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Diane Monroe: Bridging Diverse Musical Worlds

Victor L. Schermer By

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Listening to Diane Monroe play jazz violin—whether solo, duo, or in a group—what's immediately evident is how great an improviser she is, fitting seamlessly with the music and the group, breathing and moving with the music. Only then does it become clear that she possesses the precision, complexity, and technique of a classical concert violinist. Indeed, Monroe studied classical violin at the Curtis Institute of Music with renowned teacher Ivan Galamian. While engaging in a career as a concert artist, she adjusted her course and worked with drummer Max Roach on the jazz circuit. Since then, she has pursued both careers, giving her incomparable finesse and exceptional creativity on her instrument.

Monroe grew up in Philadelphia and began her violin studies in the public school system there, which at that time was a hot house of music, with members of the Philadelphia Orchestra, among others, serving as teachers and coaches. She went through Oberlin and Michigan State colleges, then studying at Curtis and also doing tenure at the Marlboro Music Festival and Institute. Meanwhile, she had also been playing pops gigs on the side, and soon began performing with jazz groups locally and internationally.

As a result of these diverse experiences, Monroe's playing defies categorization, as she takes on challenges regardless of genre. She plays the jazz circuit with outstanding players like Tom Lawton, Tony Miceli, Jim Ridl, John Blake, and many others. She is constantly called upon to mentor up-and-coming musicians. She'll do classical performances of Bach or Mozart, and then get involved in projects involving African music, folk, and pops. Don Byron once quipped, in response to someone's question about whether he was playing "real" jazz, "God doesn't care if it's jazz or not!" Monroe would agree. This gives her playing unparalleled richness and exuberance. When she plays, she draws from an abundance of inner and outer resources.

AAJ: Let's start with the infamous Desert Island question. Which recordings would you take?

DM: Joni Mitchell's Blue (Reprise, 1971), Herbie Hancock's Gershwin's World (Verve, 1998), Mozart Divertimento String Trio in E-Flat (Columbia, 1975), with Isaac Stern, Pinchas Zuckerman, and Leonard Rose, Miles Davis' Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959) and Sketches of Spain (Columbia, 1960), Ella Fitzgerald—as many of her records as I can fit—and Oscar Peterson et Joe Pass à Salle Pleyel (Pablo, 1975).

Chapter Index
  1. Early Musical Development and Influences
  2. Bridging Classical, Pops and Jazz
  3. Moving into Jazz
  4. Jazz Groups and Cohorts
  5. A Unique Approach to Teaching and Mentorship
  6. Life and Spirituality



Early Musical Development and Influences

AAJ: OK, let's go back in time. What is your background, and what was your earliest exposures to music?

DM: When I was two years old, my grandfather died. Yet I somehow retained the memory of his guitar playing. When I was twelve, I picked up guitar, and when my grandmother heard me play, she started crying and said, "You sound just like Papa." My father had given me that guitar, and by then, I was already playing violin and piano. I picked it all up by ear. It felt great. My uncle loved Thelonious Monk and taught me a little of "Blue Monk" on the piano, although my fingers couldn't reach the sixths, so I had to play them with both hands. And he taught me a little boogie woogie. I was improvising well before I started classical lessons on piano at age four.

AAJ: Where did you grow up?

DM: In West Philadelphia.

AAJ: The home of many jazz greats.

DM: I was born and raised in West Philly and started classical lessons on piano at age four. In third grade (age eight), I started violin lessons at Harrington Elementary School, in a class with about five other violinists. A year later, I played the fiddle in Harrington school's orchestra. All the Philly schools I attended were the best for music—we had stellar music teachers. The music was crackerjack, A-1. A number of Philadelphia Orchestra members pinch-hit at each of the schools. I had great training. Our Harrington elementary school orchestra was conducted by Shirley Curtis, who was very well known as an incredible bassoonist and teacher. Her husband was Sid Curtis, a violist in the Philadelphia Orchestra who often helped the string section there.

Amazingly all this took place in elementary school. Most of the child members of our orchestra are now placed in major orchestras around the country. The other day, I watched the San Francisco Symphony on TV, and there was one of the cellists from that kid's orchestra. That's how great it was. Then I went to Sayre Junior High School. Again, the best teachers. And then there were the All-City student orchestras, pooled from all the schools. They were stellar. I was also chosen to perform in the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra conducted by the incredible Joe Primavera. This was the absolute finest student orchestra in the city. The alumni of these orchestras would go off to New York, Boston, whatever. In West Philly High School our theory classes and ear training were so advanced, that when in college, we had already learned most of what was being taught. My fellow violinist and good friend John Blake will tell you the same thing. I believe he went to Overbrook High School.

AAJ: What made you take up the violin as your main instrument?

DM: We had all kind of instruments in my house: bongos, tambourines, what have you. I started on piano. Then, at age eight, I took a music aptitude test in school. I went to the principal's office to be assigned an instrument. All they had left was a clarinet and a violin. I couldn't play the clarinet because I was asthmatic and couldn't breathe properly for a wind instrument. Prior to that my mother had said, "You can play anything you'd like, but don't bring home a violin!" So I come home with the violin, and my mother says, "Oh my God!" But to this day she's been my biggest fan and has rarely missed one of my concerts. She was a pianist herself.

AAJ: Similarly, J.J. Johnson took up trombone because it was the only instrument the high school music department had left. Fate or chance? In both his case and yours, it was a great match. So, you were studying classical violin, apart from your other musical interests?

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