Courtesy of Joe Maneri

Leo Records



Saxophonist 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.

FRED JUNG: Let's start from the beginning.

JOE MANERI: Well, I just started playing because my father played, not professionally, but I liked music when I heard him play.

FJ: Influences?

JOE MANERI: I don't know. Maybe I wasn't easily influenced.

FJ: Do you remember the first jazz album you heard?

JOE MANERI: I think it was Lester Young on Keynote (The Complete Lester Young on Keynote , Verve).

FJ: How much did you make for your first paying gig?

JOE MANERI: The first paying one was when I was twelve. I got fifty cents.

FJ: Where was the gig?

JOE MANERI: In Brooklyn, at a little party. Me and a few guys from the neighborhood.

FJ: Let's talk about your last couple of albums for the ECM label, In Full Cry and Blessed.

JOE 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."

FJ: Let's touch on your new release on the ECM label, due out in February, Tales of Rohnlief.

JOE 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.

FJ: What roots is your language derived from?

JOE 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.

FJ: As a father, you must be very proud of the work Mat has been doing.

JOE 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.

FJ: You are unique, but like all unique artists that must hinder you from getting work in this country.

JOE 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.

FJ: With all the stigmas attached to progressive playing, it must have been difficult for you to find work.

JOE 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."

FJ: 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 Europe.

JOE 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.

FJ: 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).

JOE 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.

FJ: How do you respond to the traditionalists that say what you do is not jazz?

JOE 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.

FJ: You are preaching to the choir here.

JOE 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.

FJ: 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?

JOE 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.

FJ: That is an interesting observation.

JOE 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.

FJ: This music could use a good shot in the arm, why hasn't a sharp entrepreneur booked you for a college tour?

JOE MANERI: 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.

FJ: 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."

JOE 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 instruments.

FJ: The decline of the arts in America is something that should be of grave concern.

JOE 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 Pitch Continuum.

FJ: How do you go about changing perceptions and shifting that elitist mind-set?

JOE 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 called Natick."

FJ: I am familiar with Natick.

JOE MANERI: Yeah, I live right next to it.

FJ: So you live in Wellesley.

JOE 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.

Fred Jung is Editor-In-Chief and who-knows-what-else. Comments? Email him.