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Q&A: Italian Americans in Jazz

Adam Bernstein

Chicago-based author and educator Bill Dal Cerro contacted the obituary desk last week after I wrote about Sam Butera, the hard-driving tenor saxophonist whose musical partnership with Louis Prima in the 1950s and 1960s made them a major national act. Their prominence as Italian Americans who played jazz attracted the attention of Dal Cerro, who with a colleague, Dave Witter, recently completed writing a book on the subject.

Dal Cerro answered a few questions via e-mail:

1.You have a book coming out that argues Italian-American have been largely forgotten for their contributions to jazz. But Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Louis Prima, Louis Bellson, to name a few, are hardly unknown to those who care about jazz.

Yes and no. Many jazz fans aren't even aware that people like Tony Bennett and the late Louis Bellson were born with Italian names. Even more importantly: Many jazz critics often over-look the contributions that Italians have made to jazz, even though Italian American musicians have been major players in EVERY jazz genre: Dixieland (Tony Parenti, Nick LaRocca), big band (Louis Prima, Joe Venuti/Eddie Lang), bebop (Dodo Marmarosa, Buddy DeFranco), and fusion (Al DiMeola, Chick Corea).

Also: Many Italian American musicians were at the forefront of integrating jazz, whether it was Joe Marsala in 1936 (even before Benny Goodman) or people like Flip Phillips and Buddy DeFranco touring with all-black bands.

2. Besides Sinatra and the other major names, can you highlight an Italian-American of perhaps lesser recognition who had a profound influence on jazz and explain why that person is in your view unfairly overlooked?

Two in particular: pianist Lennie Tristano (avant-garde) and bassist Rocco LaFaro (bebop). Their influences have been profound. And Joe Venuti (violin) influenced European masters like Stephane Grappelli (also Italian).

More after the jump....


3. Jazz musician and scholar Richard Sudhalter wrote the book "White Chords" a few years ago to illuminate what he felt was the unjust marginalization of white musicians in jazz, and he got some strong criticism for it from those who felt he was attacking the contributions of black musicians. Do you anticipate any such reaction with your book, and why is jazz heritage such a heated subject?

We think times have changed...As saxophonist Joe Lovano told us, "Jazz has a specific root -- the African American experience -- but it's also about the branches of the tree." And jazz scholars like Bruce Raeburn at Tulane U. in New Orleans are now openly recognizing the diversity which has always influenced jazz music. Interestingly, black musicians themselves never really saw color. If you could play, you could play.

4. Did you interview many of the subjects? Did you find them receptive? Care to share one of your favorite anecdotes?

We interviewed, among others, Sam Butera, Louis Bellson, Al DiMeola, Joe Lovano, the late Pete Condoli, Pat Martino, John and Bucky Pizzarelli and Buddy DeFranco. Their memories are too numerous to mention. The most poignant one: violinist Johnny Frigo, as a young child, killing birds on the streets and alleyways of Chicago to feed his hungry family during the Great Depression. Italians were far from a "white" privileged class.

5. In your book, you highlight the importance of a massacre of Italians in New Orleans in 1891 by a nativist mob as a defining moment. What was the root of the killings, and what influence did that have on Italian-American musicians?

A corrupt New Orleans police chief was gunned down at night and police automatically assumed two competing Italian "clans" were responsible (this was the beginning of the "mafia" canard, btw). Despite being declared not guilty, the Italians (including a fourteen year old boy) were dragged from their cells, shot and hanged. HBO made a 2001 film version of Richard Gambino's book, "Vendetta," about this incident.

Sam Butera said that, as a kid in New Orleans, "whenever people wanted to insult Italians they would whistle and say, "Aayy, who killa da chief?'"

6. What specific examples of prejudice did Italian-American musicians face in the 1920s onward that compare with the fear of lynching and the humiliation of segregation faced by many black musicians for much of the 20th century?

From the 1890s until about 1920, Italians were the most lynched group of "white" Americans in the Deep South. And the 1920s ended with the very public execution of Sacco and Vanzetti in Boston, a case which made world headlines. Afterward, Italian Americans, like other white ethnics, made a quiet entry into the middle-class, though this didn't stop things like the 1942 harrassment and internment of Italians ("Una Storia Segreta") or the incredibly negative depictions of Italians in the mainstream media which continue even in an age of political correctness ("The Sopranos").

Personal note: As an educator, I find it humiliating that my high-school students refer to me as "Godfather" (in the bad sense). Even my college-educated colleagues ask me if I've ever killed anyone or know gangsters.

My black, Jewish, Hispanic, gay, etc., colleagues never get gross stereotypes publicly thrown into their faces, even in a "joking" way.

7. Are you and your co-author musicians or of Italian descent? What were the origins of your book?

I am a fourth-generation Italian American (my great-grandfather worked on the Chicago railroads) and Dave's grandparents were Italian.

8. Anything else you care to add?
Yes: Jazz is America's gift to the world, and I wish more Americans would appreciate the music.

By Adam Bernstein  |  June 9, 2009; 11:07 AM ET
Categories:  Adam Bernstein , Musicians  
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