Interview: James Senese – The Beating Heart of Italian Jazz (December 2017)

The latest edition of Jazz:Re:Found brought to life one of the finest names in the Italian jazz scene – saxophonist James Senese and his band Napoli Centrale. The son of an African-American U.S. soldier who arrived in Italy during the American occupation that liberated the country from Nazi-Fascism, Senese grew up as a black kid in the pulsating heart of the Southern Italian city of Naples. He started playing saxophone at an early age, developing his talent listening to the giants of jazz music. He is considered one of the founders of the early 1970s Neapolitan Power movement with his funk-rock band Napoli Centrale. We met him backstage before a performance for a quick chat about the importance of music in his life and his acclaimed career.

You once said in an interview that you feel half Neapolitan and half American.

“No. I’m Neapolitan, period. Be careful, as I don’t feel Neapolitan, but I am Neapolitan – don’t let yourself be influenced by the colour of my skin”.

Did you try to find a part of your cultural legacy in jazz music?

A part of myself, I would say, because it was very hard [as a black man living in Naples] to feel represented in society. Speaking of the past, it’s been very hard for me”.

Did music help you?

“Of course, it helped me to be seen by others in a different way”.

In one of your most famous songs, ‘Ngazzate nire’ (translated: pissed as hell), you were upset with many things, like the ‘stinky music’, for example.

“Wait, no. I was angry at society – because in this society there are certain games that disguise the right path we should take. At the time I called them out but today I would spare some of them”.

Are you still pissed off at someone/something?

“I’ve never been pissed off. It’s an expression I used to be better understood”.

When was the moment you decided to sing in the Neapolitan dialect? Was it an intuition or did it come naturally? 

“I didn’t used to sing. I started out as a musician, a saxophonist. I had to sing because of someone else. It was a real burden because singing was not my cup of tea, and yet we’ve got to publish our twenty-second LP. It was a sacrifice at the time that I had to keep on doing because we became Napoli Centrale – I have to keep doing it now even though it’s not my thing”.

By singing in Neapolitan you create a special mix?  

“Neapolitan was a very accurate choice for my feelings. I couldn’t sing in Italian. Neapolitan gives me a way to express better who I am. Every now and then we make a song in Italian, but 99% of our language is Neapolitan”.

What’s the relationship between Naples and music?

“Naples saved itself with music. That’s because there are many voices that work well – we know who they are. There are some people who managed to use music in this way; one of them was Pino Daniele. If we look at the past, there are plenty of authors from Naples who wrote songs that have made history and to this day live on all over the world. Naples has a very specific language, and Neapolitan is a language, not a dialect”.

Is there anything you have particularly liked from the Naples music scene in recent years? 

“No, just me…” [Laughs and heads to the stage]