martedì 6 agosto 2013

An interview with Vito Andrea Morra

Vito Andrea Morra (photo © Enrico Marzano)
While searching the Internet for the most interesting musicians in the Apulia region, I found a truly interesting individual.  Vito Andrea Morra, a professor at Bari Conservatory, not only teaches jazz – he teaches jazz composition.  This fact immediately grabbed my attention.  A thousand questions came to my mind.
(This is an English translation of our interview.)

LC: So, let's talk about jazz.  Jazz has a very American history – from Ragtime, to Dixieland, to Beebop, etc. How did jazz arrive in Italy?

VAM: I'm not a jazz historian, but I believe that the first records were brought over by the Americans at the end of World War II. Also, jazz began to be played on the radio during that era.

LC: How is it that you personally discovered and became interested in jazz?

VAM: I had some records at home.  Also, one of my teachers at the conservatory formed a big band, and I fell in love with writing for jazz orchestra. 

LC: Whose records did you have?

VAM: Errol Garner. Duke Ellington. Armstrong.

LC: Were there other records at home, of classical music, or perhaps popular Italian music of the “Aldilà” and “Come prima” genre?

VAM: A little bit of classical, and a few records of the Beatles, whom I love. 

LC: So, of all these discs, the jazz ones struck you more.  Why?

VAM:   I liked it.  I was young.  I don't know why.  Maybe the rhythm. Also the variety of improvisation, even if back then I didn't know that it was improvisation. 

LC: The fact that, after 1900, classical music no longer embraced improvisation and there was a fork-in-the-road between jazz (improvisation) and classical (written-down music) – as a youth did you feel that it was important for you that jazz offered the possibility to improvise, whereas classical did not offer that possibility?

VAM: Yes. As a youth I improvised blues and rock on my electric guitar.  Then at 18 I began to study classical guitar at the conservatory, and at 24 I graduated. 

LC: With a degree in classical guitar?

VAM: Yes.  But I always played the electric guitar as well.

LC: Were there other musicians in your family?

VAM: No, I'm the only musician in my family.

LC: Me, too.

VAM: Then I married a violinist.

LC: Does your wife play in the style of Grappelli, or does she play classical? 

VAM: She plays in a symphony orchestra.

LC: Are Italians familiar with Joe Venuti, violinist of the Grappellian stamp?

VAM: Yes, of course.  In Bari there is also a great jazz violinist.

LC: Really?  Who?

VAM: Leo Gadaleta.

LC: Who are the most legendary Italian jazz musicians who are still alive?

VAM: Franco DʼAndrea. Bruno Tommaso. Giorgio Gaslini. Amedeo Tommasi. Giancarlo Gazzani. Gianluigi Trovesi. Several older ones are now deceased. 

LC: I'm really fascinated by this concept of all these jazz legends, and they're not American but Italian! Being a "classical" musician myself, these are uncharted lands to me.  But I've strayed from the subject of your upbringing and your earliest musical influences.  What music did your parents like? What about your grandparents? 

VAM: My grandparents liked classical music and songs. My parents liked a little bit of everything, even jazz. 

LC: What did your parents and grandparents think about the fact that you liked all of this American music?

VAM: They were happy.  But they had no idea that music would become my profession.

LC: I tip my hat to you.  To make a career in music, even in Milan or Rome, is a very difficult thing. To do so in Bari must be even more difficult.

VAM:  Actually, I began teaching at the outset.  And this has allowed me to earn a living.  I've played very little guitar since 1991, when I was diagnosed with focal dystonia in my right hand. I'm still not healed.

LC: Ah!  Like what happened to Leon Fleischer and Gary Graffman.

VAM: Exactly.  But I never thought about becoming a guitarist.  I was already writing music many years  before getting dystonia.

LC: What type of music do you write?

VAM: I write for big band, chorus a cappella, symphony orchestra with or without rhythm section, etc.  I'm above all an arranger.

LC: Is American music popular in Italy? 

VAM: In Italy, jazz is a type of music appreciated by a small minority.

LC: Interesting. If it is appreciated by a small minority, where do the students come from?  And what do they do after they graduate? 

VAM: In the summertime there are many jazz festivals.  There is a segment of the public that follows jazz.  Young people play in clubs.

LC: For a position such as yours at the conservatory, is there a type of "tenure"?

VAM: Yes, I have tenure.

LC: In America that would not be possible.  Conservatories are private, not state.  So tenure doesn't exist.  It exists only for university professors, and even there one has to navigate the "tenure track." Like I say, I tip my hat to you.  You have built a stable career, in music  – a "music of a small minority" – and you did so in the South of Italy. It seems almost like a miracle.

VAM: There are many great musicians in Bari.  But few arrangers.  In Puglia there are only 2 or 3 people who arrange professionally.

LC: In the whole region? Wow.

VAM: I do few concerts because my music is for large orchestras.  This year I directed seven concerts of my jazz orchestra arrangements of Neapolitan songs.

LC: So, we've spoken about you as a concert artist and as a composer/arranger.  Now let's talk about you as a professor of jazz composition.  How does one teach jazz composition?

VAM: The students study a lot of harmony.

LC: For classical musicians, the harmony that one studies begins with Bach.  Where does the study of harmony begin for your students?

VAM: Tonal, modal, basic harmonic analysis, and extended harmony.

LC: Tonal, but which tonal? Tonal like Palestrina or tonal like Gershwin?

VAM: I start with the basics of classical harmony, and I immediately introduce harmonic analysis, chord symbols and dissonances.  From there, one continues onto extended chords, altered chords, increasing the number of chords, and substituting chords.

LC: What is the future of jazz, and of music in general?

VAM: I don't know, but I believe that jazz can offer great possibilities to those who study it, because it stimulates the creativity and helps both one's performing and one's composing.

LC: In a 1988 interview, the trombonist J. J. Johnson said, “Jazz is restless. It wonʼt stay put and it never will.” In your opinion, what did he mean by that?

VAM: Perhaps he meant that jazz is creative ... it's free ... it offers space to continue to experiment and evolve. 

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