Tania León: What it Means to be an American Composer

5. First American Music Impressions

TANIA LEÓN: When I first came here, a clarinetist from the Conservatory gave me an LP of Art Tatum. And I flipped out. I said, what is this? What kind of a pianist is this? I mean, where is this man? I just flipped out. And I didn’t know anything about jazz, I didn’t know anything about American music, you know, and the most I had heard of American music was Rhapsody in Blue, and some clips of West Side Story.

FRANK J. OTERI: Wow.

TANIA LEÓN: So I didn’t know anything, you know?

FRANK J. OTERI: And West Side Story was an attempt to incorporate Latin musical rhythms.

“…the piano is in my head…”
RealPlayer  [93 seconds]
RealAudio sound clip
Sound sample – TANIA LEÓN: from Rituál
Performed by Clemens Leske – piano
(from the CD Tania León: Indígena, CRI 662)

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TANIA LEÓN: Well, there were clips of that on Cuban television, you know, showing what Bernstein had done, and the most I knew and the most I remembered was the song Maria. You know? So that’s how I arrived here. So for me to hear Art Tatum for the first time, it was like, my God, I don’t know anything about music, you see? So therefore, I mean, that’s how I actually immersed myself not only in rhythm and blues, you know, and blues, and jazz, from classic jazz to progressive jazz, and growing up in a way in Harlem with the Dance Theater of Harlem hearing all different kinds of music. That’s how I started to understand the diaspora possibilities, the cultural movement that we’re all alive and kicking, you know, in one nation. And, you know, even country music, rap, I mean, anything, for me has been amazing.

FRANK J. OTERI: Now, you came here in the late ’60’s…

TANIA LEÓN: 1967.

FRANK J. OTERI: …which was a great time in rock music as well in America. This was a time when rock n’ roll became rock and became more experimental. . .the whole psychedelic movement. There were rock groups that were doing extended improvisation.

TANIA LEÓN: Everything. Yes.

FRANK J. OTERI: In San Francisco, groups like the Grateful Dead were playing for half an hour, and groups like the Velvet Underground in New York were experimenting with feedback and different sonorities, having a viola in a rock group. It was…

TANIA LEÓN: It was tremendous! I remember the Moody Blues, I remember, you know, I mean, for example, going downtown to learn Agon you know. We’d been coached by Balanchine…

FRANK J. OTERI: Oh, the Stravinsky ballet.

TANIA LEÓN: For me it was not so much the Stravinsky ballet, it was Agon. [laughs] You know what I mean? And Stravinsky was alive, you know, I mean, this whole thing was happening, and then you go uptown and you work with Coleridge Taylor Perkinson, you know, Marcos Nobre was coming into the country to stage a new percussion score with Dance Theater of Harlem, I mean, Marcos Nobre is from Brazil. You know, so therefore, I mean, it was a coalition of information that was amazing. I just didn’t know whether to look right or left, you know, because it was just a lot at the same time.