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