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?

Bridging Classical, Pops and Jazz

DM: I played piano in my high school jazz band, but I was nervous about improvising. I could fill and do the chords really well, but I was already too tied up with the notes on the page to really allow myself to stretch out. We came in second at the Philadelphia Musical Academy (presently the Music Division of the University of the Arts) jazz band competition. Bassist Stanley Clarke was one of the judges, and also Arthur Webb, a beautiful jazz flutist.

AAJ: So you were doing two tracks in high school: classical violin and jazz piano.

DM: Right. Then I went to Oberlin College. Two years at Oberlin, undergrad, two years at PMA, where I got my bachelor's degree. Then, a year at Michigan State working on my master's degree. And then four years at Curtis Institute.

AAJ: So I take it this was all about classical music and the violin. What happened to all the jazz and pops during that time?

DM: Well, it was a side thing. I did it for fun and release, but I longed to do it more. Unfortunately, in order to play classical violin, I allowed myself to be convinced that I had to push my own musical voice aside to a large extent. I wanted to sound like the famous violinists—Itzhak Pearlman, Pinchas Zuckerman, and so on. They were my role models, and that's what I set out to do. My favorite sounds were string quartets, and my ultimate model was Arnold Steinhardt, the first violinist of the Guarneri Quartet. And then I got into Curtis, and got accepted to the Marlboro Festival, and wow; it was getting exciting.

But I had a dilemma. I was unhappy. In every performance, I felt nervous and stiff, and I now know it was because I couldn't make the music that I knew I was really about. There was a split in me between one form of music and the other. But now I know that, and I've finally brought them together in my own mind. I've made the connection. I have the key (pun intended) to my own voice. The key is that whatever music comes from me is valid. And in my heart I don't need to label it anything—not "classical," "jazz," "third stream," just music. I feel as if I'm on the threshold of new discoveries of how to put old experiences to work from long ago. The connection is very powerful. I can play the music simply because I know it deep inside me, I've internalized it. I can make a Schubert or Monk composition my own, just like internalizing a piece of music I've written myself.

When it comes to jazz, you really have to make it all up; you're not leavin' any notes behind. You're creating everything. And my greatest fear, early on, was to do just that, to improvise the whole piece. As I'll maybe explain later, due to being stifled, I had been satisfied with my riffs and fills, rhythms, etc. on the violin, but shied away from an entire solo. So I would hear Oscar Peterson and Joe Pass and Ella and Stevie Ray Vaughan and Miles, and say to myself, "I can't really do that—it's really hard to do what they do." It was because I was already too steeped in reading the notes on the fiddle. But it's really that I was systematically taught not to improvise, but to be absolutely faithful to the notes on the page. I wanted it all written down, and didn't realize that I didn't need it all written down. But I don't want to create the impression that it's my teachers' fault. I take responsibility for my lack of understanding of who I was back then. As a violinist, I thought I was supposed to only cross the t's and dot the i's, so to speak.

AAJ: If all that is true, then how did you ever get yourself to improvise?

DM: Well, that's a good question. The other side of it is that I'm like a sponge, and I absorb everything. But I do have to watch my tendency to be over-analytical. So, the tunes I've been most comfortable with are of an avant-garde nature. They're free. First, I could only let go with these open-ended tunes. But later I realized that I was also incapable of learning the changes in an academic-type way. What works for me is my own way of studying and listening. My gift for improvising doesn't come from books or memorizing patterns, but I still have to study hard, hard, hard. Like in that Mozart Divertimento, I can hear the voices. I can hear the counterpoint. I could play it easily without music because I hear the counterpoint, and I love the music. It's a part of me. It gets integrated into my consciousness.

AAJ: The "sponge" idea is one reason musicians need to listen a lot and get in there and just play with groups. They absorb so much. Now, with all the varieties of music you have studied and engaged in, do you think of yourself today as a jazz violinist or a violinist who plays jazz and other music?

DM: I think of myself as a musician who happens to express music on and off the page, using the violin as a primary instrument. Actually, if we go back in time, I once played the coffeehouse circuit in Philadelphia as a singer/songwriter/guitarist. This was around 1972. I have preserved the many live recordings from back then with my funky-folk band. In the evolution of my playing violin, I've gone through many changes. The real root of my creative skills in improv began on other instruments, but I was stifled on the violin by my own response to what we call classical training. Yet when I did those coffee house gigs, I was free and open rhythmically and melodically, with a lot of improvisation. With that persona, I felt I could do anything. I could always play way off the page when I wanted to.

By contrast, I spent a total of nine years in college majoring in violin, studying with about six different teachers. And in the last four years of that, I was in one of the greatest music schools in the country, the Curtis Institute, here in Philadelphia. I studied with the finest teacher, Ivan Galamian, who taught Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zuckerman, and all those famous violinists. I was rigorously trained in the tradition of reading and interpreting music in the classical way. I was steeped in chamber music and all of the classical literature for violin. So, my violin training and my guitar/ singing/songwriting, jazz piano, were initially at opposite poles.

AAJ: While you were at Curtis, you were playing at coffee houses? Was the faculty OK with that?

DM: Yes, all my friends did and the school did, too. I played at their Christmas Party one time. A propos of this, I also played once at the Canteen at the Marlboro Music Festival, just for a few listening friends. It's the Marlboro Festival's Sixtieth Anniversary this year, a huge deal for all who participated. Many of my mentors studied, taught, and played there: Felix Galimir, Julius Levine, and the cellist Mischa Schneider, the Guarneri String Quartet. I was there for three summers.

So that training and background in classical music, and the other funky stuff, were equally a part of my life, but I never was able to connect the dots. When I was younger, my violin playing was never as free as my guitar or piano playing or my singing. In a sense, the spontaneous playing that brought me to the music in the first place wasn't present in my classical training. When I look back, I think that if I had enough confidence as a young black woman, I think I would have abandoned the printed page of music, way before I actually did. The timing was such that my parents thought that it would be a hard life for me to become a folk-rock-jazz musician, which I could've easily done before graduating, and encouraged me to go the academic route. My dream has always been to play all kinds of music, definitely including classical and chamber music, but I want to be much freer in my expression.

AAJ: You're saying you've evolved quite a bit beyond your early days doing pops on the one hand and aspiring to be a classical violinist on the other. It sounds like a struggle, but you overcame the split.

DM: It was a big struggle.

AAJ: You had to bring two musical sides of yourself together. A lot of the players are never able to confront that split. They can do one or the other—classical or jazz, strict adherence to the notes on the page versus spontaneous improvisation—but they can't do both equally well.

Also, the violin and its repertoire are technically more difficult to master than most of the jazz instruments like the saxophone or trumpet. Do you know whether Stephane Grappelli, Jean-Luc Ponty, and those other pioneering jazz violinists went through the classical training as you did? To be a fine jazz violinist, how necessary is it to go through the classical training and repertoire?

DM: That's a great question. Let's see. Jean-Luc Ponty was classically trained and spent some time performing in a major symphony orchestra after graduating from the Paris Conservatory. Stuff Smith took a few "classical" lessons at the encouragement of his father. Eddie South was a child prodigy, classically trained and wished to make a career performing music in the Western European tradition, but could not enter the mainstream because of racism. Ray Nance studied classical violin repertoire [Nance was the trumpet player in Duke Ellington's band, famous for his solo on "Take the 'A' Train"]. Joe Venuti was trained "classically." Stéphane Grapelli was classically trained.

All had exposure to the Western European tradition, because that's what was being taught at the time. Yet these artists were able to spontaneously create the music as they went along in our "jazz" tradition. I always put "classical" and "jazz" and other types of music in quotes because I think it limits not only our perspective, but our understanding of what music actually is. I do think these violinists all clearly embraced, but also transcended the jazz tradition. I think all true artists transcend the limitations of mere labels for an art form. The great jazz violinists absorbed everything and it wasn't jazz versus classical.

I believe that music is music. If you are a great improviser, you absorb everything. Everything is contained in, and makes up our musical palette. Ella Fitzgerald didn't go to a so-called formal music conservatory, but while working within the jazz idiom, I feel that she absorbed and expressed the music of our collective cultural world history. I believe that this is what makes a musician appeal to all people of all walks of life. The countless great artists such as Miles Davis, Max Roach, Paul Robeson, Pablo Casals, Leontyne Price, Bill Evans, Vladimir Horowitz, Oscar Peterson, and so on. And, of course, Art Tatum; Horowitz praised Art Tatum.

You know the famous story. According to Oscar Peterson, in a conversation with André Previn, Horowitz went over to Tatum's house to play Tatum's version of "Tea for Two," which Horowitz had painstakingly transcribed, note-for-note. Then, Tatum sat down and played totally new variations of "Tea for Two" for the next 45 minutes, until Horowitz stopped him, and said, "When did you learn those?" And Tatum said, "Just now." [Laughter] It's not about classical versus jazz. If you got it, you got it. If it's right, the audience knows it immediately.

So if you're really talented, whether you lean towards jazz, classical, or whatever, you're going to find the right "key" for you, which expresses many cultural sounds, whether you're directly aware of it or not.. And what's most important is creating the music in the now. If I can pick up a Brahms Sonata and play it and sound spontaneous and alive, and bring it to life because I have internalized it, that is just as vital to me as mastering improvisational lines on a Coltrane or Charlie Parker melody.

AAJ: Either way, you've got to internalize the music, make it your own. But only a limited number of otherwise excellent musicians can get that kind of flow, which allows them to play in various idioms like classical and jazz and rock. So there's a separatism and prejudice that occurs.



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