For years, the violin was a rigid instrument in the hands of Diane Monroe.
Although she’s earned worldwide praise for her abilities with it, it wasn’t until five years ago, she told The Daily Times this week, that she opened the doors to cross-pollination. Although classical is her baseline, her playing is no longer confined to that world, and the musical landscapes she traverses these days are not bound by the limitations of predefined art forms.
“My response to classical training was that I had kind of convinced myself that I couldn’t improvise on the violin,” said Monroe, who travels to East Tennessee this weekend to headline the annual Women in Jazz Jam Festival. “It just felt like this instrument I could only play when I read music, and that notion really hung me up for many, many years. And it was maybe five years ago that I took off from reading music and decided I was going to find my ear on the instrument.”
Her ear for music itself goes back several decades, when she started playing piano at the age of 4; as a student in the public school system of Philadelphia, she scored high on a general music aptitude test and was given her choice of instruments to play. Even then, the rebellious nature that led her to push down conventional boundaries of music was evident.
“My mom said, ‘Just don’t bring home the violin; anything else, I would be able to stand!’” Monroe said with a laugh. “That’s so funny, because she never missed a concert.”
Like most young players, however, her starting point was a rough one; the screech of bow drawn wrong across the strings led to a number of fingers stuffed in ears around her household, but she began to find a rhythm in the music. She was always exposed to other genres; jazz was on constant rotation in her household, and her mother and uncle remember dancing in Harlem at Duke Ellington’s performances. She was more than familiar with the American songbook, but as a child, she drew a distinct separation between “proper” music played on the violin and “recreational” music around the house.
“My grandfather and all of his brothers played guitar; they weren’t professionals, but apparently my grandfather was a superior artist who played impeccably,” she said. “And then on my grandmother’s side, her sister’s child was the guitarist for the famous gospel group the Dixie Hummingbirds, and he used to come over to my house and play in our living, and I would play with him — but I never really played the violin. I always played the guitar or the piano.”
Professionally, Monroe has a long list of accomplishments to her credit: four years with The String Trio of New York, during which she toured with Joe Lovano, Anthony Davis and Oliver Lake; performances with Yo-Yo Ma and Arnold Steinhardt; a violin concerto written exclusively for her with composer/master teacher David N. Baker. She made inroads into the jazz world as well, performing in the Max Roach Double Quartet and the Uptown String Quartet and alongside such titans of the genre as Wycliffe Gordon, Jimmy Cobb, Mark O’Connor, Cecil Bridgewater, Reggie Workman and many more. Still, there was little improvisation to her parts, and it wasn’t until percussionist Fred King, who played in Roach’s ensemble M’Boom, pushed her that she began to explore the intersection of various genres.
“He told me that once I understood the roots of my musicality, I would be free enough to feel comfortable and play with much more confidence, and that I would play all kinds of music — and it happened that way,” she said. “It happened exactly the way he said it would.”
Today, Monroe — who performs Saturday at The Emporium Center in downtown Knoxville — feels as if she’s creating something of a second career. She consistently bridges the gap between audiences who know her classical works and new fans familiar with her only through jazz. She’s made headway into areas of free jazz and avant-garde that are challenging to even the most skilled violinists, and while she’s always happy to get back to the standards she’ll play at this weekend’s festival, she’s also found a way to combine her talent with her interests for a path that’s wholly hers.
“What I wanted to do the most was to compile all of my abilities and skills together as much as I am able,” she said. “So I set forth all of these things, all of these aspects that are on the tip of my tongue now, and I’ve written several project grants with this in mind. And if any of them come true, that would be great, but it’s all helped to focus me on what I’d really like to be known as: a violinist, a composer, an improviser and whatever else.”