A Composer's Adventures


Michael Colgrass: Music Maverick is a documentary in progress about my life and work. In this excerpt, I talk about living in the Arctic in 1989 and finding the inspiration to write “Arctic Dreams” for wind ensemble. See more at www.colgrassfilm.com.


Every year conductor Glen Adsit and I teach a week-long workshop at The Hartt School in West Hartford, Connecticut. We show music educators how to help their students compose, conduct and perform music using only graphic notation. I also throw in NLP techniques, including language skills and walk-ons. See more at the University of Hartford’s The Hartt School website.


In 1951, I was a fervent jazz drummer with little respect for my classical music studies at the University of Illinois — until my percussion teacher, Paul Price, encouraged me to write my own piece of music. It was like a window opened and a creative light came shining in, and from then on, I knew I was a composer. I tell the story from Adventures of an American Composer at a gathering of friends in Toronto.


I was playing drums in my own swing band in small-town Brookfield, Illinois, in the 1940s, when a fan approached me after a gig — and said I should hear a new kind of jazz. So we donned zoot suits and ventured out to Chicago’s Pershing Ballroom, where the musicians on stage included Charlie Parker, Kenny Dorham and Max Roach. It’s another story from Adventures of an American Composer.


At the same gathering, I tell another story from the book — about meeting jazz drummers Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa at age 14 by knocking on their dressing rooms with portraits I’d drawn of them. After sneaking into the Panther Room in Chicago to meet Krupa, I was escorted outside by security and couldn’t hold back my tears.


I had little interest in music until the day I saw Reveille with Beverly with my parents back in Brookfield. Just 10 years old, I was bored by the movie musical—until drummer Ray Bauduc and bass player Bobby Haggart played “Big Noise from Winnetka.” By the time I left the theater, I had decided on a career.


I played percussion on the classic “Stravinsky Conducts Stravinsky” recording of The Rite of Spring for Columbia Records in 1961. Like other players in the Columbia Symphony Orchestra, I was surprised to see Stravinsky pull out a hip flask and offer a drink to musicians from the podium. What happened next makes for one of my favorite stories from Adventures of an American Composer.


I was a percussionist with the Joffrey Ballet in 1966 when lawyers walked into a rehearsal and pulled Ravel’s G Major Piano Concerto right off the stands. The ballet company was desperate for a new piece, so I offered to write one, and Robert Joffrey accepted—as long as it could be written overnight! Another story from Adventures of an American Composer.


  1. Hello Mr. Colgrass, I am a clarinetist, and am interested in your new piece Urban Nocturne. I am a graduate student at Peabody, studying with Anthony McGill, and have a trio with cello/piano and are interested in possibly playing your piece at Peabody. I am a returning student, and previously played with the Army Field Band for 7 years in D.C. I am also the Education Director at a new symphony called Symphony Number One (symphno1.org) and our mission is promoting new music. I would love to hear a recording of Urban Nocturne and see the score if possible. I realize you are very busy, and I appreciate your time!
    Melissa Lander

  2. Hi there! I grew up with the Stravinsky conducts The Rite Of Spring LP, so I was so amused to see your video about the recording sessions and Stravinky’s flask of Chivas. One thing I always wondered about that recording, why is it the the percussion (except for the timpani and Bass Drum) seems to disappear on part 2? On part 1, triangle, antique cymbals, tam-tam, querro, bass drum and timp are all quite audible, but in part 2 most are inaudible. Any thoughts or remembrances?

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