At 90 years old, James Pellerite could comfortably rest on the many achievements of his past. Instead, he’s chosen a path of restless innovation, challenging the conventional orthodoxy of both classical music’s status quo, and accepted forms of expression within the indigenous American folk tradition.
For the majority of his life, James Pellerite was known as a world-renowned master of the 16-key classical European flute. After studying flute at Juilliard, Mr. Pellerite served as principal flutist with the Philadelphia Orchestra, as well as the Detroit, and Indianapolis Symphonies. Mr. Pellerite has recorded with artists ranging from Igor Stravinsky to Johnny Mathis, and performed under a long list of great conductors including Leonard Bernstein, Pablo Casals, Neville Mariner, Eugene Ormandy, and Leopold Stokowski.
Here in the Hoosier state Mr. Pellerite is likely best known for his 30-year stint teaching flute at Indiana University. But it was after his retirement from IU in 1987 that Mr. Pellerite began writing the current — and perhaps most unique – chapter in his life story.
In 1993 Pellerite attended a recital of Native American flute in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The experience was transformative and immediately set Pellerite on a mission to master the Native flute, and to begin fusing the instrument with the Western classical traditions he’d devoted his life to articulating. Since 1993, Pellerite has commissioned and recorded a large and enchanting catalog of contemporary compositions for the Native flute.
During my wide-ranging chat with Mr. Pellerite we discussed the full scope of his remarkable and unprecedented journey in music.
NUVO: You were honored earlier this year with a lifetime achievement award from the National Flute Association for your many contributions as a teacher and performer.
Pellerite: Yes, it was a quite an event. I was the recipient of this award, which is evidently the highest award that the National Flute Association makes available.
NUVO: Am I correct that you were born in Clearfield, Pennsylvania in 1926?
Pellerite: Yes, if you have to remind me. I was born into a wonderful Italian family. Of course I'm all Italian because my father came from Sicily and my mother was born in this country, but she came from a Neopolitan family. My mother spoke beautiful English, but my father's English was kind of an abstraction. It was a mixture.
But it was a wonderful experience growing up in an Italian background. The work ethic was the main focus almost daily. From age seven I was pushed into recognizing that the harder I worked, the luckier I would become.
NUVO: Your entry into music came at the age of seven when your parents purchased a piccolo for you.
Pellerite: That is correct. That was my first instrument. The family thought I should be in music, and purchased a piccolo for all of five dollars. In those days during the Depression, it took six months to pay it off.
NUVO: Did you have an immediate affinity for the instrument?
Pellerite: Not really. At that age I don't think I had an affinity for very much other than wanting to play with my friends. However, I do recall that playing with my friends often amounted to me wanting to lead the band. We would have a band made up of empty olive oil drums. They used to import olive oil by the five gallon drum then. Perhaps that accounts for my longevity, having olive oil all my life.
Eventually playing piccolo in the band was not enough and finally my family purchased a flute. This flute was very unusual. In that period they manufactured the flute in almost one piece. It was a C.G. Conn flute that at least got me through the service years. I was in a Naval Air Force band in Puerto Rico for two and a half years. This enabled me to get a jump start on practicing the flute, although I also played piccolo and cymbals in the band when they wanted an extra cymbal player. That helped my rhythm.
NUVO: I would imagine all your drumming on the olive oil cans helped too! Do you remember if there was a specific moment in your life when you decided you wanted to study music seriously?
Pellerite: I'm not sure I can say it happened at a certain time. I think it was by default because I spent so many hours practicing during my Navy days. I always wanted to have the night watch in the band room so I could have the band room to myself to practice. I practiced for hours and having devoted so much energy to the instrument I decided that since I knew nothing else, perhaps I should go into music.
I was very fortunate while I was in San Juan to meet a great music family, the Figueroas. They were close friends of Pablo Casal's and the influence was fantastic. When I would have leave, I would choose to go to their house on a Sunday afternoon and we would play string quartets and I would read the first violin part on flute. This did something for me whereby I became a little more classically oriented in playing the instrument. While I had no teacher from the time I left Clearfield, my uncle had been my primary teacher then and he was a clarinetist, but I had no teacher at all until I got to Juilliard.
So by the time I got to Juilliard, I had a lot of bad habits. Well, at Juilliard the first thing of course was for me to get rid of this one-piece Conn flute and get a real professional instrument. I got my first Verne Powell flute. My teacher was Frederick Wilkins, who was not only a great friend, mentor and teacher, but he helped me almost by day. He must have appreciated the fact that every assignment he gave, I worked assiduously to try to come in with a well prepared lesson. From that day forward he was always on my side trying to help. And it was one of his flutes I was able to purchase.
That was probably the turning point to where I was totally committed. Fortunately, through him I was able to jump start my professional activity in New York by substituting for him while he was off. He was the principal flute for the Radio City Music Hall symphony. He needed as many substitutes as he could, and he went down through his list one night and couldn't find anybody. So he told me to come down to the Radio City Music Hall and you're going to read a rehearsal with me for a new show and you're going to start subbing next week.
I was mortified! I couldn't imagine going suddenly from playing at Juilliard to a professional orchestra. They had a full symphony orchestra at that time. These were really the halcyon days in New York. So that really got me started and was a turning point in my life.
NUVO: Do you remember the first piece you played at Radio City?
Pellerite: Yes, the “William Tell Overture” four times a day for four weeks. From there on a composite of show tunes and a Chopin ballet. It was quite exciting indeed. After four weeks, I knew the program pretty well.
NUVO: I’m curious what sort of music you were interested in as a young man?
Pellerite: You have to remember I came from no experience at all. No matter what it was, it was a new experience for me and I enjoyed I every bit of the influence. At one point I even had the good fortune of doing a recording session with Johnny Mathis and also the Modern Jazz Quartet. That was exciting, because suddenly I went far afield. I remember Gunther Schuller was the French horn player. He had been first horn at the Metropolitan Opera.
NUVO: I remember during a recent conversation you told me that it was in 1949 that you joined the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra.
Pellerite: Yes, that was my first symphony job outside of New York. I was principal flute for two years under Fabien Sevitzky, and that was another eye opener. To be honest with you, at that time the orchestra was not what the Indianapolis Symphony is today. This is a tremendous ensemble today. But at that time, I don't think it was as good as the Juilliard orchestra I had left. I was shocked.
It was very easy getting started with the Indianapolis Symphony, because it was like being in another student orchestra. A lot of us in the orchestra at that time were so young. The orchestra was thought of as being a stepping stone to something better, and sure enough after two seasons I was able to audition for the Detroit Symphony. I was first flute there for five seasons.
The management of the Indianapolis orchestra became the management for Detroit. So from Indianapolis the manager just simply brought me to Detroit. Yes I auditioned, but I think I was the only one who auditioned at the time. They didn't have the strict rules that the union has today where you have to have a formal audition behind the screen along with 150 other flutists. But at that time there went that many flutists around.
I was in Indianapolis for two years and then went to Detroit for five. But after five seasons I thought it was time I tried something else. So I took some business courses. I was going to try to complete a bachelor's in business. I went to Wayne State University and started to take some economic and accounting courses.
NUVO: Before we move beyond your days in Indianapolis, I’m curious if you have any outstanding memories of playing with the ISO? I remember you told me that Fabien Sevitzky was a real character.
Pellerite: Well he was a very interesting man. He tried to instill a great deal of class with the orchestra. But many times it would come splashing back onto his face. I remember once for a children's concert the theme was Western music of some sort. He dressed up as the Lone Ranger with his six guns. He came running onto the stage to get on the podium and the poor man tripped and fell on his face. But he got up and began to conduct the “William Tell Overture”! (laughs) There are many such stories.
NUVO: Do you remember any particular highlights from the ISO’s repertoire during your two seasons with the orchestra?
Pellerite: [laughs] Well, I remember we were doing a Dohnányi work that called for 5/8 time and obviously the ensemble was anything but perfect. So Sevitzky began to say, (impersonates Russian accent) "It is very easy. You just ah-count: one, two, three, four, fi-yev. One, two, three, four, fi-yev." Somebody in the string section raised their hand and said, "Dr. Sevitzky, that's six." "No! I said one, two, three, four, fi-yev."
Such moments as those provided for levity and we enjoyed a great deal of camaraderie in the orchestra. It was a wonderful experience.
NUVO: At what point did you join the Philadelphia Orchestra?
Pellerite: That didn't come until much later. In about 1955 or 1956 I became very interested in corporate finance. I met an interesting fellow who had been coming to the Detroit Symphony concerts and he always wanted to talk about Hector Berlioz and I always wanted to talk about stocks. So the two of us got along famously. Eventually I became an intern with a New York Stock Exchange house in Detroit and I took a correspondence course to become a full-fledged broker.
Eventually I did get my license and the day I was authorized to begin taking on accounts the ticker tape read "finest flutist on Wall Street." [laughs] So that was my introduction to Wall Street!
NUVO: How long were you working as a broker?
Pellerite: I worked as a broker for about a year and a half. But I couldn't put up with the thought that I was so responsible for the ups and downs people would have. It would keep me awake at night worrying about losses that customers would have. You can't be a successful broker doing that.
So all the while that I was with this day job, at night I was playing jingles on commercials for the various automobiles. I can remember a piccolo solo from a Chevy truck ad. They kept playing this ad and it would blare all day long and the royalties were coming in. I would also play the Broadway shows that would come in to Detroit for four or five weeks.
This eventually resulted in my having to feel that I better get something more stable. So my teacher in the meantime, Fred Wilkins again, had been offered a professorship to teach at Indiana University. He called one day and said, "I don't really want this job. Would you like to interview for it?" I thought my goodness, teaching at a university. I had no degree because I didn't wait long enough to try to work on a degree at Juilliard. I was anxious to become an orchestral player.
So I decided to take the interview at Indiana. The first thing I did was to tell Dean Bain, "I have to apologize, I don't have a degree." He said, "We don't require them. We just give them."
That more or less set the tone for the type of faculty he was after. He wanted professional musicians, not necessarily just the doctorates who were only in the classroom. Although they’re of great value, there's no question about that. However, to have the performance background I think established a platform for me from which I could organize teaching based on performance. The performance experience I'd had by the time I reached IU was such that it gave me a good start on how to really treat so many of the playing problems based on the preparations I had to make. I'd come from a situation where I'd had so many flute problems to begin with, so I knew exactly what the students were facing. I'm convinced this helped me help my students.
NUVO: When exactly did you start teaching at IU?
Pellerite: I started out from 1957 to 1960, and then in 1960 I auditioned for the Philadelphia Orchestra. I played only one season because Dean Bain at the time said, "You should go only on the basis of a leave of absence from IU. You shouldn't quit. Because there's no way you're going to know if you'll want to stay." Particularly for economic reasons. At that time orchestras didn't pay anywhere near what they are paying today.
That's another story, but I think many of the problems orchestras are having now is based on the fact that here is an industry that is based on donations and grants. The incomes are insufficient to pay the salaries that they are under obligation to pay today.
But in those days, the salaries were nowhere near what universities were paying. So after a year, Dean Bain simply insisted that he was organizing a faculty second to none. And that's true because he imported players from the New York Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony, and the Cleveland Orchestra. This was a great attraction for me to come back to IU. Plus the fact that I could have a good family life within the environment that Bloomington can offer. I simply assumed that it was a wise move to go back. It was a better paycheck, plus a great retirement which I'm enjoying yet today.
NUVO: Before we move on to your work on the Native American flute, there are a couple specific recordings you made on the modern flute that I want to ask you about. In 1961 you performed on a session with Igor Stravinsky for the legendary Columbia Masterworks album Igor Stravinsky Conducts. You played on the “Octet For Wind Instruments." Tell us about that experience.
Pellerite: Yes, that was really an opportunity of a lifetime. I had been playing the Casals Festival in Puerto Rico and the manager called me after I had been in Philadelphia. He said, "You know, Stravinsky is in town and he's going to record the "Octet". Would you like to play?" I said, "I'd love to play. Yes, tell me when and I'll try to organize it."
He gave me the date, and sure enough the schedule was such that Columbia had to schedule the recording to start at midnight because both the trombonist Keith Brown and I had to travel from Philadelphia after a concert. We started recording at Columbia's studios at midnight and there was Stravinksy with Robert Craft. The other players were from the New York Philharmonic. It was quite a good group I must say.
NUVO: What kind of man was Stravinsky to work with in that setting?
Pellerite: He was wonderful. I have to say admittedly, not too much of a conductor. But it didn't matter, because at that time we knew the piece. Robert Craft, while he didn't conduct was more or less the A&R man on the recording. His tempi and all were authentic and actually I think Columbia considered that a hallmark recording at the time.
NUVO: Yes, it’s certainly a hallmark recording! Another fantastic recording I want to ask you about occurred during your time at IU. You recorded David Baker’s Concerto for Flute, String Quartet and Jazz Band for Laurel Records. Tell us about working with the wonderfully brilliant Indianapolis composer and musician David Baker.
Pellerite: Well, let's begin first when the concerto had not yet been born. After listening to his violin concerto, I approached David with an idea: let's do the same thing for flute with jazz band and a string quartet and have a slow movement that would be performed on the alto flute.
I already had all this in mind before we even began. I said, "Write out all of the idiomatic expressions that you would normally expect of a jazz player and I'll try to play it." Sure enough, he wrote this virtuosic piece that took months to really organize. The cadenza itself entails everything from quarter tones and multiphonics to pyrotechnics that I think displayed the instrument in quite a brilliant manner.
And it was accompanied by tabla, which in itself was unique! The combination I thought was enough to make that a separate piece for solo flute with tabla. David and I collaborated almost daily for a few months on that piece.
Working with David was very easy, because as you know he was such a congenial individual. He set the tone in terms of trying to bring as much of the improvisatory character to the piece as he could.
Interestingly, you know today's great trumpet virtuoso Chris Botti performed in that band. It was a wonderful big band at that time. This was 1983. As I said, there was a slow movement with string quartet and alto flute. I remember during the recording session I suddenly cracked a note that was in a phrase, but when we listened to it, I turned to David and he looked at me and said, "Let's leave it. That sounds great!"
So there's one cracked note that sounds expressive.
NUVO: Mr. Pellerite, we could talk all day about your truly amazing career on the modern flute. But I have to stop myself here from going further, because I do want to talk about your more recent exploration of the Native American flute.
I understand you took up the Native flute after retiring from IU in 1987.
Pellerite: I remained in Bloomington until 1993, and then moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico. There I was entranced by the land of enchantment and hearing the Native American flute for the first time. I was not aware of the instrument at all before this.
It was a July 4th event at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque. A friend of mine said we should go and that the concerts were often entertaining. All of a sudden during the program, I heard this flute that was so unusual. It was doing nothing more than sustaining four different tones, but with such a haunting expression. This was unforgettable.
People around me were saying, "How boring. Only those four tones?" But I kept saying, "What beauty! There must be more notes in that flute!"
So the next day I called a friend who I knew was playing the instrument and I asked, "What do I do about getting a flute?" He said, "Well, I've got this flute maker in Denver. Why don't you call him?"
So here I was with no experience whatsoever and I met him in Boulder. He told me, "You know, I don't have a workshop. I work in a barn. There isn't a place you can try the instrument. I could meet you along this river where there's a park. Meet me there and I'll bring a group of flutes that you might try."
What a setting! I had never had one in my hands before he took out these gorgeous instruments. I was so taken by the wood carvings and so on. I attempted to blow one of them and it literally blew me away. I thought here was a case of me just being introduced to the instrument and this beautiful sound is emitted. It had a naturalness. The sound was already in the wood. As a matter of fact, the Native American speaks of this and says it's, "The sound from the wood that speaks." How true that is.
Eventually many years later I've translated the phrase to say, "The flute that speaks many languages." Because of the fact that I do such a variety of music on it.
NUVO: That’s certainly true, I saw you perform recently and you played traditional Irish tunes, opera arias, and famous film scores. In your hands it is a universal instrument.
Pellerite: Oh, absolutely. Interestingly, it's by default I do all that. Because when I began I consulted with who I thought was the prime mover in Native American flute performance. He indicated that I should not continue to copy these tribal tunes I was listening to on Youtube, but rather go out and get my own music. So I wondered how do I do that with only five notes?
So I began to stumble through and eventually came up with a chromatic scale that I could play on the instrument, albeit so terribly out of tune. These instruments aren't built to be playing Western music with the informality of the instrument and its naturalness. Every flute maker has his own concept of how he carves these holes. Every instrument responds differently and subsequently has an entirely different scale.
However, I decided what I should probably do is come up with a collection of etudes that would enable me to learn different aspects of the instrument. A group say for phrasing, another group for achieving great technique via the fingerings, and another for rhythm. I immediately latched onto the collection of Frank Sinatra where I was getting the effectiveness of his phrasing via the rhythm of Nelson Riddle's great arrangements. So this is why I've included some of his songs in my collection.
NUVO: I’m so curious about this moment in your life in Albuquerque in 1993 where you first heard this instrument that would ultimately go on to redirect your life’s path. You were retired from teaching at this point, were you still actively involved in performing music at this time?
Pellerite: The truth is by that time I was faced with some serious realism. There were instances where I was no longer very happy with my performance on the modern flute. Fortunately only I heard this and of course my dear wife hearing me practice. We decided together that it was time to quit.
Many professional players may overlook that point in their life. Some of us have to give it up earlier than others. I can see where some players are still able to perform in their seventies and eighties. But I couldn't.
So the Native flute really provided the inspiration for me to continue on in a more creative manner. Suddenly I branched out as a musician, not just as a flute player. I began to play concerts almost immediately. Admittedly I should have probably waited longer now as I look back. But it was good experience nonetheless.
It was interesting how I began to enlist the contributions for the Native flute by composers. Working with one composer seemed to beget working with another, and on and on. It was like a rolling stone. I began to get pieces that were more difficult than I was capable of performing. In so doing, I amassed a repertoire much of which was too soon for me to try to perform. But that challenged me to learn more about the instrument. I would extract passages from the different compositions and make exercises. I would not go back to the composer and say, "Hey, this is difficult." No, I chose to use this as another means by which I could tackle a new technical problem. In so doing I have fingering charts to help me produce different dynamic levels. You're not supposed to be able to play loud and soft and maintain the same pitch. But I'm able to because I've turned the fingerings into an embouchure.
NUVO: You were so taken by the Native flute after your introduction to the instrument, that you made what I think is a very dramatic gesture, and you sold off your entire collection of modern flutes. These instruments represented your life in music up to that point. Why did you make the decision to sell your modern flutes?
Pellerite: I looked at the modern flute as nothing more than a tool in a workshop. After awhile you make a change.
The Native flute is something I thought could be reborn, and it has been. There are a number of musicians who are voicing an interest in going in this direction. What's fascinating is that I've take the instrument in this direction without adding keys to it, without adding any additional holes, or trying to improve upon its condition. But rather, take it as it is to preserve the beauty of its traditional state of playing pentatonic traditional songs. From there I have embedded the chromaticism.
In many of the compositions I have not given up the stylistic aspects of the Native flute. We use the pitch glide, we use the appoggiaturas as ornamentations. Much of what I'm doing in my modern repertoire is nothing more than an offshoot of the traditional styles that the Native American’s had conceived from their wonderful tribal songs that are passed on from generation to generation.
I have a sort of mission statement that I've tried to adhere to. If you'll permit me I'll read it. It's interesting because this was inspired by the Native American statement in which it's said, "The Indian's music is from the heart, not the mind." So over the years I've decided that yes, music is from the heart. But I've added another heart, that of the modern composer. Because he or she also is expressing from the heart as well as the mind. So we have dovetailed the concept of the Native American stylistic aspects.
[begins reading from paper]
"As an instrumentalist I have believed that musical strengths are born from direct attachment to tradition. This provides a platform from which I've enjoyed performances memorable for their powerful emotions and played with technical and musical comfort. Therefore the use of diatonic and chromatic harmony in new repertoire for the Native American flute is the pathway I've selected for this unique instrument. All of our commissioned composers have created compositions that have graced this flute with optimum musical expression. I prefer to identify this music as Modern Romanticism. It serves to add another dimension to its naturally beautiful and haunting pentatonic flavors. As well, tonal music stretches the musical and technical boundaries of the Native American flute without the application of some modern woodwind techniques found in many contemporary scores of atonal or avant garde compositions from the 1960s through the 1970s. So let it be said, that music from the Native American flute is from the heart, but also from the mind."
NUVO: In addition to that description, I’ve also read interviews where you’ve described the instrument as being both “spiritual” and “magical." Can you elaborate on that?
Pellerite: Much of this stems from the fact that there's a naturalness in the sound of the instrument. We are dealing with something that was alive. It was a tree branch before it became a flute. It's still that same tree branch, even though it ended up on the lathe and with a drill for the holes, and the carving for the air channels.
So the naturalness remains. You pick up a magical piece of wood that has vibrating characteristics and the sound is emitted before you even apply any thought of instrumental technique.
NUVO: Through the many pieces you’ve commissioned, you’ve assembled an extraordinary repertoire for the Native flute. I was curious if you receive any resistance from either classical audiences or Native American music traditionalists regarding this unique body of music you’ve brought into creation?
Pellerite: I wouldn't say it's been met with any thoughts of restricting attitude. I think my students can't quite accept the fact that I no longer play the modern flute. But they've come to realize that the dedication I always had for the modern flute has done nothing more than transferred to the Native flute. I think having heard me perform a recital in August at the National Flute Association convention convinced them that the work ethic is still there. So they took it more seriously now than they used to.
As far as the Native American flutists are concerned, they are of course thoroughly devoted to their art and they're not about to give up their tradition. If they are going to do anything contemporary, they may set an ensemble whereby it does have a modern bent to it, but all the while they maintain the pentatonic flavor in what they do.
NUVO: So your work on the Native flute coexists peacefully with their traditions and no one expresses any serious qualms about it?
Pellerite: They keep their distance.
NUVO: You told me the question you most often receive is do you miss playing the modern flute. So, do you?
Pellerite: Very simple: no. How can I if I am so engrossed every day trying to perfect a performance level with the Native flute? I realize there is only so much I can do with this instrument, by virtue of its limited scale, but I've never considered its limitations. The hidden capacities of the instrument are within view, and they make up for any limitations in the range though their sheer beauty.
NUVO: I think your story is really extraordinary, you were born into this whole new musical life after your retirement. Did you ever imagine you would take on a new career after retiring?
Pellerite: I've always been open to new ideas. I wasn't planning any kind of a career. But I don’t necessarily consider this a career, I would just say it's a great life and I appreciate what the Native Americans have given me. I consider it a gift. I really do. I admire them for maintaining their traditions. Their traditional values are based on a great deal of beauty, which is evident in the flute and it should continue.
However, let's not overlook that modernism does bring many changes. But clinging to tradition is part of every day life, however we choose to accept the modernism as we face it.
NUVO: How do you view your legacy with this instrument and your journey to bring the Native flute into the fold of the modern classical world? How do you think your work on the the Native flute will be perceived one-hundred years from now?
Pellerite: Well perhaps I'll come back again as a Native American flute player. I shouldn't say that, rather I should say I'll come back as a flute player playing the Native American flute. I was once booked as a Native American flutist and that doesn't go. Not when I'm a Sicilian. [laughs]
NUVO: Do you see an audience growing in the classical world around the instrument and the works you've commissioned?
Pellerite: I would like to think that eventually the eighty-five compositions that have been created can still live on. I'm hoping so. The music library at Jacobs School of Music is a repository for our publications. They have every single piece that we've published. I'm quite proud of that. So that will always remain.