I got a call Friday from trumpeter Marcus Printup, the kind of call that makes you smile ear-to-ear; a reminder that teaching and educating young musicians is one of the most important and gratifying privileges we have.
Marcus was out in Sacramento working with the Rio Americano High School jazz band, helping get them in shape for their participation in this year’s Essentially Ellington jazz festival and competition. Back in 2006 Marcus and I, as part of my Still Evolved quintet tour, did a masterclass at the this same high school. During the class one of the students reluctantly asked how we composed music. We had the student describe something he was hearing or feeling. He expressed a couple ideas. We had the drums and bass set up the groove he wanted, then Marcus and I started improvising around a simple idea he suggested, fooling around with it for a few minutes until we had a theme. Then we started harmonizing it.
As it started to take shape I looked over at the new composer and he was grinning, like “Wow, I wrote this?” It was a groovy little tune.
It’s now eight years later and Marcus has returned to Rio Americano to work with the band, preparing them for their sixth appearance at the EE festival, hosted by Jazz at Lincoln Center, an annual event that has become one of the highlights of our year. During the workshop Marcus asked Josh Murray, the band’s director, what ever happened to the budding composer. Turns out he was so turned on by seeing his song develop that he continued to compose and went on to study at Eastman School of Music and even has his own big band. You can hear some of his music here:
This experience reminds me you never know when you will touch someone.
Speaking of composing. I am always telling students to trust their instincts when composing and arranging, that often their first idea is the best one. What usually causes people to take a long time to write is just simply not making a choice. The first thing that pops into your head is usually as good or better than anything else you come up with. I had the opportunity last weekend to test this theory.
A while back a friend of mine, actress and playwright Trish McCall, asked me to compose the music for a play she wrote featuring four actors and 17 scenes. Each of these seventeen different jazz themes would serve as a transition and set up the vibe for the upcoming scene.
I went to see a reading of the play, called “Men Say the Darndest Things,” and loved it. Trish and I have have been talking about doing this for two years, and I have been procrastinating my ass off. I saw her in late February and she asked how it was going. I told her I would be out on the road the whole month of March and will dedicate my free time to this project.
I returned to NY April 1st with not one composition. I had good intentions, but the tour was pretty intense. Now, with April is practically gone, and with the May sort-of-deadline approaching, I realized I needed to seriously get to work. Seriously.
So Thursday night I drove the Hippie-Mobile out to my cabin in PA, the place I have written many of the movements to “Portrait in Seven Shades,” “Chakra” and “The Presidential Suite.” To say it is quiet at my cabin, surrounded by ten acres of maple trees, is an understatement I might see one car drive by per day. And there’s no cell service and no Internet. There’s very little to do EXCEPT write.
I woke Friday morning, approached my crappy Wurlitzer spinet (whose pervious life was serving as a piece of furniture in some New Jersey home until I bought it on eBay for $150), sat down at the 88s and reminded myself what I have been telling people for years: trust your instinct and go with the first thing you hear.
I looked briefly at my notes (based on Trish’s sample CD), which said something like “Latin intro, medium/up tempo, lots of hits, swing at the 9th bar.” I started. Two days later I had finished composing all seventeen tunes, each with a completely different vibe.
The experience of letting these ideas flow was one of the most intense I can remember in quite a while. This two days of trust reminds me of just how gratifying the journey can be.