Jim McNeely: Pausing at 70

I recently lurched into my 70th year--my eighth decade (sobering words to write!). Yes, “age is just a number,” I know.  But 70 has caused me to pause and reflect on some of my experiences, and more importantly, what I’ve learned from them.  There is one overriding theme: every time my age would hit a “Big X-0 (4-0, 5-0, etc.)” I would get a sense of not only how much I had learned, but also how much more I didn’t know. With each new decade I felt that both the “knowns” and “unknowns” had increased. In reaching the “Big 7-0” I think I’ve learned an incredible amount, yet I’m awestruck by all that’s left to learn.  

Some History

Growing up on the north side of Chicago, I knew little about jazz until I was about 13. I had taken piano lessons since the age of six. My teacher, Bruno Michelotti, also taught me theory, saxophone and clarinet. Being a nice Catholic boy, I was considering two different Catholic high schools.  One Sunday afternoon I saw the “stage band” from Notre Dame High School in Niles on a local television broadcast.  Something in me said “yes!” I entered NDHS as a freshman in 1963. Little did I know where that would take me.

In my sophomore year my father bought me Russ Garcia’s The Professional Arranger Composer. I devoured it; I learned so much about theory, voicings, and melodic writing from this book.  From that I got the idea to write a big band arrangement.  My band director was Rev. George Wiskirchen, who was one of the premier big band educators in the Chicago area.  It was my fortune to be in his school; and he encouraged me to write that arrangement (he was also the first person to tell me to “comp” behind a soloist).  I found an Ernie Wilkins blues head called Blues Go Away. I wrote a five-chorus arrangement: unison sax melody, sax soli melody, solo chorus with background, shout chorus, and out melody.  I’ll never forget the first reading: sax melody, fine; sax soli: when they first burst into 5-part harmony I thought it was the coolest thing I’d ever heard.  I thought, “Garcia was right, that’s how you do it!” Solo chorus and background, passable. Shout chorus was an unmitigated disaster.  Out chorus, fine.  I thought, “The stuff that sounds good I’ll keep doing; the stuff that sounds bad, I’ve gotta find a different way.” That process has continued through today.

In spite of the shout chorus disaster, Father George was encouraging.  I went on to write six or seven more big band arrangements while in high school.  I got to study a few scores along the way (including copying parts from a few of Oliver Nelson’s original pencil scores). The learning continued. One time I brought in Freak Out!, the first album by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. I played a couple of cuts for Fr. George.  My adolescent mind thought “This will really bug him, heh-heh.” He looked at me and said, “Why don’t you write something like that for the band?” Completely called my bluff.  And I wrote! He also had me and my friend Nick Talarico write music for the school’s marching band. One show featured a medley of She’s Only a Bird In a Gilded Cage, segueing into Coltrane’s treatment of My Favorite Things (I got those sousaphones pumping!). Along with having to deal with challenges like this, I also got my first invaluable experience writing to a deadline.

In 1966 I heard the University of Illinois Big Band at the Collegiate Jazz Festival at Notre Dame University. Again, something in me said “Yes!” So in 1967 I entered the U. of I. School of Music. There was a student in the graduate program there named Jim Knapp.  He was writing some gorgeous music for big band, both original compositions and arrangements of standards.  I was so intimidated by him I didn’t write a note until he got his degree and left for Seattle (where he still resides, still writing remarkable music). I was encouraged by John Garvey, the director of the U. of I. Jazz Band.  Again, some things worked, some things didn’t.  As a composition major, I was studying with Morgan Powell, a wonderful composer and trombonist who was writing music deep in the cracks between jazz and contemporary classical chamber music.  The music I wrote as part of our lessons was mostly for mixed ensembles.  Along with classes in counterpoint and fugue, I was able to take classes in ancient and medieval music, African music and Persian classical music. I studied Balinese gamelan music and serial composition. So much music in the world!

With both my high school and university experiences, I was lucky: there was no one there to tell me “you can’t do this”; “you’re not supposed to do that.” And I learned that, as with my piano playing, the more I did it, the better it sounded. I made decisions faster.  I developed more options. Took more chances.

The Process 

I recently finished writing the forward to a remarkable book called Bob Brookmeyer in Conversation with Dave Rivello (coming out soon on ArtistShare). In it Bob imparts his general advice for composers: “Write music.” Two words. My early experiences taught me that you learn to write music by writing music. You can glean information from scores, teachers, recordings, and peers. It’s all there, good and important.  But unless you write, you will never grow.

Here is the basic process:

  1. Write some music
  2. Hear your music played
  3. Evaluate your music
  4. Repeat 1, 2, & 3

To flesh this out:

1) Composition; composer. These are loaded words in Western culture.  We are told that composition is difficult. We are told that Bach, Beethoven, etc. were THE GREAT MASTERS. Okay, they actually were, along with a lot of other folks, but that doesn’t take the rest of us out of the picture.  If I tell my non-musician neighbors that I write music, their response is “oh, nice”.  If I tell other neighbors that I am a composer, gasps and “oh-wows” ensue. Forget that nonsense. Composition essentially requires courage, bolstered by confidence.  Confidence in the note I’m putting on the paper.  Confidence that I can follow that note with another one.  Confidence that my musical ideas are valid simply because they are there.  Confidence that my musical ideas are valid on their own terms, not in comparison with anyone else, no matter how much I may admire them. Confidence that I have the tools to shape and develop my ideas. Confidence in my ability to get the piece finished and played. The last four “confidences” might take time to achieve.  But the first--confidence that this one note must go on the paper, and I’ll find another to follow or precede it--is crucial.  And that confidence comes from doing, doing, doing and doing.

2) If you want to write music for human players, you must hear your music played by human players (duh).  Computer playback is simply not good enough. Having your music played live is the only way to develop gut feelings about balance, timbre, density, range, and playability.  Have it played in a reading session; better yet a real rehearsal, or a composition workshop. Ideally, rehearse it to the point where it can be performed. More than once. Your music will start to tell you what it wants and needs.

3) Listen to what you’ve written and evaluate it with absolute, brutal honesty. What sounds the way you thought it would? What sounds different? Why? Sometimes a student will tell me “That’s what I’m hearing.” Is it really? Maybe that’s what you kinda, sorta thought it might sound like. Or maybe you were thinking, but not really hearing anything at all. A defensive attitude will just get in your way.

4) Repeat—as often as you can.

Writing, Learning, Writing, Learning

When I moved to New York City in 1975 I had little thought of pursuing a writing career.  I wanted to play the piano. Meet people. Play with some of the well-known bands at the time.  When I joined Thad Jones/Mel Lewis in 1978 I thought, “I’m playing this great music of Thad’s, and Bob Brookmeyer’s. Who am I to write for this band?” That changed the next year when Thad left to live in Denmark, and Brookmeyer came in as musical director of the newly-titled Mel Lewis and the Jazz Orchestra.  Bob knew I wrote small group music, and I tried to talk a good game about writing for big bands.  He encouraged me to write something for Mel.  So I did. We rehearsed it, and actually attempted to play it on a few Mondays. It was dreadfully overwritten. But Bob heard a few things of value, and said, “Write another one.” That’s one of the greatest things I’d ever heard in my life! So I did. The second one was a little better. Around this time I had one of the greatest arranging lessons ever. Mel had hired a French Horn player and wanted me to write her some horn parts. Kendor Music sent me ten scores of Thad’s (this was the pre-Inside the Score era). I had to really analyze what he did in order to squeeze in another note between the trumpets and the trombones. I felt like a whole world had opened up. I no longer just thought I heard what was in his writing, I actually saw it, and got my hands on the piano to play it. I began to sense that until then I had really been writing piano music, merely transferring it to the score paper. “This C# is in the range of a trumpet, I guess I’ll put it in trumpet 3.” Now I was starting to hear a band when I wrote. The piano became more a medium through which I would hear the ensemble, not simply a piano. This was a gradual process that took many years to mature, but it started with writing those French Horn parts.

I learned other lessons from musicians in Mel’s band.  I’d brought in one piece, and at the rehearsal lead trumpeter Earl Gardner said, ”McNeely, you’ve got to give us some time to rest.” I said, “Well, after the head you guys don’t play for a long time.” Earl said, “No, it’s that when we’re playing, we need to get the horns off our faces some of the time.” My semester of trumpet class at the U. of Ill. hadn’t prepared me for this! In another arrangement I started with flügelhorns going up to a double high F#. After passing out the parts the trumpet players laughed.  Again, Earl: “McNeely, do you really want this?” Not really knowing what I wanted, of course I said “Yes, it is.” “Okay!” We played it. I immediately understood the hilarity and re-wrote the intro.

My time with Mel’s band (’79-’84) afforded me another incredible arranging lesson: to sit at the piano every Monday, playing such great music. Hearing the harmonies; the inner voices (especially first tenor, closest to the piano); Thad’s rhythmic language; Brookmeyer’s cranky harmonies. I loved it all, week after week. It was learning by osmosis. Write—hear—evaluate—repeat.

My working with Brookmeyer led to five years of writing and conducting music for the WDR Big Band in Cologne, Germany.  I had pretty much carte blanche with them.  I wrote a lot of original music, some for soloists like John Scofield, David Liebman and Phil Woods, and some without a “name” soloist. I was able to try so many new ideas, and get immediate feedback, from the musicians and from my own listening.  For one project I realized that brass mutes were a big mystery to me.  So I threw caution to the wind and just went for it.  Every arrangement had different combinations of mutes, and a lot of woodwinds. Most of it worked, some of it didn’t. And I learned a lot. Write—hear—evaluate—repeat.

Being “of a certain age” I came up writing with pencil and paper.  I’m glad I did.  Pencil, paper and keyboard get my hands on the music. The process is physical and tactile.  One time, years ago, I decided to try composing directly on the computer. I felt like I was looking at the music through a window—like visiting someone in prison.  I decided I wanted to be in touch with the music.  I’ve since learned the value and role of the computer, especially with all the writing I do for European ensembles.  I do the final stages of scoring in Finale.  But the beginning and middle of the process are done with a pencil—I love the feel of the paper and the smell of the eraser.  I love the anticipation of looking at blank pages of a large-format music manuscript book—wow, what’s going to happen here? No bar lines, no systems—plenty of room to let the imagination flow. Before I know it, it’s filled with scribbles. I use some, I don’t use others. But they are all part of the overall process.  A leads to B leads to C leads to D…..leads to R. I might continue on to W, but then decide to stay with R. But R would not exist without A-Q and S-W.

People who’ve studied with me know that I am very big on planning a piece. The shape. The form. The color. The surface sound. But I’ve also learned to be flexible in those regards. In 1993 Jon Faddis asked me to arrange a program of songs from the Benny Goodman repertoire for the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band. One of tunes was Louis Prima’s Sing, Sing, Sing. Goodman’s original version featured a free duet between himself and drummer Gene Krupa.  For the mid-‘30’s this was quite an advanced concept.  Thinking of this, as well as the duos that John Coltrane played with Elvin Jones or Rashied Ali on drums, I wanted to feature David Liebman on soprano sax and Victor Lewis on drums. Using Goodman’s 1938 Carnegie Hall recording as a loose model, I carefully planned my arrangement.  I composed call-and-response figures for the band, with Lewis answering.  Then Liebman would solo, followed by a similar composed call-and-response section with him. I orchestrated the drum solo section and started sketching the section for Lieb.  That’s when the phone rang.

The copyist, rightfully concerned about the approaching deadline, told me, “I need the score tomorrow.” I promised her I would overnight the score that evening.  I hoped the FedEx guy would come at 8.  He showed up at 7.  My wife scrambled to put together the envelope and mailing label.  I quickly scribbled “4 bars Lieb, 4 bars band answers; 2 bars Lieb, 2 bars band” into the score, then “copy mm. 180-195” and tacked a final bar onto the score.  Folded it up, put it in the envelope and sent it off.  I felt that I had really blown it, because I wouldn’t get a chance to show off my carefully crafted section for David.

It turned out that the arrangement as finally written and performed at Carnegie was tremendously exciting. Building off of the orchestrated drum passage, Lieb and the band screamed through the whole final section. Most of the audience went wild, and some walked out. I was thrilled with both reactions. Thanks to the copyist and the FedEx guy, I got my first Grammy nomination with this arrangement.  More importantly, I learned that sometimes it’s possible to over-think, and over-plan.  It’s jazz.  Always consider the balance between the pre-written and the improvised.  The piece isn’t about me. It’s about the music. Write—hear—evaluate—repeat.

Sing, Sing, Sing Excerpts (Carnegie Hall, 1993)

The Takeaway

These experiences, along with countless others, helped shape me as a composer, arranger, and teacher.  I had band directors who made time for student composer/arrangers. Teachers who knew the value of a few encouraging words as opposed to a whole mouthful of discouragement. Feedback from musicians playing my music. Copying parts from other people’s scores. The value of both hearing, and later saying “Write another one.” I was fortunate to be in situations where I could ask “What if?”, instead of “Am I allowed to…?”. Where it was okay to take risks, and at the same time accept and learn from the results. I learned that I didn’t know everything, and that’s okay.  That I needed to listen honestly to my writing, then act on what I heard. That I had to acknowledge my weaknesses, not as failings but as part of being human—it was up to me to strengthen them. That not everyone will love what I do.  And as important as thinking, mulling, stewing, and planning are, action—doing—overrides them all.

Speaking of doing, I’ve got a lot more writing to do; so it’s time to get back to my studio. A deadline is fast approaching, with six arrangements due. Time for more action.


About the Author:

Jim McNeely was born in Chicago, moving to New York City in 1975.  In 1978 he joined the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra.  He spent six years as a featured soloist with that band and its successor, Mel Lewis and the Jazz Orchestra (now The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra).  1981 saw the beginning of Jim’s 4-year tenure as pianist/composer with the Stan Getz Quartet.  From 1990 until 1995 he held the piano chair in the Phil Woods Quintet.  At the present time, he leads his own tentet, his own trio, and he appears as soloist at concerts and festivals worldwide.

Jim’s reputation as composer/arranger and conductor for large jazz bands continues to flourish and has earned him ten Grammy nominations. In 1996 he re-joined The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra as pianist and Composer-in Residence.  He is also chief conductor of the Frankfurt Radio Big Band. Other recent work includes projects with the Danish Radio Big Band (where he was chief conductor for five years), the Metropole Orchestra (Netherlands), the Swiss Jazz Orchestra, and the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra. The New York Times has called his writing “exhilarating”; DownBeat has said that his music is “eloquent enough to be profound”.  And he won a Grammy for his work on the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra’s “Monday Night Live at the Village Vanguard” on Planet Arts Records.

Jim has appeared as sideman on numerous recordings led by major artists such as Thad Jones, Mel Lewis, Stan Getz, Bob Brookmeyer, David Liebman, Art Farmer, Robert Watson, and Phil Woods. He has numerous albums under his own name.  The latest is the Grammy-nominated “Barefoot Dances and Other Visions”, with the Frankfurt Radio Big Band on the Planet Arts label (“superb…a feeling for arranging orchestral colors that is magical”—All About Jazz.com)

Teaching is also an important element of Jim’s work. He is on the faculty of Manhattan School of Music. He was involved with the BMI Jazz Composers Workshop for 24 years, including 16 years as musical director. He has appeared at numerous college jazz festivals in the U.S. as performer and clinician. He has also done clinics and major residencies at dozens of institutions in the U.S., Canada, Europe, Japan, China, Australia, New Zealand, and Egypt.

He may be contacted via his website: www.jimmcneely.com