Michael Abene

Michael Abene, an unassuming musician who was able to compile voluminous charts, was among the upstart musicians setting New York ablaze. He was born in Brooklyn and was raised by a warm, musical, and loving Italian family. Abene was a prodigy and an academic genius. He graduated high school two years earlier to show the world his vast artistic talents. While working with some of the most talented musicians in the world, Michael learned by trial and error. He is also a composer/arranger and pianist. From the Village Vanguard to Carnegie Hall to Liza Minnelli and B.B., big band writer to commercial composer of jingles. King, the GRP All-Star Big Band in New York, the WDR Radio Big Band in Cologne, Germany – Michael Abene is a one-man wonder. And his current primary interest is compositions of length for big band and symphony…simultaneously. Michael Abene (pronounced uhBAY-NAY), is an unusually creative composer, arranger and keyboardist whose work has earned him numerous awards and accolades. He was also nominated for several Grammys for his arranging. His music has also earned him Grammy nominations for The Duke Ellington Orchestra’s Digital Duke, GRP All-Star Big Band’s All Blues, and most recently, Patti Austin’s Avant Gershwin. Michael is a respected peer and has been admired by many. However, he has not been widely known outside of his circle due to his dedication to music. He supports the many talented artists with whom his collaborations are made with the highest level of musical empathy. He has only one album, You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby, that he recorded in his 50-year career as a professional musician. This was on the Stash label in 1984. He prefers to share his talents with others. There are many artists Mr. Abene has collaborated with. They range from different styles but all have a common thread of jazz. The late, great Maynard Ferguson was a big band leader. He also led the UMO Jazz Orchestra (Helsinki), BBC Band, and RTV Slovenian Big Band. He has worked with vocalists such as Joe Williams, Chris Connor and Grady Tate, and Esther Phillips to Take 6. New York Voices and Nnenna Callaway. James Moody and Dave Grusin are among the many instrumentalists. Gary McFarland was also a friend and writer partner. He worked as an arranger and keyboard player for McFarland’s SKYE Records record. Abene, who has held this position since 2003, is now the Musical Director-Principal Aranger/Composer of the WDR Radio Big Band in Cologne. Michael says that working with the WDR Big Band was a team effort, with talented musicians and supportive management. The group has recorded with a variety of stellar guests, including Maceo Parker, funk master and Joe Lovano, saxophone virtuoso Joe Lovano, Hiram Bullock, fusion guitarist Hiram and Gary Burton. Abene also serves as the Associate Music Director of BMI Jazz Composer’s Workshop. He also teaches jazz composition at Manhattan School of Music, where Michael studied Jazz Composition under Bill Russo. Abene, reflecting on his roots, says, “My father was from New Orleans. He was a very skilled guitarist.” My grandfather played accordion, guitars, and fiddles. Both were barbers by trade. However, my father had his own band that performed at many functions in the Italian community and in big hotels in Brooklyn and New York City. He’d get home at four in the morning to start the shop at six. So he ended up just doing music with his family. His record collection was what attracted me to jazz. I have all of the Basie and Goodman albums, as well as the Louis Armstrong/Earl Hines side. There was a piano in our house, and I was curious about its sounds as well as the sounds made by the instruments on the jazz Lps.” Michael’s first composition was for the Farmingdale High School Band in Long Island. Marshall Brown was a pioneer in jazz education. Brown was able to get the band to play very sophisticated arrangements for their age. Brown fired Brown after the students were so popular at gigs (even at rival schools). Michael says that jazz was considered a dirty word back in the ’50s. Brown was able to lead George Wein’s Newport Youth Band. The inaugural members of the band included Michael on piano, Eddie Gomez and Larry Rosen on drums. Ronnie Cuber and Eddie Daniels on saxophones, Nat Pavone and Jimmy Owens on trumpets. These future stars had great opportunities to perform custom charts by Bill Holman and Quincy Jones, and also made records. They even performed at Newport Jazz Festival with Cannonball adderley. Michael was hooked! Abene was a Manhattan School of Music student for one year. But jazz courses weren’t what they are today. Instead, he decided to go deeper into professional music, a field he had made an impressive impression in. Michael recalls, “Right outta high school, I was playing alongside people like Clark Terry, the Don Ellis Quartet and writing for a variety of bands and groups throughout the New York region.” Jaki Byard, a great composer and pianist (then a pianist with Maynard Ferguson), would visit Don Ellis’ band to play alto. He asked me if I was interested in joining Maynard’s band, which at the time was the most popular band for young writers and players like Slide Hampton and Don Sebesky. I used this excuse to tell my parents that I was leaving college after I got the Maynard gig. Maynard was my first band and I stayed with them until Maynard left for England in 1961. My first gig was in Buffalo with Maynard. Birdland was my next gig…the original Broadway show between 52nd Street and 53rd Street. Blues Roar was one of my favorite albums. Blues Roar was one of the best albums I did with him. There were many charts that I created for Maynard and they remained in his notebook until his death. He enjoyed hearing his music brought to life by talented musicians. “Besides,” he says, “most of my pianos that I had to use on gigs back in those days were terrible!” In 1963, Michael joined Buddy Rich’s sextet. It included Mike Maineri on vibes as well as Harry “Sweets’ Edison on trumpet. Buddy was part of a group that worked the Thunderbird Hotel’s 2am-6am shift. “When I discovered the time of our performance, I was shocked to find out who would be there at that hour. It was a huge party! Everyone, from Sinatra to Sammy to members Woody Herman’s, Count Basie and Duke Ellington’s groups would stop by our set after they finished their prime-time shows. It was one big party!” Buddy disbanded the sextet in order to form a bigger band, which he wanted Michael join. But Michael chose to go back to Maynard’s group. Michael was soon faced with a new challenge on Madison Avenue when he returned to New York City. He had to write jingles for television commercials and radio. “In the 1960s, the industry was changing. They needed someone who could write hipper, younger music that reflected the sounds and tastes of the Beatles and Stones. These were the years that Steve Gadd, Will Lee and Lew Soloff entered the session music scene. All of us brought our own doses of adrenaline to the world. First, I was with Marc Brown. It was a paid educational experience for me. It was here that I learned to play the strings. Working side-by-side with legends Tommy Newsom and J.J. Johnson, I learned a lot. You couldn’t beat their money for me writing every day. We all went to Local 802 (the New York Musicians Union) for a lot of work and came out with shopping bags containing residual checks. We made a lot, but we also blew a lot. It was unbelievable!” Michael had to stop working in the 1970s due to health issues, but he continued to play local clubs to stay active. His reputation as a cabaret singer was well-known. His old friend Mel Lewis, a drummer he had known since childhood, invited him to join the Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra. This became the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra. Larry Rosen, another friend, approached him to record and create charts for several projects at GRP Records. This was the company that he co-founded along with Dave Grusin. Digital Duke, Michael’s first GRP project, won a Grammy for Mercer Ellington. The beloved Happy Anniversary, Charlie Brown collection was followed by more big band CDs. Michael created three volumes of GRP Christmas CDs and also projects by Dave Valentin (Billy Cobham), Eddie Daniels (and others). This recognition led Michael to write for the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band, under Jon Faddis. One of Mr. Abene’s most notable compositions is “Odyssey for Brass,” which he composed for the Metropole Jazz Orchestra. In 2000, he also arranged “ITF 2000,” which was a piece for seven trombones for Utrecht’s International Trombone Festival. Each trombonist had contributed an original composition. Michael created the opening and connecting sections that allowed the piece to be performed as a complete suite. Another composition was an original composition written by Michael for Dave Taylor, bass trombonist at the Henry Mancini Institute. It was titled “Heritage/Old and Then Some.” Abene now leads the WDR Radio Big Band and has a workshop. He spends six months rehearsing with the band and recording it. He shares that one of the problems the band had when they were playing behind guests was the inability to solo. That is something I do not believe in! I ensure that all soloists are given the opportunity to perform…and I don’t mean just 8 bars. Basie and Maynard were the first to really open up a band. This allows everyone to relax and take the music wherever they like.” When asked what makes his work unique, Abene said that people tell him that it’s his vocalizations, tonal colours, combinations of instruments, rhythmic nuances and unexpected surprises in charts. He adds, “I don’t fear to turn things inside-out.” I take risks. It doesn’t always work, I just fix it!” Abene emphasizes to his students as a professor the importance of pleasing all parties. You have to make the artist and the orchestra look good. And you have to look good. It’s hard to do so you always need a Plan B. I am an instinct writer and not an academic. To find the right approach, I might try three to four different approaches to a particular section of a song. It’s like a huge puzzle. All my scores are written by me. The piano becomes my orchestra and allows me to hear the thoughts in my head when I’m sitting at it. While computers can be useful tools for both students and professionals, they can also be confusing for students. Computers don’t need to breathe. Computers can play 800 bars of music without having to take a breath. It’s impossible for humans to play that many bars.” Oxford University Press recently published a book by Richard Sussman and Michael Abnene, which addresses the use and limitations of computers in music composition and arrangement. One last, but not least, advantage Michael has is his beautiful wife Gretchen Abene, who helps him navigate through the madness. His youngest son Justin, and Scott, who continue the family’s legacy behind the scenes, are also his daughters Brenda Braker (Kathy Braun) and Scott Abene. Michael says that Gretchen is the family’s business person and they are true partners. “She negotiated my contracts with GRP and WDR and was my right hand – responsible to many of the successes that we have been lucky to achieve.” Abene looks ahead to Patti Austin’s next-up to Avant Gershwin. He composed a clarinet work, “PFP” (Piece For Paquito), in 2006 for Latin great Paquito D’Rivera. It was performed at the International Association of Jazz Educators Convention held in New York City. Recently, the piece was expanded to include a symphony orchestra. It has been recorded for CD and DVD release. He just finished a fusion project for Bill Evans, which featured bassist Mark Egan as well as drummer Dave Weckl. He is looking forward to working alongside young musicians like Matthias Schriefel, a German trumpet player/composer. Michael says, “I’m driven to insanity.” “I love challenges and planning how I will finish a new piece. Once I’m done, I forget about it and move on. “I have to clean my head!”

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