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From Spike Lee to Mister Rogers: Violinist Diane Monroe's rich and varied career

Violinist Diane Monroe
Amanda Sewell
Diane Monroe performs in IPR's Studio A

Violinist Diane Monroe is known as a "bona fide Philadelphia jazz treasure" - but she's had a huge career spanning styles and audiences.

Diane Monroe has had an incredible, rich career as violinist.

She's played with lots of different orchestras and jazz groups, and she has appeared on movie soundtracks (everything from Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing" to the Mister Rogers biopic "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood").

She's in Interlochen working with the Interlochen Arts Academy Jazz Program and will appear in a concert in Corson Auditorium on Friday, March 17. Click HERE for more information and tickets.

Diane visited Studio A to chat with IPR's Kate Botello. She also performed her solo version of "Amazing Grace."

Highlights (edited for length and clarity):

On "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" :

Kate Botello: You were on Mister Rogers !! How are you on Mister Rogers? Please tell us about that.

Diane Monroe: Well, the Uptown String Quartet was on Mister Rogers, which was a quartet that formed in 1981, actually, but it changed personnel and reconfigured and reconfigured. First I was a second violin and in the Quartet, with Gail Dixon playing first and acoustics and playing cello, and then the personnel changed again. And then I became first violin in 1986.

When we started, the Uptown String Quartet was a Max Roach... inception, I guess you could say? I knew his daughter, Maxine Roach from Oberlin Conservatory. He never played with his daughter. So he had his daughter form a four black women in string quartet, along with his Quartet, the famous Max Roach quartet with Odean Pope, Cecil Bridgewater. And himself of course, and, Tyrone Brown, the bassist. So this is an octet. This is the Max Roach double quartet. We toured the world in the 80s, and 90s, and it was an amazing experience. We played the Blue Note, like 11 years in a row.

But, so the Uptown Quartet became a sort of an entity of itself, not long after we started playing the double quartet. And we started touring. And we had a wonderful opportunity to play in in Pittsburgh, where Fred Rogers is from and where his studio is. He showed up at the concert. And it just so happened that we played a piece of mine, and he said, "I would love to have you women on my show." And not only that, but he said, "But only if you play that piece of yours." So I was so elated. I couldn't believe it!

So "Vibes" the piece was first of all played on the show in 1994. And then Tom Hanks's producer called my manager and just said, "Hey, you know, we want to reenact this show. And we want your piece and we want..." You know, and they just kept spewing out amazing little story things, and so we got together again.

It was just such a marvelous experience all the way, from the time we met Fred Rogers, to his untimely passing. It was like, he was with us the whole time. At the TV show, it was, he was just so attentive, and not only attentive, but he was just loving. There was this comfort vibe that he had that just put you at ease and, I just adored being with him, hanging out.

Kate Botello: I will tell you that probably every person listening right now is really relieved to hear that Mr. Rogers was the real deal.

Diane Monroe: Yeah, he was totally the real deal. Okay. So glad to hear that.

Kate Botello: And your orchestration of "You are Special" is in the movie?

Diane Monroe: Yes, it is. You see the train, like you see the subway going by or something like that. And we're pizz-ing and stuff like that. That's the arrangement.

On making space to learn something new, and what Diane wants to do next

Kate Botello: Now, is there a variation for you, Diane, that you haven't tried yet that you'd like to try? Is there anything left? Is there anything?

Diane Monroe: I mean, there's always something left, you know, musically. It just goes on and on. I would really love to finally learn the bebop language.

As an improvising violinist, I think putting my best foot forward lies in free music - in avant garde music, improvisation music. I'm working on on some solo pieces now that have those kinds of elements in it; sort of bridging those with with written music right now.

Kate Botello: So when you've got bebop down, come see us again!

Michael Culler engineered this edition of Studio A.

Thanks to Josh Lawrence, Patrick Owen and Alexandra Herryman for additional support.

Kate Botello is a host and producer at Classical IPR.