John Duffy: The Composer as Statesman

A Composer From the Bronx

FRANK J. OTERI: You have always been one of my biggest heroes—as a composer, as somebody who has made a difference as a composer, and who has made a difference in the field by coming to the music industry as a composer and helping determine the course of life for all of us in a very fundamental way, and I thank you for it.

JOHN DUFFY: Well, thank you for saying that, and for me it’s been the most joyous and fulfilling part of my life.

FRANK J. OTERI: The reason we wanted to do this is to share with everybody your history and what made you come to the very unique positions that you’ve come to, and the things that shaped who you are, both as a composer and as a musical thinker in our community. You grew up in the Bronx. What made you decide to be a composer, of all things?

JOHN DUFFY: The idea of composer in the Bronx: one didn’t think in those terms. You had people who played piano, various instruments… I grew up in a very close-knit community in Woodlawn: mostly Irish immigrants, Italian immigrants, and German Lutheran immigrants. South of us was a community of Jewish immigrants. Nice looking girls! Mercifully spared the blows of hefty, hard hitting, black robed Irish nuns! In my church there was an organist by the name of Martucci, and he sat at this great organ and he would play hymns and mass, which was then in Latin. But also, while people were leaving the church, he would play these thunderous Bach works, and I was absolutely mesmerized. His playing and the music just sat in my heart and soul. And I also played in the grammar school band; I played drums. And I also had my own group, which played for dances and played jazz. What made me become a composer is one incident in my life… I was aboard a ship in the US Navy, and we were attacked and there were eight or nine men—sailors; my shipmates—who were killed and a number who were injured, and I and another sailor stood guard on their bodies through the night because there was going to be a burial at sea. The bodies were sewn in what was a kind of canvas, like a duffel bag. Well, anyway, the next morning the captain of the ship read from the Old Testament, mostly, and the bodies were slid into the sea, and it had such a profound effect on me that life is so fragile. And here were these young guys from farms, from Brooklyn, from all over the US—from Georgia, from Connecticut. I thought if life was so fragile, what a wasteful use of the human spirit, personality, and so forth… Anyway, that I would find some way to lead a life that had some value and worth in it, and would have some meaning and for me—I was having these thoughts unconsciously—and then when I was discharged I just studied and what I wanted to do was be a composer. Before service I was a champion athlete, and thought of studying history and law. All that went out the window for music. And there was never any doubt in my mind. My daughter and my grandson struggle with what they want to do in life, and I have to be enormously patient.

FRANK J. OTERI: Yeah. Well, one thing I find so interesting in your early years, you talked about playing jazz and playing drums in groups. As an adolescent and a young adult interested in music who’s not involved in the music world, per se, who’s coming into it as an outsider, I don’t think we see these distinctions. I know that it was true for me when I started getting involved in music. I don’t think we see distinctions like jazz, classical music, Broadway show music, rock. Well, rock ‘n’ roll didn’t exist yet for you at that time. Well, all of these different genres—it’s all music, and I think what’s been so remarkable for me knowing about you and the work that you’ve done for other composers is how open you have been to all these different kinds of music making. And I think it comes from the fact of growing up in New York City, growing up in the Bronx, where you’re exposed to all of these different sources and had all these different influences. You were playing jazz. When was the first time you heard classical music and when was the first time you heard jazz and was there a different impact for you?

JOHN DUFFY: Well, I heard classical music of course in church: organs. I heard jazz on the radio. Radio then, we’d hear Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Billy Eckstine and his orchestra, Benny Goodman, Art Tatum; this was daily food, musical food. I had many jobs as a kid; I was an usher and pageboy at Radio City Music Hall, and they had an orchestra there. They’d play Ravel and Debussy and Beethoven and so forth—but I would be able to take a train from 205th street to 125th street and go in with my savings from my job, go into a clothes shop and have what were then they’d call ‘peg-leg’ pants, ‘peg-leg’ trousers, and a long coat or jacket and then get back on the train and go down to Radio City Music Hall or go down to the Village. You came from a rooted community but you had all of these other experiences: ethnic, racial, musical, social, et cetera, so you’re right. You wouldn’t have that experience, I would imagine, if you came from Melrose, New York, or some other smaller community.

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