Why I write Large Ensemble Music

My first real career goal was to be the drummer in Woody Herman's big band. I actually got a short taste of this in 1982 at the age of 14, when Woody's band did a weeklong summer workshop at SUNY Binghamton. During the final student concert, I got to play Woody's theme song, “Blue Flame "with Woody. One year later Al Hamme (our local jazz guru) brought Bob Brookmeyer for the same workshop and I heard some of Bob's music for the first time, like “Hello and Goodbye” which I still distinctly remember all these years later. Bob’s music resonated strongly with me and felt close to my heart and spirit.

Around that same time, Maynard Ferguson's band used to roar into town about once a year, an incredibly powerful experience for a young lad like myself, plus I was hearing my brother Pat Hollenbeck’s Medium Rare Big Band of the New England Conservatory every year or so. Pat started this band as a student and then continued to lead it as a faculty member. Because of his arranging style and eclectic taste, that band played a little bit of everything and it impressed me that the band had such an wide range of emotion and texture. As a listener and then later a composer, I found I naturally reside in this sort of wide-open realm where anything is possible.

I grew up with some great musicians in Binghamton, NY, and a great many of them later became professional musicians (Dena DeRose, Tony Kadleck, Steve Davis, Tom Dempsey, and Kris Jensen, to name a few.) Some of that crew started getting together over the weekends in junior high to play our school big band music, which gave me the idea that I could one day play in a professional big band. With my brother's encouragement and record collection, I also caught the writing bug and started to think about and compose (very naively at first!) for big band. I continued to play in big bands throughout high school, college, and into my early years in NYC and also continued with my attempts at composition. I got to be known in some circles as a "big band drummer." The major part of this experience was my time as the drummer for Bob Brookmeyer's New Art Orchestra which started around 1995.

In a real sense, I had met my goal of being a drummer in an important big band, yet I was not fully satisfied with just being the drummer. It has always been natural for me to ask "what if?” so after playing a good amount of big band music, I started to really think about what was not being composed for this kind of ensemble. The music of my brother, Bob Brookmeyer and Muhal Richard Abrams, and especially a lecture Muhal gave at a Banff Summer Jazz Workshop, all gave me the courage to write for this range of instruments but without the conventions of a big band. I began to approach this range of instruments more as a wind ensemble or large ensemble and sought ways of answering the question “what if?” I never had a problem letting go of the traditional "big band" because I wanted my music to resonate as is, free of genre and tradition. This is what I like to hear - something new and different, maybe not revolutionary, but definitely something I have not heard before. I do truly love the big band and jazz tradition, but ever since I heard my first jazz record, I defined “jazz” as the unknown, the mysterious music of the future. And that is the music that I naturally try to write - music that may not have tangible posts to hold on to; music that may sometimes be strange at first listen; but music that I hope, when approached with an open heart and mind may in some way elevate the listener’s spirit and bring some goodness to this world.

—John Hollenbeck