Michael Colgrass (1932-2019)

In 1995, I was a sophomore at UMASS Lowell. My teacher and percussion ensemble director, Jeff Fisher, decided to do a “mini-Colgrass festival” that semester. Half of the program would be dedicated to some of Colgrass’s percussion works. Of course, I never heard of Michael Colgrass. I say “of course” because I was such a late bloomer to the classical world and wasn’t until college where I developed as a serious player, played mallets, and learned about classical percussion. Before this, I didn’t know a thing except playing drums in a band. Not that that was a bad thing and proved to be invaluable down the road, but…anyway…a friend and I were asked to perform a snare solo from his Six Unaccompanied Solos for Snare Drum. Considering I never played a “legit” solo in my life and the rest of the program were ensemble pieces, this felt like quite the honor. Here it is, hair and all. And getting out of there as soon as possible after for some reason…

During the concert, Jeff mentioned a story about Colgrass freelancing in NYC. He was walking down the street and didn’t know whether or not he was coming or going to/from the gig! It was soon after that he decided to become a full time composer. This story stuck with me for some reason.

Three years later in 1998, I was a student at the New England Conservatory and the wind ensemble I was in was preparing Colgrass’s “Urban Requiem.” The piece was a beast to prepare-each percussionist’s station of instruments in specific locations around the stage. Mine consisted of 3 separate stations-a steel drum part (an instrument I never played before and included solo part with clarinet-that was hard!), general percussion, and a drumset station in front of the conductor where you were basically part of a jazz/bop combo later in the piece. I don’t remember if I knew that Colgrass would be there or not, but lo and behold, there was the man himself at one of the rehearsals. The story I heard years ago permanently etched in my brain, I enjoyed getting the chance to ask him about this. If it were today, there would be a selfie involved. I left Jeff a voice message telling him that I told Colgrass the story I heard years ago 3 years ago. He was floored that I met and told Colgrass this, but mostly that I heard and remembered the story at all!

Later that year at NEC, I learned about Colgrass’s book, My Lessons with Kumi (maybe he told me?) which was all about performance anxiety. Since I was playing recitals and starting to take orchestra auditions, I needed all the help I could get. I used a couple of the tactics inside, but mainly enjoyed the great “Karate Kid” like read.

Many years later while a member of the US Navy Band, I was performing a lot of “new music” on the side. In 2007, I finally had the chance to perform some movements of Colgrass’s “Variations for 4 Drums and Viola” with my friend Rebecca Kletzker-Steele. “4 Drums” (rototoms) has been a staple in the repertoire and I’ve been itching to do it forever. We played it on a couple occasions and was a blast to put together and perform. Check out the “Finale” here-

Even though I didn’t have a lot of experience with his pieces and our meeting was brief, his music was introduced to me while I was developing my classical musician skills. Many years later, it’s time to honor him and break out some of his music again! Where do I start?

RIP Michael Colgrass (1932-2019)

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