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Magic is here for W.H y in Philadelphia. This is Fresh Air. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross today. Writer James McBride, best known for his memoir The Color of Water, about being the son of an African-American father and white mother. His latest novel, Deacon King Kong, is set in 1969 in a Brooklyn housing project like the one he grew up in, where there was a big generational divide.
The old folks who picked tobacco and went to the schoolhouses where they had stopped in the eighth grade, they didn't understand what it was like to grow up in New York. And then the young people who were behind them didn't care about the old ways of the south. That happened in my house as well. McBride's novel, The Good Lord Bird, was adapted last year into a miniseries.
Also, Kevin Whitehead reviews the new box set of music by jazz saxophonist and composer Julius Hemphill. And Justin Chang reviews the new Disney animated film Reya and The Last Dragon.
Our guest, James McBride, first became known for his memoir, The Color of Water, about growing up in a Brooklyn housing project. He's the son of a white mother and an African-American father who died shortly before McBride was born when McBride was a teenager. He discovered his mother was Jewish, the daughter of an Orthodox rabbi. In 2016, President Obama presented McBride with the National Humanities Medal for, quote, humanizing the complexities of discussing race in America. McBride's novel, The Good Lord Bird, set just before the Civil War, is about a young boy who joins John Brown's abolitionist crusade.
It won the 2013 National Book Award for fiction and was adapted into a series starring Ethan Hawke. Spike Lee adapted McBride's World War two novel Miracle at St. Anna about a black soldier in Italy during World War Two. McBride's latest novel, Dickon King Kong, is now out in paperback. It takes place in 1969 in a Brooklyn housing project similar to the one McBride grew up in. It's a character study of a community where hard drugs are starting to move in.
The action begins when the 71 year old church deacon, who lives in the projects, shoots the young man who's become the project's main drug dealer. And no one understands why. Terry spoke with McBride last March. James McBride, welcome to Fresh Air.
It is a pleasure to have you on the show. Well, thank you. I'm delighted to be here.
I want you to read the opening of the book. But before you do that, the book is set in 1969 in a housing project in Brooklyn. Tell us why you set it there and then.
Well, because, you know, I was born in a housing project in Brooklyn and I still I'm still connected to my old housing project. And it seemed like 1969 was a good time because that was before crack.
It was before neighborhoods began to fall apart.
New York. Okay, so read the opening paragraph for us. Deacon Cuffy Lambkin of five ends Baptist Church became a walking dead man on a cloudy September afternoon in 1969. That's the day the old deacon, known as Sportcoat to his friends marched out to the plaza of the causeway housing projects in south Brooklyn, stuck in ancient 38 Colt in the face of a 19 year old drug dealer named DM's Clemons and pulled the trigger. There were a lot of theories floating around the projects as to why old sportcoat, a wiry, laughing, brown skinned man who had coughed, wheezed, hacked, guffawed and drank his way through the courthouses for a good part of his 71 years, shot the most ruthless drug dealer the project had ever seen.
He had no enemies. He had coached the project's baseball team for 14 years. His late wife, Hetty, had been the Christmas club treasurer of his church.
He was a peaceful man, beloved by all. So what happened? The morning after the shooting, the daily gathering of retired city workers flophouse bums, bored housewives and ex convicts who congregated in the middle of the projects at the park bench near the flagpole to sit free coffee and salute Old Glory, as it was raised to the sky, had all kinds of theories about why old sportcoat did it.
And that's a question we don't really find out until the end. That's right. I mean, we don't find out the answer until the end. So you said that a lot of the characters in the book are based on people who you knew growing up in a housing project in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn. So it was sportcoat based on somebody who you knew.
Um, he's kind of an amalgam of characters that I know over the course of my life. When I was 15, my mother sent me to Kentucky to live and hung out on a corner there.
And there were some really interesting characters in that corner. Also, when I went to college, I went to Oberlin, but when I went to college, I came home to Philly and my mother, you know, I lived in Philly. So they were points. I mean, in the 70s, Philly was loaded with characters. So sportcoat is an amalgam of, you know, the old black man who drinks like a fish and, you know, dies at 20 and lives to these 80 drinking.
Yeah. Were you like, sportcoat has a big heart, but he's drunk all the time. Were you able to see beneath the alcohol and in the people like that who you knew?
Yeah, I've never been one of those who who's had a really bad experience with alcoholism because nobody my drinking wasn't a big part of my life. So most of the times when I saw alcoholics, they were out, you know, whether it was me that, you know, I have to church or, you know, just out and about. So, I mean, I saw the dangers of it as a you know, as a young man, as, you know, who got into trouble.
And also as a musician, I could see what happened when people got drunk. But I thought it was always a charm to the old alcoholics who would say, you know, stay in school, you know, don't drink, you know.
So I. I just I have always thought it was a magic in that part of the culture.
So as we mentioned, the novel set in 1969, you were 12 in 1969.
So was it an eventful year in your life or in the housing project where you grew up?
Well, that's a good point. When I left the housing project when I was seven, I used to go back in the summer because my godparents lived there. Oh, and so my my my father died when I was before I was born and my stepfather was raised, you know, raised me. He worked in the housing projects as well. So I had a long history of being in Redhook during the summer. And so during those years, you know, there was just it was a freedom to being in Redhook that I had an experience in Queens where we lived.
When we'd moved to the church was there. My parents were they were strict, but they were fun. The churches in RedHat. Yeah, they lived in the projects.
So there was just a freedom there that I didn't really feel anywhere else. And there also there was also a sense of community in in Redhook that I felt, you know, that didn't exist elsewhere.
When people think of housing projects, they think more of crime and danger. Maybe I'm talking about people who don't live in housing projects, see it that way. They think of crime and danger and drug dealers. And that's part of what's in your book, too. So I'm interested in the fact that you sense I felt a sense of freedom there.
Well, I mean, because you know who everybody is. You know who not to mess with. You know who you know this one. You don't fool with him. That one. You know, his son got in trouble, so she's not in a good mood. This one, you can trust her and his mother better not do nothing bad when she's showing up because she'll, you know, she'll light you up. So it was it was a sense of of the sense of being in a village and a sense of us against the world, a sense of, you know, the police not being there for you, but rather looking over your shoulder or looking down on you.
There was always the sense that, you know, we we are kind of together here now. Granted, you know, it was kind of like you have to kind of remember, you have to let people have their own space. So you just ignore things that you just don't want to see. You see someone doing something wrong. You see someone who's dating someone they should meet. You just kind of look past it because everyone deserves their own space.
But there is a togetherness that comes with that. I mean, Red Hook all the time now because I'm, you know, program. They're my church. I'm there to teach music.
I teach music. I have twenty, twenty five students in my church program for teachers and so forth. I'm there all the time. I'm never afraid. Yeah. You always hear about someone getting shot or someone getting hurt. But most people are not they're not there to hurt you. They're just trying to get through the day.
You mentioned the police. There's there's a cop in the book who is. He's a good man. He's a white cop, he's a good man, and I'm interested in that character. Well, I mean, I think the narrative that shows police that the dehumanises policeman is dangerous and it puts them and it puts them as people in us is a public in a bad place. I've had many experiences with police. Most of them have been, you know, most fortunate enough to, you know, to walk away, not arrested.
And it's just my nature to look to the good side of things.
My mother tells the story about when my sister was lost at the circus in New York and it was just so many people when she was just so panicked. And then out of the throngs of people, this cop stepped out holding her by the hand. And she never forgot that act of kindness. And I think that during the course of my career and in the housing projects and outside of it, I've always defined my life, tried to dictate my life by the fact that I believe we have more in common than we are different and that most cops, for example, in terms of policemen, most cops are good people.
They're not paid well enough. They're not respected enough. They're not treated well. And if you just, you know how to talk to them most of the time, it'll be fine. Now, sometimes it's not your lucky day where you just going to have to eat that one. But in general, you just can't you can't be a novelist. You can't be a creative person if you are so cynical about the world that everything you say and write is negative.
So I don't put the cloak of evil on policemen. You know, there's a good cop. My book is an Irishman. You know, lots of good Irishmen in New York, lots of good Irish cops during that time. And now you have to emphasize the positive otherwise where I write about people at all.
So in 1969, the year your novel set in and you describe it as the year that drugs came to the projects and the main one of the main characters, DM's, who's shot by by the deacon, he is dealing heroin and he's like the biggest dealer in the projects. Do you remember drugs coming to the projects?
No, I mean, you have to drug dealers coming down. Well, I remember when drugs started in New York in general, I remember when, you know, first was reefer. You know, we call the weed and then it sort of graduated to acid.
And then it was a little then it got deeper to heroin.
And in those days, guys who went to the army would come back hooked, you know, hooked on drugs and messed up forever.
So I remember when when just coming back from Vietnam, you came back from Vietnam. You know those that came back. Mm hmm.
So I remember when when those who graduated from weed to booze to heroin, I remember that transition and how the edges of the community became became sort of sharp knives, became it became a different there was a lack of trust.
And and the younger kids coming up seemed harder and more more concerned with with money and with with I won't say power, but with quick influence. Um, there was you have to remember, Martin Luther King had died in the civil rights movement, was really going the other direction, was dying down. It was dying slowly. It was dying a long, slow death because Malcolm was dead and Martin was dead and the communities began to change. And so, yeah, I remember that.
And I remember there was an innocence to that period.
And the reason why I use that was because when white people talk about the 60s in the Beatles and they always talked about the innocence as if innocence didn't exist in black America, but, you know, you could walk down the street in Brooklyn and go see Sonny Stitt for free, you know, for nothing.
Would you see him for free?
Well, so, you know, Cobb, you know you know, you could see him in a jazz. I mean, you didn't have to pay thirty dollars. Got to sit there. You know, you go see jazz now, you know, concert starts at seven. You pay sixty bucks. They play for three hours.
You look at your watch 715 and you're like because they're not playing anything with melody and it's just a whole different it was just a different time.
So I want you to read a paragraph about DM's, the young man who's the biggest drug dealer in the projects. And just as a reference point, the projects, it's the course projects. So you'll hear a reference to the cause in this.
DM's Clemons was the new breed of colored in the cause. DM's wasn't some poor colored boy from down South or Puerto Rico or Barbados who arrived in New York with empty pockets and a Bible in a dream. He wasn't humbled by a life of swinging cotton in North Carolina or hauling sugar cane in San Juan.
He didn't arrive in New York City from some poor place where kids ran around with no shoes and ate chicken bones and total soup, limping to New York with a dime in their pockets, overjoyed at the prospect of coming to New York to clean houses and empty toilets and dump garbage, hoping for a warm city job or maybe even an education care of good white people. DM's didn't give a damn about white people or education or sugarcane or cotton or even baseball, which he had once been a whiz at.
None of the old ways meant a penny to him. He was a child of the cause, young, smart and making money hand over fist, slinging dope at a level never before seen in the cars houses.
He had high friends and high connections from East New York all the way to Far Rockaway, Queens. And any fool in the car stupid enough to open their mouth in his direction, ended up hurt bad or buried in an urn in an alley someplace.
Did you see a big generational divide between the older people who had migrated to New York from the South and the younger people who grew up on the projects? Absolutely, yeah.
Of course, that was really where the big break happened because the old folks who grew up in the South, who understood how hard it was to pick tobacco and went to the schoolhouses where they had to stop at the eighth grade and had to walk, you know, five miles to school, they didn't understand what it was like to grow up in New York and to be part of that New York culture. And and then the young people who were behind them didn't care about the old ways of the south that happened in my house as well.
So tell me more about how it expressed itself in your house.
Oh, because my mother was all about church. You know, it was all about church and school. And if you didn't take care of those things, it didn't matter what you did. And, you know, she she was still first believed in spankings and all that stuff. You know, it was none of this. What are you feeling inside and none of that, you know, no psychological care for you.
You just you just dealt with it, you know, and the teacher didn't like you. Well, you just you just stayed in the class until you got, you know, so you got to the next grade. So because she came from that era where you just had to just deal with it.
And you grew up in Virginia and she grew up in Virginia, although she emigrated to the U.S. from Poland when she was two with her family.
Yeah, well, my mother's story is unique because she was a white one. And raising all these black kids, you know, yes, 12 children, and it was you know, it's not a lot to go around, but in terms of her psychological approach to raising us, she was pretty much just like the black mothers in the neighborhood. She didn't want to hear, you know, go to church. And that's it.
That actually plays a big role in the book. The idea of what you do to keep somebody on the straight path, do you punish them in a physical way that could be really physically harmful? And if you do that, is that a good thing? Are you protecting them or are you harming them? So I'm interested in your thoughts about that and what it was like for you to be spanked.
I don't know if it was a little, you know, patch on the takase or whether whether I was like, really? Well, take a stick and, like, whack them.
Well, no, my mother would wear us out. I mean, sometimes she, you know, she'd get so mad she she started spanking you for something that happened like three weeks. She forgot to spank.
I mean, if she lost her temper and, you know, she'd swing and, you know, you jump onto the bed, you hang, you cling to the springs like a monkey with your feet and toes on the on the bedsprings while she swung underneath the bed.
But I mean, we weren't spanked an extraordinary amount. It was the threat of spanking that kept us in line. Whether that's a good thing or not, I mean, look, a child can tell whether a parent loves them. And most of the time, there's no need for you to spank a child. In the case of my mother said so many kids she couldn't keep track of, all of us said to look at the big picture. And the big picture was, if you're going to school and you go in the church, you're OK.
Now, that didn't really work out, you know, for me and some of my siblings, we just did it. We just jump ship. But at bottom, we knew she loved us.
And at bottom in this book and in this community, people generally love each other. They generally respect each other. And that goes a long way. It's not something you can easily quantify, but it was an extremely long way.
Church is central to your new novel, and one of the main characters, Sportcoat is a deacon in the church. His wife was the Christmas Club Treasurer. Your parents founded a church in New York before you were born and your father died while your mother was pregnant. Tell us about that church. Did you go to that church?
Yeah, I went to the church as a kid. And, you know, when we left Redhook, I would go back and visit. My godfather was the minister. He was associate minister of the church. I got married in that church. All my big life events happened in that church.
And so I you know, I guess about five or six years ago, there was some issue about nobody's come in and they didn't have a Sunday school and there were no kids. So I started a music program in that church. So I'm still there every week.
So you started the music program in a way to bring people back, to bring young people back into the church? Yeah, I mean, I have a lot of issues with the Baptist Church, really. I mean, you know, the deaf extravaganzas, the the you know, the homophobia, all of that. I just I have enormous differences of opinion with that.
But, you know, you have to just you got to stay with the horse that got you into the gate. You got to just you can't just say I hate this and I'm going to walk away. You have to work with something.
So what are you doing to bring young people back into the church? What's the music program like?
All I do is I started see, we didn't have in the church, didn't have an organ player, and they were trying to find these guys to play organ. And every time they'd find look for the money because I helped look for them. Every time you get on the phone with this guy, he'd say, I can't make it. I need a whole bunch of money. And then he close with this. He'd say, have a blessed day.
You know, when they say that that means some job can have a blessing, that means get lost.
So I said, why are we trying to find organists all over? Let's just train our own. So we started a program to train organist.
That's what this program is. So we started this six years ago and just let the word be known around the projects that, you know, we've given free music lessons. And so we start out with buckets and sticks and then we got some pianos and stuff and I kept adding instruments to it. Now we have about maybe ten or twelve pianists. We have four or five basis and the rest of the drummers and we just, you know, we teach them basics of music, how to read and, you know, chord structure and all that stuff.
And now our two oldest one goes to LaGuardia Performing Arts High School. And the other one, he's not in high school yet, but they're just about ready now to learn how to play organ so that that's what it was. It was just to start to get us an organ player.
What has happened is that we we have a program. We have people running to have young people in the church.
James McBride, speaking to Terry Gross, recorded last year. His novel, Deacon King Kong is now out in paperback.
We'll hear more of their interview after a break.
Also, Kevin Whitehead reviews a new box set of music by the late saxophonist Julius Hemphill. I'm Dave Davies and this is Fresh Air.
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Let's get back to Terry's interview with James McBride. His latest novel, Dickon King Kong, is now out in paperback.
Your mother's father was an Orthodox rabbi, couldn't find work as a rabbi, ended up opening a store like a grocery right in Suffolk, Virginia, in an African-American neighborhood right where apparently he overcharged people.
And sounds like he was kind of a racist.
And I'm just so interested in what it must have been like for your mother. I don't know if they lived in the African-American neighborhood or just had their store there, but she worked in the store, so she was often in an African-American neighborhood where there was probably a lot of tension between the customers and her parents. And she ends up leaving her family and moving to New York, moving to Harlem and marrying your father, who was African-American and then marrying your stepfather after your father died, who is also African-American.
It's like it's such an interesting dynamic for her.
Well, I didn't appreciate that until much later. But you have to remember that when she was coming up in the 20s, in the 30s, you know, the South was much it was quite different. Well, segregated. It was segregated. And even though that this store was in the black side of town, they weren't welcome in town either, you know, because they were Orthodox Jews. They were you know, they were very religious Jews. And her father, although he was a you know, he was a rascal.
He was quite Jewish in his style and in his bearing and in his life, as was her mother. Apparently, the black people in the community really liked her and they liked her mother, my grandmother, because they were kind people. They were isolated. You're talking about isolation upon isolation. They were isolated in the south. They weren't that many Jews in Suffolk, the small synagogue. And the only place you could get a job was in a small town like that where they couldn't they didn't have to pick up the pick of the litter in terms of who was a rabbi there.
Yeah, he was miserable. Yeah. Oh, OK. Yeah.
But eventually they got rid of him because he, you know, he was running a store, but yeah, he was a rabbi there at the local synagogue. And so they, you know, her life, the kind that people in her life were African-American, their first boyfriend was an African-American. And then she moved to New York and she almost got hooked up into prostitution with some, you know, some rascal who was running around. And my father worked for her aunt.
She was working in an arts factory. And my father kind of got her out of that. And he straightened around and she ended up joining the church and in Harlem. And then later on, they started a church in Brooklyn that was named after the Harlem minister that married them.
So, you know, she dove into the African-American life because because of an element that exists in African-American life, even even today. And that is this whole business of kindness. Probably the most most the most raw feelings I get when I think about the stereotype of African-American life is that black people I mean, you know, this whole thing, you know, we're hard, you know, we kicking butt.
We're taking these, you know, this whole I can't stand that because that's just not true. Um, my mother loved Redhook, and she loved it in part because when my father died and she had seven kids and was pregnant with me, she came home from the hospital and they were she said the apartment was full of of food and chickens and all ham and just people just was so kind. She never forgot that. And she made sure we never forgot it either.
So that business of of kindness in black American life is something that was stamped into my consciousness and into the consciousness of my siblings from the time we were little.
What was it like to grow up with 11 siblings? It's like growing up in a small class. Um, well, I hate them, you know, I'm sick of them.
Well, you know, you you, um, you learn to fend for yourself.
You learn to take care of what the little bit that you have, you know, your little shoes, your little you have your clothes in a little pile.
You don't you learn to take you become self-sufficient very quickly and you learn how to be the center of attention if you need to be. Your mother went to college when she was 65 and she went to temple.
Yeah. And got her degree in social work. Yeah. Yeah. I'm interested in why she wanted to like, pursue more learning. Well, and it's a beautiful thing. Yeah.
Well first of all, she like to be active, she like to learn. She did get hired at Planned Parenthood in Trenton.
It's interesting that she got a job at Planned Parenthood. She is the mother of twelve Planned Parenthood, which is famous for contraception.
Well, that's true. Look, we're all walking contradictions. I'm not totally comfortable asking you this, but do you think she had 12 children because she really wanted twelve children or because she didn't want to use birth control?
Is that okay to ask you that? Yeah. Yeah. Well, she just said, you know, after a while they just drop like eggs. I mean, Mommy really liked having kids. She loved having children.
She used to say, I never I never get weary of watching the miracle of a child growing up. It was just it was really where she belonged. So I don't think that she worried about birth control.
I think she was. About feeding the kids when they got older, and I don't think she thought that far ahead. You know, she wasn't of the generation, was she worried about her, you know, her attention and all that business. And she worked for Dime Savings Bank, and they gave a little check every week and that was it. And she would cash it. And so I think she just I don't think she worried about birth control.
You have to remember that generation. They didn't. We live from week to week.
You know, we just we live from one week to the next.
What was it like for you each time a new baby entered the picture? I got there was less for me, you know. I mean, jeez, can we can we cut that out, please? No.
I mean, you know, it was less for me, but my siblings and I, we loved each other and we were very close and we had some differences. But we were we were very busy house.
It was you know, this one was dressed up with football helmets and he was walking out the door with cleats. And this one, there was always a lot going on. And I miss that. I miss that.
So when all the kids were grown up, did that change your relationship with your mother because she no longer had to be taking care of 12 children?
Yeah, I think so. Um, she was more curious and she had more time to do the things that she liked to do.
She was always afraid that she wouldn't be able to get out. So, you know, I always kept a nice car, get outside, get outside to do things.
She always wanted to run, even when she was a girl. She always liked to be outdoors and moving around. So to the end of her life, she was driving around and and going to see she saw Avatar the week she died. I mean, she you know, the Avatar, the film, she just was not a person who liked to stay stationary. Um, so it did change my relationship with her also in the sense that I got to know her as a human being, you know, as a person, which is quite different than than knowing someone as your mother.
And I just loved her.
I mean, she was so interesting. I used to look at her and when she got sick, I said, you know what? People are not going to believe she was my mother.
Even though I had written the book already. People just won't believe that someone so interesting was my mother. And I don't believe it. Um, yeah.
Her death was her death hit me pretty hard. But, I mean, I was prepared, but my life changed really quickly.
Did writing the book about her your memoir, The Color of Water, changed your relationship with her? And were you able to ask her things for the book in a kind of interview context that you couldn't have asked her about in just a regular, you know, mother son relationship?
Absolutely. Well, first of all, she didn't want to cooperate, and the only reason was to cooperate because I reported around I did the reporter thing I reported around that I'd say, you know, the courthouse was, you know, was was blue and had shutters. And she said, no, I didn't. There was not blue, didn't have shutters, as you know.
She would correct me, but, um, yeah. Changed my relationship because they were things that she couldn't really talk about. And so she would write it on a piece of paper. And, you know, when she talked about being molested, she just wrote it on a piece of paper and put it on the table. And then I kind of worked around that. And then sometimes she would she would talk in the car and then she would get out the car and she would wander off.
She would be so blown away by the remembrances of what had happened, what she talked about because she never talked about it.
She would just wander in the wrong direction.
She had a lot of things she had to keep secret. So she decided to keep secret.
Well, she didn't have a lot of choices. Um, you know, she didn't my mother was a young Jewish girl in the south in the thirties and forties. And people forget that anti-Semitism was a was and remains a huge piece of business in this country and in this world.
So a lot of her secrets were was self-preservation. Hmm. She had to keep secrets because if you open your mouth in the wrong direction, bad things would happen to you.
James McBride has been great to talk with you. Thank you so much. Oh, thank you for having me.
Terry Gross speaking with James McBride last March. His novel, Dicken King Kong is out in paperback.
Coming up, Kevin Whitehead reviews a new retrospective box set of music by jazz saxophonist and composer Julius Hemphill. And Justin Chang reviews the new Disney animated film Reya in The Last Dragon.
This is Fresh Air.
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The news is about more than what just happened. You need to know why it happened, who made it happen, how it's felt in the communities you care about. NPR's Daily News podcast. Consider this gives you all of that with context, backstory and analysis. On a single topic every weekday, it's not just information, it's what the news means.
Consider this from NPR saxophonist and composer Julius Hemphill, who died in 1995, was born in Fort Worth, developed his music in St. Louis, then moved to New York, where he was a founding member and principal composer for the World Saxophone Quartet. Later, Julius Hemphill had his own saxophone sextet, but along the way he led and wrote for a variety of bands. A new box set surveys his life's work. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead has a listen. Julius Hemphill on alto saxophone in 1979, mixing the abstract and the earthy with Mikita, Carol on trumpet, Dave Holland on bass and drummer Jack de Jeannette walloping that backbeat.
It's from the seventh CD, Hemphill Box, The Boet Multinational Crusade for Harmony. Eight hours of newly released 1970s and 80s music from the composer's archives, curated and annotated by Hemphill's scholar and sometimes sideman Marty Urbik.
This new Julius Hemphill anthology, comprised of live studio and rehearsal recordings, touches on many aspects of his wide ranging work, but not all of them. There's nothing for saxophone ensembles, a key part of his legacy. There is music for a variety of small bands solo sax over prerecorded junkyard percussion, a little chamber music and a few duos, including a couple with poets.
All right, all right, all right, you are listening in the sun, and I'll try to tell you in the sun, then you can go home and you can forget it and just get a tiny snippet of poet Kay Eliot.
The Julius Hemphill box also includes plenty of spirited improvising tinged with the blues and Bill. Scalding alto sax is often entwined with the trumpet of Mikita Carroll, an ally since their early days in St. Louis. One of the real finds here is a 1977 studio session where they're joined by drummer Alex Klein and the trio Janus Company.
In the new jazz of the 1970s and surrounding decades, a certain raggedy quality came with the territory and there are a few places in the Julius Hemphill Boxer ensemble passages can sound a little out of tune. Still, rough edges have their place. They can give the music the air of early jazz bands where everyone might play the melody a little differently. That raggedness can make a small band sound bigger, like a three horn quintet with Paquita on trumpet and the great clarinetist John Carter, who directed Hemphill's junior high school band back in Fort Worth.
This is Dimples, the fat lady on parade.
Julius Hemphill's other essential ally in numerous bands was Abdul would dude more than anyone would do, popularize the cello and improvised music? He might treat it like a baby bass or strum it like a slippery rhythm guitar. The new Hempel anthology includes an hour of new music from their duo with Julia, sometimes on soprano sax. Julius Hemphill kept Abdul dude's cello style in mind when he arranged three Charles Mingus compositions for string quartet in the 1980s, cello on the bottom strums chords and stop time on Mingus's.
Better get hit in your soul.
Sprawling, a little uneven and with variable sound quality, the Boya multinational crusade for harmony might not be an ideal introduction to Julius Hemphill's music, except that a few of his classics like Dogon A.D. and Coom Bidness are out of print. Happily, New World Records has made each disc from the box available as a separate download.
I'd recommend volumes to three and seven as places to start roping in the duo with Abdullah Dude, the trio, Janus Company and the Quartet with Dave Holland and Jeanette. Julius Hemphill was one of the key jazz composers of the late 20th century, a modernist with deep roots, his music should be part of any informed listeners jazz education.
Kevin Whitehead is the author of the new book Play The Way You Feel The Essential Guide to Jazz Stories on Film.
He reviewed the boyar National Crusade for Harmony, the new seven CD box set of the music of Julius Hemphill.
Coming up, Justin Chang reviews the new Disney animated film Reya and The Last Dragon.
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Our film critic Justin Chang says the new Disney film Reya in The Last Dragon is not just for kids. He calls it a gorgeously animated fantasy adventure with a hopeful message for this moment. The movie began streaming on Disney.
Plus today, Rhia and The Last Dragon is a lovely moving surprise. Its big selling point is that it's the first Disney animated film to feature Southeast Asian characters. But like so many movies that break ground in terms of representation, it tells a story that's actually woven from reassuringly familiar parts. I didn't mind that in the slightest. The movie, directed by the Disney veteran Don Hall and the animation newcomer Carlos Lopez Estrada, brings us into a fantasy world that's been beautifully visualized and populated with engaging characters.
And it builds to an emotional climax that I'm still thinking about.
Days later. The story is a little complicated as these stories tend to be, it takes place in commander, an enchanted realm inspired by various Southeast Asian cultures and divided into five kingdoms named after a dragon's body parts heart, fang, spine, talon and tail. Before they became extinct centuries ago, dragons once roamed the land and served as friendly guardians to humanity. Their magic lives on in a jewel called the Dragon Gem, which is kept in a cave in the heart.
But the other four kingdoms covid its mighty powers. One day, all five factions come together and try to reach a peace agreement. But tensions erupt, a fight breaks out, and the gem shatters into five pieces that are scattered across Kumara. This opens the doorway to an ancient enemy called the Druyun, a terrible plague that turns people to stone. Naturally, a hero must rise and save the day. Her name is Reya, and she's a young warrior princess from heart voiced by the excellent Kelly Marie Tran from Star Wars, The Last Jedi.
Rhia manages to escape the drone, though her father, her BA, who's the leader of heart, isn't so lucky. Now Ryan must recover the pieces of the Dragon gem, reverse the damage and banish the drone for good.
This isn't the first time we've seen a brave young character embark on a quest for magical baubles, and Rya in the Last Dragon is rooted in traditional fantasy lore with the Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones being just the most obvious influences. The movie's intense scenes of swordplay and hand-to-hand combat give it a tougher, more grown up feel than most Disney animated fantasies. My own young daughter had to cover her eyes a few times, like some other recent Disney princesses, including Mwana and Elsa.
Reya has a bold, adventurous streak and isn't all that interested in romance. Unlike them, she doesn't even have time to sing a song that said the movie still has plenty of lightness and humor. The screenwriters Quiggin and Adele Abdelhalim have provided the usual Disney array of cute critters and lively supporting characters. None of them is more colorful than Sisu, a friendly water dragon who is magically resurrected during Raila's journey. She's the last of her kind, and she has a crucial role to play in the story she's voiced delightfully by Aquafina, doing one of her signature chatterbox comedy routines and selling every one of Cece's anachronistic wisecracks.
In one scene, she touches a piece of the dragon gem and magically lights up, which Raya sees as a hopeful sign of your glowing.
Oh, thank you. I use Aloe and Riverside to maintain my new look. Oh, this. This is my little sister. Appose magic. I got that glow. Your little sister's. Every dragon has a unique magic. Oh, OK. What's yours?
I'm a really strong swimmer where you have this gym piece and it gave you powers.
You know what this means, right? I no longer need it.
I like what know you're still connected to the gems magic and that means you can still use it to save the world.
If we can get all the other pieces, reassemble it and roll the drone away and bring my backpack and bring all of commander back.
Rhia and Cece's journey takes them to all five kingdoms of Komander, all of which are so vivid and transporting. I found myself wishing they really existed or that I could have at least seen them on a proper movie screen. There's the town of Tallinn, which is built at the edge of a river and the desert wasteland of tale where Raya and Sisu must enter a cave of obstacles straight out of an Indiana Jones adventure. As the two of them search for more Dragon Gem pieces, they, of course, pick up a few friends along the way.
There's a street smart boy who cooks a mean shrimp congi and a toddler pickpocket whom I found more creepy than cute. But the movie's most intriguing character is Nimeiry, a rival princess from Fang, who's voiced by Gemma Chan. As a side note, Chan and Aquafina both appeared in Crazy Rich Asians, which, like this movie was co-written by Abdelhalim. Nimeiry and Reya used to be friends until the fight over the Dragon Gem ripped them apart. Now their bitter enemies and their emotional dynamic is fierce and complicated in ways that relationships are rarely allowed to be in children's animated films, especially between women.
By contrast, Sisu is all feel good vibes. She's a dragon, after all, with little understanding of how treacherous humans can be. She doesn't get why Raya and Nimeiry distrust each other, so why they can't just set their differences aside and defeat the drone together. It's Sisu sincerity and purity of heart that makes the story's finale so unexpectedly stirring, especially now. Our fates are closely bound together, it reminds us, as it builds a case for forgiveness, reconciliation and mutual sacrifice.
The emotional power of Reya and the Last Dragon sneaks up on you. Its lessons aren't new exactly, but it makes you feel like you're learning them for the first time.
Justin Chang is the film critic for the L.A. Times. On Monday's show, we speak with Walter Isaacson. His new book is about discoveries related to RNA, the molecule at the heart of the gene editing tool CRISPR, which is being used in the fight against genetic diseases. RNA is also the basis of the Fighter and Moderna covid vaccines. Isaacson was part of a double blind clinical study of the Pfizer vaccine. I hope you can join us.
Fresh Air's executive producer is Danny Miller, our engineer and technical director is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Hertzfeld. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Teresa Madden and Marie Baldonado. They are Challoner, Seth Kelly and Kayla Latimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly S.V. Esper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show for Terry Gross. I'm Dave Davies.
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