Christina Przybilla: Dear Joel Forester, I am going to bug you a little bit in this interview. You see, I took my son to the new Charlie Brown ‘Peanut’ movie, and had to think of you and your amazing ‘Industrial Arts’ tune. The thing is, I have a theory about ‘Industrial Arts’. And I know I’ve talked to you about this before. But I find I didn’t go deep enough:
I believe, that consciously or not, ‘Industrial Arts’ is a reflection of the Charlie Brown theme. I think that you might have picked up on it without knowing, because it was playing everywhere. By the way, I believe that ‘Industrial Arts’ is way more beautiful and complex than the theme song I am referring to. NFT, if you know what I’m saying. Do I have a point there or do you deny any resemblance with Charlie Brown*?
Joel Forrester: It’s possible: the influences on my music are many and various, and Vince Guaraldi’s compositions (such as ‘Cast Your Fate to the Winds’) were certainly in the air when I was a teenager. By the time he wrote the theme to ‘Charlie Brown’, however, I was divorced from television. Would it be appropriate to call ‘Industrial Arts’ the Charlie Brown theme for grown-ups?
Why not? It’s catchy! But as a character, the Charlie Brown I’m closer to than Charles Schulz’s neurotic child is the African-American teenager in the Coasters doowop classic of the same name: he’s a classroom cut-up who always gets away unscathed. It contains the lyric, “Who called the English teacher DADDY-O?” Schulz’s hero wouldn’t have done that; but I might have.
CP: As you know, I am kind of amazed at how I was able to find you after so many years (what we would not do without the holy internet). I have been a fan of your music for about twenty four years now (I think I was sixteen when I heard you play in the Tangente Jazz Club in Liechtenstein, for the first time. This was in the nineties). Not to say that everybody knows my age now, haha. But I think it’s been one of my favorite Jazz concerts I’ve ever attended, and I am an aficionado of Jazz.
Personally, what I find characteristic and unique in your music, is its cheerfulness. Your music has helped me get over many a ‘hump’, while at the same time, it has this nearly meditative melancholic depth to it which is so characteristic of ‘Industrial Arts’. How would you best describe your own music?
JF: I cannot deny that I am a child of the 60s, when process was embraced instead of goals. So I would call ‘Industrial Arts’ a form of process-music.
CP: Who are your greatest influences from the Jazz/Blues scene? Classic? Gershwin? Mozart? Jelly Roll? Charlie Brown? Just joking.
JF: I am myself a hybrid, like Gershwin, whose melodies I admire (and whose more pretentious works inspire me to try my hand at grander forms). In Jazz, the composers who speak to me are Monk, Ellington, and Jelly Roll. One Bach 3-part invention still inspires me. I study to learn the mysterious way Beethoven links up themes. All three guys from the 2nd Viennese School mean a lot to me; Weber and Monk sometimes sound as if they’d drunk from the same spring.
CP: I did some research about you. Other than a lifelong dedication to Jazz, and an amazing repertoire of tours and clubs you’ve played at, I read that among the many Jazz legends you have met, you had an encounter with the legendary Thelonious Monk. What’s the story with you and Thelonious Monk? I’m sure, my readers would love to hear the long version…
JF: The long version is beyond me, just now. It’s enough to say that, when first exposed to Monk (in 1959), I’d take my record player to bed with me and listen under the covers: the music was that alien to my experience! Two years later, when my sister got married in New York, my parents dumped me on the doorstep of the Village Vanguard, because Monk was playing there, that night. Twenty years on, I attached myself to him like a mollusk that had found its rock. After he had retired from active playing, I was brought to him by the patron we shared, the Baroness Pannonica. She hoped he would get out of bed and correct my playing; he never did that. But if he liked what I played, he’d keep his door open and if he didn’t he’d slam it shut.
CP: Back to my favorite topic, ‘Industrial Arts’. If not Charlie Brown, what was, in your opinion, your inspiration that made you come up with that tune? Did you even write down any notes or did you just start to play it? Where were you when you first played it? When did you create it?
JF: IA was first got together in the early 70s when my wife (a dancer) and I were allowed to use the piano and space at a West Village church, each Saturday morning, if we agreed to buff the floors. We would improvise together for hours on end. The ever-changing, interlocking rhythms that propel ‘Industrial Arts’ had their genesis in my interaction with Mary’s dancing.
CP: What’s the longest you’ve spent at a piano playing ‘Industrial Arts’ over and over? Have you ever been eighty-sixed from a club for playing ‘Industrial Arts’ too long?
JF: IA has eight sections, each roughly an hour in length. In performance, I draw from each of the eight. I’ve only played the piece once in its entirety: at a concert space in New York called The Kitchen in 1978. Over the years, I have been fired from engagements or told not to play IA…a total of 17 times! In recent years, however, repetitive music has become more acceptable, I notice. At the moment, I play a 15 or 20 minute version at two different clubs, weekly. I play one-hour versions, monthly, at SPECTRUM, at the studio of my patron, Glenn Comett. He would like me to reprise the 8-hour version…but I think I could only do that with a deep nap and a hearty meal, somewhere in the middle.
CP: Ok, this now, to get back to my topic of Charlie Brown which seems to be occupying quite some space in my head these days. You see, I find that Charlie Brown is an incredibly humane, a complex character. Almost a bit too much for our kids who are used to all these one-dimensional and stereotype hero characters from the cartoons who never seem to fail. Charlie Brown is different: Charlie Brown is imperfect, he makes mistakes, he fails, he gets sad, feels useless, dumb and unloved: he is real. Other than an affinity for a similar music taste, do you find you have anything in common with the actual character of Charlie Brown?
JF: In a sense, yes: several times a day, every day, I wonder if I am not, in reality, an animated cartoon?
CP: Dear Joel, thank you so much for doing this interview.
Joel Forrester, a former associate of Thelonious Monk and Baroness Pannonica protege, is the composer of more than 1600 tunes, a versatile and accomplished jazz pianist, leader of his own quintet and prolific recording artist. He has performed in an extraordinary diversity of settings – from large ensembles to a duet setting with a tap dancer! His playing draws from stride, boogie-woogie, bebop, trance and what he likes to call ‘salon pieces’ but each composition bears the stamp of this most individual artist.
Joel composed the theme for National Public Radio’s “FRESH AIR with Terry Gross. The theme has been broadcast more than 200,000 times in the last three years – it’s been played and heard coast-to-coast more often than any other jazz composition in American radio (both public and private stations) for the last 28 years! The theme from FRESH AIR can also be heard on his Ride Symbol CD, “STOP THE MUSIC”, a collection that showcases Joel’s brilliance as a solo pianist.
Recognized by the Paris Free Voice as “the world’s leading accompanist to silent films”, Joel Forrester has given concerts with film in Paris at the Louvre, the American Center, the Forum des Images, and the Museé d’Orsay. For several years he performed with films in the Avignon Festival. In New York, he has played at the Film Forum, Brooklyn Museum, The Center for Photography, and Anthology Film Archives.
*for simplicity’s sake, we are going to call the Charlie Brown theme song “Charlie Brown”, tout simple. It was written by Vincent Anthony Guaraldi (* 17. Juli 1928 – 6. February 1976) an American Jazz Pianist and Composer.