BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Stanley Crouch, I didn't tell you we were going to do this. You know who those two people are?
STANLEY CROUCH, AUTHOR, "THE ALL-AMERICAN SKINS GAME, OR THE DECOY OF RACE" Oh, that's Duke Ellington on the piano, Louis Armstrong singing, the two greatest jazz musicians of all time. But then, you are Brian Lamb.
LAMB: This is one sentence in your book: “Jazz is very important to my vision of life in our time.”
LAMB: And right after that, you mention Louie Armstrong. Why?
MONTEFIORE: Well, I think because jazz feeling is a feeling of individuality and community. And in the jazz band, through the improvising process, the individual achieves his or her identity best by making everybody else sound good. So if you're in a band, the harder everybody tries to make everybody else sound good, the better each individual sounds. So you have this marvelous combination of individuality and community. And so I think that that's a stellar achievement of American
culture, and it's one that I've always been touched by.
LAMB: You also later on say that in essence then, “The Constitution is a document that functions like the blues based music of jazz.”
MONTEFIORE: Right. Well, you see, the central idea in the middle of the Constitution is not some grandiose idea about how wonderful people are, but it's a very practical vision. That is, that you may find yourself, at various times, suffering from abusive uses of governmental power, and we have a process put in place that allows us to make up for previous mistakes, for prejudices, for shortsightedness, etc. So what I say in that essay proves to be constitutional. I'm saying that you play the blues to get rid of the blues. If a guy's really got the blues, he plays the blues to get rid of the
blues. He doesn't play the blues to get the blues; he uses the blues as a form to remove the feeling of the blues.
LAMB: Where did you get this title for your book, "The All American Skin Game"?
MONTEFIORE: Well, I thought that the real all American skin game is the race game, and so that's what I'm referring to. I mean, we know that the skin game is a con game, but I think that race is the biggest con of all in the United States.
MONTEFIORE: Well, because, first thing, as I point out in one of the essays where I'm attacking Charles Murray, there is no such thing as a Negro American race. That is, that Negro Americans are such a complicated mixture of, you know, African elements, European elements, American Indian elements, so called Hispanic elements, all of these things. I mean, you couldn't have a group in which you could have somebody for lack of a better term, who's as dark as you can think of in human form, with straight hair, say, hair like yours. And then a person who's almost your color, just one shade darker, with hair like mine, and they're supposed to be in the same race.
You can't get away with that anyplace else, but when you talk about Negroes. It's like, oh, they're all black people. And then I also pointed out that in the November I think it was November, 1994 issue of a science magazine I think it's called Discovery the guy points out that it's something like .0012 percent difference in fundamental genetic material between the races. So he says, “So race is fundamentally no more than skin deep.”
LAMB: Why do you think "60 Minutes" tapped you to be a commentator?
MONTEFIORE: Well, you know, good fortune is something that's hard to explain. I mean, it could have been a quirk; it could have been somebody could have seen me one day. I've heard that somebody close to one of the producers said that he was a fool if he didn't bring me on. So I've heard a lot of different stories.
LAMB: When was the first time they contacted you?
MONTEFIORE: I was called on the phone by the producer, Don Hewitt, and he said that they were interested in having me come down, but they didn't exactly know what category I fit in. So I said, “Well, you know, I don't really think about it like -- ” I said. Because I'm the kind of guy who, if the problem of the public schools, for instance, were countered, or an idea were proposed by Angela Davis, who's a Communist, and it seemed feasible, I'd say “Fine.” Or if somebody like Patrick Buchanan, who's still in the process of being defined upward or downward in terms of demagoguery if he were the one who came up with the idea, I wouldn't care.
If somewhere in those papers that they're rustling through of the Unabomber's, or the guy they think is the Unabomber if he had, in all of that rambling, anarchic nonsense, an idea about the public schools that actually seemed viable, I wouldn't care if they took his idea. See, I'm more interested in the country and the quality of life that results from first class policy than I am whether the idea comes from the right, the left or the center. It doesn't make me any difference.
LAMB: They picked P.J. O'Rourke, who is on the right of the spectrum, and Molly Ivins, who, I guess would be known on the left of the spectrum. Where did they buy when they bought you?
MONTEFIORE: They bought me.
LAMB: Any spectrum, any side, any ideology?
MONTEFIORE: Well, like I said, I consider myself what I call myself a radical pragmatist. Like I said, I don't care whether the cow comes from the right side of the pasture, the left side or the middle. I'm more concerned with whether or not the milk is sour.
LAMB: Where did you grow up?
MONTEFIORE: I grew up in Los Angeles. I was born there in 1945.
LAMB: Where did you go to school?
MONTEFIORE: First, I went to an integrated elementary school that was a few miles away because my mother told us that though there was a black school in the neighborhood she said, “Well, there are all kinds of people in the world, and you all might as well start meeting them now.” So we had to trudge up to 28th Street School. And so we met gypsies, Chinese and Japanese, who at that time hated each other may still do. Maybe they still do. Irish kids, Mexicans, kids from the South, etc.
So we had a good start. And one thing, when you start school with kids like that, it's very difficult for you to leave with any idea after six years of that, that any particular group is superior to any other group. You know, like, there are kids in California, for instance, who believe that Asian kids are actually smarter than they are, innately. But see, having had the luck of going to school with these kids that I grew up with I mean, you know, I met enough Asian lunkheads when I was a kid to know that, you know, there you know, there are a bunch of lunkheads that cross all categories. Then there's a broad middle. Then there's a group of people at the top who are smarter than most people. Some of them are white, some of them are black, some of them are Hispanic, etc. So that was the experience I had.
LAMB: Where did you go to college?
MONTEFIORE: Oh, I didn't go to college for very long, you know? I might have been in there for a year and a half altogether, off and on. And then I ...
MONTEFIORE: I went to East Los Angeles Junior College, and I went to southwest junior college, and I dropped out, essentially, and went to work. And by the time I went back, I was teaching school.
MONTEFIORE: At the Claremont College, in Southern California, about an hour outside of Los Angeles.
LAMB: How long did you do that?
MONTEFIORE: For seven years. I served my seven, and then I escaped to New York.
LAMB: What did you teach?
MONTEFIORE: I taught theater. I wrote about 10 plays and they were produced. I mean, they were produced and performed. I taught a class called The Hunt, which was an American lit class. I taught a class called what was it? - well, I taught a lot of different things. So, you know, sometimes I would teach Melville and Ralph Ellison and, you know, a number of different people, Virginia Woolf, etc.
LAMB: Ralph Ellison comes up in your book a lot.
LAMB: Is his name really Ralph Waldo Ellison?
MONTEFIORE: Yes, it is.
LAMB: Named after Ralph Waldo Emerson?
MONTEFIORE: That's right. That's right.
LAMB: When did he die?
MONTEFIORE: Well, he died a couple of years ago. You know, he was from Oklahoma, and he grew up listening to the bands. He got to see Lester Young. He used to talk about seeing Lester Young walking down the street in Oklahoma City with a white sweater and a silver tenor saxophone. Well, you know, he wrote "Invisible Man," which is considered one of the great American novels of the second half of the century. And he wrote many essays that are extraordinary, that have been recently collected: "Modern Library."
LAMB: You dedicate a whole group of essays in here to Ralphus.
MONTEFIORE: Well, I used to call him on the phone and call him Ralphus, see, because, you know, there's an old slave name called Rastus. And so he used to pick up the phone, he'd say “Hello.” And I'd say, “Is this Ralphus?” And he'd say, “Oh, Stanley.” And we'd gone on and we'd talk, you know? He was a great man. A very big...
MONTEFIORE: Well, because, for one thing, he saw the interconnectedness of American life. He recognized that, you know, all white Americans are part Negro; all Americans, all black Americans, so called, are part white not necessarily enetically, but that is our culture, what makes us American is something that has influenced all of us wherever we are from in the United States and that we're all, essentially, variations on a certain set of propositions that make us American. I mean, the great American cultural theorist Constance Rourke pointed out that the American is part Yankee, part frontiersman, part Indian, part Negro. She more or less proves that by showing how different things that we think are fundamentally American come from that fusion. Of course, since then, we've added things. You know, like the Hispanic influence that made for the cowboy, the various Asian influences that have affected our cuisine, various forms of religion, self defense, etc. So, you know, America's like that. We become parts of each other as a result of being attracted to things that mean something to us in human terms.
LAMB: A couple of weeks ago this picture appeared in The New Yorker, a man by
the name of Albert Murray. He also pops up in your book. This was an article written by Henry Louis Gates. Who is this man?
MONTEFIORE: Oh, Albert Murray. For me, he and Ralph Ellison are the twin towers, as I say in the introduction of the book, of a certain kind of intellectual and cultural clarity, authority, real inventiveness and a very broad sense of American meaning that's not sandbagged by racial divisions.
See, I'm a person who always had trouble, even when I was trying to embrace black nationalism. It meant that I had to let go too many things that I liked, you know, like James Joyce and Melville or John Wayne or fantasies I had about being at Kitty Hawk the day that the Wright Brothers went up, because, you know, I used to read books about guys like that; or maybe getting in a time machine and going back to Greece and watch Socrates when he was a sculptor, standing with his father and listening to his father tell him, “You know, there's a lion in that block of marble, and our job is to get him out.” You know, and I was always fascinated with that.
And then, when black nationalism came along and in the late '60s and I started going in that, I would have had to, you know, give all of that up and just focus on one thing, along with a certain kind of fantasy about Africa. So when I came in contact with Albert Murray through a friend of mine named Larry Neal, who was also trying to get out of that and go another direction, I was very attracted to what Murray was like. And that was around 1970, so I've known him for 25 years, and I've learned something important from him in every year.
LAMB: But the thread running through all of this is jazz, blues...
MONTEFIORE: And writing.
LAMB: ...and writing.
MONTEFIORE: Yeah. Well...
LAMB: What about, you know let's go back we opened up with Duke Ellington and Louie Armstrong. Did you ever meet Duke Ellington?
MONTEFIORE: Yeah, I met him. I met him a couple times.
LAMB: Ever talk to him?
MONTEFIORE: Yeah, Atlanta. I interviewed him.
LAMB: What was he all about? How important was he?
MONTEFIORE: Well, the thing about him was that, see, he invented his own language. And his language has a purely American quality to it, it's based in the four fundamentals of jazz. That is, the blues, 4/4 swing, the romantic ballad and Latin rhythms you know, Afro Cuban, Afro Hispanic, Afro Caribbean, you know. So he always worked on those things, all the way to the end. You know, if you and I had some time, one of these times we may have it. I can show you things he did in the late '20s and isolate for you the specific things he was using and show you how in
the '40s he was using them, reinventing them, in the '50s he was reinventing them, in the '60s. All the way to the end, he stayed on a path, but it was the extraordinary way that he constantly reinvented these fundamentals that made him such a gargantuan figure in American art.
LAMB: Did he have any impact on race in...
MONTEFIORE: Oh, I think so. I think so because he was one of the first people I think Whitney Balliett had pointed it out. He was one of the first Negro Americans who never submitted to any form of Uncle Tomming. You know what I mean? With Duke Ellington it was always smooth, it was always class. And he was a very big influence and a hero to people in show business, black or white and across generations. Everybody loved him, and they respected the fact that he carried himself with an effortless aristocracy, you know. But also a great sense of humor. And because, you know, he had worked for gangsters and done all kind of things and seen very brutal things happen as well, as well as being in after hours joints where everybody had a great time, and you know, people gambled, shot pool, competed playing the piano, etc., he was always in touch with the ground, you know. However high he went, the Himalaya that he was building of art, it never lost contact with the place where he started.
LAMB: I just want to listen to a little bit of Duke Ellington and ask you about this piece and what kind of music we're listening to.
[Excerpt from Duke Ellington song]
LAMB: You know, I found it easier to read your book while listening to this.
MONTEFIORE: Oh, you were listening to "Mood Indigo" when you were reading?
LAMB: And others, you know.
MONTEFIORE: Oh. That's good. That's good. Well, you know, Murray writes with different pieces of music.
LAMB: How do you write?
MONTEFIORE: I write the best way I can.
MONTEFIORE: I mean at home.
LAMB: Where do you live?
MONTEFIORE: I live in the West Village, in the utopian West Village of New York, on the third floor. And sometimes I write with music on, sometimes I write absolute silence. Often, out of utter desperation, that is, in attempting to catch up with something that I've got going on in my mind, you know, because you almost you know, you're a writer, it's kind of like playing music because these ideas, you're on this merry go round, and ideas are like this string of brass rings. Sometimes you get them. Or the one that you think is the one, the one that you pull, it's not the one
you're looking at, and then you look in your hand, or, that is, you look on the page and you go, `Oh, wow. I missed it. I better try to get back around and see if I can snatch it right this time,' you know. And so I do the best I can.
LAMB: This book was nominated for...
MONTEFIORE: The National Book Critics Circle Award.
LAMB: How'd it do?
MONTEFIORE: It lost. Well, I don't want to say anything about that because I don't want to be obnoxious.
LAMB: How many books have you written?
MONTEFIORE: This is the second one. I'm preparing another book of essays right now that'll either be called "Possession Over Judgment Day," "Blue Light" or "Bittersweet." Those are the three I thought of in the cab on the way over here, so I don't know.
LAMB: Let me just mention names of people you write about and get a quick take on them, in here. Benjamin Chavis.
MONTEFIORE: Irresponsible, opportunist, screwball.
LAMB: Former head of the NAACP.
MONTEFIORE: Yeah, also. Yeah. He did that, too.
LAMB: Did you ever talk to him about this?
MONTEFIORE: No, no. But I've seen him speak often enough for me to realize that he and I wouldn't have too much to talk about.
LAMB: Derrick Bell, former Harvard law professor?
MONTEFIORE: Well, fortunately for Harvard, former. I think he's a guy who tends to distort the realities of American life in the interests of a certain kind of racial degradation that I think is overstated. And he's obviously a guy who's studied what he's studied and done what he's done, but I just find what he does, you know, very
irresponsible. And, like, the position he took when he was at Harvard, that he walked off the faculty in protest because they didn't bring a tenured full time black female professor to the law school, so he stormed out in protest.
And, fortunately, Harvard said (waves goodbye) because, see, I think that's not good. I think the idea that black women are so out of it that the only way that they would be able to see careers for themselves in law is to see a black person who's the same sex as them teaching at the law school is ridiculous. So then what happens? If one of
them becomes the president of the law school, then what happens then? Well, what do the white girls do? Do they have to say, “Well, she's going to have to wear a blonde mask and a blonde wig every so often so we can identify with her.” You know, I think we've got to get out of that.
LAMB: Louis Farrakhan?
MONTEFIORE: Well, I mean, he's a political and intellectual and spiritual pestilence. But he's connected to the kind of nutballs that appear periodically in the United
States. I mean, you know, Father Coughlin, Nathan Bedford Forrest. I mean,
you've always had these loons who appear in America, and they conflate a bizarre brand of politics, racism, paranoia and real frustration with the complexity of realizing our democratic ideals, and to gather cult followings.
But Farrakhan is a guy who's so out of it, finally, that, see, he'll always pull the mask off himself. See, we don't really have to worry about him because, see, eventually, he's going to get up there and somebody's going to ask him, “Well, Mr. Farrakhan, do you actually believe, as the honorable Elijah Muhammad taught, that white people were invented 6,000 years ago by a mad scientist named Yacub?” And he'll say, “Yes,” and then he'll be out of it for a minute, then he'll reappear. And then one day, as Richard Coleman told me, he said at a breakfast with the staff at The Washington Post, he'll start talking about taking off in this spaceship with Elijah Muhammad. So he takes these periodic trips out into space with Elijah Muhammad, who's dead, commandeering, you know, driving the plane, so to speak, flying the spaceship. So with those kinds of things in his bag, I don't really think that we're going to have to be bothered about him for too long.
LAMB: Malcolm X?
MONTEFIORE: I think he was a well meaning but confused guy who just misled a lot of people because he created a lot of simple minded distinctions, like between the so called “house Negro” and the “field Negro.” And people were able to take that and confuse that with what Frantz Fanon was talking about in the "Wretched of the Earth" about the fellow and the French vision that the French called the “total no’ in which you just reject everything, right? You just “everything they do, I don't like.”
So I think he helped project that into political discourse, as it were, and that led to black power, which I think was the beginning of the Balkanizing kinds of politics that we find ourselves bedeviled by in America at this particular point, you know, where, you know, the black people are supposed to go this way, and the women are supposed to go that way, and the Indians are supposed to go this way, and Asians are
supposed to go that way, and the homosexuals are supposed to go. You know, eventually, the midgets and the people who eat, you know, strawberry ice cream, etc., they'll start their own movement. So who knows?
And I think all of those things get in the way, but I think black power was the beginning of the fragmenting of American political virtue, and replacing it with a cynical narcissism based on fantasy worship of one's group. You know, because see, after you get the fantasy worshiping of Africa on the part of the black power movement, then you end up with women talking about women as goddesses, and etc., etc., you know. And then, you know, the homosexuals say, “Well, you know, the problem with the world is straight people.” And those are all variations on the same garbage, I think.
LAMB: Jackie Kennedy?
MONTEFIORE: Oh. Well, she did all right. And in the piece I have about her in the book, she symbolized, it seemed to me, the way in which she carried herself at John Kennedy's funeral, the true tragic grandeur of American possibility. And I said that, you know, at that particular moment, she took on for me the same tragic optimism that I see in people I see and hear in people like Bessie Smith or Mahalia Jackson. So I thought that she was part of that, particularly at that moment.
LAMB: Who pays your bills these days, besides the publisher here at Pantheon and "60 Minutes" and ...
MONTEFIORE: Anybody I can get, Brian. Anybody ...
LAMB: Anybody on a regular basis, New Republic?
MONTEFIORE: Well, I write a column every Sunday for The Daily News.
LAMB: New York?
MONTEFIORE: Yeah. And it gets me right to the sidewalk. I like that. See, I mean, I don't mind writing, as any writer likes to, to the intellectual elite, if you will, of the United States, whomsoever they might happen to be. But there's something great when you're in a cab and the cabdriver says, “Don't you write for the Daily News?” Or, you know, Puerto Rican messenger kids, 17, 18, saying, “Are you Stanley Crouch? I read your articles. Very interesting articles.” So you get on the subway and a guy's getting off duty, and, you know, drives the train, and he says, “Oh, you're Stanley Crouch.” And he says, “I'm glad you're X Y Z.” Of course, you also meet people who say “Oh, you jerk. You ...” blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. But I just like that. You know, I like the interplay with the public.
LAMB: There's a quote you have in here from Gregory Peck: “The audience loves the bad guy because he will come up with a surprise.”
MONTEFIORE: Right. Well, see, that was in that essay, I was talking about what I consider the difficulty Americans have in distinguishing between the kind of heroic individuality represented by an Abraham Lincoln or a Martin Luther King that is, a form of individuality that actually increases the possibilities of reasonable freedom. And the anarchic individuality, the bad guy individuality, is symbolized by people like Billy the Kid, whose actions decrease the possibilities of reasonable freedom, you know.
See, Billy the Kid is like these kids running around with these 9mm pistols who terrorize their communities from sea to shining sea, as it were. I mean, they're the same people that John Ford always recognized as these anarchic forces of violence and selfishness and disregard for other people who have to be gotten rid of or intimidated into good behavior as the town is tamed, as the term goes. And so that's a problem that I think we've had for a long time and we still have it.
MONTEFIORE: So that people think that just by breaking the rules, doing something, as they say today, “outrageous,” you're thereby doing something good. But it all depends. You know, if you're a surgeon and you're delivering a baby, and the baby's about to come out and you take a spear and punch the spear the soft part of the baby's skull is very soft, and pull it out like that and say, `I came up with a new technique,' it would be outrageous, but it would also be murder.
LAMB: More names. Count Basie.
MONTEFIORE: Oh, well, Count Basie, he was a man who was from Red Bank, New Jersey, who went out to Kansas City and became the center of a new version of swing. It came with the Kansas City beat, and when they brought that to New York, they revolutioned when they came to New York in 1936, they began another rhythmic revolution in jazz.
LAMB: Here's a little bit of "One O'Clock Jump."
[Audio of Count Basie's orchestra playing "One O'Clock Jump"]
LAMB: "One O'Clock Jump," Count Basie. What was the difference in this society between Count Basie and, say, Louie Armstrong or Duke Ellington? What role did Count Basie play?
MONTEFIORE: Oh, well, he was the guy who came in with another rhythm. See, the way that they phrased the time, just that Kansas City 4/4, what Albert Murray calls in stomping the blues, the velocity of celebration. It was something about just that - see, before Basie, the quarter note, you know, as in one, two, three, four in a bar
at 4/4, was more like thump, thump, thump, thump, more like that. But, see, Basie, those guys, they said bing, bing, bing, bing; bing, bing, bing, bing. They had that little edge on it that pushes the beat just a little bit. And it was very relaxed, and you could dance to it, you could pat your foot to it, and they could give you that smooth, rhythmic feeling that we all associate with the things we like.
LAMB: Did you know him?
MONTEFIORE: I didn't know Basie, but I saw him a number of times.
LAMB: What was he outside of music, to the society, to the race relations? Did he have any impact like Duke Ellington?
MONTEFIORE: Well, I think that just by virtue of going to all the places that he went and sounding as good as he sounded. See, when anything excellent from any group travels across all of the lines in a society, it does something because it clarifies for those who don't already know and are ready to know, and perhaps for some who aren't ready to know, that excellence in a democratic frame can come from any place in the society. I mean, that's the democratic ideal that your background, your neighborhood, your religion, none of those things make you either good or bad, better or worse, and that you may be surprised periodically because somebody you really don't expect will come out here and do something.
You know, like that little Asian kid who got involved in that scam that was going on with the computers, and there was this big crook who was I think he was in Florida. Some kid, I think he was in the Pacific Northwest or something like that. I think he was 16 or 17 years old. And all these people were saying this guy's raiding our computers and getting information and stuff. And this little kid, he caught
it. And he figured something out and he caught it. And see, to me, that's the United States just, like, just some kid who's a computer wiz, and then you've got this guy who's threatening to steal millions, if not billions of dollars of either money or information, right? And some teen aged kid, you know, in Oregon or some such place somewhere between Oregon and California, gets him, you know. See, that's what I like.
LAMB: Do you play an instrument?
MONTEFIORE: Well, I used to. I used to play the drums or I thought I was playing them. But then, you know, later on, I realized I wasn't playing them.
MONTEFIORE: Yes, yes. I'm married to Gloria Nixon, who's a fantastic sculptor and is also a great beauty. And so she makes up for my visual deficiencies when we go public. So when I go someplace, people will go, “Well, if we don't like to look at him, we can look at his wife.”
LAMB: Do you have kids?
MONTEFIORE: I have a daughter, yes, but from a former situation. She's 18 years old. She's in California now.
LAMB: Back to your home life. Parents, are they alive?
MONTEFIORE: One is. My father's alive, but my mother died a few years ago.
LAMB: What did your dad do in his life?
MONTEFIORE: Well, my dad was a bad guy. He was a criminal, you know. I don't know if he is now. I haven't seen him in 30 years, but he wasn't a good guy. He was involved in, you know, car theft and drugs and various things like that. And my mother, though, was a domestic worker -- she was a real all American aristocrat. I mean, if you were to meet me and my mother in a store in 1960 when I was 14, going on 15 in December, you'd never know who she was. I mean, she had this way that she carried herself and the way she spoke that was really something. She was special. And she was also very big on reading and studying. When I was young, if I would be staying up late and listening to records or reading books or something, when people my brother and sister would complain about it, she'd say, `You know, he's the artistic type. Don't bother him. You know, they're different from other people.' So she was always like that.
LAMB: What was the last conversation you had with your dad?
MONTEFIORE: Oh, gee. That was so long ago. Actually, it was 35 years ago, so I don't really know what it was.
LAMB: So you were 10?
MONTEFIORE: I was 15.
LAMB: What are you, 50 now?
MONTEFIORE: Yeah, 50. Yeah.
LAMB: I miscalculated on the age.
MONTEFIORE: Yeah, you know...
LAMB: That's right.
MONTEFIORE: Well, I'm glad I'm not 40, because 50 is better for me.
LAMB: And why was he in trouble? Have you ever thought about it? I mean, what got him in trouble?
MONTEFIORE: What got him in trouble?
LAMB: What was the reason?
MONTEFIORE: Oh, it was just him. It was his personality. He was like that Kennedy boy that OD'd up in Harlem overdosed, died from drugs. Obviously, it didn't have anything to do with deprivation in any obvious way. And there are just some people who like to go the other way. See, my father was that kind of guy, you know? If everybody said, “Go right,” he liked to go left. Now sometimes you should go left, but, see, he just was that kind of person. He was the guy who didn't think the rules were for him.
LAMB: Is there some of that in you not on the criminal side, but if a whole bunch of people are saying this about race, you go the other way?
MONTEFIORE: Well, I never say anything or write anything for effect. What I'm trying to do is, in my work, I'm trying to clarify what I think connects us and clarify the things that I think fool us or trick us into accepting certain kinds of fragmentations that aren't really at the center of our humanity.
See, all the essays in "All American Skin Game," in one way or another, are about trying to get our humanity to the front of the discussion. And whether it's talking about the works of Ralph Ellison or somebody's films or the story of, you know, the problems of democracy in the Western hemisphere, I'm trying to get us connected, but not connected in that kind of dumb, totalitarian, you know, group think way. Because, see, that's the thing that removes vitality. See, our vitality arrives, like I was saying about the jazz band. It's when your individuality enhances recognition of the meaning of the community, then that's when we're really doing something important, I think.
LAMB: We've got another little bit of music here. I'm going to roll it and then ask you see if you can guess who it is how your ear is.
[Excerpt from Wynton Marsalis song]
LAMB: Trick question?
MONTEFIORE: Oh, that's one of my best friends. It might be my best friend. That's Wynton Marsalis, who's also the grand genius who's appeared in the music over the last 10, 15 years, I think. I mean...
LAMB: You write a lot about him in your book.
MONTEFIORE: Yeah. He should be written about. In fact, I write about people I like because, you know, who's to say? Someday I might write about you. I mean, you know...
LAMB: Maybe not after this show.
MONTEFIORE: I mean, Brian, somebody as hip as you, somebody's got to write about you, but just...
LAMB: You've got some language in here that says, “Almost everyone in the band grew up playing church music, and what truly spurred my desire to write this music was the many hymns and shouts that they sing on the bus as we travel.” And that's Wynton Marsalis' words.
MONTEFIORE: Right. Well, that's one of his major pieces, "In This House, On This Morning." Those were the liner notes from that recording. And he had done something nobody else had ever done before in jazz, which was to attempt to emulate an entire Negro American church service from beginning to end in fact, beyond the end, all the way into the last piece that's called "Pot Bless Dinner," which is about people actually going someplace after church and, you know, taking advantage of
those gravies and chickens and all that stuff that goes with going to those churches. That diet is not necessarily good for those who live sedentary lives.
LAMB: But what about Wynton Marsalis the Marsalis family's impact today?
MONTEFIORE: Oh, I think that the whole family is important because, number one, it's about a family you know, it's about a Negro American family in which both the father and the mother are there, you know. They don't fall into that cliche that the media has made, you know “all those colored people out there, they got one parent in there.” And his is a story that's not connected to any of the cliched jazz problems of, you know, super racism, drug addiction, alcoholism, extraordinary violence, etc. Now he's had his troubles, like everyone does have, but they don't fall into the cliched arena that, you know, that the actual lives of people like Charlie Parker, inspired in media. And his father is an extraordinarily intelligent man; so are his brothers. His mother's an iron mistress. I mean, she's one of those kind of people that if there had been a wagon train that got stuck 1,500 miles from Oregon, if she'd been on that wagon train, they'd have gotten there. When everybody was starting to crumble, she have said, “Oh, no, no, no” She's that kind of person. You know, when you look her in the eyes, you feel secure that if something goes wrong, you will be able to do something with this person to get it right.
LAMB: I've got a quote I want to read from your book. It says, "I feel there has never been a better time to be alive."
MONTEFIORE: Yeah, I don't. Even things like the recent death of Ron Brown to me, just that we have recognition at this point that here's a guy who was able to be himself all the time, whether he was on 125th Street in Harlem, whether he was talking to Clinton, whether he was organizing CEOs and multibillion dollar deals, whether he was innovating a relationship between the business community and government that would allow the United States to compete against, as one businessman called it, “Japan Incorporated, Germany Incorporated,” etc., you know?
And so just the fact like that a guy like that got to where he got to and did what he did and is recognized even in death for that is something I think is very important. And I don't see anybody like Brown ever having appeared before. There was never a guy who was a player on that level who was also innovating to such a degree that he might have changed the very way that the government and the business sector worked in what is finally the game of our time, competition in the world market.
And I also think that we have people like Hazel O'Leary. I mean, you all have had her on C SPAN. I mean, I saw her put a whipping on one of those committees with no notes. And just to see somebody that good looking and with that kind of memory and that articulate in this particular time, you know?
Or whether people, whichever one of the Supreme Court justices, the women, that people want to say, “I like that one” or “I don't like that one.” Or whether they like Clarence Thomas or not that you've got such an extraordinary range of people in the United States now coming from so many different backgrounds, like that Asian kid I was talking about earlier who caught this crook. I mean, we've got all these people coming forward, and they're bringing new things and they're realizing everything that the country is supposed to be about.
Now I also recognize that we have enormous problems that we have to deal with, you know? We've got rebuild the public schools. We've got to put a collar on street crime. We've got to get Americans to recognize that we're going into another period where things are not necessarily going to be as secure as they were in the past, but that's an inevitability that's connected to the technological innovations of the period. But that we have to maintain morale based on the human capacity to deal with
And I think that that's the fundamental power of American democracy, is that we can get the job done. We have all kinds of things getting in the way I mean, you know, corporate greed, we have racism, sexism. But they're all of those things are in the mix, but I think they were all foreseen by the Founding Fathers, who recognized that you have to have an instrument that will allow you to right the wrongs of the past
or the wrongs of the present.
LAMB: What do you think of Clarence Thomas?
MONTEFIORE: Well, since he got on the court, I don't really think that much about him one way or another. You know, I mean, he's ...
LAMB: You ever met him?
MONTEFIORE: No, I haven't met him. He's, well, I'll tell you this. I feel sad for him that he ended up having to represent something to people at large that may have nothing to do with him as an individual. That is, to some people he seems like some kind of a Negro American mascot for the right; and for others, he seems like a guy who's embittered by the hearings to such a degree that they think he's sitting there not with a gavel, but with a sledgehammer, attempting to smash anything that's connected to legislation that might do anything for Afro Americans.
But, see, I think our real problem is recognizing that anything that affects a large mass of Americans is a national problem. It's not their problem. Part of what I try to do in this book, and in everything I do, is make us feel the same way that we feel if some little girl falls down a mine shaft, right? So the attention of the entire country comes, and we've got all kinds of complex machinery, and everybody's, going, “Did they get her out today,” you know? So that they don't see that, oh, that's the problem of that town, her family, her neighborhood. They identify with that. And I think that if we can identify with each other across all of these boundaries, we'll be better off.
LAMB: Clarence Page was here several weeks ago and he wrote throughout his entire book a lot of quotes and a lot of references to James Baldwin, as do you. And I want to ask you what you thought of James Baldwin.
MONTEFIORE: Well, I thought James Baldwin was a guy who had an incredible gift, but I think he veered off course after the black nationalist nut wing began to influence the civil rights movement and eventually devour it. I think that he used that incredible gift to start ranting in very irrational ways about the United States, and I think it affected his novels, and he wrote progressively worse novels. And I think the last book, "The Evidence of Things Unseen," was a truly terrible book.
LAMB: Some more names quickly. Al Sharpton.
MONTEFIORE: Well, I mean, you know, from my perspective, he can never be forgiven for Tawana Brawley. See, he, Vernon Mason and Alton Maddox played that fraud out to the hilt, created all kinds of terrible racial atmospheres in the United States I mean, in New York and perhaps in the country at large. And it was unrelenting.
LAMB: Marion Barry?
MONTEFIORE: Well, you know, Marion Barry's the perfect example of the protean quality of the American politician, isn't he? I mean, he's kind of to some extent he's the Negro American Nixon, isn't he? I mean, not with Watergate, but just that he's reinvented himself now, although I remember when he went from regular business suits to jail to kente cloth, those little kente cloth caps and kente cloth stuff. But then the last time I saw him at the hearing, he looked good, and he had a regular suit on. So maybe he's gone all the way back, but not with the corruption, I hope.
LAMB: As you read the book, you go from Marion Barry to Nat King Cole. You go from, you know, Al Sharpton to Stokely Carmichael to Louie Armstrong and now let me go back to Nat King Cole and Stokely Carmichael.
MONTEFIORE: Well, you know, Stokely Carmichael, he's an example of what Albert Murray and the omni Americans call Afro Carib Zionism. You know, that's that kind of West Indian it's a combination of West Indian obsession with Africa, the most extreme ideas about getting out of the United States the way they were traditionally, in Afro American life, and the obvious influence, one way or another, of the vision of Zionism which I don't think is very valuable for black Americans. Because, see, black Americans cannot really identify with people from the Caribbean or Africa, expect just in terms of universal human terms of experiencing injustice.
Well, see, black Americans are central to the United States, central to the identity of the United States, to the music of the United States, the dance of the United States, the humor of the United States, of American political decisions, we're essential to the winning of the Civil War, and so on. Colonials are at a great remove from the mother country. They exist in places that are usually dominated by a single crop, what they call a cash crop. They had no influence, initially, on what made the British the British, the Portuguese the Portuguese, the Spanish the Spanish, the French the French.
See, you can't -- by the time you get to a Benny Goodman, or before him, when you had guys like Daddy Rice making their livings in the 1830s emulating Negroes to the best of their capabilities by the time you get to something like that, you're talking about an influence back and forth that creates what we call Americana. And so what we have to get everybody to recognize is Americana is all of us.
LAMB: You said that -- we're not too far away from the end that Nat Cole and Sidney Poitier changed the whole way that people look at dark hued Negroes and that they were admitted into the precincts of romance and elegance that had previously been almost the exclusive province of light skinned Afro Americans.
MONTEFIORE: Right. Yeah, that's what Nat said about Miles Davis, because, you know, Miles Davis is a very good looking, dark skinned guy. And before people like Miles Davis, Sidney Poitier, and Nat Cole, a good looking Negro American guy could only have been a guy who looked like Sidney who looked like Billy Eckstine or Duke Ellington or those kind of guys, who were handsome guys. But what happened when these guys started to come in is they started to expand our conception of attractiveness. And now, I mean, they expanded it so far that on another level, you've got Barbra Streisand was able to step in there eventually and, you know, Sylvester Stallone, and Whoopi Goldberg, Spike Lee. You've got all kind of people out here who wouldn't have visually cut the mustard of the convention of, say, 1945 or something like that.
LAMB: You mentioned the last chapter of this is “Diminuendo and Crescendo colon Outchorus on a long, long, line.” And remember "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue," by Duke Ellington years ago. You also mention, and it comes to mind, Harlem earlier, when you were talking about Harlem. Is that, you know, I know it had a lot of impact on Louie Armstrong and Duke Ellington. Did it have any impact on your life? I know you lived way down in the West Village.
MONTEFIORE: Oh, Harlem?
MONTEFIORE: Well, not really. Not really. I mean...
LAMB: Is there anything left there?
MONTEFIORE: Yeah. You know, 500,000, 600,000 people. You know…
LAMB: Any of the old days left?
MONTEFIORE: Not much right now, but, you know, you never see, the thing about the United States is you never know. I mean, there are people there now who are starting to try to bring things back. And all you have to have see, the thing about this country and our technology is that if there's a shift to quality and that quality is emphasized enough, you'll have a larger audience for things that are good. I mean, you know, it's like a movie like "Dead Man Walking." That movie has such deep humanity in it that it's ennobling for you to even sit there and look at the movie. In fact, when you leave, you don't even believe it was made in the United States because the humanity of the movie is so great. It doesn't sell out to anything. It doesn't dehumanize anybody. And so your humanity is deepened by experiencing that movie. I mean, that's the greatness of it.
LAMB: What's your best moment so far in your life when it comes to success? What thing are you the most proud of?
MONTEFIORE: Oh, I guess I'm most proud of the fact that three things I'd say: That I maintained a 25 year study with Albert Murray and friendship; that I've become friends with Saul Bellow over the last couple of years; that Ralph Ellison used to call me on the phone and we used to have a good time, and he told me a lot of stuff and we would laugh and joke; and that I've been able to move through different ethnic groups and classes and be myself and feel the humanity of other people and think perhaps that they felt mine.
LAMB: Here's the cover of the book, and our guest has been Stanley Crouch. And you can see there's "The All American Skin Game." And as we go out, we'll listen to Louie Armstrong and Duke Ellington one more time
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