Tag: arranging

Orchestrating Ellington

a hand placing a square shaped piece of paper in an arrangement with eight others forming a square (based on an image by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash)

Duke Ellington was born in 1899, before anyone knew the word “jazz.”  As a young man, he learned how to play “stride,” the two-fisted virtuoso manner espoused by his mentor James P. Johnson, at that time a popular piano style to accompany dancing and drinking in Harlem apartments. In his thirties he fronted his famous big band, making hit records of tunes that almost everybody still knows today. At 44, he led his orchestra at Carnegie Hall in the extended work Black, Brown, and Beige, which he introduced as “a tone parallel to the history of the Negro in America.”

In some ways Ellington was still just getting started. Going forward, Ellington collaborated with everybody, from traditional greats like Louis Armstrong to gospel icon Mahalia Jackson to the modernists Charles Mingus and John Coltrane. More casually, he hobnobbed with Leonard Bernstein and penned romances for Queen Elizabeth II. The big band era was over by 1956 — or was it? Ellington at Newport was a surprise bestseller and put the maestro on the cover of TIME magazine.

Ellington liked to call others “beyond category” and course he intended to live up to that sobriquet himself. One of the best film scores is Ellington’s Anatomy of a Murder for Otto Preminger; one of the best ballet scores is Ellington’s The River for Alvin Ailey. His final years included three full-length Sacred Concerts.

For all his fame, Ellington can be curiously hidden in plain sight. Posterity enjoys anointing a lauded genius sole credit, and in Ellington’s case there were certainly collaborators: Not just a galaxy of legendary horn players like Johnny Hodges, Cootie Williams, Rex Stewart, Tricky Sam Nanton, Lawrence Brown, Ben Webster, Paul Gonsalves, Harry Carney, and many others, but also a co-composer, Billy Strayhorn, the poetic soul who penned much crucial Ellingtonia including the band’s theme song, “Take the A Train.” Some critics attempt to wrest the laurels from Duke and give them to Strayhorn.

Strayhorn’s greatness is undeniable, but Ellington certainly wrote an epic amount of music on his own. Strayhorn wasn’t even there in the first decade and a half, and Ellington kept churning out pieces after Strayhorn’s decline and death in the mid-‘60s.


The classical establishment has been yearning to program Ellington for decades. It makes sense, for everyone instinctively knows that Ellington is a Great American Composer. Wouldn’t it be nice to have some Ellington for an Americana pops concert on July 4 alongside the usual suspects like Copland?

Until now, everything that has gotten performed under the rubric “symphonic Ellington” was overseen by relatively conservative orchestrators. It was all more practical than anything else. Working with a full symphonic orchestra may have been a good way to remain “beyond category,” but there is little to suggest that Ellington treated the submitted orchestrations as more than an easy way to fulfill commission requirements. Indeed, private recordings of Ellington himself playing the music from various suites before they were orchestrated prove that much potential energy was lost the minute the scores escaped Ellington’s direct oversight.

At the same time, we know for dead certain that Ellington was interested in the idea of a glamorous symphonic concert. When he recorded the album Orchestral Works with Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Orchestra, Ellington performed his piano parts with flair and vigor.

When the Artistic Director of the 23Arts Initiative, Piers Playfair, was asked to program a jazz themed evening for the Grange Festival in Hampshire this summer, he suggested the charming umbrella Duke Ellington: From Stride to Strings and asked me to write new arrangements for full concert forces. Gavin Sutherland will conduct the Bournemouth Symphony.

Piers and I both believe that we owe it to Ellington to keep his symphonic ambitions fresh, relevant, and exciting. The result is Valediction: An Ellington Suite, a substantial 45-minute orchestral journey through eight Ellington compositions.

The first question is, “Does an orchestra swing?” The answer is, “probably not.”

Indeed, all sorts of classic Ellingtonia is impossible in the hands of people who are not jazz and blues professionals. Compositions like “Satin Doll” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got that Swing)” become the worst sort of amateur musical theatre when taken up by classical players.

All the great Ellington records are powered by serious drummers like Sonny Greer or Sam Woodyard, the legendary masters in charge of early and middle Ellington. It is impossible to write a swinging drum part for some “professional percussionist in a symphony” that is remotely worthy of Greer or Woodyard.

However, late in the game, Ellington’s music became a bit less involved with raw blues and swing and more involved with even-eighth grooves. Rufus Jones was the drummer, and the delightful Ellington albums The Latin American Suite and The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse set comfortably on the shelf next to bachelor pad LPs by Henry Mancini and Quincy Jones. This kind of feel is perhaps more possible for symphonic forces, offering something more akin to a sweeping and dramatic movie score (as compared to the elite nitty-gritty of “Take the A Train” and the rest of the swinging hits).

All the selections in Valediction come from after Strayhorn was gone. I cherry-picked eight fun or soulful pieces from eight different suites. Much of late-era Ellington is barely known except to Ducal specialists, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be heard. Again, we owe it to Ellington to dig deep and find out what is really there.

In the concert hall, it is conventional to treat Ellington with reverence — almost with too much reverence, for nobody knew more about having a good time than Duke Ellington. Much of Valediction is intentionally entertaining. I’m ready for that July 4th pops concert to include Duke at last!

1. “Oclupaca” from The Latin American Suite (1968). Of all my selections, “Oclupaca” is the most familiar, for it opened a popular record at the time and school jazz bands play the David Berger transcription today. The piece is definitely “exotica,” and the orchestral colors are somewhere not too far from one of John Barry’s scores for a James Bond movie.

2. “Daily Double” from The Degas Suite (1968). The amusing melody is about horse racing. Duke tried it out in a few places but never got around to finalizing a full Ellington band treatment. On one rendition he plunks quarter notes in a relentless fashion on the piano. H’mm. Maybe this means: pizzicato feature? Leroy Anderson was no Duke Ellington, but Leroy Anderson did know his way around a pops orchestra. Somewhere in the back of my setting of “Daily Double” lurks Anderson’s horrible (but very successful) “Jazz Pizzicato.”

3. “King Solomon” from Three Black Kings (1974). Ellington’s last three pieces were not performed by Duke himself; the only version we have of the suite was completed by Mercer Ellington and Maurice Peress. It’s fine as far as it goes, but much more could be done. My setting features English horn, while the harp gets a child-like second theme.

4. “Acht O’clock Rock” from Afro-Eurasian Eclipse (1971). Many serious Ellington fans and scholars look down on “Acht O’clock Rock.” However, Duke programmed it frequently, looking for something contemporary that resonated, just like he always did. (“Beyond category” was always part of the Ellington process.)

Ellington wrote in 1955, “Rock ‘n roll is the most raucous form of jazz, beyond a doubt; it maintains a link with the folk origins, and I believe that no other form of jazz has ever been accepted so enthusiastically by so many. … I have written a few rock ’n roll things myself, but am saving them for possible use in a show.”

In time Duke revealed several “rock” numbers to his public and released a few arrangements of the Beatles.

In terms of orchestrating Ellington: Driving rock music fits a string section better than swinging jazz does, and my orchestra “rocks out” several times in this Valediction suite. However, I admit my arrangement of “Acht O’clock Rock” owes far more to Igor Stravinsky than the Fab Four.

5. “The Village of the Virgins” from The River (1970). Surely “The Village of the Virgins” is unlike any other 12-bar blues in existence. When I set to work, I immediately heard two of the most famous orchestral pieces intermingling in my mind: the high string prelude to Wagner’s Lohengrin, and the repetitive theme of the second movement of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony.

6. “Bourbon Street Jingling Jollies” from New Orleans Suite (1970). One of Ellington’s ominous tone poems in the manner of his early masterpiece “The Mooche.” “The Mooche” was apparently a pimp, and the saga of “Jingling Jollies” is now something like The Rake’s Progress, with early swagger, a plateau of high living, and then the inevitable descent into madness and despair. Ellington usually wrote in 4/4; in this case I changed the meter to 7/8, recalling the ’60’s “crime jazz” themes of Lalo Schifrin and Jerry Goldsmith.

7. “The Lord’s Prayer” from Third Sacred Concert (1973). At the start of the final religious concert at Westminister Abbey, Ellington played a few minutes of transcendent piano chords that seem like they were beamed down from the heavens above. It’s not clear if this was formal composition, but it’s listed on the record as “The Lord’s Prayer,” and is surely worthy of chimes, strings, harp, and trombone in solo and duet. (Mahler said the trombone was the voice of God, and this was before Gustav had a chance to hear Tricky Sam Nanton or Lawrence Brown.)

8. “Loco Madi” from from Uwis Suite(1972). “Loco Madi” was the final and most lunatic entry in about 50 years’ worth of Ellington train pieces. As already declared, it is risky to ask an orchestra to swing, but since this piece is already rough-hewn and chaotic, I wrote out the shuffle for all 80 instruments and expect the resultant discordant revelry to please the ghost of Charles Ives. At times the train nearly goes off the tracks, but that is perfectly okay.


Like many 20th-century artists, Duke Ellington was not always good about giving credit to his associates. In the 21st century, most of us have wised up to sharing the kudos. If Valediction: An Ellington Suite is successful, then some of the praise (and none of the blame) goes to Tom Myron, a wonderful composer and the house arranger for E.F. Kalmus Signature Editions. Since I had never written for orchestra before, I knew I needed the help of a kind professional who truly understood the idiom. Tom told me what orchestration books to read and answered key questions as I sat in front of my score for three months; eventually I spent a week at Tom’s house while we went through everything bar by bar. I didn’t argue, or at least I didn’t argue very much. If Tom said, “Nobody will hear that” we took it out, and if Tom said, “That needs more” we added what was required. A few times I turned my back, and when I next looked again, a phrase was completely re-orchestrated for maximum impact. Sincere thanks to Tom Myron!

Composers Collaborate!

In the beginning of August 2018, I was in Montpelier, Vermont, preparing to give a talk to the students enrolled in the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Music Composition Program. My talk was titled, “How Many Hats Can a Composer Wear Successfully?”. I looked out at my colleagues in the room. I knew what the response would be: one of beleaguered pride, the pride of a warrior who knows the score and has survived despite the odds against him or her. In that moment, I realized that I didn’t really want to talk about how many hats we wear as a badge of pride. The point I really wanted to bring home was how much we lose when we choose to write, arrange, perform, and produce in our own solitary creative bubble.

Our first instinct is to grab as much as possible of the already too-low fee for ourselves.

Early on in my career, I discovered the professional advantages of collaboration quite by accident. During the late 1990s, I was writing music for several dramatic reality TV shows when I got a request for some hip-hop music. My first thought was, “I can do that.” I knew I could, although it certainly wouldn’t be very authentic. But I did have several colleagues at the time who were more than capable of producing authentic hip-hop tracks. I made a decision that forever altered the course of my career. I brought in these colleagues to write and produce the hip-hop tracks. The reason this is so important is that as composers, especially at the beginning of our careers, most of us are, to put it plainly, broke. Our first instinct is to grab as much as possible of the already too-low fee for ourselves. After all, we have been laboring for years and have never been fairly compensated for our efforts, right? The idea of sharing the credit/fee or hiring help hasn’t crossed our minds yet. My good friend Paul Chihara has many stories of his early days in Hollywood as a film composer. In most of those stories, he talks about having to spend the entire fee on union contractors, arrangers, music editors, conductors, and players. Often, the expenses would be more than the fee. The results for Paul now include a long list of Hollywood film-scoring credits, including collaborations with the likes of Louis Malle, Arthur Penn, and—most notably—a long working relationship with Academy Award-nominated director Sydney Lumet. It was during one of those projects that we met, and Paul hired me to edit and prepare tracks for him.

Elaborating on the concept of collaboration, I’d like to share several examples that have stood the test of time.

In the not so distant past, any one of the following categories would have been considered a full-time vocation. Most of these people were composers themselves, but focused on one area of music production.

role chart of composers, lyricists, arrangers, producers, instrumentalists, and vocalists

Other related fields often not credited (except on the inner sleeves of record albums or the super tiny type on CD jackets):

Recording Engineer – Mix Engineer – Mastering Engineer

I look to the past not for sentimentality but for inspiration.

Here are several instances of truly inspiring collaborations over the years. Notably, most of these examples reach back into the past.  I believe there are several factors that contribute to this. First and foremost, the advent of digital technology was a game changer. Personally, I wasn’t able to participate in the pre-digital era of recording and producing. It was simply too expensive to work in the medium without the deep pockets of a record company.  For better and for worse, the era of digital technology levelled the playing field. Many of us were finally able to jump in and start making respectable sounding recordings. However, with the levelled field (which ultimately led to the demise of the record industry as we had known it) came a new breed of musical autocrat. I have never heard it better expressed than by Molly Sheridan who dubs it the “Absolute Great Man” syndrome. While the “Absolute Great Man” can now achieve what used to take several people to do, the loss of the collaborators and their different perspectives is, I believe, sorely felt. I look to the past not for sentimentality but for inspiration. Because although much of the music is dated, there is no argument on the high quality of the craft inherent in these examples.


It’s easy to call it a Michael Jackson effort, but the song “Thriller” was written by Rod Temperton and produced/arranged by Quincy Jones.

Let’s take a look at the track “Thriller” from the hit record album of the same name. It’s easy to call it a Michael Jackson effort and because of that, he is much revered for it. However the song “Thriller” was written by Rod Temperton and produced/arranged by Quincy Jones. To quote Alan Light from Rolling Stone October 30, 2009:

When asked today about the album Thriller, Jones points out – taking care to insist that he is not minimizing Jackson’s role – that it requires an entire brain trust to make a classic album. “Michael didn’t create Thriller,” he says. “It takes a team to make an album. He wrote four songs, and he sang his ass off, but he didn’t conceive it – that’s not how an album works.” Jones gives particular credit to the contributions of engineer Bruce Swedien and especially songwriter Rod Temperton, who had become a trusted Jones collaborator, contributing three songs for Off the Wall, including Rock With You and the title track.

Temperton had already written hits such as “Always and Forever” and “Boogie Nights” when he was in the band Heatwave during the mid to late 1970s. Quincy’s credits are too numerous to mention. But early on, he was in Elvis Presley’s backing band during his early TV appearances, played trumpet in Dizzy Gillespie’s band, and studied in the late 1950s with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen. Whew! And this doesn’t even include his film scores, among which are The Pawnbroker and In the Heat Of The Night (which earned him an Oscar for Best Original Score). Bruce Swedien, the engineer for the track, was the engineer for many Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons records, not to mention recording and mixing records by Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Herbie Hancock.

Upon listening to “Thriller,” even by today’s standards, it stands out for the excellent quality of the recording, arrangement, and—most especially—Michael Jackson’s performance. The opening bass riff is probably Quincy. At least four people are credited with bringing the synthesizers to life. In our current paradigm, it would probably have been just one person putting together the entire track. The production of the Thriller album really marks a turning point in the production of popular music. Not only is this the beginning of the digital era, MTV was launched less than a year before Thriller was released. Suddenly pop music writers, producers, performers and audience members were confronted with an evolution from what had been largely an aural experience, to a hybrid aural/visual experience. Now we watch the Buggles video of “Video Killed the Radio Star” and take its truth for granted. At the time however, the very idea of the visual component becoming part of the music production process was terrifying to many composers and musicians. Many careers did not survive the transition. The generation that springs forward starting in the early 1980s, encompasses this entirely new phenomenon. The evolution of digital technology has fundamentally changed the nature of collaboration. More recent collaborations might now include Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan’s “Heartland” 1993 (written through exchanges by fax) and the Kanye West- Rihanna-Paul McCartney composition “FortyFiveSeconds”. The new level of inter-connectedness provided by the ever-evolving technology has forever altered the landscape of collaboration. Now we can trade session files in a way that makes it possible for collaboration without even being in the same country, something unimaginable in the not so distant past.

Listening to “Thriller” today, the sound is still awesome in the truest sense of the word. Given all of this combined experience, what you get is a recording of a song that stands the test of time—a true collaboration by four heavy hitters, all at the top of their game.

“(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”

I recently watched the PBS American Masters interview with Carole King during which she talked about bringing in a song to a publisher when she was working in the Brill Building in Manhattan. “That’s great kid. Here’s 25 bucks,” says Carole, quoting the publisher. She went on to write dozens of songs with her husband Gerry Goffin during the ‘60s, including “Chains” (covered by the Beatles on their first UK record), “Locomotion” for their babysitter Little Eva, “Pleasant Valley Sunday” for the Monkees, and most notably, “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” recorded by Aretha Franklin. Listen to this Atlantic single (preferably on vinyl or CD, but for expediency you can also experience it through this YouTube Embed below):

Here is a divine melody, a unique POV (few pop songs had been written from such an emotionally confessional female point of view up to that time), sterling production by Jerry Wexler, a pared-down precision performance by Spooner Oldham on piano, and of course Aretha in top form.  The track is a true collaboration and meeting of many top talents. Keep in mind that Aretha was only 25 years old at the time, as was Carole. Spooner was 24 and Gerry was 28.

“Mack The Knife”

Another famous collaboration is that of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill on “Die Moritat von Mackie Messer” (which most people know by the title “Mack the Knife”) which was originally written for Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera) in 1928. Grab a listen to an original version performed with organ accompaniment and a vocal by Brecht himself.

It’s written in an eccentric “Singspiel”-type song form, which lends itself to storytelling.

Fast-forward to 1959 and find the “big band” arrangement with a superb interpretative vocal performance by Bobby Darin. What really makes this record special is the addition of the arrangement by Richard Wess.

It’s as classic as it is unlikely during the era when rock and roll was taking over the airwaves. It was a collaboration among many talents across many years.

“The Shoes of the Fisherman’s Wife Are Some Jiveass Slippers”

Charles Mingus has always been a favorite of mine, and if you haven’t taken a deep dive into his material you might check out his 1972 record on Columbia Let My Children Hear Music—specifically “The Shoes of the Fisherman’s Wife Are Some Jiveass Slippers.” When I was younger, I thought it was written and arranged/scored by Mingus. But it turns out that Sy Johnson is credited with the orchestration, transcription, and arrangement, as well as the conducting. And the ubiquitous (at the time) Teo Macero produced the record. Teo wrote, produced, and arranged for the likes of Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, and Gato Barbieri. He later went on to produce for Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Dave Brubeck, and Tony Bennett. This collaboration is unique in that the complexity of the composition calls for a high level of familiarity with the fusion of European classical harmony, blues, jazz, and extended song form, which gave birth to the newly emerging form of extended jazz compositions such as this one. (Mingus spent five years studying bass and composition with the principal bassist of the New York Philharmonic, Herman H. Rheinshagen, while Miles Davis attended “The Institute of Musical Art” now known as The Juilliard School). Both Sy Johnson and Teo Macero were more than up to the task. The result is a recording that takes Mingus’s composition (in the Ellingtonian tradition of “symphonic style” jazz) and elevates it to heights heretofore never achieved.

“On Broadway”

Four writers were listed on the record.

Another example is “On Broadway” by Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann (with kibitzing by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller). Cynthia and Barry originally wrote the song from a female point of view.  After a couple of attempts to get the song recorded, they had the chance to present it to Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller (their idols at the time) who were the principal writers for the Drifters. Leiber and Stoller both liked the song and gave Cynthia and Barry the chance to either rework it themselves, changing it to a male point of view, or to collaborate with them. The result was four writers listed on the record. It has been recorded and arranged multiple times—first by The Cookies in 1962 and very soon after that same year by The Crystals. The first “definitive” version was recorded in 1963 by the Drifters, with a guitar solo by budding songwriter (at the time) Phil Spector and an instrumental arrangement by Gary Sherman.

Fast forward again to 1978 when a second “definitive” version was recorded by guitar virtuoso George Benson. George’s version ended up in the movie All That Jazz and later Benson performed it with Clifford and the Rhythm Rats for the 1994 Muppets album Kermit Unpigged.

Another time-traveling collaboration suitable for “all ages.”

“Eleanor Rigby”

Most readers are likely familiar with “Eleanor Rigby,” written primarily by Paul McCartney but attributed to Lennon/McCartney. This recording was an interesting project for many reasons. It was an early example of the Beatles’ transformation from a rock and roll act to a more experimental, studio-based band. But it is George Martin’s arrangement for double string quartet that makes this recording really stand apart from the rest of the Beatles’ canon. While many previously recorded rock ballads had utilized string arrangements, this was arguably the first to feature a classical-style quartet on a song that actually rocks. This opened the door for the likes of The Moody Blues, ELO, and later Queen, Kate Bush, and Arcade Fire, to name a few. It is one of many collaborations between producer/arranger George Martin and the Beatles. It’s hard to even think about this song without imagining the staccato eighth notes pumping and driving this recording.

“God Only Knows”

Lastly, let’s consider the production and recording of Brian Wilson and Tony Asher’s “God Only Knows.” It is a stunning example of a collaboration between peers. Brian wrote the melody and then ad agency writer Tony Asher wrote the words. The tracks were performed under Brian’s direction by the now famous “wrecking crew” of top flight LA studio musicians. At the 11th hour, Brian decided to have the vocal performed by his brother Carl. According to “The Making of Pet Sounds,” an essay in the booklet notes for The Pet Sounds Sessions, Brian originally intended to sing lead vocal on “God Only Knows,” but after the instrumental portions of the song had been recorded, Brian thought Carl could impart the message better than he could.

Brian reflected in October 1966, “I gave the song to Carl because I was looking for a tenderness and a sweetness which I knew Carl had in himself as well as in his voice. He brought dignity to the song and the words, through him, became not a lyric, but words” (From “Brian Behind The Beach Boys” Hit Parader 11, Oct. 4, 1966).

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These are some great examples of what can be gained when one lets go of “Absolute Great Man” control.

In recent years there have been many outstanding collaborative efforts, especially in the field of film and TV scoring. The score composed by Wendy Malvoin and Lisa Coleman for the TV show Heroes is one of the most original-sounding and effective scores for TV I’ve heard, especially the first season. Another standout collaboration is the score by Peter Nashel and Eric Hachikian for the Netflix series Marco Polo. My collaboration with Chicago-based composer Renée Baker on the re-score of Oscar Micheaux’s Body and Soul screened at the Chicago Museum of Modern Art and Ebertfest in 2016; Renée’s score was performed by her Chicago Modern Orchestra Project and is outstanding for its vibrant originality and free jazz style. In the pop arena, one super standout is Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s Everything Is Love. My favorite cut is “Apeshit” and the video kills it.

When we collaborate, we can also expand our audience.

So when we collaborate, not only do we create situations for a cross-pollination of musical ideas, but we can also expand our audience. A recording of one can certainly appeal to all of one’s established audience. However, collaboration among artists increases the potential and broadens that reach exponentially. I advocate for collaboration whenever possible. I have found the composer’s career to be a long, slow, and bumpy ride. It often helps to have some company at times. There is plenty of time for “solo” composing. I try to keep an open mind, and by all means possible, experiment! As Marcel Proust once commented, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” In this case, it’s “new ears”!

Choosing the Three-Letter Response Over the Two-Letter One

The concert at the Congregation Shaar Hashomayim showing the members of the orchestra in front of a film projection and the audience.

The concert at the Congregation Shaar Hashomayim

The phone call went something like this:

Synagogue in Montreal: “Jim, we have an event coming up.”

Me: “Sure, what’s up?” (It was okay to be casual, as I had worked with them before.)

Them: “We are going to be honoring several composers whose music was lost during Kristallnacht. You know, composers like Lewandowski, Rosenblatt, Alman…

We’d like for you to orchestrate about ten SATB choral scores, including two cantor soloists.

And we’ll need them in about two weeks.”

Me (thinking “Two weeks? What?!!”): “Sounds great! Count me in!” (Nodding as if I knew those composers, even though it was a phone call and no one could see me…)

And back to reality:

I had two issues: 1.) I had never heard of any of these composers. Shame on me. 2.) I’m not Jewish, and I honestly didn’t know much, if anything, about the history of the music with which I was about to be involved.

And, okay, a third issue: TWO WEEKS??!! Ten scores? Roughly sixty minutes of music? And I was about to head to Casper during one of those weeks to conduct my young audience piece with the Wyoming Symphony. And they didn’t even have the music ready to send to me yet.

But I wasn’t worried, and quite frankly was very excited to be a part of the project. Perhaps some history will reveal why.

There was a very distinct point at the beginning of my composing career when a decision changed absolutely everything for me. I was a trumpeter in the Naples (Florida) Philharmonic, and I was still planning to be a professional trumpeter my entire life. But one day, Erich Kunzel, our newly appointed pops conductor, having heard that I had messed around with some brass quintet arranging, approached me and asked me if I wanted to arrange “Here Comes Santa Claus” for full orchestra, for that year’s Holiday Pops concert. Without knowing it at the time, here was the moment that would send me down another road. Those ten seconds when he asked me to do this changed the entire course of my life. My future would take time to pan out, of course, but at the moment when I chose the three-letter response instead of the two-letter one, an entirely new career path was set into motion.

I arranged “Here Comes Santa Claus,” and EK (as we all referred to Erich Kunzel) told me immediately what “sucked” (his word, not mine) and what was good. I had put a tango in there and he looked at me like I had four heads. The tango had to go. But he encouraged more than he discouraged. This professional relationship would last ten years, totaling roughly 100 arrangements. Many of them were one-offs, where he would conveniently call just after the birth of my first child, for example, and say, “Jim, I need five charts for 98 Degrees (a late-’90s boy band) for next week. Our manager will be sending them to you first thing tomorrow.” Again I’d give my three-letter answer, and promptly the next morning, I’d get a FedEx package (so exciting) with patched-together scores that I would flesh out, for concerts where absolutely no one would know my role. It would be a distant memory to all just one week later. Other projects would be more meaningful: a Boston Pops TV broadcast, or one of several recordings on which my work would appear with the Cincinnati Pops, or an orchestration that Dmitri Hvorostovsky would sing, or that Pinchas Zukerman would play.

But it was one project in particular that would eventually lead to the phone call cited at the beginning of this essay.

First, however, I think I need to explain why it was so easy for me to say yes to all of these requests. I’m a classically trained trumpeter who went to Interlochen for pretty much my entire childhood, with a one-summer sojourn over to Tanglewood. I’m the kid who erased all of his rock-n-roll tapes (yes, tapes!) upon arrival as a sophomore at the Interlochen Arts Academy, so as to replace them with Interlochen radio broadcasts of all the great live orchestral concerts they would relay through the airwaves. I’m the kid—well, maybe by this point a young adult—who would go to the library at the New England Conservatory and listen to Nathan Milstein playing the complete Bach Sonatas and Partitas until closing on a Friday night, when I might instead have been out doing things that were “more fun.” I was a NERD! Why was I interested in “pops” music at all??!!

The answer has to be: my parents.

I grew up in a house where the grand piano—and many other keyboards—dominated pretty much the entire living space. My dad, having been a dance band pianist in college, would often unwind after his non-musical work by playing show tunes. Those arpeggiated pleasing chords in his left hand with an occasional sharp fifth or flat ninth were always spot-on, but what I’ll never forget is the look of complete enjoyment that was a mainstay on my mother’s face as he played. This was my life as a kid. In addition to all of the “classical juggernauts,” I was constantly engulfed in Gershwin, Kern, Porter, Berlin, etc., which all equaled happiness.

But I’ve digressed long enough. Back to the particular project that led me to the Montreal Synagogue.

EK was doing a Hollywood CD with the Cincinnati Pops, and asked me to score “When You Believe” from The Prince of Egypt by Stephen Schwartz. All I was sent was a CD of the original, and I had to do a “take down” (meaning no music to look at, just listen and write the score). If you don’t know this tune, look it up. Even better yet, if you want to hear my scoring of it, go check it out. I still cry when I hear it. Everything went right with that one. It’s got a huge dramatic ending (which EK always loved), and I played it to the max.

Well, this CD garnered the attention of the former music director at Congregation Shaar Hashomayim in Montreal, a Mr. Stephen Glass. (Yay—I’m getting to the point of all this!). As it turns out, Stephen is a HUGE film and theater music buff, and he would buy almost every CD that the Cincinnati Pops would churn out. One day, I received a call from Stephen, and he could barely contain his excitement. He couldn’t believe he reached me by phone, and talked to me as if I was a rock-star. (Hmm, this arranging thing was getting kind of fun!) He went on and on about my scoring—he really knew his stuff—and after a while revealed that he would love to engage me to do some work for his synagogue.

His concerts at the synagogue were not your typical “church concerts” that I had experienced. They were highly produced events, with a fully professional orchestra as well as film and lighting cues, where everything was timed out to the second, resulting in a concert similar to an evening at the Oscars. There was sacred music, popular music, some original music (of Stephen’s)—all of which were at the very highest level.

My job would be to score some music much the same as I would have for EK, creating that “sound.” Furthermore, much to my delight, I would be invited up to Montreal to witness the event from a front and center seat, and take in the experience. Over the years this process would repeat three or four times. Each and every time I was treated like royalty, and each time I got to know more and more people in the congregation. This connection even led to a spin-off project, where I would orchestrate an entire cantata for a composer in Detroit and my orchestrations would eventually be performed by the Detroit Symphony, under the direction of none other than Leonard Slatkin himself.

Just a couple of years ago, Stephen Glass moved on, and handed off his duties to Mr. Roi Azoulay, who in turn has kept up similar projects at the synagogue, as well as the musical relationship with me. He had heard my work from before his time, and knew he could trust my scoring abilities. And so came the call: “We are going to be honoring the music of several composers… Lewandowski, Rosenblatt, Alman…”

Because of my experience explained herein, this is why I was not worried.

  • I had to do it extremely fast. This was not a problem; I’d done similar work while having a very small child or two in the house. (I have four children.)
  • I had to orchestrate from just choral scores. Again, given my work doing “take-downs,” this was relatively easy in comparison.
  • The orchestrations needed to fit a certain listener “comfort level.” Well, I guess that meant no tango! And also, because I had been to the synagogue several times, I had witnessed their tastes first-hand.

In case it is of interest, here is a link from one of the orchestrations (at a separate performance):

Avinu Malkenu
By Eliyahu (Elias) Schnipeliasky/ Traditional/ Raymond Goldstein/ Azi Schwartz.
Orchestrated by Jim Stephenson.
But here is the big reason why I wish to share all of this. Everyone always wonders how we composers (can) make a living. Yes, there are the commissions we get from big orchestras, the band world (for another post), and international soloists. But it’s these other “side jobs” that give our lives meaning and depth. (I hate to describe them as side jobs, but it seems the most apt phrase in describing a career as a composer. And yet these kinds of jobs are the ones that no one knows we’re doing and that no one can prepare you for in college.)

I knew nothing about the Jewish faith or Jewish music. But because of my experiences with Erich Kunzel—having to work quickly, under duress (kids/very little sleep), with little source material, and knowing the audience expectations, and because of my upbringing and music in my house, because I said yes that first time and on several subsequent occasions—my life has become more enriched. And because of that, I have made a habit of saying yes almost whenever possible, because I am now addicted to exploring as much of what I don’t know as anyone will entrust me to do.

I can’t imagine going through life any other way.



Jim Stephenson is a full-time, self-published composer based in the Chicago area. He has nearly 200 compositions to his credit (averaging almost 20 per year) for musicians/audiences of all ages and levels, and his arrangements are still performed annually by nearly 100 orchestras. Upcoming premieres include the Minnesota Orchestra, the St. Louis Symphony, and a Chattanooga Symphony performance of his Violin Concerto. He is also the next composer featured on BandQuest, a series for middle-school bands, sponsored by the American Composers Forum.

Making Arrangements

It was good to read Colin Holter’s post this week on collaborating with a singer/songwriter as an arranger for an upcoming album, because it’s so rare that I get to hear about arranging from another composer’s viewpoint. The fact that he seems to be enjoying the endeavor was a plus—arranging, from my experience, seems to be given a bit of a cold shoulder by many composers as something to do to make some extra coin or in one’s spare time between composing gigs. The act of arranging pre-existing musical material is, in my humble opinion, a valuable and yet rarely examined tool in a composer’s toolbox, as well as a useful portal through which musicians with little composing experience can enter the wonderful world of creative musical writing.

The term itself is more closely associated with its roots in jazz and popular styles. Duke Ellington, Gil Evans, Stan Kenton, Gunther Schuller, Thad Jones, Bill Holman, and the very recently departed Bob Brookmeyer are just a handful of the arrangers who raised the vocation from a craft to an art. There are, of course, plenty of examples of “arrangements” in the concert music genre, but they are usually thought of as “settings” of songs, such as those by Benjamin Britten, Ralph Vaughan-Williams, Gustav Holst, Malcom Arnold, and others. It is not that far a divide, for example, between Vaughan-Williams’s Fantasias and the arrangements that Gil Evans wrote in his collaborations with Miles Davis.

The very concept of “arranging” can cover a wide gamut of possibilities, from an extremely simple, no-frills setting to a monstrously complex re-imagining of the original material. Much of this depends on the original material in question; if the music being arranged is a folk song or lead sheet tune, then it is much easier to explore various abstract directions than if the project consists of arranging a modern popular song, where the original instrumentation/formal structure/solos/etc. inherent in the original recording are often thought of as sacrosanct. Below are examples of both extremes—the original 1932 recording of Ann Ronell’s “Willow Weep for Me” (itself in an arrangement by Paul Whiteman) and Bob Brookmeyer’s arrangement of the same tune with the awesome Ingrid Jensen as soloist, compared with Aphex Twin’s “4” and Alarm Will Sound’s performance of an arrangement of “4” by Jessica Johnson and Payton MacDonald.

Explicit in arrangements like these is that we can still hear and recognize the music being arranged and, for the most part, there isn’t much newly composed material being added by the writer. This expectation of hewing closely to the original music is one of the aspects of arranging that makes it easier for new writers to feel comfortable as they gain their chops while being more challenging to experienced composers whose instincts are to develop the material and push the envelope away from recognition.

For me personally, I see arranging as one of the more enjoyable musical games one can play as a creative artist. I started out as an arranger (a story I told this past summer), and whenever I get a chance to take on an arranging project for fun or profit, it always seems like the pressure I feel when I’m composing goes away and I can just dig into the various musical nooks and crannies and hopefully bring to the listener a new angle on the tune that they would not have considered. Arranging at its highest level can be just as fulfilling as composing and if you haven’t tried it, you should definitely have a taste. (Just be sure to get permission first!)

Singing Your Song

I’ve been working recently on a little diversion from my usual composing: a set of arrangements for a songwriter of my acquaintance for recording and eventual release. I’ve been turning his lo-fi demos into petite string quartets. Although I’ve written dozens of songs (and a little music for string quartet), it’s novel for me to be entrusted with someone else’s material and explicitly given free rein to push or pull it in whatever direction the tune suggests.

Since I started in several months ago, in fact, I’ve found that my desire to push or pull has grown substantially. I suppose this sense of widening latitude is simply an instance of the oft-observed phenomenon that creative activity is dependent on some kind of limitation, however loosely or rigidly defined. In this case, my limitation has mostly to do with meter and harmony; however, my collaborator made it clear that even those parameters are negotiable, and it eventually struck me that—so long as I accommodate his singing voice—the “purely musical” characteristics of the tunes needn’t constrict me any more than their less tangible aspects. I started to view the arrangements as glosses on the original demos that might unveil meanings that had been present—but latent—in them all along.

I’m sure I’m not the only composer who flinches slightly whenever “collaboration” is invoked as a buzzword (even as we recognize its value and, indeed, necessity). But taking part in one, especially one characterized by risk taking and mutual respect, is its own reward. The results—which of course I’m very eager to hear—will be a cool bonus too.