Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Tale of A Burgeoning Big Band Chart

It's "getting real" in this third post chronicling the tale of a burgeoning big band chart. Remember when I said it wouldn't always be pretty, and that I have a tendency to try breaking out of any premeditated roadmap? It's all going down.

Last night I harmonized the opening melody statement using standard 4-part closed block techniques. I started with the obvious ("fencepost") chords that landed on downbeats, and then mostly worked backwards using tonicization/secondary dominants. I did it on paper first and then plugged it into Finale so I could hear it back and determine if I was on the right track.

I created the following "staff set" to show just the saxophone section and string bass. With my keyboard I played chords into the lead alto part, from which I will use Finale's "explode" function to distribute the notes across the sax section. For the bari sax part (the 5th saxophone), I will just double the melody down the octave.


Here's what it will sound like (sort of). I'm not sure why the bass sounds so percussive, but c'est la vie.
 

Ironically, writing a bass part that felt right took just about as long as harmonizing the melody for the sax section. These twelve measures represent about 3 hours of work.

As for deviating from my formal plan, I'll be doing so on two fronts ...so far. The initial unison melody statement will be presented by alto saxes, bari sax (down the octave) and 2 muted trumpets rather than just the sax section with the bari plus two tenors down the octave, which I imagine being too "heavy."

After two choruses of stating the melody, I think the momentum would be stalled if the rhythm section then dropped out for the sax solo. Instead, I think I will write a full chorus of sax soli with the rhythm section, before extracting them.

...to be continued.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Planning the Arrangement's Form

Years ago, I had the opportunity to ask John La Barbera for some big band arranging advice over a beer in Louisville, KY. John's arrangements, as many of you will know, have been recorded and performed by Buddy Rich, Woody Herman, the Count Basie Orchestra, and many others.  His advice to me was:
"Always start by planning your arrangement's road map in detail --- then you won't waste time being stuck later." 
To be candid, there are times when I follow John's advice, and other times when I deliberately do not. Sometimes, I think more organic results are achieved when one allows a piece to unfold naturally, and remains open to the surprise of where the music might lead itself. To my ears, some big band pieces sound like premeditated cookie cutter projects. That being said, I do see validity in John's advice to plan ahead. We all know there are many ways to get home, but it would be foolish to embark on a journey without a route and destination in mind.

For this new Cow Tippin' blues chart, I have no intentions to reinvent the wheel. I imagine using a very clear-cut form that will feature every section of the big band in both solos and (unaccompanied) solis. Chuck Sayre did something along these lines in his Keepin' Track Of The Time chart, which I have previously programmed when conducting high school honor bands. Like his, I hope my end result will be a showy, fun piece, with ample space for soloists to flaunt their stuff.

Here's the plan (before writing a note of music):

[No Intro]

Chorus 1: head presentation
  • simple
  • unison sax section and rhythm section
Chorus 2: head repeated
  • bring in full ensemble
  • BIG & voiced
Chorus 3: sax soli
  • harmonized
  • unaccompanied (no rhythm section)
  • Bari acts like walking bass. some funky bari lines "in the holes"
Chorus 4: tenor sax solo(s) 
  • solo break into it
  • short "send-off" (1 or 2 measures).  Punch into solo
  • 3 choruses?
  • last chorus:  last 2 measures = "brass send off".  m. 11: tbn, m. 12: full brass
Chorus 5: trumpet soli
  • unaccompanied (no rhythm section)
  • could start with all 4 and then include duet, trio, etc.
  • maybe emulate walking bass for part
Chorus 6: trumpet solo(s)
  • short "send-off" (2 measures)
  • 3 choruses?
  • last 2 measures = send off into tbn soli, by 3 trumpets and saxes
Chorus 7: trombone soli
  • unaccompanied (no rhythm section)
  • nothing before, so they can stand up
  • include some flashy walking bass in bass tbn.
Chorus 8:  trombone solo(s)
  • short "send-off"
  • 3 choruses?
    Chorus 9: Full ensemble
    • unaccompanied (no rhythm section)
    • stop time on beat one of top
    • maybe start soft and not too high.
    • Crescendo into BIG full ensemble
    Chorus 10: Full ensemble, continued
    • continue, with added rhythm section
    D.S. or alternate head presentation

    CODA:
    • end fairly big

    Maybe it's the rebel/non-conformist in me, but even when I do premeditate an arrangement's formal plan, I find my brain trying to break out of it at every turn. If I can resist this temptation, this piece should be relatively easy to write.

    ...famous last words.




    Saturday, December 26, 2015

    Starting A New Big Band Chart

    I was commissioned to write a big band chart for Martin SaundersJazz 1  ensemble at Marshall University and said I'd have it to him by the beginning of the spring semester. Now that Christmas has come and gone, I figure it's time to roll up my sleeves and get this new piece of music written. There's nothing quite like a deadline to get the creative juices flowing. To add some extra pressure on myself, I programmed the piece with the Massachusetts All-State High School Jazz band, which I will conduct in March. They're already asking for the music, so I'd better get rolling.

    My plan is to document my process and progress on this blog over the next few weeks. I'm sure it won't always be pretty, but I will try to be both honest and consistent in my posts, sharing updates at least once per week.

    Even though the Jazz I ensemble at Marshall is a strong band, I've decided not to write them a Herculean tour de force. Instead, this will be an F blues written at about the grade 3 level (adhering to the range limitations specified by most publishers), so it can also be performed by both college bands and strong high school groups, without requiring Wayne Bergeron to sit-in on lead trumpet.

    Does the big band repertoire need another 12-bar blues chart? Maybe; maybe not... but I typically program a blues in the concerts I conduct, so why shouldn't it be mine? I imagine other directors might be on the lookout for a fresh blues chart to features their budding soloists... so maybe there will be be a market for this piece in the edu-jazz world.  We'll see, I suppose.

    A while back I did a 30-day blogging challenge where I wrote a blues every day for month and posted it. I recently went through these pieces and chose Cow Tippin' as one that I'd be interested in developing into a full-blown arrangement. Here it is:





    Cow Tippin' is a simple riff-type blues in C major with an AAB form. When transposed to F, the melody sits nicely within the mid-register of the trumpet and alto sax. The song's relaxed, loping "cowboy feel" gives it a distinctive, memorable flavor.

    In my next post, I will outline my formal plan (road map) for the arrangement.

    Tuesday, December 22, 2015

    Friday, November 20, 2015

    Jazz Rhythm Section Fundamentals, Part 4

    Here it is! --- the fourth and final installment of a mini-series looking into the formative years of professional rhythm section players. The questions were posed by Jules Estrin, a jazz Masters degree candidate at the University of Toronto. Previously, responses by bassist Mike Downes, drummer Ted Warren and me were posted. Now we move onto guitar.

    Canadian guitarist, Mike Rud won a JUNO award with his last disc, "Notes On Montreal."  He has a brand new disc entitled "Miniatures," on which he sings in addition to playing guitar. Here's a promo video:

    (I attended McGill University at the same time as Mike, and remember him as the slightly disheveled guy who often stayed up all night transcribing Jim Hall or other master guitarists. He was definitely one of the more advanced players in the McGill jazz program during that era, so it was interesting for me to read about his development, prior to his undergraduate studies.)

    How did you get started on your primary instrument?

    I was playing guitar from age 11. It wasn't through school. It was seeing the Beatles on TV. Also my older brother had one around the house and he played. As Stevie Ray Vaughan said about his older brother Jimmy Vaughan "he would leave it [the guitar] out where I could reach it and tell me not to touch it...he knew what he was doing."

    What made you choose your instrument?

    I wanted to be popular! Guitar was what the Beatles were playing (at least the ones who sang)

    Did you spend a lot of time experimenting with instruments or jamming after school as a young musician? How much influence did jamming with other players have on you?

    Massive. Easily as much as any organized class or lessons, though I also took those (starting guitar lessons at 11, clarinet and jazz big band guitar around grade 8-9). Jamming was part of guitar culture. I did it a lot with my older brother, friends, etc. In that context I could dream.

    Who is the first player on recording that made an impression on you and that you tried to emulate on your instrument?

    Probably George Benson.

    Can you list some players that younger players should be initially trying to emulate from recordings and talk about the specific characteristics of their playing that should be noted?

    Grant Green for time. Ed Bickert for chords and comping. Jim Hall for texture, taste, in-the-moment inspiration and compositionality. Wes Montgomery for warmth, blues ingenuity, and swing. Django for cheer.

    Where do you go for resources when you were young? Did you study locally with a teacher when you were young?

    I had a number of strong teachers early on. They all really inspired me. I went to the library a lot and took out records in many styles.

    What do you see as the primary and secondary roles of your instrument in the rhythm section?

    Primarily it's feel. Particularly in comping. So many sub-genres of comping need to be mastered. Secondarily it's probably soloing. The better a student gets as a small-group player, the more he or she will understand their role in a big band.

    Can you list some fundamentals that young players should be looking at to get a head start on your instrument?

    CHORDS learn a lot of them. Listen an awful lot.

    Discuss any special relationships that the instrument in the rhythm section have with each other that you have discovered.

    Listen to the snare drum of great drummers, and the rhythms of pianists. Their comping uses essentially the same rhythms you want to.

    How do you describe the role of the rhythm section in small band playing vs big band playing?

    The rhythm section is different especially for the drums. The guitarist usually needs to play less often and look for a few well-placed chances to provide a nice texture, often behind the soloist. Stay out of the piano's way, but also look for transparent textures that allow you to co-comp effectively with the pianist. You can play a lot less in a big band, and probably should.

    Who was your biggest musical influence throughout your primary schooling in music? (ie. Middle school or high school music teacher).

    Maybe my first jazz guitar teacher Brian Hughes.

    What advice would you give school music teachers about teaching your instrument?

    Be really patient with guitarists. They have an uphill battle getting the jazz style right. Encourage them by giving them as many solos as possible. Start combos, not just a big band. Herb Ellis' album "Rhythm Willie" is a great place to hear both a great jazz soloist, and Freddie Green, crystal clear. Basie's birthday on Jazz Casual by Ralph Gleason is good video of Freddie. The Art Of Jazz Band Rhythm Guitar by Bruce Foreman is a really useful comping book. Berklee A Modern Method for Guitar Vol 1-3 (Leavitt) are great for learning to read.

    What technical advice would you give a young player starting out on your instrument?

    Be a musician first and a guitarist second. Learn to read. Do it every day. Sing everything you play. Everything. Memorize as much as you can about your favorite jazz recordings.


    _____________________________________

    About Jules:

    Jules Estrin is a first-rate trombonist, a graduate of McGill University's jazz program, and is currently completing his Master’s degree, having served as director of the 7 o’clock Jazz Ensemble at the University of Toronto. All the while, Jules continues his regular schedule with the Toronto District School Board, as well as being acting musical director of the JAZZ.FM91 Youth Big Band. During the summer month

    Wednesday, November 11, 2015

    Jazz Rhythm Section Fundamentals, Part 3

    Here's the third installment of Jules Estrin's questionnaire, which shares insights into the formative years of professional rhythm section players. Today's subject is drummer Ted Warren. Ted is a member of groups led by Mike Murley, Mike Downes, Kieran Overs, and Ted Quinlan. He was the drummer for Rob McConnell's Boss Brass, and can be heard on six of their CDs. I was pleased to have him play on my debut CD, "Schroeder's Tantrum," recorded back in 1996. Ted has a marvelous blog of his own, "Trap'd," where he shares ruminations on teaching, playing, writing, and listening (and also pizza).

    How did you get started on your primary instrument?

    I took lessons on drums after a year of piano.

    What made you choose your instrument?

    I saw a young person on TV playing the drums and thought it looked easy. How wrong I was!

    Did you spend a lot of time experimenting with instruments or jamming after school as a young musician? How much influence did jamming with other players have on you?

    I spent many hours jamming with other musicians through high school. Sometimes learning songs, sometimes playing “open form” or “free”. This had a huge influence on me and was a big help in developing my playing.

    Who is the first player on recording that made an impression on you and that you tried to emulate on your instrument?

    I can’t remember the first exactly, but I distinctly remember hearing Tony Williams on “Seven Steps To Heaven” and wanting to play something as cool and inventive as that. I’m still working on that!

    Can you list some players that younger players should be initially trying to emulate from recordings and talk about the specific characteristics of their playing that should be noted?

    Jimmy Cobb-Time and elegant simplicity

    John Bonham- Time and sound

    Elvin Jones-Groove and inventiveness

    Where do you go for resources when you were young? Did you study locally with a teacher when you were young?

    I did study with a teacher for 5 years between the ages of 10 and 15. I didn’t really get so much technically from him as much as an attitude and openness about playing.

    What do you see as the primary and secondary roles of your instrument in the rhythm section?

    I see my instrument’s primary as keeping time and groove, but also signifying major events in any particular piece. Another role that’s just as important and harder to quantify is how the drums contribute to the overall spirit of a band more than any other instrument.

    Can you list some fundamentals that young players should be looking at to get a head start on your instrument?

    Rudiments, reading, playing to recordings, and learning to play brushes

    Discuss any special relationships that the instrument in the rhythm section have with each other that you have discovered.

    Drums encapsulate all the roles of the of the rhythm section. The ride cymbal is similar to the bass line, comping on the snare and bass drum relates to what the piano is doing, and the hi-hat does what guitar initially did.

    How do you describe the role of the rhythm section in small band playing vs big band playing?

    The rhythm section in a big band MUST function as a unit, even when it seems at odds with what the horns may be doing. In a small band, there is a lot more room to switch roles around.

    What advice would you give school music teachers about teaching your instrument?

    Try to include lots of audio examples to give young players things to strive towards.

    What technical advice would you give a young player starting out on your instrument?

    Learn your rudiments.



    _____________________________________

    About Jules:

    Jules Estrin is a first-rate trombonist, a graduate of McGill University's jazz program, and is currently completing his Master’s degree, having served as director of the 7 o’clock Jazz Ensemble at the University of Toronto. All the while, Jules continues his regular schedule with the Toronto District School Board, as well as being acting musical director of the JAZZ.FM91 Youth Big Band. During the summer month

    Tuesday, November 10, 2015

    Jazz Rhythm Section Fundamentals, Part 2

    Understanding the idiosyncrasies of the rhythm section can be a challenge for many jazz educators, especially if their main instrument isn't within the rhythm section.  Toronto-based trombonist, Jules Estrin composed a questionnaire which he issued to a group of professional rhythm section players to shed some light onto their formative years.

    Bassist Mike Downes' responses are posted below. Mike is the author of "The Jazz Bass Line Book," published by Advance Music. He has been the Bass Department Head at Humber College in Toronto since 2000.  His CD, "Ripple Effect" won a JUNO award in 2014.  Here's a sample of his playing with Molly Johnson:



    How did you get started on your primary instrument?

    I began with banjo and piano lessons and took bass lessons from my father, who played and owned a bass.

    What made you choose your instrument?

    I quickly realized that I loved the bass. I gravitated to listening to bass players on recordings, and learning bass lines from those recordings.

    Did you spend a lot of time experimenting with instruments or jamming after school as a young musician? How much influence did jamming with other players have on you?

    I played trombone through school and studied piano but I also played electric bass. I spent a lot of time playing in rock bands as a young musician (I started playing in these bands at age 10). Playing with other people is the primary way I learned about music and learned how to listen and make music collectively. Also, I saw the way my friends and band members were learning their instruments and that influenced me a lot.

    Who is the first player on recording that made an impression on you and that you tried to emulate on your instrument?

    The first player that really made an impression on me was Geddy Lee from Rush. Before I got into jazz, I was influenced by progressive rock bands like Yes, Rush, etc., so Chris Squire, Geddy Lee and other rock bassists were a big influence. They played bass lines that were quite complex and musical. That led me to other great electric players like Jeff Berlin and Jaco Pastorius. Even before that, my father was playing jazz recordings with bassists like Ray Brown and Paul Chambers. I listened to all of them. This is a bit more than you asked for, but all of them made a big impression on me.

    Can you list some players that younger players should be initially trying to emulate from recordings and talk about the specific characteristics of their playing that should be noted?

    In the jazz world, Ray Brown, Paul Chambers, Scott LaFaro and Charlie Haden are a few of the bassists that one should listen to and try to emulate.

    Ray Brown - played with an incredibly powerful, even and dynamic sound and has one of the greatest time feels ever. He is on thousands of recordings, but Night Train and We Get Requests with the Oscar Peterson Trio are two incredible ones.

    Paul Chambers - Paul had a great sound and feel and played beautifully supportive walking lines. He soloed pizzicato and arco and his solos are a model of bop bass playing. Any of his recordings with Miles Davis (Milestones and Round about Midnight are both great) are worth checking out.

    Scott LaFaro - is known primarily for his work with Bill Evans, although he is on many other great recordings. Listen to how he created an interactive dialogue with Bill and Paul Motian. He revolutionized the role of the bass, playing bass lines that were melodic and interesting on their own while still supportive. He was also a great soloist. Sunday at the Village Vanguard, Explorations and Portrait in Jazz (Bill Evans Trio) are all fantastic recordings.

    Charlie Haden - Charlie's depth of tone, time and note choices in his walking lines are inspiring. His playing on Don Cherry's Art Deco and Pat Metheny's Beyond the Missouri Sky are great examples.

    Where do you go for resources when you were young? Did you study locally with a teacher when you were young?

    Resources then and resources now are very different. YouTube and iTunes didn't exist when I was young, so I had to buy (and wait for) recordings through record stores. I also studied with various teachers in Winnipeg, where I grew up. I also listened to the radio quite a bit.

    What do you see as the primary and secondary roles of your instrument in the rhythm section?

    The primary role of a bassist is to provide the rhythmic and harmonic foundation. The bass "voice" is also a secondary melody below the other melody or melodies sounding at a given time. Outlining the form is a by-product of the harmonic foundation.

    Can you list some fundamentals that young players should be looking at to get a head start on your instrument?

    Learn to produce a great sound with the least effort possible, learn to listen to bass lines as a part of the musical whole, learn how to outline harmony with walking bass lines and just generally learn how to play the instrument with a consistent and even tone.

    Discuss any special relationships that the instrument in the rhythm section have with each other that you have discovered.

    There are many, but the bass/ride cymbal relationship is very important. Listen to recordings and focus in on how the bass and ride cymbal interact. Where are they playing in relation to the pulse? Next, since the bass provides the harmonic foundation, the relationship with guitar or piano (comping instruments) is also very important. What notes does the bassist play to outline the harmony at any given moment? What happens when the bassist does or doesn't play the root of the harmony?

    How do you describe the role of the rhythm section in small band playing vs big band playing?

    That depends on the style of music one is playing. Typically, the small band would provide a more "open" environment where everyone can be "looser" with their roles, but that is not always the case. Some big bands provide more freedom to rhythm section players than certain types of small bands. So.... if the music is highly arranged with specific parts in either sized band, then your role is defined by the arrangement. If the part is more improvised, you have the freedom to choose whatever approach you feel best serves the music.

    Who was your biggest musical influence throughout your primary schooling in music? (ie. Middle school or high school music teacher).

    My middle school and high school teachers were both influential. My middle school teacher was Elaine Marks, who was very encouraging, and gave me a lot of feature trombone parts and solos. Jim McKay was my high school teacher, and he gave me the opportunity to play both bass and trombone, to study arranging and write big band charts for the school band.

    What advice would you give school music teachers about teaching your instrument?

    Bass, and in particular acoustic bass, is a physical instrument that demands specialized attention. Unless this is a music teacher's main instrument, I would recommend that they help students find a private instructor. I would also recommend that teachers seek out books on the subject. There are many excellent books on bass line construction, etc. that will give them at least a working knowledge of how bass players think. Teachers can't be expected to be specialists in everything, so there is nothing wrong with asking for professional help.

    What technical advice would you give a young player starting out on your instrument?

    Get a private instructor as soon as possible. Bad habits are difficult to break, so it is a good idea to establish good habits right away. Don't rely on YouTube and other online sources exclusively. They may or may not be giving good advice. Find someone you respect and ask lots of questions.

    _____________________________________

    About Jules:

    Jules Estrin is a first-rate trombonist, a graduate of McGill University's jazz program, and is currently completing his Master’s degree, having served as director of the 7 o’clock Jazz Ensemble at the University of Toronto. All the while, Jules continues his regular schedule with the Toronto District School Board, as well as being acting musical director of the JAZZ.FM91 Youth Big Band. During the summer months, he has served as jazz program coordinator

    Monday, November 9, 2015

    Jazz Rhythm Section Fundamentals, Part 1

    As part of his Masters degree thesis (focusing on jazz pedagogy and conducting), my good friend Jules Estrin asked me to complete the following questionnaire reflecting on my start as a jazz rhythm section player.  He posed the same questions to bassist Mike Downes, drummer Ted Warren and guitarist Mike Rud. I asked permission to post all of their responses here, to serve as a resource for jazz educators and students, and they all agreed.  Today I'll start with my responses, and continue the series throughout this week.

    How did you get started on your primary instrument?

    In high school I switched to the piano after taking about 10 years of lessons on the electronic organ. There seemed to be far more opportunities to play pianos than the organ. I started classical piano lessons at the Manitoba Conservatory of Music and Arts and joined the school jazz band in the same year. As a teenager, I really admired the piano playing skills of Gary Varty, a blind pianist who played at my church. My intrigue with how he embellished hymns was definitely a factor in my wanting to play piano.

    What made you choose your instrument?

    I wanted to be a guitar player, but Santa never brought me the 6-string electric guitar I requested. My hero at the time was Elvis Presley. My dad liked building Heathkit electronics projects and he built an organ. My parents enrolled me in group organ lessons in a church basement at age 5 or 6. In middle school I chose the French horn so I could sit beside a pretty girl. I wish I had stuck with it; if I had, maybe I’d now be listed in DownBeat critics/readers’ polls in the miscellaneous instrument category.

    Did you spend a lot of time experimenting with instruments or jamming after school as a young musician? How much influence did jamming with other players have on you?

    In high school I started playing keyboards in rock bands. During one of our rehearsals, the drummer’s dad (Mr. Mirochnick) came downstairs with some Bill Evans and Oscar Peterson LPs and played them for us. He encouraged us to try playing in that style, and oddly enough, we did. The group that started out as a rock band named “The Camels,” ended up playing in the jazz combo division of Winnipeg’s Optimist Music Festival that year (1985). We played Pat Metheny’s “Phase Dance” and Sonny Rollins’ “Tenor Madness” (although we called it “the Dinosaur Blues” because we didn’t know any better). Both pieces were learned by ear. Gordon Foote was our adjudicator and he HATED us. He told us to go on the road as a blues band and forget about jazz. Maybe I should have listened to him.

    Who is the first player on recording that made an impression on you and that you tried to emulate on your instrument?

    Lyle Mays with the Pat Metheny Group. I transcribed the tune “Phase Dance” and learned to play along with Lyle Mays’ solo, note-for-note.

    Can you list some players that younger players should be initially trying to emulate from recordings and talk about the specific characteristics of their playing that should be noted?

    Unless really pressed for names, I like for students to transcribe whatever they enjoy listening to. If someone were to start with Snarky Puppy synth solos, I would be fine with that. For jazz to continue evolving in a healthy, natural manner, perhaps students should transcribe current stuff. Many of my younger students seem to have a decent handle on what’s currently hip. If they’re clueless, of course I will step in and make recommendations. But, they will probably progress at a faster rate, if they’re truly passionate about the stuff they are copying.

    When I was a McGill music student, my piano teacher, Fred Henke told me to transcribe Bud Powell, even though at the time I was listening to groups like Pat Metheny and Oregon. I wonder what I would sound like today if my teacher were flexible enough to embrace my youthful interests, rather than pushing bebop. I’m not resentful --- just curious.

    Personally, I transcribed most of the major names in jazz piano. I focused on one person at a time for 3 to 6 months, learning numerous solos for each of them. Bud Powell, Barry Harris, Wynton Kelly, Sonny Clark, Barry Harris, Count Basie, Gene Harris, McCoy Tyner, Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, Herbie Hancock, etc. Again, I’m not sure if I would advise this. I think I sound like the generic college-educated jazz pianist. If the goal in jazz is to ultimately sound individualistic, maybe we shouldn’t all be copying the same people. If the goal is to play a big band chart in the style of Duke Ellington, by all means, transcribe Duke Ellington.

    I also studied the 'comping' of quite a few pianists --- Cedar Walton and Herbie Hancock especially. At first I’d just write out the rhythms they played and would clap along with the recording. Later I got more adept at identifying the chords they played.


    Where do you go for resources when you were young? Did you study locally with a teacher when you were young?


    I found a few jazz books in my high school band room, and also picked up a few at St. John’s Music store in Winnipeg. I remember devouring Frank Mantooth’s book “Voicings for Jazz Keyboard”.  I even got Frank to sign it when he adjudicated my high school band, and he got a kick out of how excited I was to meet him when I asked him for his autograph.

    During the summers I took a few lessons with George Laks, who is now Lenny Kravitz’s keyboard player. George grew up in my neighborhood and was a few years older than me. At that time he was a student at the Berklee College of Music in Boston and would come home to visit his mom. He taught me about chord voicings mostly.

    Before preparing audition tapes for university music schools, I had a lesson with Ron Paley. He showed me what scales worked with the chords in the required audition tunes. This was a major revelation to me.

    My biggest resource was a used record store on Corydon Ave. Many Saturday afternoons were spent going through the record bins and I’d come home with 5 or so LPs at a time.

    Today there’s YouTube, which is such an amazing resource. All the major recordings and videos seem to be uploaded in one place. If a young pianist were to stumble upon Hank Jones, for instance, he could look him up, hear a cross-sampling of his playing, and observe his physical approach to playing the instrument.

    What do you see as the primary and secondary roles of your instrument in the rhythm section?

    Primary role: outlining harmony
    Secondary role: rhythmic punctuations
    (Soloing would be much lower on the list.)

    Can you list some fundamentals that young players should be looking at to get a head start on your instrument?

    At the risk of appearing self-promoting, I will draw attention to the eight, free, online lessons I have posted on my website: www.earlmacdonald.com. The topics include spelling and labeling chords, left hand shells, and various voicing types. This material should be enough to get any classically-trained high school pianist up and running should he/she want to delve into the world of jazz.

    Discuss any special relationships that the instruments in the rhythm section have with each other that you have discovered.

    Recently I started practicing the drums. ‘Comping’ (accompanimental) rhythms on the snare drum are basically the same as what a pianist plays behind soloists. Playing the drums is making me a better pianist.

    How do you describe the role of the rhythm section in small band playing vs big band playing?

    In a big band, the pianist plays much less than he/she might play within a small ensemble. The harmony is outlined in the horns, so he/she isn’t responsible for laying down the chords. In big bands, I look for “holes” where I can tastefully interject myself. Playing like Count Basie is a very different skill set than playing like Wynton Kelly, McCoy Tyner or Chick Corea.

    The key is listening carefully to recordings in a wide variety of styles and genres, and to focus solely on the piano (or your instrument) to see how they are contributing. I have done the same with bass and drums, to fully grasp the roles of my section mates.

    Who was your biggest musical influence throughout your primary schooling in music? (ie. Middle school or high school music teacher).

    The best thing my high school band director did was give us the freedom to use the band room to jam and listen to records together, unsupervised. Instruments were there, set up and ready to play. There were instructional books for us to borrow. Guest clinicians were sometimes brought in to work with us (including Paul Reed, Kevin Dean, Gordon Foote and numerous local musicians.) Ron Paley’s professional big band was also invited to rehearse in our band room on Thursday afternoons after school. I would sometimes stay late to hear them. If I were to single out someone as an early influence, it would be Ron.

    What advice would you give school music teachers about teaching your instrument?

    Have a bookshelf with books to loan to interested students. For starters I’d suggest Mark Levine’s “Jazz Piano Book” and “Jazz Theory Book” as well as Frank Mantooth’s “Voicings for Jazz Keyboard”.

    Introduce your students to a wide variety of piano players by playing recordings or YouTube videos. The discographies in the back of Levine’s books are a great place to start if you are looking for lists.

    It's important to remember that there are some fundamental differences between what a rhythm section player does when reading a piece of music, compared with their wind-playing counterparts. In a big band, the horns simply try to play what’s on the page as accurately as possible. Rhythm section players, on the other hand, “interpret” the arranger’s cues, drawing upon their recall from recordings. If you don’t believe me, just look at a drum part. If the drummer played exactly what was on the page, the band would be sunk.

    As strange as it may sound, I have encountered times when the only appropriate thing to play is that which is not in my part. Some piano parts include cues for what the ensemble will play, as well as bass lines. Neither would be appropriate for the pianist to play (but it helps to know what the other musicians are doing). In instances like these, I think about similar musical situations I have heard on records and try to recall what the pianist did.

    What technical advice would you give a young player starting out on your instrument?

    For pianists, I think a strong classical background is beneficial. Get a good teacher.

    Devote time daily to scales and technique.

    Learn to sight-read.

    The more you practice in your youth, the better you will be. As busy as you may feel, know that you will have less time to practice as you grow older. Use your time wisely and log as many hours as you can, working on things you cannot do.

    If jazz is your interest, start playing along with recordings, copying what you hear. You might even choose to write it down. This is the secret to getting better fast!

    _____________________________________

    About Jules:

    Jules Estrin is a first-rate trombonist, a graduate of McGill University's jazz program, and is currently completing his Master’s degree, having served as director of the 7 o’clock Jazz Ensemble at the University of Toronto. All the while, Jules continues his regular schedule with the Toronto District School Board, as well as being acting musical director of the JAZZ.FM91 Youth Big Band. During the summer months, he has served as jazz program coordinator and artistic director at the Kincardine Summer Music Festival. He is also a devoted husband and the father of three active boys.

    Thursday, October 1, 2015

    There's Jazz In Them Thar Hills

    I just completed a short guest artist residency at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia. My stay culminated in a concert of my big band music performed by their Jazz 1 ensemble last night. I shared the conducting duties with their director, Martin Saunders and also played piano on a few selections. In the three days leading up to the concert I gave lectures in jazz arranging and improvisation, in addition to rehearsing their two big bands and top combo.

    Conducting the Marshall University Jazz 1 Ensemble (09/30/2015)

    Marshall's jazz program is unique and well-poised in that they have three full-time jazz faculty members, and they benefit from a substantial endowment which included the gift of a designated jazz building, complete with a recording studio, plus rehearsal and performance space. There are about twenty undergraduate jazz majors, most of whom appear very open to instruction, and are "hungry" for new information. Many of these students come from remote locales throughout Appalachia, so jazz is a newly aquired passion for them, and they are keen to unlock it's mysteries.

    Rehearsing with the MU Jazz 1 ensemble.
    Besides the gratifying experience of having my music performed, brief residencies such as this are valuable to me for collecting new pedagogical approaches, as well as gathering administrative and recruiting ideas which I can apply back at home. I gain perspective as I assess the ensemble I am hired to conduct and rehearse, and consider how they compare to my students in Connecticut. Without question these experiences make me a stronger ensemble leader and educator.

    Drummer Jesse Nolan
    It is equally inspiring to hear about the research interests of professors at other institutions. Marshall's newest faculty hire, percussionist Jesse Nolan brings a lot to the table, with expertise in using new online platforms capable of transforming how information is collected and disseminated. As technologically impaired as I am, he managed to get me excited by the potential a customized version of "MashPlant" could offer organizations such as JEN (the Jazz Education Network). He serves on their Education Committee and has imaginative ideas which could transform the entire organization. Imagine an online destination connecting all the scholarly work of its members, neatly organized and in one place, which allows for collaboration and dialogue, in addition to documenting successful initiatives to demonstrate the effective use of donor's investments. Wow! Sign me up!

    It's nice to have reached this point in my career where I can choose to occasionally bounce around the country and work with different ensembles, share the expertise I have to offer, while gaining new insights and ideas which keep me fresh and recharge my batteries.

    Here's a glimpse into how I spent the last three days:


    the Jomie Jazz Center, Marshall University
    Mon:
    9:30am – Depart from hotel
    10-11am – Jazz Arranging (JJ114)
    12-1pm – Jazz I rehearsal (JJ210)
    1-2pm - Lunch
    2-3pm – Jazz II rehearsal (JJ210)
    Dinner

    Tues:
    9:30am – Depart from hotel
    10 - 11, 11 - 12: morning piano lessons
    12 – 1pm - Lunch
    3:30-4:30pm – Jazz Improv I (JJ210)
    6-6:50pm – Jazz Jam Session (JJ210)
    7-9:30pm – Extended Jazz I rehearsal (JJ210)

    Wed:
    9:30am – Depart from hotel
    10-11am – Jazz Arranging (JJ114)
    12-1pm – Jazz I dress rehearsal (Smith Recital Hall)
    1-2pm – Lunch
    2-3pm – Jazz II rehearsal (JJ210)
    5:30pm – Sound Check
    7:30pm – Jazz I Concert

    Reviews of last night's concert appeared in both the Parthenon (Marshall's campus newspaper) and the Huntington Herald-Dispatch, both of which are posted online.

    Tuesday, September 29, 2015

    "It's Trumpet or Nothing!"

    I always said that when it came time for my kids to choose school band instruments, I would steer them towards the ones where there is a shortage of players, less competition, and scholarship dollars if they were to continue on to study music at the university level (trombone, double reeds, string bass, etc.).  I didn't take into account that my kids would have opinions of their own, not to mention incredibly strong wills.

    The local middle school hosted an instrument demonstration evening at which my son declared "It's trumpet or NOTHING, Dad." I pulled him aside and explained how trumpet is a daily commitment. He said, "How much time are we talking, here?" to which I replied, "15-20 minutes at first...every day." He responded, "15 minutes is nothing!!"

    So trumpet it is.

    I talked to my trumpet-playing buddies about what brand of horns they would recommend, as well as what brands to avoid.  Uniformly they all said to stay clear of Jupiters.  But wouldn't you know it, that's the only brand the local music store had in stock.  The salesman did a good job trying to convince me that the new Jupiter trumpets were superior to anything else on the market... but as I was having an inner debate with myself, my 9-year-old son made one of his typically astute comments:  "Dad, who are you going to believe --- a guy who's trying to sell you his product, or professional trumpet players who actually know what they're talking about?!"  YOWZA!  This kid is wise beyond his years (in some ways)!  He also doesn't hold back.

    A friend ended up finding me a nice "gently used" student model Yamaha trumpet on Craig's List.  Here I am giving it a bath:


    And here's my little man blowing some notes after his first band class:


    Now... to track down the photo of Maynard Ferguson holding him as a baby, backstage at Manchester High School.  Maybe I'll print off a copy and put it inside his case.


    Monday, September 28, 2015

    Jazz Meets Hollywood Squares

    Despite being touted as the exemplification of creative music, jazz could benefit from a new influx of outside-the-box thinkers. To a degree, the problem may stem from how jazz is now taught. Young jazz students are indoctrinated into a mindset of revering and emulating the masters who proceeded them. Oddly those same masters bucked convention in their youth. So, here we are, with a new generation of highly skilled players, well-schooled in the music's past, who are seemingly content to play in the style of their predecessors; and jazz (at least a good-sized chunk of it) remains at a standstill.

    Ambrose Akinmusire's band has piqued my curiosity,
    but they still need to ditch the suits.

    The absence of challenging convention extends way beyond musical vocabulary in jazz. No one seems to be questioning why performing jazz quintets still dress like they are living in the mid-1950s. C'mon folks, let's stir things up; it's 2015 for crying out loud! 

    Similarly it is rare to see a university jazz program embracing instrumentations other than big bands and combos (consisting of trumpet, sax, trombone and rhythm section).  Since when is respecting the music's lineage more important than artistic advancement?

    Even big band seating configurations have become nonmalleable. Whatever happened to Kenton's "flying V" set-up? Ellington and Basie weren't locked into three rows with the rhythm section to the side for their entire careers.

    Sure there are benefits and practicalities in setting up as we do, but with mic-ing and monitors, visually appealing, truly creative staging could be realized, that both compliments and enhances the music (like we see in dramatic art and pop music productions). 

    Darcy James Argue needs to be applauded for taking the lead here. His most recent set-up, as documented in the New York Observer, resembles a clock face, with the horns seated around its perimeter.


      Equally stunning is the stage plot for his "Brooklyn Babylon" production. 

     The bar has been raised folks! Just think of the countless possibilities which could be explored!  Off the top of my head, I could envision "going vertical", with a variation of Hollywood Squares.


    Hopefully others will follow suit in transforming not only the music, but how it is presented.  I'm tired of the same old, same old.  How about you?

    Wednesday, September 23, 2015

    Jazz Showcase


    UConn JazzCoordinating a university jazz program is no small task; but it is especially challenging at the onset of a semester. In addition to teaching related duties (like planning course work and writing syllabi), there are ensemble placement auditions and the formation and scheduling of groups. It took lots of time, energy and organization, but I’m pleased to say that all the UConn jazz groups are up and running once again, like a well-oiled machine.


    Our fall semester Jazz Showcase Concert is tomorrow night, Thursday, Sept. 24th, from 7 – 9 p.m. at the UConn Co-Op Bookstore in Storrs Center. All the UCONN jazz groups perform an evening of music spanning a wide range of eras, styles and instrumentations - from bebop-infused quintets to big band swing. C’mon down!

    Here’s the program:

    University of Connecticut Jazz Showcase Concert – Fall 2015
    UConn Co-Op Bookstore at Storrs Center
    Thursday, Sept. 27th, 2015
    7 – 9 p.m.


    Jazz Lab Band
    Directed by John Mastroianni

    Minor Matter..........Lennie Niehaus
    Festival..........Rick Stitzel

    Alto Sax 1: David Jardim
    Alto Sax 2: Rebecca Demaio
    Tenor Sax 1: Rich Sadlon
    Tenor Sax 2: Sally Kurdziel
    Bari Sax: Nick Oliveira
    Flute: Haley Hanenbaum
    Trumpet 1:Kameryn Larkins
    Trumpet 2: Sarah Falkenstine
    Trumpet 3: Jeremy Cruz
    Trumpet 4: Nathan Kwak
    Trombone 1: Liam Evans
    Trombone 2: Matt DeNegre
    Trombone 3: Akua Frimpong
    Bass Tbn: Gregory Bicknell
    Piano: Alec McCandless
    Bass: Nick Monllos
    Drums: Steven McArdle


    Combo #2:
    Doug Maher, director

    I Mean You..........Thelonious Monk
    Stella By Starlight..........Victor Young

    Grant Eagleson - trumpet
    Kevin Duffy – tenor sax
    David Caffrey - guitar
    James Duffy – bass
    Michael O’Callaghan - drums


    E-Bop:
    Earl MacDonald, director

    No Moe..........Sonny Rollins
    St. Thomas..........Sonny Rollins

    Michael O’Callaghan – trumpet
    Andrew Wynsen – piano
    Nate Giordano – string bass
    Earl MacDonald - drums


    Combo #3:
    Doug Maher, director

    Darn That Dream..........Jimmy Van Heusen and lyrics by Eddie DeLange
    Au Privave..........Charlie Parker

    Jeremy Cruz - trumpet
    Patrick Pierce – alto sax
    Danny Cioffari - guitar
    Alexandria Bodick – string bass
    Steven McArdle - drums


    UConn Jazz 10tet
    Earl MacDonald, director

    Sordid Sort of Fellow..........Earl MacDonald
    Miles Apart..........Earl MacDonald
    Smoke and Mirrors..........Earl MacDonald

    Adam Harris – alto saxophone
    Charles Salley – tenor sax
    Kevin Duffy – bari sax
    Grant Eagleson – trumpet 1
    Michael O’Callaghan – trumpet 2
    Alex Gertner – French horn
    Liam Reynolds – trombone
    Andrew Wynsen – piano


    Combo #1:
    Gregg August, director

    Moose the Mooche..........Charlie Parker
    Cheryl..........Charlie Parker
    Lover Man..........Jimmy Davis, Roger Ramirez & James Sherman.
    Confirmation..........Charlie Parker

    Michael O’Callaghan - trumpet
    Adam Harris – alto saxophone
    Patrick Adams - guitar
    Andrew Wynsen - piano
    Nathan Giordano – string bass
    William Trautmann – drum set


    --- jam session to follow ---


    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:

    http://petitions.moveon.org/sign/an-open-letter-to-bmis?source=s.fwd&r_by=6421999
    Thanks! 
    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.


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