Courtesy of Joe Maneri
FIRESIDE CHAT WITH JOE MANERI
Joe Maneri is a superstar in Europe. How tragic that in his homeland,
he is barely known. That is the kind of thing that gives me heartburn
at night and is one of the main reasons why I do this night and day for
no pay. No money in jazz. His new ECM recording with son, Mat, violinist
you should know, is something else. That feeling you get after you read
this candid one on one is you jonesing to buy the CD, so get off your
ass and do it. Here is my man, Joe, unedited and in his own words.
JUNG: Let's start from the beginning.
MANERI: Well, I just started playing because my father played, not professionally,
but I liked music when I heard him play.
MANERI: I don't know. Maybe I wasn't easily influenced.
Do you remember the first jazz album you heard?
MANERI: I think it was Lester Young on Keynote (The Complete Lester Young
on Keynote , Verve).
How much did you make for your first paying gig?
MANERI: The first paying one was when I was twelve. I got fifty cents.
Where was the gig?
MANERI: In Brooklyn, at a little party. Me and a few guys from the neighborhood.
Let's talk about your last couple of albums for the ECM label, In Full
Cry and Blessed.
MANERI: Blessed is a duet with my son (Mat Maneri) playing six-string
violin and viola and I play saxophones, clarinet, and piano. I think it's
an amazing album. It's great. IN FULL CRY is John Lockwood on bass, Matthew
Maneri on violin, Randy Peterson on drums, and myself. It's an interesting
record. One of the last cuts is me doing a piano solo on Duke Ellington's
"Prelude to a Kiss." In the same album, I don't usually do traditions,
but on that one we did a tune called "Tenderly."
Let's touch on your new release on the ECM label, due out in February,
Tales of Rohnlief.
MANERI: I don't know if anyone knows how to pronounce it. ROHNLIEF has
a new person that we've never played with on bass, Barre Phillips and
my son again on violin. Barre Phillips was suggested by the producer Steve
Lake. He knew this bass player, who had recorded with the company. He
said, "This guy is really cool and I think he will fit with you guys very
well. I'd like you to try it." And we did and it was as if we played all
our lives together and from that point, it was very good. A lot of things
were done on that, that were happy surprises. One of the newest things
that I ever did on that record, along with playing the piano, clarinet,
and sax, I write my own language. The producer liked the language so he
said why don't I read a few of the poetry things in my own language. I
think I read about four or five on the album and then we play while I'm
reading or whatever. I think it has a really unique situation.
What roots is your language derived from?
MANERI: It comes from bologna (laughing). In other words, I'm not a scholar
in language. As a matter of fact, Fred, I have learning disabilities.
I failed everything in school. I suppose because I couldn't learn easy,
I fought to do things that no one else would do. By making up words that
sounded interesting to me, I was able to do something unique because if
I did words like everyone else, maybe I'd look stupid, so I did words
that no one knew, so I can't be stupid.
As a father, you must be very proud of the work Mat has been doing.
MANERI: You know what happens when you're naturally talented, Fred? You
don't think that's such a big deal because, it's not like we worked hard
to be good. It just comes easy. I don't feel proud. I just feel like it's
cool. I don't get proud like that.
You are unique, but like all unique artists that must hinder you from
getting work in this country.
MANERI: Oh, boy, does it. It hinders me to the point that, though I started
playing quite young, I had no success what so ever in jazz until I was
sixty-five. I was playing weddings in New York. I was playing Greek and
Turkish weddings, which I loved because it was something special where
I could be challenged and have fun. To play jazz, my jazz was never accepted
nor was it understood. I don't even know if I understood it. Getting into
jazz, being a white person from Brooklyn, from an Italian background,
peasant Italians, there was no chance for me to even play jazz with any
prominent people. At the time, I didn't know anybody. In 1961, I produced
a tape for the idea of a record because of the drummer who I worked with.
He insisted that I was amazing. So we made that and that was only released
when I was seventy. That was made in 1961. When I was seventy, it was
1997, I think. Then at the same time, although I was totally unknown,
I knew some people who knew some prominent people. My record was played
on WBAI in New York City, a radio station, that record I made in '61.
People like Coltrane and Paul Bley heard it and called the radio station
and said, "Who is that?" So they got kind of excited and I ended up playing
with Paul Bley once and I never saw him again. Then through that, I ended
up playing a solo composition written for Ornette Coleman, which I understand
Ornette nor Phil Woods or a lot of other guys could play it. Some guy
knew Gunther Schuller, who conducted and said I could and I did. I played
it in Carnegie Hall for Ornette Coleman. That was my whole career right
there. I played for Ornette Coleman at Carnegie Hall. I made the album.
John Coltrane and Paul Bley heard it and called and that was the end of
it. Then I went on playing my weddings. John Zorn heard the album I made
in 1963. He grabbed it from me and he put it out. He said that it was
one of the most amazing things he had ever heard. It was written in a
modern style, but we used the rhythms of Greek, Arabic, and Turkish music.
With all the stigmas attached to progressive playing, it must have been
difficult for you to find work.
MANERI: The black community in those days were having a heyday because
they were at least accepted in small circles and they were doing nicely.
But in the time of Benny Goodman, his few black players that played with
him, they said that his players had to go through the back of the hotel.
They can't enter from the front and don't make them use the bathroom and
of course, Benny Goodman walked out. He walked out of four gigs. He says,
"I have black players in my band and they have to walk in the front."
With all this prejudices, the worst thing that happened is that my black
brothers and I don't play together, and that's disgusting! They've separated
us! I played with black guys because I wanted them to play with me. There's
a separation coming on. Whoever's doing it, I don't know. They say it's
Max Roach. They say Max is trying to get people to split away from the
whites, because the whites will ruin jazz. This happens to be true by
the way. I have documented proof, but what am I going to do? Yell at Max
Roach? Incidentally, the separation of blacks and whites is very serious.
Now Europe, thank goodness is accepting blacks without even a hesitation
and black and white people do play together, a little more so anyhow.
I was on a panel at MIT and I almost had a riot because there was one
black guy in the panel, in the jazz panel and so I got up and said, "Look
at that, we've got one black guy representing jazz and they invented it
through having a lot of pain. They've got the blues and the blues are
nothing but more pain and more pain and now there is only one black guy
sitting here. This is crap." The black guy stands up and says, "It's alright
if it's only me. I represent the blacks." So I said to the guy, "It's
not alright." So I had to fight with the black guy, "Don't ever fucking
say it's alright. What do you mean it's alright? You're the only black
guy sitting there."
Because of your ECM records, a new generation is discovering your music
through word of mouth and the name Joe Maneri is widely acknowledged in
MANERI: I love the fact that I am acknowledged. I love it, but I don't
love the fact that in America I'm having a very tough time being acknowledged.
In Europe, I'm a star! I've got over eleven albums.
A sad state of affairs that at the dawn of a new century, our artists
must still go overseas to make their living, reverse NAFTA (North American
Free Trade Agreement).
MANERI: Yes! I like going over seas because I like going places and I
like that they like me, but it pisses me off that I can't play in my own
country and I don't think that I'm that outlandish. I'm not outlandish
at all! I think my music is very accessible, not commercially and mainstream.
I wish we didn't have any mainstream, that's so full of crap. Mainstream
seems to be something that was done twenty-five years ago. So what the
hell is mainstream? It's like a commercial gig. It's too bad because there
are so many guys out there who are playing and I'm not the only one. Of
course, I am the only one who kind of was accepted in Europe and in Montreal,
by the way. Although I played with Paul Bley in 1963, I didn't see him
until 1992. He came to teach where I'm teaching at, the New England Conservatory.
My students said, "You know Paul Bley is teaching here?" I said, "Well,
you tell him that I played with him once." He came to hear me and he told
me I was the greatest saxophonist he had ever heard and hired me for Montreal,
Canada to play a gig with him. We got two incredible, rave reviews. The
reviewer said that we were the most interesting and most accomplished
jazz players out of the entire festival. We never got hired again there
because the owner of the place told Paul Bley that he didn't want me.
He wanted a star, someone with a big name. And Paul said no, it should
be me and since Paul was honest, he got his way. When I tried to get back
on there with my group and myself, they banned me, so I don't go on there.
It's disgusting. I get blamed for something that I had nothing to do with.
It doesn't mean shit. Life with its stupid connections.
How do you respond to the traditionalists that say what you do is not
MANERI: I only had one critic that said my music was crap. That must have
been a guy with perhaps a very limited brain. It's really dumb. I'm amazing.
No question about it. Every saxophone player in the world says it. Anthony
Braxton says it. George Garzone and all these other guys say it, so I
must be that. And it is jazz.
You are preaching to the choir here.
MANERI: I grew up in the age of big bands. I didn't know about jazz. I
knew about big bands. But every band had guys who were blowing, so right
away, improvisation was part of me. Every time I tried to hook up with
people that played jazz, I wasn't acknowledged. It wasn't that far out.
It was original.
Younger audiences are congregating to this progressive brand of playing.
Do you think that the industry in the States will finally learn to appreciate
Joe Maneri based upon that resilient response to the music?
MANERI: People scream when they see me, but they don't scream when they
hear the record. There is a certain thing about the visual that people
pick up on. You put a record out and the music sounds a little funny.
You don't know that much about jazz, so you say, "That's funny," and you
turn it off. You go to a concert and you see a guy up there that sounds
a little funny and all of the sudden, you see him talking to you and I
tell people, "I'm going to play a love song for you." I jump off the stage
and I play right to their face with love and then all of the sudden, they
don't find my sound weird.
That is an interesting observation.
MANERI: Well, it's true, Fred. I think it's unfortunate because when we
play we get these wild applause wherever we go. I don't think we ever
got a bad review. No, we didn't. We didn't. We got nothing but rave reviews.
We went to thirteen cities in France, all over Germany, Austria, Amsterdam,
Italy, and we got nothing but raves. In Chicago, we blew the roof down.
We got great reviews there. The place was packed. The people that came
owned my records already, who I didn't even known these people. That was
very disappointing because I'm told that there are parts of the United
States that own my records and they think I'm cool, but damn it, I can't
get a gig in the United States! All I do is play in New York City. I used
to play in Boston, where I'm now living, but I don't even play in Boston
because there is no place to play. There's a couple of places I play once
and awhile. I know that the public is waiting for me. I'm not an attractive
person. I'm fat and bald. But when I got on the horn and I have a really
kind way with my voice and I even sing, so I'm a winner publicly. I went
to the Berlin Jazz Festival, the producer, it was the first time I was
in Europe and he said, "I'm scared you're going to go out there and you're
wild." And what happened was, I not only was accepted, but they didn't
have in those days an encore. You had to keep moving so the other acts
could go on. This actually happened. The people were screaming. They wouldn't
let us go. They wouldn't let the next act start. They had to break the
rule and let us play. I'm an expressive Italian. I'm probably the same
as an expressive black person or an expressive Jewish person. In other
words, I'm the real thing. I get nuts. I hold the horn. I bend down. I
get up. I skid around. I don't move. I move. It's a beautiful experience.
I played in Greenwich Village for one year and I was acknowledged by New
York audiences, especially saxophone players, who thought I was the greatest,
although, I'm very strong on the clarinet and I'm very strong on piano.
In America, to go to a mainstream jazz club, which shouldn't exist really.
First of all, I played one mainstream jazz club in Boston. I found the
audiences very receptive. Again, I think American audiences would groove
with me if they saw us physically.
This music could use a good shot in the arm, why hasn't a sharp entrepreneur
booked you for a college tour?
All young people in the United States, you see, Fred, I've been teaching
at the New England Conservatory for thirty years, all the guys that come
out of there, out of Berklee, out of California, out of Florida, out of
different places in the country, from what I'm told, I am the hottest
thing around. But I'm the hottest thing sitting in the house, talking
to you on the phone, looking out at the dead branches. I am so in love
with music. I'm a passionate lover of man. I love to be out with people.
I also have a passion for righteousness. I don't like to see people fucked
up and being hurt. I usually dedicate myself to this, but they never put
it in the newspapers. I wish to hell they would. For instance, I do one
song, wherever I am, I do one song, all over Europe, I say, "I don't know
if anybody here believes in God. I don't know if anyone here believes
in anything, taro cards or whatever, but I believe that there is a very
large spirit who can help people who are ill. If you have any kind of
belief or message that you want to send to a loved one who is sick, this
is something we're going to play that is going to be for those people.
What you have to do is turn your eyes up to the stage." I can tell you,
Fred, the rest of us never played quite the same because the electricity
that you send out just blows us off the stage. We have to be obedient
to what kind of vibes we get. We actually have no control over our playing.
We feel like you're doing it. People have written me letters now for the
last six months, thanking me for doing that number. There's another number
I do. I come out and I boast about the stars of jazz. I always give a
little tiny, tiny speech. I talk about Thelonious Monk, Fats Waller, and
I even imitate them and even sing like them sometimes to give them an
idea that they're in my blood. These are the cool dudes that were before
me and died and I recognize them. I'm an extremely American jazz player.
I'm not a European jazz player. Europeans like me because I come from
Italian peasants first generation. They call me over there the "Italo-American
Buddhist." Italo means Italian. And Buddha because they're recognizing
I'm fat and my message is always love. I always talk about love and I
always talk about healing and how beautiful we are.
It is ironic that this music has blended the color lines and yet, within
the music there is such internal strife about "out" or "in the pocket."
MANERI: No matter what style it is, like Duke Ellington said, "It don't
mean a thing, if it ain't got that swing." If a guy's got swing and he
plays a little bit more conventional or more far out or more this or less
that, I don't care what site it is, you could tell when it's bullshit.
If a guy is playing in the spirit, even if they're fifty years behind
the times, and they're playing in the spirit, you can feel it. You can
sense it and you can like it. I'm not a prejudice, narrow-minded person
and this is only one style in the world to be cool. We're all different
people. We all feel different things. We all look at things differently.
I am accepted by musicians. The audience, at large, likes me when they
see me. But the audience of musicians, I'm told, like Cecil Taylor wrote
me letters about how cool I am. He even hired my son to do a duo with
him in Washington DC. All these people contact me or send me a letter
acknowledging to me that I'm cool. I like being cool, but I'm also an
educator and I can't stand it if Juilliard doesn't teach saxophone. That's
a big music school. Why don't they teach saxophone? What is this shit?
I cannot stand that our musical teaching is antiquated and terribly stupid.
They haven't changed their way of teaching in over fifty-five, sixty-five
years and so consequently, we're teaching a method from the middle of
the nineteenth century, when already, the twentieth century is over. We
didn't even tap on twentieth century cool things. I have written curriculums
and I'm looking to get big money to start schools and to generate art
in the United States. I'm trying to get into Washington DC to senators
and people like that, to wake up and renew our cultural steam here. We
have so many gifted people. It is disgusting how our black kids don't
even get to go to school in jazz. Only the ones who have money can go.
But if they have money, then their parents don't want them to be musicians.
There's a big decline in young black people being jazz musicians or even
classical. They're not going to get a damn job in the classical field.
Those damn orchestras are still all white. Man, I know some black musicians
that have come through my school that play amazing! I am interested in
bringing that spirit back. At my school, Jaki Byard was the chairman,
but he was the chairman because Gunther Schuller was there. Gunther Schuller
is one of the most amazing avant thinkers. I don't like avant-garde, that
name, because what happens is if you play something modern and you get
called avant-garde, if some guy plays some shit modern, you get into the
same classification. Gunther Schuller is one of the most amazing people.
What he brought to the New England Conservatory was a jazz department
that was really cooking and it's amazing that as soon as he left, the
whole thing collapsed. Now we've got teachers who can't even play their
The decline of the arts in America is something that should be of grave
MANERI: We have got a bunch of dead shit in America. I have articles,
there was one big article that was done in the Globe, where this guy did
an entire study for one year and he found that in the symphony orchestras,
half of the seats were empty, bought by the filthy rich, who don't even
go. They just buy the seats. They go once in awhile. They took a toll
of how many people were sleeping. Then they took a toll about how many
people were throwing spitballs from the stage or reading books while they're
playing, because the musicians are not even challenged. They're playing
one new piece, two new pieces if you're lucky and so they're bored stiff,
but they're getting 70,000 and 80,000 a year while they are being bored.
The rich think that if the melody sounds nice, it's good. If you can't
make it out, then it's crap. They're controlling the United States. In
the time of Bach and the time of Beethoven, the rich guys were controlling
it, but they were so rich that they had an education. I've only gotten
one award my whole life. I should have gotten a hundred by now. I wrote
the only book in existence on microtonal music. It's called the Virtual
How do you go about changing perceptions and shifting that elitist mind-set?
MANERI: I'm the hottest thing. I'm the greatest thing and it will come
out. I don't want it to come out after I drop dead. If I'm alive and I
start getting the proper recognition that I truly deserve, I could help
our country, because if I get a name, they will listen to me. There is
this conductor who conducted an opera in Boston and that lady told everybody,
"You think people are stupid in America. I'll tell you what. I will take
my whole opera company and go to a little hillbilly town in Massachusetts
I am familiar with Natick.
MANERI: Yeah, I live right next to it.
So you live in Wellesley.
MANERI: I live in Framingham. I don't have that kind of bread to live
in Wellesley. I have to live in the boondocks. And I don't mind the boondocks.
The thing is, Fred, I don't cry where I'm living and I don't cry how much
money I have in the bank. My tears are for humanity and education and
I can't stand all the fucking lies. She brought the whole opera company
to Natick to try and prove a point. She was only supposed to be there
two days. They ended up there four days. People kept coming from all over
Massachusetts to Natick. They couldn't fit them in the high school, so
they had to put speakers outside and a TV set and people sat outside and
saw the opera. That's an example.
Jung is Editor-In-Chief and who-knows-what-else. Comments? Email