Asuka Kakitani: A New Outlet for Big Band Composition Sprouts in the Midwest

What is TCJCW?

The Twin Cities Jazz Composers’ Workshop (TCJCW) was born in 2017 soon after my husband JC Sanford and I moved to Minnesota with our daughter for our new adventure after over a decade in New York City. Both JC and I are some of the lucky people to proudly call ourselves former members of the BMI Jazz Composers’ Workshop. For the readers who aren’t familiar with the BMI Composers’ Workshop, here is a quick description from the BMI website: “The workshop was founded in 1988 by acclaimed composer/trombonist Bob Brookmeyer, composer/educator Manny Albam and author and jazz authority Burt Korall. […] The BMI Jazz Composers Workshop stresses exploration, ranging from the traditional to the new. The primary emphasis is placed on individuals and their ideas, along with the acquisition and understanding of techniques that make possible the execution of thoughts and the development of personal language within the big band setting.”   The way the workshop functions is that the participating composers would meet weekly in a quasi-classroom setting led by the world-class “faculty” composers who go through the “students’” charts and offer guidance and suggestions based on their wealth of knowledge and experience. From time to time, guest composers would come in and present their music and sometimes look at participants’ charts, adding a freshness to the process. Usually on the last Tuesday of the month, there would be a reading session in which some of the most skilled players in New York City volunteered to read new big band charts that were composed by the workshop participants. In the summer, a handful of the “best” works from the season would be performed by the BMI/New York Orchestra at the Summer Showcase Concert, and guest adjudicators would select the “very best” work as winner of the Charlie Parker Composition Prize and an accompanying commission for a new work to be premiered on the next year’s concert. And this is all tuition free. As far as I know, there has never been a situation like this anywhere else, and definitely not one with this much sustaining power and influence over several generations of creative composers worldwide.

I received excellent training while I was a student at Berklee College of Music from people like Greg Hopkins, Ted Pease, and Scott Free, but being in the workshop was one of the most important and meaningful times for me while I was in New York, if not for my entire life. I remember that precious time fondly, even though I was extremely shy to make friends during the first year. Because of the workshop I moved to New York from Boston, wrote many pieces, heard many pieces of fellow composers, made many composer and performer friends, and even had some drinks with my hero Jim McNeely, the musical director of the workshop at that time, along with Michael Abene and Mike Holober. Most importantly, I got to hear the workshop members talking about their ideas, processes, and inspirations. I also had the chance to talk about mine, and I received lots of feedback from fellow composers and the musicians of reading band. Much of the advice I got still often pops out when I compose, so the value of the workshop has been lasting for me, even after 12 years since I finished my time there. I feel I was incredibly lucky to be able to be there as the time I spent and what I experienced at the BMI workshop are very special gifts that I carry everywhere I go for the rest of my life.

The Beginnings and Growing Pains

When we decided to move to MN to live closer to JC’s family, we wanted to try to take the legacy of Bob Brookmeyer and Jim McNeely with us and see if we could plant a little seed to grow and spread the spirit of the BMI workshop in the Midwest. We hoped that given our time at BMI, plus my studies at Berklee and JC’s long relationship with Brookmeyer, we had the experience to try and create a similar scene.

Minnesota welcomed us warmly. It is a truly great state to be an artist. They have many enthusiastic and passionate organizations to support artists such as the American Composers Forum, Springboard for the Arts, and the McKnight Foundation, in addition to the MN State Arts Board and Regional Arts Councils, and JC and I have both been able to take advantage of some of the opportunities these organizations provide. Not long after our arrival in MN, we connected with like-minded composers in the area who became co-founders of TCJCW, Aaron Hedenstrom, Adam Meckler, Dave Stamps, and Kari Musil, and we started to have meetings and reading sessions modeling the BMI Workshop as best as we could. Before our move, JC knew a few people, but we basically didn’t have much connection to the MN jazz scene, and we had no idea what to expect. We are very thankful to our friends Dave Hagedorn and Pete Whitman in particular who gave us a long list of recommendations for musicians and Mac Santiago has provided a space for us at Jazz Central Studios (a gem of Minneapolis!) for our meetings and readings. We were pleasantly surprised that many musicians were interested in playing new music and donating their time to playing reading sessions, and we’re so grateful for their high level of talent and willingness to be involved.

Our first workshop year was very successful, overall. Of course, not having a massive corporation like BMI to support us, we had to adapt our plans and expectations to fit our specific situation, logistically and financially. It became clear from the beginning that we weren’t in a position to have our organization function exactly as BMI did, so we became a kind of workshop/composers’ collective hybrid for practical reasons. We also had to adjust to the fact that, unlike NYC, most of the top musicians in the Twin Cities area have something resembling a 9-5 day-job, which limited our weekday scheduling options. Yet during our first season, the six of us managed to collectively create more than 15 original works, we raised over $3,000 on our Kickstarter campaign, found private donors to match our campaign funds, had over 100 audience members collectively for two concerts at Studio Z (a gem of St Paul!), and featured BMI Charlie Parker award winner, NY-based composer Nathan Parker Smith as a guest composer/conductor on our Fall concert. We are deeply touched and thankful to everyone who donated funds for our concerts, came to support live the music, and the musicians who played reading sessions and concerts throughout the season. It was a complete blast and felt really like we were making a difference and building something that could grow and grow.

Our second year was very different from the first. Many of the composers became busier in their lives, and schedule conflicts grew more numerous. Therefore, we weren’t getting the output that had been generated our first season. As a result, we only had two reading sessions and no concert. (I have to confess that I myself wasn’t there to help much because I took a year off due to commissions that needed to be finished.) JC and I talked about the workshop constantly during that year. We were frustrated and discouraged and didn’t know what we could do about it, even though we tried several different approaches to attempt to accommodate everyone’s availability to keep all the composers involved. We constantly evaluated whether or not it was even worth the effort. On several occasions we were on the brink of dissolving the whole organization. Maybe something like this just wasn’t practical or sustainable outside of New York.

The Women I Met Who Opened My Eyes

In July 2019, the big band Inatnas Orchestra that I co-lead with JC in MN (also a new product we started after arriving in MN and seeing how talented the players were) had a concert at a great jazz club in Minneapolis called Crooners. It was a really fun gig with great energy, and we were very happy. After the gig, a young girl, maybe a high school or college student, stopped me to say something like “I just wanted to say it was great.” She continued “I think you are great.” And then she was gone. I even didn’t catch her name. Somehow, something about her reminded me of myself from 15 years ago when I was at Berklee. The time I went to many concerts and loved and was inspired by almost everything I saw. I had many dreams that were just waiting to come true (and still do now!). I hoped that night that the music touched somewhere very deep in the girl’s heart, and she will remember that night even if she can’t recall the specifics of the music she heard. That magical feeling I had from my interaction with her has stayed with and helped to get me motivated again.

A few months after that gig, I had the amazing opportunity to meet a musician whom I have admired for a long time. In person she was a warm, deep, and beautiful person just like her music. Afterwards, I was lucky to be able to exchange a few emails with her to tell her how her music has influenced me. I sat down and thought about when I was first introduced to her music, how her voice inspired me, and how her compositions brought me into a new world of poems. I was sort of shocked to realize how big her impact was on me. And again, a younger me from 15 years ago showed up. The girl who was anxious to soak up everything she experienced. And then, something in me clicked, and a deep realization struck me.

I could see with a much clearer eye that everything I was around all my life made some sort of impact on me and my music. I knew this already on some level, but it was a sudden understanding that whether we want to or not, we all affect each other. So, I felt a strong urge to see if TCJCW has the potential to make at least a small difference in my new community.

Maybe I’m at a certain age that people are starting to think about the next generations. Maybe because I have a young child and see my music students on a regular basis, I started to care more about what influences I might have on others. Maybe seeing people in Minnesota who work hard and contribute to the community not only being an artist, but as a curator, artistic director, radio host, vice president of a non-profit organization, and donor to fund various projects made me feel like I’m a responsible part of the community that I’d like to help make better. Probably all of those things happened at the right time at the right place.

New Beginnings

Spoiler alert: TCJCW didn’t fold. We just kicked off our 2019-2020 Workshop year. Based on an online composers’ lab I participated in hosted by composer William Brittle through New Amsterdam Records this past year, we changed our in-person meetings to online ones using Zoom as a platform. This change not only allows us to have more flexibility in scheduling our local composers, but we also have been able to include more composers from outside Minnesota and wherever they live to join us. We schedule regular guest clinicians to talk about anything related to large ensemble jazz composition and to also view and comment on workshop participants' pieces. In October, JC gave a conducting/rehearsal technique clinic that he used to give at the BMI Workshop to talk about his experiences in many projects including being the conductor of the John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble for 16 years. For the rest of 2019, our guests include a return by Nathan Parker Smith, leader of his own unique prog-rock big band, Bob Washut, Emeritus Professor of Music at the University of Northern Iowa and a prolific big band composer, and Ayn Inserto who studied closely with Brookmeyer and has taught a Compositional Techniques of Bob Brookmeyer course at Berklee.

 

At the workshop, we ask each other questions, give suggestions, talk about ideas, and exchange information. We ask each other to take risks, go beyond our comfort zone, and be curious and stretch our musical language. We don’t judge each other’s music. We try to inspire, influence, and learn from each other. Then we discover the results of the risks we take at the reading sessions, played by some of the best musicians in the Twin Cities area. It is a perfect opportunity to try a whole piece, some shorter ideas or fragments in several different orchestrations, experiment with extended techniques on various instruments, practice rehearsal technique and conducting a band, get feedback from the musicians, and socialize to make friends and musical connections. The participants who are not in the area send their parts, and we can read down and record their chart for the composer to review. All the reading sessions are open to the public, and we also are planning to stream them, so you can watch from home (see below for our FaceBook page)! We will end the season with our Showcase Concert in May 2020, and we will premiere 7-8 pieces that were created in the workshop by the participants. We will have guest judges to choose “the best composition” at the concert and commission a winner to compose a new piece to be premiered in the Fall 2020 by the JazzMN Orchestra, one of Minnesota’s premium professional big bands. Again, we’ve had to alter our practices to fit our current situation due to practicality, but still we aim to emulate the workings of the BMI workshop as much as we are able.

The Future

We’ve had to remind ourselves many times that we’re playing the “long game” and that lasting change and building a solid foundation takes time. Our goals are to continue to grow as best as we can. We really look forward to establishing ourselves financially through donations and grants and hopefully eventually some corporate sponsorship so that we can regularly bring in guests artists like we did with Nathan, which was incredibly fun and very impactful for these local musicians and listeners who hadn’t heard much of anything like his music before (check it out, if you haven’t!). Building a strong pipeline between NY and MN is one of our main goals since we decided to move here. We are also accepting applications from folks not affiliated with the Twin Cities area who want to be involved. If you or anyone you know would be interested, please visit our website at www.tcjcw.org or our FaceBook page at https://www.facebook.com/tcjcw/.

By the way, part of my motivation in writing this blog was to show anyone interested in trying to start an organization like this in their own community that it can be done, as long as you sculpt it to the practicalities of your area. If you have questions about getting started (or would like to commiserate about the difficulties you’ve already experienced), please get in touch!

 

TCJCW Fall Concert 2019 (abridged)

 

TCJCW Inaugural Summer Concert, July 2018

 


About the Author:

“A musical impressionist and supreme colorist” (Hot House Magazine) aptly characterizes the Japanese-born composer Asuka Kakitani. Her deep love for nature and animals inspires Kakitani to transform her imagination into epic musical stories that DownBeat Magazine described as brimming with “sumptuous positivity and organic flow.”

She is the founder of the 18-piece ensemble the Asuka Kakitani Jazz Orchestra, and their first recording Bloom has been featured on the international radio program PRI’s The World, acknowledged as one of the best debut albums of the year by DownBeat Magazine Critics’ Poll and NPR Music Jazz Critics’ Poll, and All About Jazz called it “absolutely superb.”

After she relocated to Minnesota from Brooklyn, NY in 2016, she co-founded the Twin Cities Jazz Composers’ Workshop, which aims to foster creative and forward-looking composition for the modern jazz orchestra in the Twin Cities area. Kakitani also co-founded and conducts Inatnas Orchestra with her husband, composer/trombonist JC Sanford, that features both of their music and some of the best jazz musicians in the Twin Cities area.

In 2019, Kakitani’s string quartet Three Stories of Birds was premiered by Artaria String Quartet at the Bridge Chamber Music Festival in Northfield, MN. She will premiere Ghost Story of Yotsuya by the new music group Zeitgeist at Studio Z in St. Paul, a culmination of a five-day composer workshop with the group in August. She will also premiere her collaboration with percussionist Dave Hagedorn, a 45-minute solo percussion suite that was funded by the Jerome Foundation will be premiered in January 2020.

Kakitani has been the recipient of grants and awards including the BMI Charlie Parker Jazz Composition Prize, the Manny Albam Commission, the Jerome Fund for New Music from the American Composers Forum, Brooklyn Arts Council, two Composer Assistance Grants from the American Music Center, and recently was awarded a 2019 McKnight Composer Fellowship.

 

https://www.asukakakitani.com