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John Turturro: A Soulful Truth Teller

Christine Passarella By

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John Turturro is one of those rare human beings who was born with a defiant grace. He is sure and stern about what moves him. His confidence radiates with a love that springs straight from his core. I think that is why he has high-quality friends and fans from all over the world. His art form as a thespian brings a sacred miracle it seems to me through each of his performances. This great and acclaimed actor has a willingness to be a soulful truth teller through each character he brings to the big screen, the theater and most recently in the HBO award-winning series The Night Of.

I remember the first time I saw John perform in an Off- Broadway play in the mid '80s, I was struck. The entire audience left the theater knowing we shared an emotionally powerful experience with him. The play was Steel on Steel and it was based on the story of his own father's journey. Years later he would turn this powerful play into the film Mac which won the Camera d'Or at Cannes. "Music is emotional transportation. It is the first form of prayer, for me, it is," John Turturro stated as my interview began with him. Turturro fits the profile of a human being creating a Coltranian path. His words remind me of the following statement by the majestic saxophonist John Coltrane, "I want to speak to their souls." In his chosen profession and in his humanity overall John Turturro is determined to keep moving, guided by his own inner voice. I had the pleasure of dining with John in the West Village of New York City. I interviewed him while we had a delicious northern Italian meal at Bar Pitti. In between courses, he spoke to the waiters in beautiful Italian as if it was his native tongue with a warmth and friendliness. John told me that if he could be anything else in life besides being an actor he would be either a great saxophonist or a great singer. Really John!! A saxophonist!!! "Yes, I am serious about this," he exclaimed.

Let me take you to the home in which the magnificent actor was raised, nestled in the black working-class community of Hollis, New York. It was filled with music weaving in and out of every room, and certainly into his young heart and soul. Life was rooted in the visceral through creativity, including the taste of delicious Italian food at the expert hands of his mother. The music was so integral it became part of the subconscious lives of his entire family. Perhaps many of us can relate to identifying potent songs that can be the soundtrack of our lives. John's father and mother loved music! His mother Katherine was a jazz singer for a brief time when she sang with her brothers who were all professional musicians. Also known as Kitty by her close friends and family, she loved pop, opera, classical, rock and roll, jazz, the blues, and gospel. "She is the most talented one in the family. She sang, drew, painted, made clothes, and danced. My mom wanted to be a dress designer and had beautiful dreams." Giving her tremendous respect and credit for being a dedicated and loving mother, he made it clear that she exposed him to brilliant films, theater, and stimulating music. "She always supported me, never made me think I was great. Just encouraged me to be myself, never inhibited me, and it was almost unspoken that whatever I accomplished she was proud of."

Katherine was born in Brooklyn and put in an orphanage for six years when her mother passed away when she was a young child. Eventually, her dad remarried and she had a new mother and could leave the orphanage, but soon her stepmom passed away too when Kitty was only 15. It was a hard life for her, but she was resilient and amazingly always stayed open to the possibilities in life. I had the honor of knowing Kitty Turturro in my journey and I can tell you she was strong, empathetic and filled with love. I remember an hour-long conversation I had with her about the educational system and her deep respect for good teachers. They were encouraging words because I am a teacher by profession. Kitty Turturro and her brilliant middle son John became best friends as he went into adulthood and followed his chosen path as an actor. "She was a big Billie Holiday fan. I even have her demo in which you can hear Billie's influence on her voice. She loved to dance the Jitter-bug at the Savoy in Harlem. My mother also loved listening to Billy Eckstine and Frank Sinatra too. She sang in the orphanage as a child and sang in the church over the years. She always sang. She treated my brothers, and I all the same, but I saw her as a person and not just a mother. I would defend her because she had a rough life. We had a close friendship."

John Turturro went to SUNY New Paltz as an undergraduate in rural upstate New York. He fit in well on this artistic campus and was the beneficiary of some wonderful professors who saw his talent in acting. After leaving New Paltz John taught history for a while at Rice High School in Harlem and at Our Lady of the Martyrs in Queens. He was too shy to jump right into acting professionally with both feet at first. But destiny called, and he was accepted to both NYU and Yale Drama School. Yale would fine-tune his thespian skills and also match him up with the love of his life another Katherine, the gifted and elegant actress Katherine Borowitz.

As time marched on, the New York theater and film scenes gave John the opportunity to carve courageously his unique way. With great respect the most acclaimed people in his artistic field welcomed him into their projects and then eventually, he welcomed them into his. John has worked with Francisco Rosi, Spike Lee, Robert DeNiro, John Patrick Shanley, the Coen Brothers, Anthony Hopkins, Sophia Loren, Frances McDormand, Robert Redford, James Gandolfini, Kate Winslet, Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, Alec Baldwin, Martin Scorsese and the list goes on and on. Rosi and Turturro became very close, a father and son bond developed after John's father passed. Francesco gave him a deep and intense gift by personally teaching him where his roots lay in the warm exquisite earth of Italy. With many opportunities to jump into a movie project for box office big money, John said no. He was determined to stay on course as an artist with his own vision and integrity. Well, he did do Transformers, but I am sure that was for the kids. This again fitting perfectly into the Coltranian schema that I admire so much. "The real risk is not changing. I have to feel that I'm after something. If I make money, fine. But I'd rather be striving. It's the striving, man, it's that I want," John Coltrane's guiding words light the way.

It is my view that when one lives a Coltranian life insisting on being your unique self, although there are unknowns, fears, and sacrifices these are the lives that are truly worth living! It also seems to me that these folks leave the world a much better place as their existence becomes the gift to all of us. Turturro's films include The Truce, Do the Right the Thing, Romance and Cigarettes, Mac, Miller's Crossing, Jungle Fever, Barton Fink, Fading Gigolo, Passione, Quiz Show, Five Corners, Illuminata and the list goes on and on gloriously. One of the films he is most proud of is The Truce in which he portrayed Primo Levi, a Jewish Italian chemist who was an Auschwitz survivor and acclaimed writer. It is important to note that John Turturro's personal projects often include the power of great music. In his magnificent film Passione, the musical score included the natives of Napoli singing the heartbreaking and heartwarming music from their unique Italian culture. In one of the many narratives weaved in the film, John introduces us to saxophonist James Senese who performs the soulfully haunting title song in Passione filmed in a Neapolitan blues club. James tells the story of his life in Napoli. His father was an African American soldier who fell in love with his Italian mother. A tapestry of the people's stories reaches us through music, dialogue, and dance coming out of the challenging and extraordinary history of this region.

Italian Americans and Italians from all over the world claim John Turturro as their own. Although born in Brooklyn and raised in Queens John travels the world and is often visiting his ancestral homeland Italy. His dad Nick Turturro was born in Giovinazzo, Italy and came to America as a young child. I know the stories fairly well as his paternal grandpa Raphael Turturro and my maternal grandpa Vincenzo Turturro were brothers. We of Italian heritage see John Turturro as the best of our people. His brilliance, creativity, drive, passion, love for humanity and bond to family are who we are as a people. So, we all raise him up, and say yes John Turturro, we are extremely proud of you! The man who had the biggest impact on John was indeed his father. Nick was an intense man with unwavering determination to create and build on the best of who he was. Nick Turturro worked with his mind and hands designing and building house after house with honor and excellence. It seems clear the father taught his son well. Nick also taught John about great musicians, although his father's range of music was not as wide a path as his mother's, he had a deep love for the saxophone. Exposing his three sons to exquisite songs was part of who he was. Gene Ammons's romantic saxophone playing still appeals to John Turturro deeply, in fact, he included it in the soundtrack of his film Fading Gigolo "My man is Gene Ammons."

After the interview and as I sat down to write this article, I enjoyed viewing an episode of the Henry Louis Gates show Finding Your Roots in which Gates explores John's heritage. It reminded me of what I tell my own children, and that is we stand on the shoulders of our ancestors. John tells the esteemed host that he would not be speaking to him if it were not for the journey of his grandfather Raphael. Looking at family photos in my own album, the photo of our great-grandpa Nicola Turturro always made me smile because of his artistic appearance. I stopped in deep reflection looking into the eyes of our great grandma Teresa Turturro. I pondered the female journeys that came before us, and I embraced them in my mind knowing they survived with amazing grace. I know in our DNA, we have the fortitude to carry on with courage and integrity. Although we owe our ancestors gratitude, I think John would agree we also owe them a commitment to a life of beauty, love, and justice, as they paved the way and the more we succeed, the more they rise.

John has a deep respect for jazz and affection for all black music. He understands how these great musicians influenced popular culture. In addition to Ammons, he mentioned Lester Young, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, and Miles Davis stating he can go on and on speaking about the greats. He included, "Jazz musicians are loyal to their instruments and walk to the beat of their own drum." He also cherishes his childhood memories seeing live performances by outstanding soulful musicians such as James Brown, the Shirelles, the Crystals and many other extraordinary black performers when they came to the New York City area. "My journey is I have done a lot and I want to do more. I associate with musicians who take their own paths. I followed my interests. I made movies about the working class and anti-bourgeois. My next thing, I am working on is a film about ignorance and race. When I write, I listen to music, when I write scripts. I love classical music too, many of the jazz greats were trained classically." Creating America's music in the form of the blues and jazz originated from the pain, suffering, courage, and eventually triumphant joy coming from black people in the United States. Jazz artfully helps tell America's story connected to race. The musicians help us stay focused on what is important and their music helps us get through life. James Baldwin once wrote, "If we—and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others—do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world." The brilliance in jazz improvisation and camaraderie while creating music in groups, with intense respect for the soloist is a gift to this world. It was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who called it triumphant music.

The collaborative journey of love warriors from different races has been of great significance without a doubt with musicians such as Coltrane insisting on bringing their emotional stories to existence. In the emotions we can wrestle with our humanity. John Coltrane did not seem to really care if he was understood necessarily, as he felt it was feeling the emotions that really mattered to his audience. John Turturro is like-minded in his thinking in this area, "When people have to talk about what they do it is bullshit. You either get it or not, but there are people in your way before you can have others listen to your artistry." I can imagine Coltrane nodding in agreement at this fact of life when the intersection of the arts and the business world occur. Turturro added, "Most musicians are not rich, they have to play the gig to pay the rent. It is not an easy life; no life is easy. Jazz has an unorthodox spirituality." It is that spirituality that has informed my life as a listener, there is no question. In Turturro's body of work, I can feel the same freedom of spirit that is raw and deeply human.

Two Italian Americans breaking bread in an Italian restaurant for this Coltranian jazz column well it was inevitable that we would discuss the Italian and the black cultural connections. Examining the connection between historian W.E.B. DuBois and civil rights lawyer Vito Marcantonio is empowering to modern-day human rights activists. The conversation branched out to our appreciation for the legendary Louis Armstrong, recognizing the many collaborations between black and Sicilian folks coming together to create the New Orleans sound. Highlighting the work of recording engineer, and producer Cosimo Matassa collaborating with Allen Toussaint and many other great musicians was just one example to be discussed. At this point, I referenced my Sicilian paternal grandpa. Although not a jazz player, he was a mandolin player, classical musician, painter, and entrepreneur. His kind and tender ways soothed my journey in a harsh world. Quickly John responded passionately, "That is a man, a gentle soul, creative that is a man, not the other types, not the machismo window dressing. The provincial thing pervades a lot of thinking in certain cultures. This can be the antithesis of curiosity." I told him of my journey breaking away from the rules and regulations of a restrictive life path I was born into, and discovering my true self over the passage of decades. "In a way, you are going backward to where and who you really are," he said with understanding and warmth.

I am inspired by this gifted and humble man. I have been most of my life as I watched him live a Coltranian life growing up. He never knew it, but his confidence by osmosis gave me the daring desire and courage to follow my inner voice as well. I confess my writing then is somewhat subjective, but from what I gather many people around the world agree that Turturro is a star in ways that bring a "force for good" to this world. I asked him if he had words of advice for the youth. "Listen to your inner urges or voice. If it does not seem obvious, don't be afraid to explore. That is all you have in life, it either grows or shrinks. I don't encourage others to go into anything when I am asked. It is their journey and it is all about the journey, not the destination. It is the experience of trying. It is hard to be open, if you are open you are going to get it," he said with a tender bittersweet smile in his eyes realizing we both recognized what that means when one must be who they were born to be. When the delicious lunch was over, and so was my interview, he gave me two kisses, one on each cheek and he was off to fulfill a very busy schedule. As I watched him walk toward the subway steps to his next appointment traveling down his unique path, I was reminded of the words of Joseph Campbell who stated, "The privilege of a lifetime is to be who you are."

Bravo John Turturro!

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