John Turturro: A Soulful Truth Teller

Christine Passarella By

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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.


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