CB: That’s how “Mark Twain” came about the first time, and for your readership, that was a piece where the idea was to have a symphony orchestra with actors, not singers. I chose to concentrate on the autobiography that Mark Twain wrote. He was an incredible human being and writer. So that ended up….I didn’t mean for it to….but I got on a roll and it ended up being about an hour and a half long. I partnered up with that orchestra again and that’s where I just came back from, being in Northern California. The idea was when I did some of the Mark Twain Meet the Composer activities, you’re not only supposed to write the piece, but you’re supposed to go out to the community and try to get them to understand what a composer is. For us that means really in the trenches, like going to all these different High Schools. In California some of the schools are pretty under-funded compared to the East Coast schools.
They have teachers that care a lot about the kids, but because of the tax base and the way they calculate the school taxes, they’re kind of chronically under-funded. And it also means you have to go to the Kiwanis Club or Rotarians and say “Hi, I’m a composer.” Of course, you feel like a monkey in a zoo, but that’s the point of the whole effort, let them get to know who you are, and how you work. But when I was reaching out to these kids, I saw that a lot of them didn’t know what a composer was, and didn’t especially care what a composer was. They didn’t know who Mark Twain was, and didn’t really care to know who Mark Twain was. (Both laugh.) So I went there feeling kind of frustrated and then I got together with the people in the orchestra and we were crazy enough to say “Well, let’s figure out how we can reach those kids!” So the idea was that we went to their teachers….this took about a year of planning….and said “Let’s get these kids to write poems and essays on the topic of how does music make you feel?”
Smitty: Very nice.
CB: And about a thousand kids in about eight different high schools wrote poems and essays. Some teachers filtered them down so I got about two or three hundred of the best. I was looking for what looked like song lyrics to me or things that could inspire me. In fact, today I’ve been working on an extended composition that is based on a poem written by one of these students. It had lines and thoughts that I could supplement and turn into the text for a choral piece with orchestra. That’s good for the concert and the symphonic based audience. That’s going to happen in the Spring. What was important at first was “how do I reach these kids in the schools, not the symphonic patrons?” So I turned other kid’s poems into more R&B/Jazz/ Pop songs. We also got together a young band of incredible musicians. There was a soulful singer who’s only 21, a girl named Yvette Couvson. I got two kids from the Brubeck Institute out in Stockton, California. One of them is this kid named Lucas Pino, who is a great young tenor sax player, and Glenn Zaleski, a terrific young piano player. Then I got a symphony orchestra drummer, Brian Kendrick, who actually is very, very good at R&B and jazz, and a fine guitarist, Ken Cefalo, who owns a music store and wanted to help reach the kids. We had one rehearsal to put it together and I had written the charts out in advance.
We went into these school auditoriums and they’re all coming to this assembly thinking, like, “Oh no, orchestra’s coming. Look out.” And then we’re like kicking their butts with some funk and jazz, and the most important thing is we’re saying “This is a song” and every school we’re announcing “written by” and I would say “Japonica Howard” or whoever it was that I based the lyrics on. Often I would link three or four different student’s poems and add some of my own words to make a stronger set of lyrics. Suddenly they’re like “heroes” and they’re a part of the creative process. Someone’s saying to them “Look, you have an original thought that’s worth something!” Because we live in a society where we’re all consumer-oriented, people forget that originality is a most rare and beautiful thing. So anyway we were all thrilled because the songs went over great for the kids, even if I didn’t select their work, they at least tried to put some original thoughts on paper. They were told that someone in the educational system cares that you have an original thought and an opinion. The kids loved it, the kids were all excited, and that’s just one small phase of my life that I just got through doing.
Smitty: Absolutely, man, and it’s great when you can reach the kids. What a great idea, too, to approach it that way. You got them involved in something beautiful!
CB: Yeah, yeah, well, I could’ve run and said “I’m never gonna go back there again,” but I decided to try one more time.
Smitty: Yeah, and I’m glad you did. That’s great, man. I love that when we can reach the kids because there’s so much that they will miss if we don’t.
CB: We went into the studio the last night, which was really great ‘cause a wonderful recording engineer has a studio and he just volunteered. He said “I won’t charge anything, I love this project, we gotta get music to the kids.”
Smitty: Very cool! I love it, and that’s just one or two things that you’ve accomplished. But you’ve done so much more. I mean, you’ve been commissioned with New York Pops, U.S. Army Field Band.
Smitty: That’s a kickin’ band, man.
CB: Oh yeah, man. That was funny. As a matter of fact, it’s funny you should say that. I just got an e-mail from that conductor, Colonel Finley Hamilton, tonight and he’s playing very near my house, and he said “Hey, man, you wanna come to our concert?” And actually we’re doing this interview so I couldn’t go and also because I’m working on this other piece. He was so funny ‘cause he heard me play the first time I had a piece played with the Boston Symphony. He heard one of the best trombonists in the world play it , a guy named Doug Yeo, and he said “I got a feeling that you’d be great writing for band. Have you ever written for band before?” And I said “No. I don’t even know what’s really in a military band.” And so he was telling me what it was and he stayed after me for something like five years until we finally got it together. Believe me, when you get a commission from the U.S. Army Band, you go through this process as if you were selling machine gun shells, you know, it’s like open bidding and, you know, background check. “I just wanna write band tunes!” (Both laugh.) So you go through this process of military lawyers and stuff, and so I wrote this new work very quickly. It’s called “On the Threshold of Liberty.”
Smitty: Oh wow.
CB: Which is a title that cuts both ways. (Both laugh.) This was about four years ago. And I played a synth rendition of it and I showed him the score. He said “I love it, but make it harder!” (Both laugh.) Because a lotta times when you write, you actually have to be careful about how much rehearsal time are you gonna get? Like naively when I started working with orchestras, I thought like “Oh my God, these guys can play ‘The Rite of Spring.’ There’s nothing I could write that would be too hard.”
CB: However, that is a false assumption because everyone in that orchestra has played “Rite of Spring” before they get there and they run through it and the conductor gives them some interpretive changes. But your music, if it’s as hard as “Rite of Spring,” they’ve never seen it before, and with economics being what they are, they don’t rehearse it that much.
CB: So anyhow, because he’s conducting U.S. Army Field Band, he’s got these great musicians that said “You know, I don’t wanna be hassled with gigs and driving and flying,” so they just sign up. They’re “lifers “and they practice and rehearse all day. So they want a piece that is basically what I call a “nyeah-nyeah-nyeah-nyeah-nyeah” piece that no one else can play. Because no one else can put in the rehearsal time and therefore no one else can kick that much butt. (Both laugh.) So they did it. Now, this is the good news and the bad news, ‘cause they were tremendously happy, they played it on tour, and it’s true: almost no one else can play it so no one else IS playing it. (Both laugh.) As a composer you want your stuff to be widely played but you go for the challenge of the moment and you cross your fingers and see what happens.
Smitty: Yeah, man, and that’s cool. Talk to me about working with Frederica von Stade.
CB: Oh God. This came about because of another phase of my life that we haven’t mentioned yet. I grew up in Connecticut next to this man named Bill Crofut, who was a Pete Seeger disciple. He got into music not because of the music, but because he saw how Pete Seeger could make social change through music by artists like Woody Guthrie. Bill Crofut was one of these kind of international folksinger guys and he knew me from the neighborhood. I went on the road with him when I was 17. I would work on his records over the years when he made them. He’s got the most backbone of anybody I’ve ever been around and I’m very sad to say that he passed away. He would overcome any obstacle to make an idea happen. He had a tremendous amount of faith in me. Including doing a cd with The London Symphony and me writing all the arrangements or compositions!
CB: But he just said, you know, “This lady Frederica von Stade is fantastic and I’m gonna go up to her and I’m gonna convince her that she’s got to do a record with us.” And I said “How in the world are you going to do that?” (Both laugh.) And Bill was just….he could charm the pants off a gorilla. I mean, he could tell anyone anything. I mean, the last project he did, he went up to Meryl Streep and convinced her that she ought to be involved in a project with us.
CB: So he just did it, but Frederica and I really enjoyed working together. There’s just a great soul vibration. She’s a wonderful lady. You know, you hear stories about how opera people can be difficult or hoity toity and she’s just nothing like that. And another great singer I’ve worked with who’s nothing like that is Dawn Upshaw. Anyhow, with Frederica, you know, she said, “Let me hear some of your songs. Let’s see how I connect with them.” And this is a story that I’ll tell sometimes if I’m talking to students. An old song of mine inspired the title of this CD we did on Telarc. It’s called “Across Your Dreams, Frederica von Stade Sings Brubeck,” and my tune Across Your Dreams is one of the first songs I wrote when I was 11 years old.
Smitty: Wow, dude!
CB: Yeah, and I thought it was a cool song and I sort of pulled it out of the memory bank. Bill always loved that song and said he remembers when I was a kid and wrote it. He said “You should play that for Flicka” and, you know, there was some revamping and some tweaking of it, but there it was. I mean, if you’re a writer, anything you ever write, especially if you had that feeling, that sort of magical feeling, like “Whoa, this is coming down as a beam from above” has a lasting value. Sometimes you get all the words and all the music and the vibe’s right and you’re just getting all those elements at the same time. Those things, you know, it may take 15 years to come around, you know? (Both laugh.)
Smitty: Well, you’ve worked with so many great musicians and you’ve seen so much in your career thus far, but I can’t help it, man, I gotta get to this record, because I love this new record Intuition.
CB: Oh, I’m so glad you do.
Smitty: And I tell you, the first track, “West of One,” what a kickin’ track. I can feel some Wes Montgomery in there, man, just, I mean, lickin’ away, you know?
CB: Oh, that’s great. Well, I will pass that on to Mike DeMicco, who wrote that one.