Joe Maneri: Serial Autobiography

AAJ Staff By

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In the beginning, I found I was unable to read any book. The vocabulary was beyond me. The meaning of sentences, not understanding a plot or incidents. So I read each book as many as five to ten times.

This was during McCarthyism. The "Daily Worker", which was a left wing newspaper, could only be purchased at news stands. We would ask for the N.Y. Times news and we received the Times with the Daily Worker stuck inside. There were critiques on all sorts of politics, a list of left wing writers such as Maxim Gorky and Howard Fast.

On Monday nights, as well, we improvised with standards. Although I didn't know chord changes, I was able to play by ear. This was short lived. Teddy pointed out that the jazz of the day was well established with great players already accomplished and successful. Bubbling with excitement, he wanted us to find our voice through new paths. So he pushed us toward 12 "free" notes so as to avoid tonality. It was exciting to play melodic jazz-like phrases without tonality.

Also on Monday nights, there were long discussions of theories of music i.e., harmony, melodic implications, and rhythm. I found Mozart and classical music hard to understand. I loved Schoenberg because it had all the wrong notes at once.

As for jazz, they taught me about the current jazz players of the day. Though we didn't do a study on painters or the sciences or math, I felt that by 1950 I had the equivalent of a doctorate.

For a short time we had a small following at a jazz club around 1947 in Greenwich Village, N.Y. There would be small lines of jazz musicians coming to hear us. Jazz players complimented me though I wasn't sure why since I was playing by smell and intuitive transcendence. I did not understand styles. I was thrilled at playing all the wrong notes and be told that I was good. Between the jazz inflections and the brand new notes, sounds and rhythm, I enjoyed creating music. Many years later, I read a statement by Beethoven, in which he said "I thank God for giving me the gift to reach for the unattainable". The spirit and soul of jazz, which came from great suffering as slaves, created a unique music, and from the soul of our African American brothers, the suffering spirits of pain ripped open the heart of early "black spirituals" to music never before heard. I believe, from early childhood, I had the same kind of suffering, as a slave to my mother's erratic, almost insane, behavior. Upon my first hearing of jazz music, I identified with my Black fellows. The calling sounds, wailing, screaming "don't take my baby - don't take my baby" still haunts me today.

1946 - 1958 "The Influence of Josef Schmid"

My music studies under Josef Schmid were from 1946 to 1958. I had two lessons a week. We studied piano playing for about three years. My piano lessons quickly brought me to six hours of practice daily.

When I began harmony in '46 I didn't know what bass Clef was nor did I know where middle C was on the piano. For the first two years, it took me many hours to write music notes on paper. With great struggle and many hours of trial, playing from chord to chord, I was not discouraged. At the sound of a single chord, I was filled with joy. I didn't know that I was a pre-beginner. I never heard of Mozart, the violin, bassoon, or the symphony orchestra. I had never known that songs were composed by people. I did all of my studies in a damp and dirty cellar. I had little or no idea how ignorant I was. Whatever I learned, it was from moment to moment, and each moment was the most exciting time of my life.

Josef Schmid was seeking to study theory and composition, either with Max Reger or Arnold Schoenberg. He chose Schoenberg. He went to his house unannounced, rang the doorbell, and met Alban Berg and Anton Webern. They were packing Schoenberg's bags for he had moved hurriedly to accept a teaching position. When he finally met Schoenberg, the new position left him little time, so he studied with Alban Berg.

Schmid was an accomplished conductor, organist, and pianist and could play the violin as well. After a short time, he became assistant conductor to Anton Von Zemelinsky.

While conducting in a political rally against Hitler, two newsmen rushed him and his wife to a train going to Paris, France, right after the concert. His life was threatened several times. Then from Paris, with Schoenberg's help (Schoenberg referred to Schmid as his godfather teacher), he went to California where he stayed with Schoenberg and later settled in New York City.

We worked, using Schoenberg's THEORY OF HARMONY in German (which Schmid read to us) as Schmid translated. Throughout the entire book, as a weekly lesson, we were encouraged to compose 12 to 20 phrases in harmony weekly. Schoenberg's astonishing wisdom in harmony caused work amounts beyond the ordinary, from four to six part harmony.


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