and do a
job, or do you face, like, several months of just feeling crushed after

Mr. SALZMAN: Yeah, the latter. You know, I've had politeness pounded into
me enough that I can put on a good face when I'm criticized, but inside I'm
torn apart, and what usually happens is that I don't then immediately set
to work and say, `OK, this is a challenge. I'm going to rise to meet this
challenge.' Usually I just feel, oh, what's the point. I'm never going to
get this right. And I do feel very low and kind of paralyzed for a while.
But eventually, I just have enough of wallowing in that kind of misery. I
can't stand it anymore, and the only way out is to fight my way out. So I
generally come back. But I do think that the theme throughout all my
books--and I wasn't conscious of it; I'm never conscious of it at the time,
but looking back the theme that runs throughout all my books is how do we
on in life when we find ourselves facing the terrible gap between who we
really are and who we had hoped to become.

I think one of my first real kind of experiences of this kind of
disappointment was I grew up thinking I would be a concert cellist. So I
played the cello right up until the end of high school and then I applied to
college as a music major, thinking that I would major in music. But right
before going to college, I went to hear Yo-Yo Ma play at Tanglewood. I
thought it would inspire me. Five minutes into the first movement of the
piece he was playing--it was the "5th Bach Unaccompanied Cello Suite in C
Minor"--I'll never forget it--my career as a cellist was over. And it was
because of his superhuman technique. I mean, he does have that; that's what
people talk about when they talk about Yo-Yo Ma a lot. But that's only the
tip of the iceberg.

What really devastated me was seeing how deeply he was enjoying himself. He
was freed by the music. He was in love with the music. It wasn't about
It was about this wonderful music. And that's when I realized that for
had never felt that way when I played the cello. I felt that way when I
listened to music, but when I played it was always just about not making
mistakes, it was about trying to impress people, and finally have an adult
identity. I think my playing was to music what a resume is to real writing.
And that disappointment--that shook me really deeply, and I think that that
comes up again and again in both my work and in my daily life.

GROSS: Now you grew up in a family that you've described as non-religious.
Which non-religion was it?

Mr. SALZMAN: Well, my grandparents on both my parents' side were
But both my parents, to the best of my understanding, were just--never
felt involved in religion, and so when we were brought up, it just really
wasn't talked about that much. In elementary school, I was sent to the
principal's office because on my way to school--it was on show-and-tell day
and I had nothing to show--and I found a stamp on the ground. I was
delighted because it was a foreign stamp. That was good enough for
show-and-tell. So I stood up in front of the class and showed the stamp,
it had an old man with a beard kneeling on the ground and a shiny white star
in the sky and there were the foreign words `holly bibble,' which I
to the class. Well, it was Holy Bible. I had just never read those--I
recognize those words. And so, of course, the teacher assumed I was being,
you know, stupid. And so she sent me to the principal's office. So, yeah,
think when I started writing this book, all I really knew about Christianity
was what I'd learned from Linus' speech in "A Charlie Brown Christmas"
special. So I had a lot of ground to cover.

GROSS: But you went through a period where you became quite absorbed in Zen

Mr. SALZMAN: Yes. Yes. After seeing a Kung Fu movie when I was a kid,
I started getting curious about Chinese culture, and eventually what it all
ended up focusing on was Asian philosophy, specifically Zen Buddhism. And
what appealed to me about Zen was that here was a non-deistic
philosophy--there wasn't the idea of a deity that I couldn't wrap my mind
around--that nevertheless seemed to offer a means by which you could live
fully. You could be fully awake every moment of life as opposed to only
during those peak moments that come so rarely. And of course, ultimately
I hoped is that if I could become enlightened, if I could understand the
oneness of the universe and be natural in every situation, then I would

I mean, that's what it kind of all boiled down to as a teen-ager is that I
the smallest boy in my class, and so when I would ask girls on dates, the
response usually was, `You're like a little brother to me.' So then I
if I could become an enlightened Buddhist master, a Kung Fu monk, then I
be datable. So I went through all of this trying to learn all these
things--meditating, kicking. And then when I asked girls on dates, their
answer was, `You're like a weird little brother to me,' so it didn't work
directly, but at least it gave me something to be passionate about.

GROSS: You know, in your memoir about coming of age, you write a little bit
about how--you know, these Kung Fu movies and how you started taking up Kung
Fu and the other things that went along with it, and you say that you got
involved in it and then you stopped. And you write, `When Kung Fu practice
stopped, everything else followed. I stopped rush(ph) painting. All of a
sudden I wondered, "Why the hell am I painting little guys with robes and
knots staring at waterfalls? I've never even seen a waterfall, let alone a
guy with a top knot." I put the Chinese history and philosophy books into
crawl space.' And I'm wondering since there's been a couple of things that
you've picked up with great passion and then dropped, I'm wondering about
hard it is to drop something that you've been obsessive about because it
usually goes along with a whole constellation of other things, including

Mr. SALZMAN: Mm-hmm. Well, I don't think of it as hard to drop something
that you're obsessed about because it usually happens without my wanting it
be that way. It's not that I choose to drop something. It's that I become
disappointed in myself, I become so hyper-aware that my motivations for
wanting that very thing in the first place were selfish and wrong. I just
so disgusted and angry that I cannot bring myself to continue with whatever
is that I've started without just feeling like a fool, without being
of all the mistakes I've made. Now, nicely, for me, what seems to happen
though, I'll drop something but then it reappears later in life in a gentler
and maybe a more mature way. I seem to have to--that seems to be my
I start at something white hot and then I kind of burn out and I put it
But then it reappears later, and then I'm able to really savor the value of
in a better way. So I would say that all of these things--cello, martial
arts--that I mention as having dropped--or astronomy--they've all now come
back and now they're more incorporated into a more balanced life, I'd say.
But that just means that I'm going to find something new to get all excited
about. So who knows what that next thing will be.

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

Mr. SALZMAN: Oh, my pleasure. Thank you.

GROSS: Mark Salzman's new novel is called "Lying Awake." Coming up, we
listen back to an interview with trombonist J.J. Johnson. He died Sunday
at the age of 77. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Profile: Life of trombonist J.J. Johnson

Trombonist J.J. Johnson died on Sunday at the age of 77. According to a
report from the sheriff's department in Marion County, Indianapolis, where
Johnson lived, he committed suicide at his home. He'd been ill. Johnson is
considered the father of modern jazz trombone. He got his start touring
the big bands of Benny Carter and Count Basie, and then moved to New York
where he performed with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis. In
1970 he virtually gave up his performance career to move to Los Angeles
he composed and arranged music for movies and TV. He worked on such
as "Starsky and Hutch," "The Mod Squad," and "That Girl," and such movies as
"Cleopatra Jones," "Across 110th Street," and "Barefoot in the Park."

In 1987 he returned to his hometown in Indianapolis and returned to the jazz
scene. That year I recorded an interview with him. Ten years later he gave
up performing. Before we hear our interview, let's listen to Johnson
his "Minor Blues," recorded in 1964 with Harold Mabern at the piano.

(Soundbite of "Minor Blues")

GROSS: In 1987, J.J. Johnson told me why it was more difficult to keep up
with the fast tempos of bebop on trombone than it was on trumpet or

Mr. J.J. JOHNSON (Trombonist): Visually, you can just picture it in your
mind's eye, the fact that the saxophone player has these keys and buttons,
people call them, and the trumpet player has the same thing, but whereas the
trombone has this ungainly, awkward-looking long tubular slide that he has
manipulate. It is awkward. And it's kind of a tricky situation to
the trombone in such a manner as that you can conveniently, articulately
so-called bop and all the other modern forms of jazz.

GROSS: You got your start playing in big bands. You played with Count
with Benny Carter. How did you first hear modern jazz. How did you first
hear bop?

Mr. JOHNSON: My first--I guess you'd say the soloist that had the first
impact on me that would be categorized as jazz or contemporary jazz
improvisation would be Lester Young. In the old Count Basie days--some of
the old great Count Basie records where classics that had Lester Young in
bore in his career. And from that I would go to people like, well, of
course, Dizzy and Bird came on the scene and changed everything around.
They did--you know, jazz did 180 degrees once Diz and Bird popped on the
scene. So between Lester Young, Bud Powell, Diz and Bird and people like
that, those were my first impressions of so-called modern jazz, including

GROSS: When you heard modern jazz and you knew you wanted to play it and
knew you'd have to find a way to play rapidly on the trombone, what--did you
isolate yourself for a while and just start practicing a lot to learn this

Mr. JOHNSON: You just said it, Terry. It was a question of practice,
practice, practice, research, research, research. I must say I got a lot of
encouragement from people like, from all--I mean, you would never believe
it--Dizzy Gillespie. Dizzy plays trumpet, but you'd be surprised what Diz
knows about trombone and I recall vividly situations where Diz would sit
with me and just show me different ways of playing or executing a given
passage on the trombone, and sure enough, it was better the way he would
indicate, and so forth. And just from practicing, struggling and, you know,
listening and practice, practice, practice.

GROSS: You were, back in the early '50s, one of the few people who could
play modern jazz on trombone. Was there much of a call for it? Did many of
the musicians show an interest in having a trombonist in the group?

Mr. JOHNSON: Hmm. There was some minimal interest. Yes. I can't say that
there was a hue and cry, and you know, no one was tearing my door down for
contemporary jazz trombone or bebop trombone. But little by little, more
more guys started to get into the act, let's say--Kai Winding, Benny Green.
few guys started to dabble in that area of jazz so that before you knew it
trombones were holding their own with the saxophonists and with the trumpet
players and whatnot.

GROSS: How did you get to record with Charlie Parker?

Mr. JOHNSON: Oh, it happened with different record producers, such as Teddy
Rigg(ph) (technical difficulties) on the old Blue Note label, whatnot.
Granz was another guy who liked to just put together unusual and unlikely
combinations of jazz players just to see what would happen. In fact,
(technical difficulties) at the Philharmonic got started that way. That was
kicks, just putting together groups of various guys and just, as he said,
`Watch the sparks fly.'

(Soundbite of jazz trombone music)

GROSS: From--I think it was--1952 to '54, you basically left music for a
while. What kind of job did you get during those years?

Mr. JOHNSON: I don't recall specifically. It was a 9-to-5 job, and it was
just a question of stepping outside the jazz arena, as it were, just to
evaluate, take inventory, and I guess you might say that my life and my
in general has been kind of like that. I've on occasion stepped outside
to take a--get a better view of what was going on with myself, what was
on with jazz, what was going on with modern jazz. So it was just a part of
way of evolving as a musician, as an artist.

GROSS: When you returned to jazz in 1954, you organized the quintet with
trombonist Kai Winding. How did you get together?

Mr. JOHNSON: That's an unusual story. You know, the original plan came
Teddy Rigg, who was a record producer--jazz record producer at that time,
his original plan was to form a team of two trombones between Benny Green
J.J. Johnson. Well, it so happened that Benny Green had a--what we would
call a light regional hit going at that time. I don't recall what the song
was or what the hit was. But he was making a little bit of noise, getting
quite a bit of action, meaning he was quite busy. So to make a long story
short, Teddy Rigg said, `Well, if we don't get Benny, we'll get Kai Winding
and we'll put J.J. and Kai together.' And there you have it: That's how
and J.J. came about.

(Soundbite of jazz trombone music)

GROSS: How did you end up leaving New York for Los Angeles to do music for
movies and television?

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, I had had this--I guess you might call it an urge for
time and the urge got stronger and stronger to get involved in film
composition and film scoring, and I ran across a couple of old
Jones and Lylo Shiffern(ph), who were already into that area. And they
gave me some encouragement about coming to Los Angeles and trying it out.
sure enough, in 1970 I moved to Los Angeles to have a go at it. And it
worked out very well. I did some film scoring--some feature film scoring
quite a bit of television episodic scoring and whatnot. Worked out very
as a matter of fact.

GROSS: J.J. Johnson, recorded in 1987. He died Sunday at the age of 77.
Here he is in performance one year later at the Village Vanguard.

(Soundbite of Johnson's performance)

GROSS: Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews two new hip-hop recordings. This is

(Soundbite of music)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Recordings by Cypress Hill and Xzibit

The most talked about hip-hop performer of the last year may have been the
white rapper Eminem, but rock critic Ken Tucker says there are numerous
rappers whose current releases deserve attention. He reviews two of them.
One is a live album by the group Cypress Hill called "Live at the Fillmore."
The other is "Restless," the new CD from the rapper Xzibit.

(Soundbite of "Don't Approach Me")

XZIBIT: 'Cause you don't know me. I don't know you. So don't approach me.
I won't approach you. And don't insult me. I won't insult you. 'Cause you
don't know what I will or I won't do. You don't know me. And I don't know
you. So don't approach me. I won't approach you. And don't insult me. I
won't insult you. 'Cause you don't know what I will or I won't do.

Make no mistake. I'm the Golden State heavyweight. Being underrated gave
time to create. Can you relate? I renovate, straight out the gate.
my weight, but seem to receive nothing but hate. Do you dance...

KEN TUCKER reporting:

That's the West Coast rapper Xzibit stating a core system of beliefs on a
track on his new CD "Restless," produced by the hip-hop man of the moment,
Eminem, who also chimes in vocally. But where Eminem's own music is full of
bright, lurid fantasies that illuminate his inner demon, Xzibit's music is
full of documentary details about tough street life.

A once and future member of the rap group called the Alkaholiks, Xzibit
offers tightly rhymed scenarios that admit a truth behind his success. As
says on one cut, `This road to riches has had my heart turn black.' And on
this one, called "X," he paints a bleak world view built around an
catchy keyboard riff.

(Soundbite of "X")

XZIBIT: Yeah, ladies and gentlemen. Broadcasting live to you and yours.
It's Mr. X to the Z, Xzibit. Yeah, bouncing. Come on. The first day of
rest of my life, X stand behind the mike with Walter Cronkite. You all keep
the spotlight, I'm keeping my rhymes tight. Lose sight of what you believe
and call it a night. This ain't the lightweight...

TUCKER: Later on that cut, rapper Snoop Dogg describes Xzibit as being,
quote, "extravagant, extraordinary, exuberant." I don't hear much
in this movingly morose music, though.

Certainly not the kind of spirit that the quartet Cypress Hill exhibits on
new live album recorded in a San Francisco rock 'n' roll mecca, the Fillmore

(Soundbite of "Insane in the Brain")

CYPRESS HILL: Insane in da membrane. Say, inside in da brain. There's
where, insane in da membrane. Say, insane in da brain. Are you going
out there. ...(Unintelligible). Are you going insane tonight? To da one
da flam, boy it's tough. I just toss that ham in the frying pan. Like Span
it's done when I come in. Slam. Hot damn.

TUCKER: That's probably Cypress Hill's most well-known composition, "Insane
in the Brain," whose variant chorus, `Insane in the membrane,' implies that
these guys have been nutty since birth. Like Xzibit and a lot of current
hip-hoppers, Cypress Hill frequently introduces the idea that ghetto life
drives its inhabitants crazy. That helps explain the rich, often violent
obscene fantasy life that hip-hop yields. Where Xzibit and the hard-core
rappers spin scenarios of death and depression, Cypress Hill gets off on
escapism. Much of their live album contains exhortations to get pleasantly
high on marijuana as on this invocation of Cheech and Chong called "Stoned
the Way of the Walk."

(Soundbite of "Stoned Is the Way of the Walk")

CYPRESS HILL: Stoned is the way of the walk. Come on. Come on. Come on.
Stoned is the way of the walk. Come on and kick that thing. Well, it's an
alley cat. Wish I had a holy man. ...(Unintelligible). I'm a criminal.
you ain't all of that. You want a baseball bat and you want to ill those.
you want to (censored) around. You (censored) by the Hill, bro. Yeah, with
the steel-toed, real slow hitch from the bong make me feel like Cheech. So
guess that makes me Chong. Just like Cheech and Chong fretting with the ice
cream. Cypress Hill, Hill, Hill, Hill. Have to get you an ice cream stick,

TUCKER: Cypress Hill are genial hippies of hip-hop, don't think for a
that they can't turn on a dime and tap into a barely suppressed rage. On
songs like "How I Could Just Kill a Man," and "Cock the Hammer," it's just
frightening as Xzibit.

Both CDs are more than cheap exploitation, however. These are people making
their version of soul music, even when they sound most soulless.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic-at-large for Entertainment Weekly.


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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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