There were many lessons learned from the time I was asked to schedule a timeline to perform with the infamous WDR Big Band in Koln, Germany, with my music. For those who do not know, WDR, Westdeutscher Rundfunk is a German public-broadcasting Institution with the main office in Köln, Germany. NDR Big Band is based in the North in Hamburg, Germany. The HR Big Band is in Frankfurt, Germany. Each of these bands are made up of exceptionally talented jazz musicians, many who are from other countries, including the United States, as well as from Germany. These professional European bands have been around a very long time. I am deeply honored to have been invited this past March to perform my music with the WDR. My dear friend, Dennis Mackrel, was my conductor who made this memorable visit a most successful one on many levels.
To become a good composer is somewhat similar to becoming a good player. One should have, at least, one significant role model for inspiration. One also has to be persistent, diligent, and consistent with conviction to be taken seriously, so they can be called again and again to play with other good musicians. Composers also want to hear their music played more than once, as well. You can be recommended that first time, but the second time is totally based on that initial performance. When are you ready? Watch, listen, study, and ask questions by seeking out those individuals who inspire you! When it’s time for your music to be performed on the stage, it must sound like it belongs there. How do you know? When people you respect give you an unsolicited thumbs up! Believe me, it will empower and carry you a long way! Begin being truly honest with yourself! Bottom line, the music you compose must resonate with others. The best compliment would be, “I’d love to hear that again!” Ultimately, it’s all on you.
In my many years as a professional improvising bassist, I have had the good fortune to perform and record with some of the greatest players who were and are incredible composers, as well. I have always been intrigued and baffled how they were able to conceive this incredible music. I began a quest to find out what this composition thing was all about.
When I joined the BMI Composers Workshop in 1999, I was thrust into an environment that was completely foreign to me. Intellectually, I understood we would be writing for a big band. I had written a few big band arrangements, but this workshop was about coming up with fresh ideas. Arranging requires its own set of unique skill sets to take a known composition and give it a new look and/or sound. I was asked to write what I wanted to write. I was NOT prepared to write what “I” wanted to write. I had no idea what that was! In that moment I felt completely at a loss to respond in any way. I had never been asked that question before, ever! The music I knew basically was already prescribed for a particular musical setting, i.e. music for film, television, a musical, a wedding, or a myriad of situations. So, the inner search was initiated to find out what actually pleased and satisfied me without being judgmental! HA! Fat chance of that not happening! At the time, the BMI Workshop had three exceptional coaches, Manny Albam, Jim McNeely, and Michael Abene, to help guide all of the individual participants closer to being yourself. In the five years as a participant, I was never told “No, that’s not good!” I was simply asked, “Is that really how you want it to sound?” That sent a huge message for me to return to the drawing board and keep searching! Another was, “That’s pretty good, but try orchestrating this with very different instruments!” We all have our comfort zones and I was asked to stretch and leave mine. I still have to NOT get too comfortable with what I come up with too soon in the process. And that is it! I have grown to love the entire process of composing! The constant search is very mysterious, extremely daunting, and exhilarating when you discover “it!” One of my oldest friends, the late Muhal Richard Abrams, said to never stop listening to all kinds of music. You might be surprised at what you actually like. Eddie Harris taught me not be afraid of any music. So, these past twenty years, I have conscientiously tried to do exactly do as they suggest.
Now, with all that said, one has to learn how to orchestrate so that idea sounds solid, while also “sounds!” It is clearly heard no matter of the density surrounding this idea. Finding the “sweet spots” of all instruments. Manny Albam used to call them the “money notes” because he was always on the clock and it had to sound good all of the time or people were unhappy! Whether you are on the clock, everything written must have a “sound.” The idea sounds. That voicing really sounds! The orchestration truly sounds. Everything is clear with articulations, dynamics, measure numbers, page numbers, chord symbols, and whatever else makes a great sounding chart, etc. etc. etc!
The WDR Big Band experience gave me a real taste of what the BMI workshop prepared me for! That in itself was extremely gratifying. I remember so well being told that you are in a good place when you finish a commission or any project. Now, have the confidence to put the score and parts in a package. Mail the package and do not expect to hear anything, except it was received, the first reading went well, and the music was liked by all! THAT, my fellow readers, is not easy to accomplish, but I am getting closer, I think!
The music I have written and performed with the WDR Big Band will give the listener a glimpse of what has happened in these past years. I was sent guidelines as how to prepare my music to send via PDF. All of the scores and parts had to be prepared by computer software. That made sense since we all use Finale or Sibelius software, but they did not want to see the “jazz font” at all. I had four charts with the jazz font. I know, supposedly, you can designate the change and push a button and that’s it. It isn’t quite that simple. The articulations changed. Then I said to myself, since I’m in this, let me see if I can tweak some parts and the domino effect came in. Oh my, did I mention I had a couple different versions of this chart in the computer and I tweaked and sent the wrong one? Fortunately, I caught most of the proofing issues before sending out nine pieces of music for this project. We rehearsed four days and all of the players were so on it about everything! Specific articulations had to be discussed and finalized before moving on. What one might think is a universal language for “jazz” articulation, is not that simple, particularly to those who do not know you or your music! When you are aware your music is new to everyone, the clearer everything must be at the outset! I had to adjust some measures in a saxophone tutti in one piece and correct some trombone voicings in another. This doesn’t sound like much, but folks, I was mortified! The score and parts matched, which is supposed to be a good thing, but they were wrong! I do not know how any of that could have happened! The computer messed up my parts, I am sure of it! DUH! I am truly happy that out of all the music I sent, this was minor, but it should not have happened at all at this level. If I had truly taken the time to proof and/or have someone else proof, the music would have been sufficient, as it should be.
One of the issues at hand for me at this juncture in my life, is, I am attempting to compose other music outside and away from the jazz mentality or sensibilities. This has required me to become more articulate with literally everything on the music page. When you write for your band or players who are familiar with you, the music should still be clear enough to have a smooth initial rendering. Theoretically, I am well aware of the importance of proofing, but somehow it still eludes me. That’s when it hurts when you get busted for it!
The moral to this story, is no matter how savvy you are with the computer software, one should have another set of eyes and ears to help proof your music. I wish to be asked to return to perform and write for the WDR Big Band again in the future. Hence, preparation is the key to success. “Gots to be more careful!”
About the Author:
For the last 50 years, Rufus Reid has been a consistent, formidable, and influential presence in the jazz world as a bassist and educator. His performances and recordings with Eddie Harris, Nancy Wilson, Dexter Gordon, Andrew Hill, The Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra and Quartet, Kenny Barron, Stan Getz, J. J. Johnson, Lee Konitz, Jack DeJohnette, to name but a few, has cemented his stature as one of the great living deans of the jazz bass. His receipt of the 2006 Raymond Sackler Commission resulted in his five-movement suite for large jazz ensemble, Quiet Pride-The Elizabeth Catlett Project. In November 2015, this album received two Grammy nominations, for Best Large Jazz Ensemble and Best Instrumental Composition. Rufus Reid is a 2008 Guggenheim Fellow in the field of composition, which resulted in the three-movement symphonic work, Mass Transit. In April 2016 he was named Harvard University’s Jazz Master in Residence, participating in public conversations and also performing in concert with his original compositions. In April 2017, Lake Tyrrell In Innisfree, Rufus’ third symphonic work was debuted in Raleigh, NC by the Raleigh Civic Symphony. May 2017, Rufus Reid was awarded the America Composers Forum Commission to composed, Remembrance, for Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble to be premiered in July 6-7, 2018. In December 2017, Newvelle Records, an all vinyl recording company, will release the Rufus Reid Trio, “Terrestial Dance,” featuring the Sirius Quartet. February, 2020, Newvelle Records release his second vinyl duo recording, “Always In The Moment,” with stellar pianist, Sullivan Fortner. A distinguished educator as well, for 20 years Rufus was Director of the Jazz Studies Program at William Paterson University and was instrumental in building the program’s international reputation as one of the leading jazz schools in the world. He has recorded more than 400 albums and a dozen albums as a leader and authored a seminal text and DVD for bass methodology, The Evolving Bassist. Rufus’ continues to evolve as a composer and “The Evolving Bassist.”