Diane Monroe: Bridging Diverse Musical Worlds

Victor L. Schermer By

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Moving into Jazz

AAJ: For the moment, let's focus on your jazz playing more specifically. Which jazz musicians have had the greatest influence on your jazz playing?

DM: Well, among vocalists—and I've been strongly influenced by vocalists—Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday. I was exposed to a lot of popular older music early on. Billy Eckstine. Nat "King" Cole. Frank Sinatra. My mother's favorite was Tony Bennett. Singing influenced me a lot, Aretha Franklin, Roberta Flack, James Brown. Blues singers/players like Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee. My Mom actually knew Brownie McGee. All that music came out of spiritual music, which in turn really came out of Africa. The call-and-response music. I was in an all-girl conga band when I was 14 years old. So all these different sounds and ways of expressing music inform how I feel and play the music on the violin.

And, of course, when you're talking jazz, you're talking Miles Davis, Max Roach. I've worked with Max, but prior to that, I was lucky to know his music so well by listening in my basement as a child, that I could tell who was Max, versus who was Art Blakey, and so on. It was an exciting thing to be able to play with those phrases I worshipped in my own house. But Miles was my hero. His sound went right through me. My guitar heroes were Wes Montgomery and Charlie Christian. Among pianists, Oscar Peterson and Herbie Hancock are my favorites.

AAJ: It's interesting, because you're not following the "script." One would expect you to say, "I spent five years listening to all of Stéphane Grapelli's recordings..."

DM: I was never exposed to solo violin music when I was very young, only large symphonic sounds. In my teens, I began listening to solo violin and chamber music literature. But jazz violin was added later. And probably the first jazz violinist I listened to was Stéphane Grapelli. I loved it immediately because it was so different, meaning that he was improvising, spontaneously composing, and not playing Western European repertoire. He integrated and internalized his music, and I was drawn to that. Then I heard Stuff Smith, and realized something even more different---that he was reinventing the sound and expression on the instrument. Joe Venuti grew up in Philly, and he was the oldest of this group of greats. He was amazing. Eddie South was another virtuoso, and contributed much life energy, and developed his own style of music-making which interweaved what he knew best including Western European and many forms of 'gypsy' music, which he used as a jumping off point in his mastery of improvisation.

Ray Nance was an angel, and could soothe anyone's soul. I recognize the important legacy within the so-called jazz violin world, but I also feel that the legacy of music goes beyond the sounds of only one instrument, or one type of art form. All the jazz violinists I mentioned seem to have played more than just the violin. For instance, Jean-Luc played saxophone, Ray Nance played trumpet, sang, and danced, Stuff sang, etc. They, as were and are all great jazz musicians, influenced by all kinds of music, which we tend to forever put in categories.

AAJ: You don't match the stereotype. But some of the great ones came along a similar path to yours. Miles had significant classical trumpet training and attended Juilliard for a year. Charlie Parker listened to classical music often and borrowed from Stravinsky and other composers.

DM: I feel grateful to walk a path similar to theirs. Now, in developing an unaccompanied solo violin voice, I'm going back to my approach to the guitar, the way my Grandfather played. I also have a cousin on my Grandmother's side, Howard Carroll, who played guitar in a similar manner, and in the '50s and '60s he played for the gospel group the Dixie Hummingbirds (who were, by the way featured in the new movie, Rejoice and Shout!). He used to come over to our house and play the old popular songs, jazz ballads, hymns and spirituals for us when I was a kid. Such an amazing musician. It's like the way Joe Pass could play a melody and virtually accompany himself, and it's all there.

AAJ: So, in effect, you're comping for yourself.

DM: Exactly. And that is really different than playing with an ensemble. Currently, I have a jazz quartet with Tony Miceli on vibraphone, Tony Marino on bass, and Todd Isler, a percussionist from New York, both a hand drummer and trap drummer. We're about to do a gig at the Philadelphia Art Museum and one in Reading, PA, at bassist Gerald Veasley's club there.

Jazz Groups and Cohorts

AAJ: That's a great group of musicians.

DM: Yes, that's for sure. What connects me most directly to jazz, as far as audiences are concerned, was my time with Max Roach and then my four plus year membership with the String Trio of New York. I've been fortunate to play with musicians as fine as Max Roach, Odean Pope, Cecil Bridgewater, Tyrone Brown, whom were all members of the Max Roach Double Quartet. I was friends with Max's daughter Maxine, as we were students at Oberlin, and she asked me to join the string quartet of Max Roach's Double Quartet. We toured the US and other parts of the world as the Uptown String Quartet, the string quartet portion of Max Roach's Double Quartet, for a total of about 15 years. The strings played a role similar to what a horn section's role would be in a big band. Max's original Double Quartet began in 1980, then in 1981 I joined for one year as second violin, then after returning from teaching at Oberlin, I became first violinist in 1986, for the run.

AAJ: Now, Max Roach is a prime example of the remarkable musicians with whom you've surrounded yourself. There's violinist John Blake, of course, your close friend with whom you've performed many times. Tony Miceli, one of the most incredible vibraphonists, teaches at Curtis, is a mentor to many, and can go anywhere on vibes. The YouTube video of you and him doing Brazilian composer Heitor Villa Lobos' "Bachianas Brasileiras" (movement #5, originally written for soprano and eight cellos) is a sheer wonder. And then I was surprised to find out that you recorded with the singer, Melody Gardot, who herself is a musical phenomenon.

DM: That was on her debut CD Worrisome Heart (Verve, 2008), which put Melody on the charts. Glenn Barrett of Morningstar Studios calls on a few of us from time to time—pianist Tom Lawton, guitarist Jef Lee Johnson, trumpeter Stan Slotter, saxophonist Ron Kerber, and others to improvise around various aspiring singer/songwriters. The jazz-folk thing that Melody does—we were also doing that style in the 1960s and' 70s with my folk band. This band included great jazz soloist friends here in Philly, bassist Steve Beskrone and recorder player Joel Levine. On one occasion, pianist Uri Caine sat in. Those three amazing musicians played together frequently in the jazz clubs around town, and I felt fortunate when they worked with me.

AAJ: So it came naturally to do that recording, because you anticipated aspects of Gardot's and related approaches by a couple of decades. Getting back to your cohort, violinist John Blake, when and how have the two of you worked together?

DM: We did the African violin project that John conceived. It was fabulous. It just took us from the West African music to the present, with the riti violin from Gambia, and the gogi or goge from Senegal. John brought this historical tradition forward, and it was really beautiful. It's a proud, wonderful musical collaboration, with Sumi Tonooka and John's sister, Charlotte Blake Alston, and Doc Gibbs. It's a program we continue to offer for live performance under John's auspices. One of the most memorable was the one we did at Montgomery County Community College.

AAJ: I've heard recordings of traditional African drumming, and the rhythm, going back centuries, anticipated the jazz syncopation by eons.

DM: In fact, the banjo and guitar are right out of Africa. The African kora is the equivalent or progenitor of the guitar. It sort of sounds like a flamenco guitar when played in the old tradition. All the string instruments have versions from almost every country or culture in the world. It's mind-blowing.

AAJ: The instruments disseminate over the planet just like the music does.

DM: The violin evolved in many countries, not just in Western Europe. There are equivalent origins in India, Asia, Africa, and more.

AAJ: The so-called Eurocentric view of music causes us to forget these rich connections. Let's talk about another of your associates, vibraphonist Tony Miceli. He told me he's doing some new projects with you, and there are some wonderful video samples of your duets on YouTube. What's up?

DM: There are a few musicians I work with now, including pianists Tom Lawton and Jim Ridl, and bassist Steve Beskrone. We latched on to each other, and I've learned so much from each of them. And Tony Miceli admires both of them, too. The keyboard literally allows the pianists to orchestrate. Now at first, I was thinking of the vibraphone as a keyboard instrument as well, but it's not a full keyboard! It's more like the violin—you have to work within much more severe limits than the piano. You only have four mallets as opposed to ten fingers, and you have only three octaves. So the coordination and playing have to be different from the piano, and so Tony and I are literally teaching each other how to play our respective instruments better.

We're learning to compensate for the limitations I mentioned and do as a duo some of the things that a full keyboard can do. So I'm learning to do more chordal things, double stops and triple stops, and harmonies. And we're learning how to comp for each other. Or, let me say that I'm learning and he's only enhancing what he already knows. And playing duets challenges us also to be our own rhythm section, doing what the bass and drums would do in a group.

Tony hears a lot harmonically, and I hear a lot linearly, and it really works out great to put the two together. So what's evolving is a combination of a strong harmonic side with a strong contrapuntal development. I feel we're coming from a very meaningful place, and a blending of styles. And it's expanding my understanding of jazz improvisation. I'm learning to be freer in my playing. My repertoire is expanding. So the duo format actually helps me bring more to our quartet. We're doing a concert at the Mohonk resort in the Catskills. We'll be doing a gig in Reading, PA, one at Chris' Jazz Café in Philly, and another at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Tony and I have quite an active collaboration right now.

AAJ: You do a lot of so-called crossover work with classical players. Of course, all jazz includes classical elements. But you've worked with string quartets doing jazz-related performances. Tell us about the work you've done, bridging the gap between classical and jazz approaches.

DM: After the Uptown Quartet broke up in 1997, I got involved with the String Trio of New York. The latter allowed me to bring out my own voice more than the Quartet. I spend the next couple of years with the String Trio, which I left in 2000 to be on my own. I wanted, no—I needed to develop my individuality. But I still work with various groups, like Relache [An innovative Philadelphia based group], for instance; I wrote a six-minute score for an animated film, premiered live with the group in 2003.

I've also worked as a soloist with the Network for New Music, and with Orchestra 2001 here in Philadelphia. I have a duo with a classical pianist Michal Schmidt and we're doing contemporary works by Robert Capanna, who was the director of the Settlement School and a composer, as well as by Philip Maneval, who is affiliated with the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society. We'll be premiering their pieces at Curtis Hall next year. Also, I'll be premiering a Roberto Pace piece for piano quartet, and an improvised piece of my own, which we'll be doing at the Settlement School. My main emphasis these days, however, is on my solo jazz work, including the duo and quartet with Tony Miceli.
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