End of the BMI Jazz Composers Workshop???

BMI program cover from last year's JCW concert.

BMI program cover from last year’s JCW concert. This year’s final concert is on June 25 at 7:30 pm (see calendar for details).

**June 12 update:
Yesterday morning, I visited BMI’s New York offices with one other representative from the BMI Jazz Composers Workshop. We hand-delivered our petition- with over 1000 of your signatures- at a sit down meeting with Patrick Cook and Charlie Feldman.   I am happy to report that both Mr. Cook and Mr. Feldman made it clear that both the band members and the workshop composers will stay intact for the fall. There is no interest in disbanding the BMI/New York Jazz Orchestra. Furthermore, the workshop’s focus on big band writing will continue as such for at least the next two years.

We are also working to foster an ongoing relationship between the workshop/band members and BMI that has just begun in earnest with this first meeting. Thank you for helping us to get to this point.

Finally, if you are in the greater New York area, you are warmly invited to attend the 27th annual BMI Jazz Composers Workshop concert on Thurs, June 25 at 7:30 pm at Christ and St. Stephen’s Church, 120 West 69th Street. Admission is free, and we are especially encouraging students and young musicians to attend.

With thanks,
Deanna Witkowski

Pianist, BMI/New York Jazz Orchestra

**June 1 update from Charlie Feldman, VP of Writer/Publisher Relations in New York, follows this post.

This past week held some difficult news for the composers and band members of the BMI Jazz Composers Workshop and its corresponding reading big band, the BMI/New York Jazz Orchestra (to cut to the chase for the news, click here). As with all things musical and communal, a written description cannot do justice to what the workshop truly provides, but for those who aren’t familiar with the BMI/JCW, a brief description is available here.

I have been the pianist in the BMI/New York Jazz Orchestra since 2006, and was a composer member in the “B” group from 2003-2005. The “A” and “B” groups alternate weeks for nine months, usually meeting with musical director Jim McNeely or associate musical director, Mike Holober. Once per month, the jazz orchestra sight-reads the new material, providing an opportunity for the composers to try out their ideas.

All of us in the orchestra provide our services free of charge (which should tell you something: we want to be there!), except for one week each June, when we rehearse 8-10 pieces for an annual showcase concert, and are paid a stipend. Each concert includes works that are selected to be in competition for the BMI/Charlie Parker composition competition. The winner receives the Manny Albam commission to write a piece for the band, to be performed at the following year’s concert.

That’s the bare-bones skeleton.

Erica Seguine conducting the BMI/New York Jazz Orchestra in 2014.

Erica Seguine conducting the BMI/New York Jazz Orchestra in 2014. Click on the photo to hear her piece, “…And the Tire Swing Keeps Swinging…”

What I can’t adequately describe is how this workshop has provided a unique opportunity for composers to not only study- for no charge- with some of the best big band composers in the world and to hear their music played by some of the top musicians in New York, but how it has created an irreplaceable community. Many of us in the band have met composers who have hired us to play in their own bands. Many of the composers have formed their own big bands (not a small feat!) because they realized, partially due to the generosity of the band members, that they could actually do so. Composers, who often work in isolation, have found like-minded writers who can offer their own feedback; players enjoy the monthly challenge of reading new music and of hearing what the composers are writing.

Now (finally!), the news: this past Tuesday, after our final monthly reading session for the year, Jim McNeely told us that he had an announcement to make- actually, two announcements. The first was that he had decided after having led the workshop for 24 years that he would be retiring from the workshop after our upcoming June 25 concert. The second was that, after he let senior management at BMI know of his decision, management asked Mike Holober to resign. They (BMI management) also let Mike know that they do not wish to continue the workshop in its current form starting in the fall: they no longer envision having a regular reading band (jazz orchestra), or a focus of writing for large jazz ensemble.

All of this was a shock to the entire band and to all of the composers present. Perhaps most frustrating, no one from BMI was present to talk with us or to explain their reasoning behind this decision. The band was simply told that we would not be needed after June 25, and the composers were left not knowing what would happen in the fall.

There are composers who make major sacrifices to participate in the workshop. Some even relocate to New York solely because of the JCW. One of my friends, Meg Okura, is a violinist/composer who had already arranged for child care for the next two years in order to be able to participate in the workshop (the workshop is a three-year program for composer participants).

BMI needs to hear from this community, and from the music world (and audiences!) at large, that making a top-down decision like this without meeting with the people this decision affects is not OK. To that end, I created a petition (available here) to three directors at BMI: Patrick Cook, Director of Musical Theatre and Jazz; Charlie Feldman, VP of Writer/Publisher Relations in New York; and Michael O’Neill, CEO. The letter simply asks that BMI consider the legacy and uniqueness of the Jazz Composers Workshop as they plan for its future; and that Patrick Cook meet with the composers and band members to explain his vision and to hear our concerns.

Our goal is to get 1000 signatures by June 11 so that we can deliver them in person to Charlie Feldman on that date.

Click here to read, sign, and share this petition.

Thank you in advance for your time and consideration.

** June 1 update: Friends, today I received an update from Charlie Feldman, VP of Writer/Publisher Relations in New York. I have just scheduled a meeting with Mr. Feldman for Thursday, June 11.

Mr. Feldman has informed me via email that BMI wants to keep the focus of the jazz composers workshop as is: on jazz large ensemble writing. Furthermore, he wants to keep all of the current band members intact in the fall.

Please continue to share the petition so that we can show as much support as possible in advance of the in-person meeting on June 11.

Thank you for your ongoing support!

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