Friday, June 26, 2015

Jim McNeely's BMI Summer Showcase Concert Remarks

I alluded to the seeming demise of the BMI Jazz Composers' Workshop in my last post.  Since then, there have been several "developments".  Deanna Witkowski and Miggy Miyajima had a 45-minute sit down meeting with Charlie Feldman and Pat Cook at BMI, during which they gave them a printed out copy of the petition with its 1000+ signatures.  This resulted in:

1. The band and its personnel staying intact.
2. The focus of the workshop - at least for the next two years, if not longer - remaining as it currently is, on writing for large jazz ensemble.

Pat Cook has given a tentative date of June 30 for announcing a new MD.  I'll go out on a limb and express my hope that it is no one affiliated with Jazz at Lincoln Center --- especially the self-appointed jazz spokesperson, Wynton Marsalis. (Trust me, I didn't vote for him and neither did any of my esteemed colleagues around the country.)

On Thursday of this week, the BMI Jazz Composer's Workshop had it's final summer showcase concert of the Brookmeyer/Albam/McNeely/Abene/Holober era.  Jim McNeely, who is stepping down as the workshop's director, delivered the following remarks, which are posted with his permission:
Every year I’ve stood up here and talked about the state of the workshop, and here I am again, for the last time. This past year has been typical—we’ve had 27 members in the two groups. We’ve looked at probably 50-60 pieces for big band that were at least started, if not all finished. Members commute from Philadelphia, Maryland, and Boston. There are members who originally come from Japan, Israel, Holland, Colombia, and Uruguay. And, of course, we always have members from Canada (it would be interesting one day to document the impact that Canadian composers have had on the workshop). The reputation of the workshop is, indeed, international. 
It all started in 1988. BMI’s Burt Korall approached Bob Brookmeyer about forming a jazz composition workshop, to be funded by the BMI Foundation. Although Bob had written for many sizes of ensembles, in the ‘80’s he was essentially re-defining the way that a lot of us thought about big band composition. So the decision was made to keep that the focus. They also asked Manny Albam to come in as a second musical director. They all approached BMI’s Robbin Ahrold, at the time the VP for Corporate Relations. He was all for it, as was BMI CEO Frances Preston. So the groundwork was laid and the workshop began. It was designed to be a non-academic institution. Bob was quoted as saying he wanted an alternative to the current system of students being “taught by teachers, who were taught by teachers, who were taught by teachers.” He wanted the composers to be active professional musicians, taught by active professional composer/arrangers. 
Three years later Bob decided to move to Holland, and he proposed that I come in as associate musical director. Back then I was well-known as a big band composer in Germany, but not much in the U.S., so Burt also brought in Roger Kellaway. Roger’s mother-in-law, in Los Angeles, got quite sick, so after one year Roger and his wife moved out west. After that it was Manny and I. We brought in Michael Abene as a third director when I became chief conductor of the Danish Radio Big Band in 1998. When Mike became chief conductor of the WDR Big Band (Cologne) we brought in Mike Holober, who has been Associate M. D. for eight years now. I’ve learned so much from all of these people, especially Manny, who became kind of a mentor. I benefitted from not only his immense knowledge of orchestration and harmony, but also his sense of history, giving me a sense of what it was like to be staff arranger for Charlie Barnett (3 arrangements a week), or writing arrangements for countless big band recordings in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s. 
In all of these years I’ve seen several big developments: 
• The change from pencil & paper to computer notation. When I entered the workshop in 1991, virtually all scores were done in pencil, on conventional score paper. If you get stressed out now, the night before a reading session, because your printer is having issues, imagine what it was like back then (the Dark Ages, I know!) when you had to copy out all your parts by hand! After a couple of years there’d be an occasional piece done in Finale, or Encore, or Music Printer Plus. They looked terrible, printed on a daisy-wheel printer. We used to say, “Who’d want to read this stuff? Who’d even be able to read it?” As time went on the software and printer technology improved by leaps and bounds, and composers started to really learn how to use the programs. Now virtually everything that comes into the workshop is done on computer, although many of the members still use pencil and paper for the initial sketches (as do I). The computer has its upside and downside, to be sure. But it is a fact of modern life.
• The growth of the B group into a force unto itself. In my early days the level of the B group was quite low, relative to the experienced writers in the A group. Around seven years into my tenure the B group started to really improve. I had the sense that the raw creative spirit of some of the “B’s” was high, sometimes more so than some of the “A’s”, who might have had better big band craft but not as interesting ideas. The improvement in the B group coincides, not surprisingly, with… 
• The evolution of the reading session from an occasional, “special” event, to a regular A group event, to an alternating A-B event. When the reading sessions became a regular monthly event, composers had something concrete to work toward. In the beginning they were A group events, with one or two B readings thrown in. But as time went on we alternated the groups, A-B-A-B-A-B-A-B-A. This gave the B members a lot more feedback for their music; it also increased their motivation to write. The reading sessions also gave the band a chance to see potential concert pieces well in advance of the concert rehearsals. This was a huge improvement. (I remember in my early years we would program 12 pieces on the concert, and the band wouldn’t see them until the actual concert rehearsals. Chaos!) We finally made it workshop policy that the concert would contain at least one B group composer. In the last few years the concert has regularly featured two or three B composers. And the increase in reading session activity helped to fuel…
• The growth of the BMI/NY Jazz Orchestra—a dream of Burt Korall’s, who wanted to establish a big band in residence to work with the composers—into a real band. Along with the musical directors and the composers, they have become the third member of the workshop trinity. I do a lot of work with European radio bands, where the challenge for the players is to figure out their identity—their “character”—from project to project. In the BMI band the challenge is the same, but from piece to piece, due to the wide diversity of the music. Most of the players in tonight’s band have been doing the readings and concerts for many years. John Eckert was at the first-ever reading, and has played almost every one since. Rob Middleton has been playing tenor sax in the band since 1994.  Several of the band members are former composer members: Tim Sessions, J.C. Sanford, Rob Middleton, Pete McGuinness, and Deanna Witkowski. And a couple of the players-- Rob Middleton and J.C. Sanford--are large ensemble leaders in their own right.
• In the spirit of jazz since Jelly Roll Morton and Dizzy Gillespie, the influences of non-jazz elements. These days these elements are minimalism, many different genres of World Music, and Indie—Electro—Dance—EDM whatever-you-call-it things like Dubstep, etc. At the age of 66, one of the reasons I love teaching is that it regularly puts me in contact with people 40-50 years younger than me, and the different music they listen to. I don’t like all of it, but it’s fascinating to learn about. 
Now, at the end of my tenure in the workshop, I’ve had time to reflect on what Bob and Manny started; and what we’ve been able to continue. And, honestly, I’m a bit overwhelmed. 
I’ve worked with, probably, two hundred composers, with so many different results. There are many who formed their own rehearsal bands; got gigs with their bands; recorded CD’s. In the last few years the “Size Matters” series of big band performances at the Tea Lounge in Brooklyn, curated by J.C. Sanford, became the de facto performance arm of the workshop. The majority of composer/bandleaders showcased there were former or current BMI Workshop members. And for a few people the workshop was a game-changer—it set them along a new path for their musical life. The important thing was that so many people got so excited about composing for large ensemble that they would devote time, energy, passion, and sometimes money to starting their own venture.  I hope that they all learned something about jazz composition. But, more importantly, something about themselves. You can do this. Composition has an aura about it; but it isn’t necessarily some magical, obscure process. It takes belief in yourself and your ideas, the courage to put those ideas on paper, the opportunity to hear those ideas played, and then a brutally honest assessment of the outcome. Then you repeat that process—again, again, and again. I’ve been writing for big band since high school—50 years.  Over and over. And I still feel like I’ve just scratched the surface.
In the workshop our aim was not to tell people what or how to write; it was to inspire them to find their own voice and let it grow; to ask questions of themselves—and if they didn’t ask them, I would ask them. To accept that their musical ideas are valid, worth pursuing because they are theirs; not better, or worse, than someone else’s; to not judge an idea, but develop it; to not accept an idea merely at face value but work with it.  Also learn to tell a story—develop the plot, the story line. Your ideas become characters in the play; the musicians, the actors. When we were little children we were entranced when someone would tell us a story. And we are still like that. We all want to hear a good story. 
As listeners we want to be excited. Sometimes we want to be challenged; other times comforted and soothed. We want to be moved. We want to groove. These are all crucial aspects of composition that have little to do with chord voicings and scales. But they represent the human aspect of music. We can’t ever lose sight of that. 
So at the end of my run, I must thank a number of people: 
• First, the three godfathers of the workshop—they’re all gone now: Bob Brookmeyer, Manny Albam, and Burt Korall.
• Robbin Ahrold
• My fellow musical directors: Roger Kellaway, Mike Abene and Mike Holober.
• Raette Johnson, who was Robbin’s assistant. After Robbin retired from BMI she became the go-to person for logistical and financial affairs. She always supported us, and was always a joy to work with.
• The BMI Foundation, for supporting the workshop for 27 years.
I give special thanks to:
• J.C. Sanford. For years he has been the band’s contractor, always putting together a great band for the readings and the concerts. And so many times when a player had to bail from a reading session 3 hours before it starts, J.C. always could scramble and get a very last-minute replacement.
• The band. Not just for working so hard and supporting the workshop; but also for the feedback they’ve given the composers on issues like notation, orchestration and conducting. One of the principal ways a composer learns about those things is hearing comments from players. And the members of the BMI band have always done that in a positive, constructive way.
• Deanna Witkowski. She is, first of all, a marvelous musician, the band’s pianist. But of late she has functioned in another important way. In the aftermath of my resigning, there has been, let’s say, “a bit of turmoil” regarding the future of the workshop. I was, frankly, stunned at the outpouring of emotion, ranging from nostalgia to concern to great anger. Deanna, with the help of Migiwa Miyajima and Erica Seguine, was able to channel all of these feelings into a positive force, meeting with BMI executives to talk about and ensure that the big band format remain in the future of the workshop. 
And I’d like to give a Very Special Thanks to Mike Holober. He’s been my official colleague in the workshop for eight years. I’ve known Mike since he was a grad student at NYU in 1983. We’re also colleagues in a few other areas, notably Manhattan School of Music and The Frankfurt Radio Big Band. He is a great musician—composer, arranger, conductor, and pianist. And his help, knowledge, point of view, and input have been immeasurable. I can’t imagine having done the last eight years without him. 
When I first came into the workshop I saw what it wasn’t, but wasn’t quite sure what it really was. As time went on I came to regard it as a meeting place—where jazz composers could get away from their solitary existence—meet like-minded individuals—present what they were working on, and hear about what their colleagues were working on. Hear their music at reading sessions, and present their best efforts in a yearly concert.  This definition worked for me for many years. But in the last few weeks I’ve come to realize that the workshop is even more than that. The workshop is THIS. TONIGHT. The synergy of so many elements: the composers; the band; the musical directors; and you, the audience—current and former members—spouses and significant others, who all know the feeling of seeing their loved one disappearing down the compositional rabbit hole for hours at a time, wondering if they’ll ever see them again! And fans of the workshop; I see people out here tonight who have never been members, but have come to every summer concert as long as I can remember, to hear what we’ve been doing. And the judges, both from tonight and past concerts. You are all part of this; we have all come together over the last 27 years, to form tonight’s version of the BMI Jazz Composers Workshop.
It is my fervent hope that, wherever the workshop goes in the future, this spirit, energy and synergy that we have created will not just survive, but grow and flourish. As Billy Strayhorn put it: “Ever up and onward!” 
Jim McNeely

Sunday, May 31, 2015

BMI: Disregarding A Legacy

The following letter comes from Deanna Witkowski, the pianist in the BMI/New York Jazz Orchestra. I urge you to sign the petition she has initiated following BMI's decision to abandon the Jazz Workshop's current structure, thereby disregarding the legacy established by Bob Brookmeyer, Manny Albam, Roger Kellaway, Mike Abene, Jim McNeely and Mike Holober.

 Bob Brookmeyer, co-founder of the BMI Jazz Composers Workshop

Dissolving the professional big band which read the new works by the hand-picked, professional participants, is nothing short of deplorable. 
It has come to our attention as current band members of the BMI/New York Jazz Orchestra that there are core components of the current configuration of the workshop that are about to be dropped (namely, the professional jazz orchestra). Many of us have performed in the orchestra for over a decade; some have been here since the workshop's inception in 1988. Many of us are not only performers: we are composers who have participated as writers in the workshop. Furthermore, some of us are BMI-affiliated writers and publishers.

All of us are aware of the one-of-a-kind experience that the workshop affords us as a community-- most keenly, to the composers who are able to study big band writing free of charge with the most respected large ensemble composers writing today. Many of the workshop composers have gone on to receive significant awards and accolades and credit the workshop as a key part of their development. As band members, our monthly playing in and of itself provides a sounding board for composers to hear what works and what doesn't. Both the composers and the performers are vital parts of the BMI Jazz Composers Workshop.

To be a longtime affiliate or supporter of a performing rights organization- one whose mission is to serve composers not only by collecting royalties but by providing opportunities for their musical development (and, in turn, providing performance opportunities for performers)- and to be a longtime member of the BMI/New York Jazz Orchestra, where we provide services mostly free of charge for the entire year- is a commitment that all of us take extremely seriously.

To come to a final reading session and to not be met by BMI's director of jazz, or, frankly, anyone on senior management and then to be told that the professional reading band will not be used after next month's concert does not show any of us the same respect that we have faithfully given to BMI.

We ask that Patrick Cook mee t with the current workshop composers and band members to discuss his vision that seems to disregard the vibrant community of jazz composers and performers that have, in conjunction with the legacy of artistic directors including Bob Brookmeyer, Manny Album, Jim McNeely, and Mike Holober, made BMI attractive as a creative home for jazz musicians.

Finally, we realize that the dissolution of the jazz workshop as it has been known for the past 26 years does not merely affect us as current band members and composers: we realize that it affects those composers coming after us who are losing the opportunity to learn this idiom in this environment, and it affects the public who will have fewer opportunities to experience progressive big band music. 
That's why I signed a petition to Patrick Cook, Director of BMI Musical Theatre and Jazz, Charlie Feldman, VP, BMI Writer/Publisher Relations, New York, and Michael O'Neill, CEO, BMI, which says: 
"We urge BMI's senior management to seriously consider the legacy and the uniqueness of the BMI Jazz Composers Workshop as they plan for the workshop's future. We also ask that Patrick Cook meet with the workshop composers and band members in person to explain his vision that does not include the professional big band that has been an integral part of the workshop since 1988."

Will you sign the petition too? Click here to add your name:
Deanna Witkowski 

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Weekend Itinerary

Back in the day when I was out touring with Maynard Ferguson, a daily itinerary was slipped under my hotel room door each morning.  Ed Sargent was a marvelously organized tour manager who made our lives trouble-free.  My only concern during that period of time was making sure I was on the bus punctually; he took care of the rest. I spent my days transcribing, listening to, and thinking about music.  That's it.

This morning I received a slightly different itinerary from my 6-year-old daughter:

If you're having trouble interpreting some of those phonetically spelled words, here's a translation:  
  1. go swimming
  2. go to the (UConn) Dairy Bar. Eat a lot of ice cream.
  3. go have a picnic
  4. watch TV, with popcorn
  5. cuddle
  6. go (out) for dinner
  7. eat junk food
It looks like a plan!

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

No More CDs

Does anyone else see the irony in this Disc Makers' catalog caption?

Time is definitely not on the side of the CD manufacturing industry.  The writing has been on the wall for years, but now that laptop computers are no longer made with CD slots, I think it's safe to declare the debate over.  CDs and CD players will now join the ranks of Polaroid cameras, cassette tapes, palm pilots, answering machines and dot matrix printers.

The reality is hitting me hard as I plan my next recording.  Will I only release it digitally?  It's a tough decision because on past projects, physical CD sales have far outweighed digital sales.  At the moment, I'm leaning towards making the leap, with the exception of printing a few physical discs to sell after gigs and to send to those reviewers who like me, appreciate having tangible, printed rosters and liner notes as part of their listening experience.  I don't envision ordering 1000 copies as I have done in the past.

I'd love to hear from other musicians on this one.  Have we all accepted the demise of the CD at this point?  Are any of you planning to release a recording on CD this year?  In your experience, are people buying download cards?  They are not a big seller at my post-gig "mech booths", but I wonder if this might be different if no other purchasing option were presented.

I still like CDs, but maybe it's time to accept that the technology has changed.  Let me know your thoughts.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Stepping It Up A Notch

In my reading this week I stumbled upon this poem by Lee Fisher.  It made me tear up and has been on my mind often since then.  Oh man... the role of Dad is a mind-blowing responsibility, and one where we fathers need to be so thoughtful and deliberate.

A careful man I want to be; 
A little fellow follows me;
I do not dare to go astray,
For fear he'll go the self-same way.

I cannot once escape his eyes,
Whate'er he sees me do, he tries;
Like me he says he's going to be,
The little chap who follows me.

He thinks that I'm so very fine,
Believes in every word of mine;
The base in me he must not see,
The little chap who follows me.

I must remember as I go,
Through summer's sun and winter's snow;
I am building for the years to be
That little chap who follows me.

*extracted from the book "Coach Wooden, One-On-One", by John Wooden & Jay Carty.

The little fellow who follows me.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Memories and Nostalgia

This is the final installment of the UConn Jazz Nonet's spring semester project, "The Complete Rebirth of the Cool".  As I mentioned previously, we acquired the music from Jeff Presslaff, a pianist/composer/trombonist now based in Winnipeg, Canada - my hometown. Of the six composers represented, I know five personally, so memories and feelings of nostalgia were often awakened as we prepared the music.

Saxophonist Ken Gold wrote "Tango Para Rosalba".  He was one of the first professional musicians with whom I gigged.  For a summer we played on weekends in the courtyard of Basil's restaurant in Winnipeg's Osbourne Village.  I remember him saying, "You too will reach an age when you have forgotten more tunes than you have learned."  I suppose I'm there.

Tango Para Rosalba:

Lastly, here's "November Night" by Jon Stevens, whom I haven't had the pleasure of meeting.  It's one of my favorites on the album for its eerie quality, tight harmonies, pretty melodies and the very subtle incorporation of extended instrumental techniques.

November Night:

Monday, April 27, 2015

Some Folks Just "Have It"

Will Bonness is a musical genius.  That he took piano lessons with me as a middle school student is a mere fortunate coincidence (for me).  'Nuff said.

"Stream of Unconsciousness", by Will Bonness
performed by the UConn Jazz Nonet, directed by yours truly.

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