What the BMI Jazz Composers Workshop Means to Jazz Community, and What YOU Can Do to Help
Click here to sign the petition about the BMI Jazz Composers Workshop. Below are my thoughts on what the BMI Workshop means to me, other composers, and performers in the NYC area.
I was 17 when I first heard of the BMI workshop. I was an enthusiastic naive young composer shamelessly writing big band charts with closed-position triads at the bottom of the bass clef, doubling guitar parts as piano parts, putting two trumpet players on each note of a voicing because I couldn't find anything better to do with the other two trumpets... oh and completely omitting drum parts, telling the drummer "Just play latin here" while having him look off a lead trumpet part. I was in search of music schools to study composition, with a preference for jazz.
I perused through the JCW website, reading about what the workshops covered, what other composers thought, how it benefitted them, what was learnt, the fact that they had a band that performed your music (!)... it seemed like a dream come true for someone who felt suffocated as a composer where she was (I even had one private lesson teacher tell me in late high school, after finally being brave enough to tell him my real passion was composition, "If I ever run a music program, I assure you it won't ever have a composition program in it.") I was so longing to find a community of others who were passionate about composition, and honestly felt like, whether real or just perceived at the time being, that I was alone and misunderstood where I was, and unguided in how to be a better writer. Seeing the website, I thought, "THAT'S where I want to be."
7 years later I'm one of those participants in the workshop. The workshop was everything my 17 year old self wished it was and more. I enjoyed the community of other equally passionate composers, and was inspired both by the music they created, and the suggestions they gave, particularly when I was in one of those frustrated slumps. I bow down to directors Jim McNeely and Mike Holober for their abilities to read and transpose 17 staff scores on the spot, for their intuition on knowing when something has gone on too long or too short, or when something doesn't fit in, for their wide array of musical knowledge to draw from, and for their encouragement to just keep going. I learned just as much from the reading sessions, both from hearing my own work and hearing my fellow classmates'. And I met so many talented and versatile musicians both amongst the composers and the band (several of the musicians from the band play in our jazz orchestra or have subbed in it!) The top-notch band has been assembled at the end of every month thanks to JC Sanford, who further expanded composers' opportunities by curating the Size Matters series at the Tea Lounge.
Over the course of 3 years, I heard my compositional voice develop, expand, and mature into something I'm proud of (and I never thought I would say the word "proud" in my life!) Our jazz orchestra book expanded, and at one point we were playing monthly gigs, with enough material to rotate different material at different gigs. I feel now, to an extent, that I found where I belong, that what I was so passionate about, but very insecure about 10 years ago, is really what I'm meant to do.
Which is why I (and so many others) were shocked when we found out that BMI's senior management had decided to discontinue the current format of the 27-year old BMI Jazz Composers Workshop. Word was out that the current format, with its focus on large jazz ensemble composition, would be disbanded, and the 17 musician BMI-NY Jazz Composers Orchestra, many of the musicians who have played on reading sessions and concerts for countless years, would dissolve. The workshop, founded by legendary composers Bob Brookmeyer and Manny Albam, has nurtured and evolved the voices of so many composers, many who have gone on to lead their own ensembles and write works for other groups, passing down the tradition while at the same time evolving it into something personal and meaningful.
One of the band members, pianist Deanna Witkowski, decided to do something. She wrote an open letter to BMI’s senior management and posted the letter as a petition online at this link.
Since last Thursday, over 750 people have signed the petition, and you can help us by joining them with your signature.
Our petition has already effected a response: this past Monday, June 1, Ms. Witkowski received a phone call from Mr. Charlie Feldman, VP for Writer/Publisher Relations at BMI’s New York office. Mr. Feldman asked for an in-person meeting, which will take place next Thursday, June 11.
Our goal is to reach 1000 signatures no later than 10 am (EST) next Wednesday, June 10, so that the letter can be delivered in person to Mr. Feldman the following day.
I wonder if there is some other 17-year old composer out there somewhere, writing bizarre big band voicings and giving the drummer lead trumpet parts, just as misunderstood and lonely as I was, wishing that something like the BMI Jazz Composers Workshop existed. By ending the workshop the format as we know it, composers will have less opportunities developing the craft, bringing their voice to life, and navigating the murky waters of being established as a composer.
Every year the BMI Jazz Composers Workshop ends its season with a concert featuring several of the works written throughout the year. The concert is free and it's on Friday, June 25th, at 7:30pm at Christ and St. Stephen's Church, 120 West 69th St, in New York City. You will hear compositions by Migiwa Miyajima, Miho Hazama, Idan Santhaus, Ann Belmont, Angela Morris, Meg Okura, Chuck Iwanusa, Anna Webber, and Paul White.
I'm posting two videos here from last year's BMI Concert, showcasing the BMI-NY Jazz Orchestra. The first is a piece by Earl MacDonald, who is currently director of jazz studies at the University of Connecticut, called "It Was Whispered." The second is the piece I wrote for the 2014 Manny Albam Commission, "...And the Tire Swing Keeps Spinning..."
"It Was Whispered" by Earl MacDonald, featuring Satoshi Takeishi on drums, Marc Phaneuf on Alto Saxophone, JC Sanford on Trombone, and Dave Smith on Trumpet.
"...And the Tire Swing Keeps Spinning..." by Erica Seguine, featuring Deanna Witkowski on piano, Steve Smyth on trumpet, and Satoshi Takeishi on drums.
Thank you for your support, and together let's hope to keep jazz ever evolving onwards and upwards!