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Saxophone Stylings, With A South-Asian Flair

Rudresh Mahanthappa's Kinsmen blends South Asian music with American jazz. The jazz saxophonist says his inspiration to explore Indian music on the saxophone came from a CD his brother gave him as a joke called Saxophone Indian Style.




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Other segments from the episode on March 10, 2009

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 10, 2009: Interview with Rudresh Mahanthappa; Review of the Grant Green's first album "“Grant’s first stand;" Review of a literary history collection, “A Jury…


Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
Saxophone Stylings, With A South-Asian Flair


This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. My guest finished number two, just
below Sonny Rollins, in the 2008 Village Voice Jazz Critics Poll, and in
the New York, jazz critic Gary Giddins called his last two albums

His name is Rudresh Mahanthappa. His parents are from South India and in
the ‘60s moved to Boulder, Colorado, which is where Rudresh grew up. In
spite of his Indian heritage, he didn’t pay much attention to Indian
music. He studied composition and alto saxophone at Berkeley College of

But as you’ll hear, a novelty gift from his brother led Rudresh to
immerse himself in Indian music and collaborate with a master Indian
saxophonist. We’ll hear one of their collaborations later.

Rudresh calls the band on his new CD the Indo-Pak Coalition. It features
guitarist Rez Abbasi, who was born in Pakistan. Dan Weiss is the tabla
player. Here’s the title track, “Apti.”

(Soundbite of song, “Apti”)

GROSS: Rudresh Mahanthappa, welcome to FRESH AIR. Tell us about one of

the things happening in that piece that you think you wouldn’t have
known about if you hadn’t studied Indian music.

Mr. RUDRESH MAHANTHAPPA (Saxophonist, Composer): My approach for a long
time with Indian music, you know, when I first started listening, was
more melodically oriented. And I was always fascinated with this idea of
ragas, which are - in the West, they’re often simplistically called
modes, but they’re much more complicated than that.

They’re much more complicated than the Western perception of scales
because they often have an ascending form that’s different from the
descending form, and the notes sometimes will come out of order. They
won’t go straight up. It might go up a little bit and down, and then up
a little bit again.

So with that title track there, with “Apti,” I was kind of trying to
synthetically create something that was raga-like, even though the
melodic material for that tune is not a traditional or even existent
raga in Indian music.

GROSS: You know, listening to your music, I think of it as being – some
of it as being not so much melody as patterns. There’s like these
patterns that you hear that are different than, say, song melody.

Mr. MAHANTHAPPA: Now, that’s interesting. I guess I could hear that,
too. You know, I have this very kind of mathy sort of background.

GROSS: Did you say mathy?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MAHANTHAPPA: Mathy, yes.

GROSS: Yeah, okay.

Mr. MAHANTHAPPA: And I think this - the idea of permutation is something
that I’ve always gravitated towards. Like, you know, here you have five
notes. How many different ways can you order those five notes, both in
sequence or rhythmically or however, and you know, create these kind of
cells that sound like, I don’t know, almost like a pinball bouncing back
and forth between bumpers but ricocheting a different way every time?

GROSS: And is that compatible with Indian music?

Mr. MAHANTHAPPA: Oh, I don’t know if it’s compatible with anything.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MAHANTHAPPA: I think, you know, I see music and math and
computation, and, I mean, I see them all as being, as coming from a
similar part of the brain and a similar part of human existence.

So the interesting thing with Indian music is there is definitely a
strong emphasis on numbers, on math itself, more with regard to rhythm
than the actual melodic stuff, though.

GROSS: Were you supposed to become a math teacher instead of something
more impractical, like jazz musician?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MAHANTHAPPA: It’s funny, Terry, because I feel like everything that
I gravitate towards within anything I do, whether it be professional or
as a hobby, is always in the most esoteric, impractical, inapplicable

So even my fascination with math was, you know, in high school and
junior high, was more with number theory and abstract apology and things
that have very little use.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MAHANTHAPPA: It’s math that’s beautiful, but has very little
application. Like it’s very elegant - like you know, Fermat’s Last
Theorem. I mean, it has no application, really.

Well, I don’t want to overstep my boundaries, but as far as I
understand, it has no application, really. But it’s beautiful.

GROSS: Now even though you’re Indian-American, are you surprised by how
influenced you’ve ended up being by Indian music?

Mr. MAHANTHAPPA: I think when I look back, I’m surprised, but Indian
music was something that I felt like I had to discover on my own terms.
You know, as a jazz musician, there’s often this assumption that you
know about Indian music because you’re Indian or because you have brown
skin or something like that.

So I felt like I had to discover that music myself instead of pretending
like I was an expert on it. And I feel like I came into the music at the
same time I was coming into understanding that I do have a hybrid
background, that I don’t feel entirely Indian, that I don’t feel
entirely American.

And I think that’s something that hits a lot of children of immigrants,
you know, probably when they go off to college, like, you know, when
you’re 18, 19 years old. Sometimes it’s a gradual thing. Sometimes it
hits you like a hammer. I think for me, it hit like a hammer.

GROSS: I want to play another track from your latest CD, “Apti.” And you
were talking about patterns and, like, mathematical patterns that you
see in music and shifting these cells around, and I think what you’re
talking about is evident in a piece that I want to play. And you’re
going to have to tell me what the title is, because I’m not sure whether
it’s I-I-T or L-L-T or two ones and a T.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I’m not sure how to read this title. So be my guest.

Mr. MAHANTHAPPA: That’s funny. It’s “IIT,” which actually refers to the
Indian Institute of Technology.

GROSS: Ah-ha, okay.

Mr. MAHANTHAPPA: Which is the - that’s the school that everybody dies to
get into out of high school. By getting into IIT, you kind of guarantee
yourself a job in the, you know, in the technical world or the
engineering world. I would say that most of the Indian immigrants that
you see like in Silicon Valley probably went through IIT. It’s a very
grueling process, but it’s supposed to be worth it if you can get in and
make it out alive.

GROSS: So why did you write a song with the title?

Mr. MAHANTHAPPA: Because this song is actually quite math-oriented, but
in a very traditional, South Indian way. Now you have to understand in
Indian music, one doesn’t talk about measures like we do in Western
music. We don’t talk about 4/4 or 3/4. We don’t talk about these
traditional song forms, say, of like - that jazz standards are based on,
where it’s 32 bars and divided into four, eight-bar sections.

In Indian music, one speaks more about beat cycles and number of beats.
So you might have something that’s a four-beat cycle or an eight-beat
cycle, a seven-beat cycle. One that you see often is a 21-beat cycle.
It’s three groups of seven.

So “IIT” was based on this traditional way of breaking down 32 beats.
And 32 beats, you know, we can think of that in the West as, you know,
eight bars of 4/4.

So there are two things happening at once there. You can hear the
overall pulse of the eight bars of 4/4, but on top of that, you have
this - again, it’s kind of a traditional, rhythmic, superimposition of
grouping where we’re going to go six, five, four, three, two, three,
four, five. And if I did my math right, that should add up to 32.

So the kind of auditory illusion is something that’s - there’s the big
grouping of the six, and the groupings are shrinking and expanding

GROSS: Is there any way you can kind of clap out the type of rhythmic
divisions that you’re talking about?

Mr. MAHANTHAPPA: Yeah, I can try. Let me see here. So you hear the
melody goes like…

(Soundbite of humming)

(Soundbite of clapping)

Mr. MAHANTHAPPA: So you have this thing that starts, the first segment

(Soundbite of humming)

(Soundbite of clapping)

Mr. MAHANTHAPPA: So I don’t know if you can follow that, but you hear
this kind of punch where the clap is, where the punch in the tabla is,
gets shorter and shorter every time, and then it expands again. So it’s
this - then it kind of collapses in on itself and expands. It’s a really
cool sound, I think.

GROSS: So why don’t we hear “IIT” from your CD, “Apti,” and hear how all
this sounds with your ensemble? So this is Rudresh Mahanthappa on alto,
Rez Abbasi on guitar and Dan Weiss on tabla.

(Soundbite of song, “IIT”)

GROSS: That’s music from the new CD, “Apti,” by my guest Rudresh
Mahanthappa’s Indo-Pak Coalition. The track we just heard is called

“IIT.” We’ll continue our conversation and hear more music after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is alto saxophonist and composer Rudresh Mahanthappa.
His new recording is called “Apti.”

You traveled to India a few years ago and worked with a saxophonist
there, an Indian saxophonist whose work you had heard recorded. And
before we talk about your interactions with him, Kadri Gopalnath, tell
us how you first heard his music. It’s a great story.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MAHANTHAPPA: Well, when I was at Berkeley College of Music, I had
heard that there was a Carnatic saxophonist, a South Indian saxophonist,
but I didn’t really think anything of it. And as kind of a
congratulatory present after I’d done, like, a big, like, senior recital
or some big concert of my own music, my older brother jokingly gave me
this CD called “Saxophone Indian Style.”

And to him, he thought it was hilarious, but I saw it, and I said oh, my
God. This is that guy I’ve been hearing about. It was very funny to me
that - well, it was funny that he thought it was just a prank. And one
of the things also with these Indian classical music albums, which is
somewhat unfortunate, is they all have - well, let’s just say not a lot
of thought has gone into some of the titles.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MAHANTHAPPA: So “Saxophone Indian Style” is a pretty funny thing,
you know? But the album blew me away, you know? I couldn’t believe that
somebody was playing Indian music authentically on the saxophone.

I couldn’t believe somebody even had accessibility to, the access to a
saxophone in India. I mean, that, to me, seemed already kind of bizarre.

GROSS: Because it’s such a Western instrument?

Mr. MAHANTHAPPA: Yeah, I mean, I can’t imagine – I mean, here, you know,
in New York, I can tell you 50 places where you could go and buy a
saxophone. I couldn’t tell you where to go buy a saxophone in Bombay,
you know.

But the other main musical issue is that in Indian music, you have this
very complicated system, or complex system, I should say, of
ornamentation that, again in the West, it’s kind of glossed over by
being referred to as microtonal or quarter tones, and it’s much more
complex than that. But it involves being able to kind of slide between
notes, and this ornamentation is kind of – like you won’t play a note
directly on it.

You might play just a little bit above and a little bit below it.
There’s like this very decorative ornamentation of just an individual
note, and there might be 100 ways to ornament one note, which is why, I
think, Indian music is so dynamic, even though on the surface it seems
like you’re not dealing with very much melodic material because you’re
just dealing with these ragas or something like that.

So, obviously, this kind of ornamentation, which we call gumika(ph) is
much more conducive to singing or playing violin or, you know, paying an
instrument where you could actually slide.

And the way the saxophone is constructed, it’s what we call, you know, a
fixed-hole instrument. You know, there is, arguably - I mean, some
people would argue with me. But traditionally, the way the saxophone is
played, there is no real way to slide between notes in a way that’s

So what was amazing about Kadri initially is that he really figured out
how to do that on the saxophone, and it wasn’t a gimmick that he was
just playing South Indian music on the saxophone. It was – he’s playing
Carnatic music at a very high level, and it just so happens he’s playing
the saxophone.

GROSS: Okay, so I want to play Kadri Gopalnath, and then you can tell me
what you heard, like what revelations you heard when you heard this. So
here it goes.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Okay, so that’s Kadri Gopalnath, who introduced my guest, Rudresh
Mahanthappa, to this Indian style of saxophone playing. And Rudresh,
what did you hear in that? And let me just say I find especially
interesting those long-held notes with the kind of stops in between.

Mr. MAHANTHAPPA: Well, what we heard there – I have to tell you, I’m
kind of transcended elsewhere. I haven’t heard that album in years
because it was actually stolen out of my car about 10 years ago. So…


Mr. MAHANTHAPPA: So just to hear that little bit there just kind of - my
feet are about eight inches floating off the ground. So thank you for
playing that for me.

What we heard there, structurally, that’s called the alap, which is an
opening - it’s an opening solo that’s out of time. You know, there was
no pulse there. We didn’t hear any drums there. And it’s usually
something that happens at the beginning of a concert, but not

It can happen anywhere in a concert, but it does usually happen at the
beginning and then maybe another time. And it’s a way of introducing the
raga. It’s a way of introducing the melodic content of what’s going to
come once, like, an actual song or composition is going to come in

And it’s kind of a way of introducing each note of the raga to the
audience. So it’s a really interesting idea, I think, conceptually,
something that we don’t hear in the West. It’s almost like I’m going to
make musical friends with the audience, you know, before this concert

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MAHANTHAPPA: You know, it’s a really nice idea, and it’s something
that I’d like to do as a jazz musician, as well, in my own concerts and
my own albums.

GROSS: And now I want to kind of fast-forward to the pulse part, I guess
the raga part…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MAHANTHAPPA: Well, this is where the song comes in. I mean, we’re
still – it’s all raga-based. This is - where the percussion comes in,
that’s where we talk about tala(ph), and tala, those are those beat
cycles I was talking about. If I remember right, the first thing that we
hear on this album is a 16-beat beat cycle. I could be wrong. It’s been
a long time.

GROSS: Okay, we’ll let’s fast-forward to the beat-cycle part. Here it


(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Rudresh, did that part knock you out, too?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MAHANTHAPPA: Yeah, that definitely knocked me out. I’m sorry to just
be, you know, laughing like crazy over here, but it – oh, man. Every
time I hear that album and every time I hear him, I’m just – I get so
just elated and excited. It’s just – it brings back lots of good
memories, and it’s very inspiring at the same time.

GROSS: Rudresh Mahanthappa will be back in the second half of the show.
His latest album is called “Apti.” That’s A-P-T-I. I’m Terry Gross, and
this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross back with jazz alto
saxophonist and composer Rudresh Mahanthappa. Much of his composing and
playing is influenced by Indian music. His parents are from South India
and immigrated to Boulder, where Rudresh was born and raised. When we
left off, he was talking about how he got interested in Indian music
after listening to an album by the Indian saxophone master Kadri
Gopalnath. They’ve since performed and recorded together.

You had said that there’s a great story behind how Kadri Gopalnath
started playing saxophone, which is an unusual instrument for classical
Indian music.

Mr. MAHANTHAPPA: Yeah, well, you know, his father was a nadaswaram
player. Nadaswaram is a double reed instrument, a South Indian double
reed instrument that sounds a lot like an oboe. So he definitely grew up
with music, but it’s not like his father was famous or something. His
father played at the local temple, which is often where you hear
nadaswaram. But I guess he saw one of the British palace bands when he
was really young and there was a saxophonist in the band and he just -
he was completely blown away by the sound and by the way it looked and
just everything about it really knocked him out.

And obviously there was no template. You know, there was no predecessor
of, you know, to playing the – their being a saxophonist in Indian
music, period. So he really had to carve out his own – well, I want to
say his own niche, but it obviously has become bigger than a niche. But
he had to find his own way for sure. And you know, one of the things
that I think is very touching and endearing about his story is that his
life is a lot like that of a jazz musician. There was a lot like that of
a jazz musician, where - well, in Indian music one of the things you
see is this idea of lineage being very important.

And I don’t mean lineage necessarily only meaning, you know, someone is
the son or daughter of so and so, who was a great musician. Lineage can
also manifest as far as who you studied with and who they studied with
and who they studied with, and you can actually go on the Internet and
see this family trees that aren’t very family but it’s a tree of tracing
who you studied with back to some - you know, a great master musician
that might go back three or four or five hundred years. Obviously Kadri
didn’t have that advantage as a saxophonist.

So fortunately he was able to find a few instructors that really
supported what he did, but it took a long time for the Indian music
community to actually take him seriously. And when I likened his life to
that of a jazz musician, it’s like he didn’t have this privilege of
lineage. He worked in an electronics store and sold transistor radios,
from 8:00 in the morning till 8:00 in the evening and he came home and
would practice about six hours, then sleep four hours and go do that all
over again.

So you know, that kind of reminds me of, you know, what my life was like
when I first moved to New York or something like that, you know, just
really finding your own way and creating your own voice and really
sticking to your guns.

GROSS: Well, you not only toured with Kadri Gopalnath. You recorded with
him on your album “Kinsmen,” and I want to play a track from that. The
track I want to play is called “Ganesha,” and I would like you to talk
about what you’re doing here musically and since both you and Kadri
Gopalnath are on alto saxophone, who is doing what?

Mr. MAHANTHAPPA: Let’s see, okay, so “Ganesha” is actually, again, I’m
trying to kind of create this simultaneity of Eastern and Western, of
Indian and jazz happening at the same time. So “Ganesha” is actually a
blues in that regular kind of blues form, except that it happens to be,
instead of a - we often talk about the 12 bar blues in Western music.
This is six bar blues because it’s at a slower tempo, but it’s also
based on the seven beat pattern that I referred to earlier, and one can
actually think about it as three groups of 21 beats, which is something
I also, you know, talked about earlier, this idea of a 21 beat cycle.

So I’m playing something that’s more akin to kind of a blues riff and
Kadri is playing something that’s more raga based, but the raga that
we’re working with actually when I first heard it sounded so incredibly
bluesy to me, I couldn’t help but think that, okay, I really need to
write a blues.

GROSS: Okay, let’s hear “Ganesha” from Rudresh Mahanthappa’s album

(Soundbite of song, “Ganesha”)

GROSS: That’s “Ganesha” from the album “Kinsmen,” by my guest, the alto
saxophonist and composer Rudresh Mahanthappa. I want to read something
from the liner notes to your latest album. In those liner notes you
write and - this is about the fact that you’re playing Indian-inspired
music now. You write: I first started a version of this group when I
lived in Chicago back in 1996. There was a sort of pressure put upon me
to do something Indian as if there was no precedent for an Indian-
American jazz musician at that time.

I disbanded the group rather quickly as I felt that I lacked the skills
and knowledge to lead such a trio with musical and cultural integrity.
And wanting to avoid any notions of exoticism or exploitation of my
ancestry, I went back to my comfort zone of leading bands of more
traditional jazz instruments. So let’s look at that statement.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MAHANTHAPPA: That’s pretty heavy, right?

GROSS: Yeah, what kind of pressure was put on you to do something Indian
since you were Indian-American?

Mr. MAHANTHAPPA: Well, maybe - you know, the pressure could be self-
inflicted to some degree. You know, there was no template for an Indian-
American jazz musician at that time, so it seems liked the way to get
over was to do something that was, you know, do something that was
really blatantly Indian, something that was, you know, with a sitar

You know, I mean this is coming from a whole background of hearing
things like Oh, you know, your music sounds really great, I could really
hear the Indian influence.

And you know, to me up at that – up till that point, the Indian music
influence in my music was - I don’t want to stay it was subtle; it was
definitely in there, but it was also very personal. So when somebody
said I really hear the Indian influence, I always wondered what they
meant. And I - you know, and I’m sure their sentiments were very
positive, but I couldn’t help but feel that they were saying that
because of my name and because of the color of my skin, because even
then I felt like my music was coming more of a Charlie Parker or John
Coltrane then it was, you know, Ravi Shankar, or Kadri Gopalnath, for
that matter.

GROSS: So how did you start hearing jazz? I mean, you’re what, 37 now?


GROSS: So I think most people your age did not grow up with jazz. Jazz
is no longer a popular music; it’s more of an art music, an esoteric
music. A lot of people think of it as music for older people.

(Soundbite of laughter)


Mr. MAHANTHAPPA: Yes, they do.

GROSS: Yeah. So did you start listening? How did it become important to

Mr. MAHANTHAPPA: Well, it was more via the instrument. I chose to play
saxophone when I was in fourth grade, I guess; that was the year that
you could choose a band instrument. That’s the year that you could be in
the school band. And my older brother had played clarinet and he always
regretted not being able to be in the jazz band. He said that everyone
in the jazz band looked like they were having more fun, and I had no
idea what jazz was. But I heard the word fun and - as a fourth grader,
and said, yeah, okay, I’ll do that.

And what you are going to do? I mean if you’re a saxophonist; I mean,
you know, playing jazz or listening to jazz is kind of the logical
thing. I mean had I played guitar, maybe I would have been a rock
musician. And I had a really good teacher growing up too from - I had
the same teacher from when I started all the way till I left for
college. I mean he played in jazz groups, he played in progressive rock
groups, he played in all sorts of little avant-garde configurations. So
I was turned on to a lot of music by going to hear him play and also him
loaning the albums and all that.

So yeah, so I heard - what I was first into was more like the
instrumental soul and R&B, like Grover Washington. Grover Washington,
Jr., David Sanborn, stuff that’s unfortunately considered to be smooth
jazz now, but I think back then it actually, it had more of a bite to
it, it really was instrumental soul or R&B, and then I heard Charlie
Parker when I was in sixth grade or seventh grade, and that, that was
the end. I was hooked.

GROSS: I want to play another track of yours from your album “Kinsmen,”
and this is a piece called “Longing,” and I want to play this because
it’s different from what we’ve been hearing. We’ve been hearing these
like clearly Indian-inspired compositions of yours with that kind of
mathematical pattern that you’ve been describing of melody and rhythm.
But this starts off almost like it’s more of a Coltrane ballad.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And so I’d like to talk – I’d like you to talk about this piece
before we hear it.

Mr. MAHANTHAPPA: Yeah. “Longing” is an interesting one. The melody is
very strictly based on a raga that Kadri and I worked on together, and
you know, in the same way than in the West you take a major scale or a
minor scale and you build harmony and then you write a tune, and all the
harmony implies the scale, you know, you can do that with a raga, and
usually that sounds really cheesy.

But with this particular one I just thought that there was going to be a
way that I could really do something like that. So - so there are real
chords, there are these kind of thick, lush chords that are all kind of
built, mostly built from notes in the raga but I kind a played around
with that. And yeah, it really does sound like, you know, like a
contemporary Western jazz ballad. But it goes to these other sections
and that kind of brings it back to its Indian roots. I like how it turns
out. For me that was a big risk to write this tune and put it on the

GROSS: Rudresh Mahanthappa, thanks so much for talking with us.

Mr. MAHANTHAPPA: Oh, it was a pleasure to talk to you, Terry. It’s
really wonderful.

GROSS: That’s Kadri Gopalnath with Rudresh Mahanthappa on Rudresh’s CD
“Kinsmen”. Rudresh’s new CD is called “Apti.” He spells his last name M-
A-H-A-N-T-H-A-P-P-A. Coming up, Jazz Critic Kevin Whitehead reviews a
reissue of guitarist Grant Green’s first Blue Note album as a leader
after many Blue Note albums as a sideman. This is FRESH AIR.
Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
Green Goes Blue With ‘Grant’s First Stand'


In the 1960’s electric guitarist Grant Green was one of workhorses of
the Blue Note jazz label. He recorded dozens of albums under his own
name and even more as a sideman for Stanley Turrentine, Sonny Clark, Big
John Patton, and many more. Green’s first Blue Note album has now been
reissued. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says it demonstrates the
durability of the Blues.

(Soundbite of music)

Professor KEVIN WHITEHEAD (Music Department, University of Kansas; Jazz
Critic): The Blues, that musical form usually 12 bars long with three
basic cords moving underneath it, ranks among the 20th century’s great
contributions to world culture. The Blues is as indestructible as
titanium and malleable as gold, whether coming from Memphis Minnie on a
Beale Street corner, Count Basie at the Reno Club, or Cream at the Royal
Albert Hall. Even one musician’s Blues can contain multitudes. And Grant
Green’s, “Grant’s First Stand” from 1961, five of the six tunes are
Blues, all played by a stripped down trio.

The challenge for Green is to expound at length on one topic without
repeating itself. Sometimes he roots his lines in earthy, well-worn
patterns. Other times he gets a bit more abstract. Here’s is a little
Blues medley to make the point.

(Soundbite of music)

Prof. WHITEHEAD: Grant Green didn’t go in for distortion or other
special effects. He liked a neutral amplifier tone to let you hear those
metal strings ring. Jazz musician’s Blues are usually slicker than a
straight ahead Blues guitarist. Green has a solid swinger’s neck with
skippy, airborne jazz rhythms, but some of his lines wouldn’t sound out
of place in a Chicago Blues bar if he had a more gritty tone.

(Soundbite of music)

Prof. WHITEHEAD: Green’s compadres are drummer Ben Dixon and organist
Roosevelt Baby Face Willette. Like the guitarist, Willette played gospel
music coming up. It fed his approach, the way spirituals inform the
Blues in general. Blues is sort of a flip-side of spirituals. Religious
folk even denounced it as the Devil’s music. The duality of the sacred
and profane is implicit in jazz organ groups, splitting the difference
between the rituals of Saturday night and Sunday morning.

(Soundbite of music)

Prof. WHITEHEAD: Bluesy organ groups like Grant Green’s were very
popular by 1961, then fell way out of favor on some circles. Later, they
become fashionably retro, ceding hip-hop with a billion samples and
loops. The Blues has had it ups and downs as a commercial property too.
But with times like they are now - could be making a comeback.

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead is currently on leave from teaching at the

University of Kansas and he’s a Jazz columnist for He
reviewed the reissue “Grant’s First Stand” by guitarist Grant Green on
the Blue Note label.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Coming up, book critic Maureen Corrigan reviews a new literary
history of American women’s writing. This is FRESH AIR.
Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
‘Her Peers’: A Gutsy Anthology Of Women Writers


Elaine Showalter helped usher in the initial wave of feminist literary
criticism in the 1970’s with her book on British female writers called
“A Literature of Their Own.” Showalter went on to have a distinguished
career at Princeton. She served as president of the Modern Language
Association. And she’s written sometimes controversial, scholarly and
popular criticism. Now retired from teaching, Showalter has just brought

out her much anticipated opus, the first literary history of American
women’s writing called “A Jury of Her Peers.” Book critic Maureen
Corrigan says it makes her feel like a giddy young grad student again.

Professor MAUREEN CORRIGAN (English Department, Georgetown University;
Book Critic): For those of us crepuscular enough to remember the first
flowerings of feminist theory and women’s literature courses in college,
part of the pleasure of reading Elaine Showalter’s grand new work of
literary history, “A Jury of Her Peers,” derives from nostalgia. It was
such a disco inferno thrill, back in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, to
glimpse for the first time, a lost continent of books — a veritable
Herland at the time uncharted by those male-dominated Norton

Early feminist literary archeologists excavated the work and life
stories of forgotten women writers, such as Phillis Wheatley, Fanny
Burney and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Granted, some of the disinterred
turned out to have curiosity value only. Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s
nine-book novel in blank verse, “Aurora Leigh,” may have been a hit in
1857 but as someone who read it and taught it in those dizzying gyno-
centric days, I’m here to tell you that it’s a little slow.

In recent decades, academic recovery work has sharply tapered off — all
the poshest tombs have been raided. And, more importantly, it now seems
a tad unsophisticated to simply want to wedge a forgotten woman writer
into the canon when the idea of the canon itself has being

But, Elaine Showalter has never been a slave to academic fashion —
though she’s certainly gotten into hot water with other feminist critics
for writing too enthusiastically about fashion. In her introduction to
what she says is the first comprehensive literary history of women’s
writing in America, Showalter bulldozes through the usual objections to
literary history - being worthwhile, politically correct, or even

“A Jury of Her Peers” attempts the mammoth task of discussing, and
unapologetically judging, the writing produced for publication by
American women from the days of puritan Anne Bradstreet to the modern-
day gay cowboy tales of Annie Proulx. Of course, Showalter stumbles
sometimes on this long matriarchal march. For instance, she doesn’t seem
as engaged in the final chapters of this book, maybe because
contemporary writers like Proulx and Toni Morrison are all too familiar
to us.

But, in addition to the sheer jumbo size of this project, two things
make it a critical stand-out: First, there’s Showalter’s commitment to
gathering both high and low writers in one place and, thus, giving us a
different sense of literary history. Respectable Founding Mothers, like
Harriet Beecher Stowe and Willa Cather, share space with Grace Metalious
of “Peyton Place” fame, and lesbian pulp princess Ann Bannon.

And even more crucial to the value — and, certainly, to the incendiary
potential of this book — is Showalter’s bossy critical presence
throughout its pages. As a feminist scholar, Showalter rejects the voice
of God narrative style of traditional literary history. Instead, she
opines, with zest, on the personalities and books of the writers here.
Take this kick in the bloomers to Gertrude Stein. Showalter concludes
her irreverently brief entry on Stein with a paragraph of dismissal.

Here are its first and last sentences: Although she is widely
acknowledged to be unreadable, incomprehensible, self-indulgent, and
excruciatingly boring, in the 20th century Stein has always had a cult
of devotees. Stein seems more and more like the empress who had no
clothes — a shocking sight to behold in every respect. I don’t agree
with Showalter about Stein, but I do relish her critical gusto and guts.

“A Jury of Her Peers” includes so many writers, and dusts off so many
intriguing books and poems, that to even give a sense of its scope would
reduce this review to a chorus line. Suffice it to say that Showalter
has inspired me with the quaint resolve to read, among others, Mary
Rowlandson who wrote the first white woman’s narrative about being taken
captive by Indians.

Pauline Hopkins, who, in 1902, produced a feminist African-American spin
on popular quest romances like “Treasure Island,” and Julia Ward Howe,
poet, novelist, author of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and heroine
of a life story that should have been made into one of those glorious
Joan Crawford Hollywood weepies. The unorthodox intelligence with which
Showalter discusses the work of these and a cavalcade of other American
woman writers makes a literary history like “A Jury of Her Peers” —
which some would regard as an old-fashioned project — its own critical
excuse for being.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed “A Jury of Her Peers” by Elaine Showalter.

You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site,
FRESH AIR’s executive producer is Danny Miller, our engineer is Fred

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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