Jay Bocook - Renowned Composer, arranger and educator

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WWBW:  A lot of what we do here at Woodwind & Brasswind has to do with music in schools. What was your earliest music education? Was it in school?

JB: Both my mom and dad were musicians; not professional, but they had their own swing band back in the ‘40s. So I grew up around music. My dad played the saxophone and wrote arrangements, and I knew from an early age I wanted to play an instrument and be in the band.

WWBW:  So it was before school that the fire really got lit?

JB:  Somehow I knew early on. I didn't touch an instrument until the 5th grade when I started the saxophone, but I was always very interested in music.

WWBW:  Did you excel right off?

JB: I wasn't a prodigy by any means. I had some natural ability and I wasn't studying lessons privately or anything. But I was among the better players in the band.

WWBW: When did you start moving into harmony and theory and those pursuits?

JB:  Well, I had a very influential high school band director. He was my mentor, the one who really got me excited about studying music seriously. This was at Largo, Florida, Largo High School in Largo, Florida.

WWBW:  I do a lot of interviews with people in different disciplines within band and orchestra, and you would not believe how often that question is answered that way. "Well, there was this really influential band director."

JB: He insisted on excellence. He insisted on hard work. It took hard work to do what you had to do. It took being prepared, it took being curious. That was the big thing, being curious about music.

Also at that time I got into playing rock and roll guitar. It was big in the late 60's and early 70's, so I had my own band and I was going to be the world's greatest guitarist. Didn't work out that way. I still play to this day. He and I would get in huge discussions about rock and roll and if it was important, if it was going in any kind of direction, or if it was just a fad. So he was really my inspiration and why I wanted to major in music when I went to college.

WWBW:  He was open-minded about amplified electric music?

JB:  Well, he was and he wasn't. I would play him some progressive rock and he'd go, "Yeah, Gershwin already did that." He tried to fight it. I was all about it. So we kind of met in the middle and said, OK, there are some good things about it. Maybe it's not about the costume, maybe it's not about the volume. He was a good sport about it.

WWBW:  Was there anything you turned him on to within rock they made him sit up and take notice?

JB:  Yeah. It was Keith Emerson.

WWBW:  It's hard to say nay to that.

JB:  As soon as that came out and the synthesizer happened. I remember, specifically, he goes, "That sounds reminiscent of the licks that Gershwin used in some of his pieces." So that's one example.

WWBW:  Continue on with the education idea. How did you come to select Furman for your undergraduate career?

JB: As a boy becoming a man, I just wanted to leave home. Not that I didn't like Florida; quite the contrary. I had an incredible home life and great friends. It's just that I wanted to experience something else. So I applied to several places.

My high school guidance counselor had a picture postcard of Furman on his desk and he said he had visited. I saw it when I was in there and I asked him about it. It's a small, liberal arts private school. He goes, "Oh, you can't get in." And I'm, like, "What do you mean I can't get in?"

So I applied, and it just happened that the band, the Furman band, was touring in Florida that spring and played a concert in Orlando. My parents and I drove over and I caught the concert, and I really enjoyed the band. I met the band director. He said, "Oh, Furman would be a great fit for you, with what you're doing," because I was just starting to arrange music at that time.

Even in high school, I was starting to experiment with writing for marching bands and concert bands and whatever. And somehow, the band director at Furman at that time, Dan Ellis was his name, another mentor, I think he pulled some strings and got me in and got me a small scholarship. I went back to the guidance counselor and said, "Ha-ha. I did get in. And so I'm going to go there."

WWBW:  Sometimes a personal touch is what it takes.

JB: I think if I hadn't gone over there and met them, I doubt it would have happened.

WWBW: It's all seconds and inches. These major life decisions very often hinge on what are ostensibly tiny events.

JB:  That's correct. That's what I try to tell my students, too. These opportunities are going to happen in your life. You just have to realize what they are and you have to be prepared to say yes when they happen.

As it turned out, it was a perfect fit for me, the smaller school with a very good music department. I had a band director there who said styles were changing in marching band, and he was, like, "You want to write some music?" with me as a freshman and a sophomore. He said, "You go ahead and write, we'll play it."

WWBW:  Wow.

JB:  Yeah. How many people have that? He said, "I don't understand this new stuff that's going on, this new drum corps style, or whatever you want to call it. You want to try this, you go ahead." So I ended up writing all the music for the band for the last couple of years I was at school. That led to an appointment as an arranger in graduate school.

WWBW:  How did you come to select Monroe, ULM for your Masters?

JB:  That's interesting. Yet another mentor, Jack White, was the director at Monroe, a famed bandsman, great guy. Didn't know anything about him. But he was judging the South Carolina contest where the Furman band was doing an exhibition to try to recruit. I was the drum major and I had written the music, and he was talking to my band director and said, "Where did you get these charts?" My director told him that a kid in the band wrote them. He said, "Really? I wonder if he'd like to come do his graduate work at my school."

So I met him and he had this fantastic band program at that time in Louisiana, a huge marching band and everybody was on scholarship. But that's a time when nobody was on scholarship in college band, but they were.

And he had kids from all over the place in this band, and they could play anything. He said, "Your assistantship would only be to write for the band." I applied to a couple other graduate schools, but I didn't have any money from any of them. And here I had an opportunity to go down and expand on my craft, so I said yes.

That's kind of how it all happened for me. I went down, did my graduate work there, had a fabulous time with him and with that band, that fabulous band. He would do a demo record for recruiting purposes, like many bands still do, send out CDs or whatever. At that time, we made our own recording of these charts, and they had my name on them. An influential director at Theodore Frank Sheet Music in New Orleans had some band directors come in and say, "I've got these arrangements by this kid, and I want to buy them." The guy at Theodore Frank said, "These aren't published."

Step forward a year. I'm now a first-year teacher, brand new, in my first job at Travelers Rest High School, in South Carolina, a tiny little place right by Furman. In that fall, my first year, I get a call, letters from several publishers, and this music dealer in Louisiana says, "You write music, and we'd like to see it." Being a first-year teacher, I didn't have a portfolio, and I didn't send anything.

Then, a brand new company was starting called Jenson Publications. They'd only been in existence a couple of months. Actually, it was three gentlemen who left Hal Leonard to start their own publishing in Milwaukee, in the same town. John Higgins was one of the three guys, and he was their main arranger. He was the best arranger in the country at the time.

He calls my house one day in October, and goes, "You don't have to send anything up. I've heard your arrangements. We're a brand new company, and we want you. We'll pay you an advance against royalties, if you'll just write five charts a year for us." There's one of those stupid opportunities again.

So that was it. We did an album, and things went crazy. I did five charts, they all sold off the shelves, and I'm 24 years old.

I'm, like, "This is nuts." So, I never left. Within two years, they became the largest publisher of band and choral music in the world. Then, after nine years the three of them made their million and sold it back to Hal Leonard, and sold all their writers, too. And so now I'm back at Hal Leonard. So I've been with the same people since 1977 in the publishing business, basically.

WWBW:  Speaking of old friends, you're back at Furman, right?

JB:  Yes.

WWBW:  That must be an amazing feeling.

JB: I stayed as a high-school teacher for three years. And then Jenson Publications from Milwaukee, called me. Their concert band and marching band guy left to form his own company, and they asked me if I'd come be the director of concert band publications. I'd just taught—and still, in my 20 years, I've just taught three years—but how do you say not to the largest band company in the world asking you to be their concert band editor.

So I left and moved to Milwaukee for two years, and did that. We had a great time. We took completely new groundbreaking ideas with live recordings and state-of-the-art series, and all this stuff we were doing and just really solidified being the number one. My publications were still doing very well.

And Furman called and said, "Would you consider coming, being director of bands?" after just two years. So in 1982, I said, "Sure," and I went back to Furman. I was the director of bands for seven years, and that was great.

But during this time, the writing thing was getting bigger and bigger. So I decided to leave teaching in 1989. I was just a free-lance composer-arranger until 2000. I never left Greenville. I stayed in Greenville, South Carolina, because I love the area.

Well, in 2000, Furman called back, and said, "Would you come back? We really need you to come back." So I said, "Sure." I'd done the self-arranging for 11 years, and paying my own health care and all that.

WWBW: University environments are pretty wonderful. I always enjoyed it. I always saw the life of the professors as being an enviable one.

JB:  It's fantastic. And Furman's a fabulous place. The job that I'm doing now is different than the first time. I'm not director of bands. I'm director of athletic bands, so it's not as comprehensive. I still get at least two days at home a week to write. Sometimes three days a week. I teach the performing ensembles, the marching band, the basketball band. I teach orchestration.

WWBW:  You know, when they call you for a job, you get to call the shots a little bit.

JB:  That's correct. And just to have all the benefit plan in place that I don't have to pay for myself, is really worth it. So I've been there, back for the second time, well, the third time, if you count being a student, I've been back 16 years. It's been a fantastic relationship.

WWBW:  Is there a strategy you take when, say, you've got an assignment from Hal Leonard. I'd imagine that first you figure out what the size and the skill of the intended band that you're writing for. Is that kind of where you start?

JB:  Yeah. We've worked together for so long, we all know each other so well, we know what we're kind of good at, and what we're not as comfortable with. Basically, let's pick a brand new one, the "Star Wars" that came out at Christmas. We had that copyright, and, of course, we're going to do that, right? We know up front how many versions we're going to do of that. We're going to do one at grade 2, and one at grade 4, for example. And then maybe one, a flex band that you can do with orchestra or band. And then we kind of assign people who have strength in those areas.

I like to do the grade 4, grade 5 versions, in other words, kind of the real feel version of them. They're harder, but they sound more like the original. The Hal Leonard people knew that they were going to assign that to me before it even came up. So I know what the feel is for a grade 3 and a grade 4, and a grade 2. We have some written guidelines at Hal Leonard, but mostly it's just experience and feel for what that is. So you kind of know before you start the project, where you are.

WWBW:  When you start some of that, do you have scores, and then reduce it, or are you picking it off of recordings?

JB:  In the old days, I was transcribing it off of recordings. Little by little, scores began to appear, of John Williams, for example, and other movie scores. When they can get the score material. Now we're to the point where it's really pretty slick, because I actually get Finale files from the session.

WWBW:  Right.

JB:  So I had the Finale files of "Star Wars" by the time the movie opened. Having the sound files and the PDFs or Finale files really helps.

WWBW:  It's also got to be an awesome feeling, that, it's less tangible in that it's a digital file, but it's kind of like holding a John Lennon guitar or something.

JB: It is! And I've been very fortunate, and I've worked with John Williams on several occasions. We're not close friends, but we know each other, and he's comfortable with my work. We worked for the President's Own, the Marine band for two concerts at the Kennedy Center, where he was the guest conductor. Paul Lavender and I were the main ones who transcribed his movie scores for the Marine Band. So we've worked together. He's seen how I approach it and he's pleased. At least, I think, he's pleased.

WWBW: That had to be intimidating. ­

JB: You're sitting there with the Marine Band, the big table laid out, and John Williams is five feet from you, conducting now. You figure he's going to turn around at some point and go, "Which one of you did this?"

WWBW:  Yeah. [laughs]

JB:  "What were you thinking here?" But that didn't happen. He seemed very . . .

WWBW:  I'm sure that for a really accomplished composer, who's on top to the world, to have his or her works reinterpreted, he's got to be hoping he's not going to wince.

JB: That's right. No composer wants to have his music improved by an arranger.

WWBW:  Yeah.

JB:  You just try to be as faithful as you can, without being silly. There are some things the orchestra can do that the band just can't do, and you just don't do those things if they can't. You know, we try, but you don't want to be silly about it. He totally gets that. And, in fact, he even said to us, "You guys did the right things." He says, "If I were doing this, I wouldn't have tried to do that, because you can't do that with a band," kind of thing.

WWBW:  I would imagine that within that, that's really where the artistry and the artistic satisfaction lies, is making it uncommon, while not violating the spirit of the composition.

JB: You have to make some – I don't want to say painful – decisions sometimes, but you have to make some hard decision based on reality and sonic properties.

WWBW:  So you're a Finale user?

JB:  I am. I have been since 1990. It was pretty early on, then.

WWBW:  Do you use the Garritan library in there, or do you go to any external MIDI sounds?

JB:  Believe it or not, I'm still pretty old school when it comes to this. I don't even run the sounds at all.

WWBW:  Really?

JB:  I run the sounds out of my synth. I have a great Yamaha synth, and I use one of its cool piano sounds through my stereo system. It's got a little reverb to the sound. It's got a little out of phase pitching, it has sustain. It's just a piano sound, but with some body and some sustain and some bite.

WWBW:  So you're hearing all the instrumentation on piano only.

JB: I know what the instruments sound like, and every time I tried to use the Garritan and the other sounds, I just spend so much time trying to get it to balance and sound realistic. Some of my customers really wish that I did use the sounds, because they're used to hearing them from everybody else. But to me, I can compose and arrange better just hearing all the piano notes, because I can hear everything equally, and I know what's important and what's not out of that.

WWBW:  Cool. Now this is maybe a selfish question, because I play trumpet. I've been writing some charts, and they're just horrible. I'm just trying to write three horns in an R&B kind of pop context. They just always sound wrong. Is there a book I need to get that would give me . . .

JB:  What, who are you writing for? Trumpet and tenor and trombone?

WWBW:  Yeah.

JB:  That Chicago thing?

WWBW:  Yeah.

JB: No, I don't think there's any real secret. I think the best book for scoring this kind of stuff is the Sammy Nestico book. I think it's a Kendor. It may be even out of print, but maybe not. And then Mancini's book is good, too.


JB:  But really, just copying those guys. Copying those Motown bands, and copying Chicago.

WWBW:  And then you start to see some consistencies.

JB:  Yeah. Put the tenor and the trombone in the same octave, and the trumpet an octave above. Sometimes they're all in the same octaves. And you make the triad when you have to. I'm sure your charts aren't all . . . [laughs]

WWBW:  Oh, yeah. You've got to hear them. They're awful.

JB:  [laughs]

WWBW:  What about composing? That's a beast apart from arranging. Arranging being, maybe, a science, and composing more being the art perhaps?

JB: I look at it as arranging being the craft, and composing being the art. Arranging is a craft. Well, composing is, too, but arranging is all craft. It's really exploring, and knowing and being curious about new vocabulary, exploring new possibilities. Because you already have the chart. When you arrange, the chart's already there. It's a question of what are you going to bring to it to make it interesting on whatever level you're trying. Usually an arrangement is for an event or an ensemble. People don't arrange things just for posterity. They do it for specific things. So what are the requirements of this group or event that you're writing for.

WWBW:  So it's almost kind of writing backwards, from the event.

JB:  That's correct.

WWBW: Do you do any composition of an orchestral depth, like a long symphonic piece?

JB:  I just finished one for our local, and very good, youth orchestra here in Greenville. It was a commission from them. It's not that long. It's only a five-minute work. It's an opener for them, but, yeah, it's full orchestral. I don't get that many opportunities for that medium because orchestras don't ask for new music as much as bands do.

I'm doing way more composing now than I ever have. I never thought I would end up being a composer. I was kind of thrown into it. It was, like, "Yeah. You're going to write. You're going to do this. I want you to do this thing. You've been arranging for so long." Composing, at first, was much more time-intensive than arranging, because you're having to make every decision. In arranging, you only have to make some decisions. It's one of those love/hate relationships. You hate it while you're going through it, you're miserable. But you're very happy and elated when you're done.

It really, if you're a depressed person, it's not good to be a composer, just because of these mood swings you go through, the highs and lows. You know, I need another cup of coffee because I've got to get through this. It's really different but, again, it's very rewarding, because it's something that's brand new.

WWBW:  We're going to go back in time a little bit. Talk about that first commission from the Olympics. It was 1984, right?

JB:  That one was the first theme that John Williams wrote for any Olympics, which, he basically owns all of them now. But that was the first one. Jenson Publications, which I was working for at that time, was able to get the copyright, and I was their big marching band guy at the time. The Olympic band they were putting together in LA needed a version of this tune. So they commissioned me to write this for publication, but the band would use it at all the live events at the games. It was kind of a win/win for me, because I didn't just write it for the Olympic band. It became the published version.

WWBW:  Was it your relationship with John Williams rather than with the IOC that resulted in these subsequent commissions?

JB:  Actually, no. My personal relationship with John Williams didn't start until 2003. The 1996 games in Atlanta, the same thing happened there. I got commissioned by the Olympic Arts Committee in Atlanta to do a concert band piece for a four-year celebration of the arts that they had during that time. I did the piece for them, and it was called "Under One Flag." It's just a celebratory, Olympic-style concert band piece that they could play at concerts preceding the games. That also happened in the Salt Lake City games. The director of the Olympic band commissioned me to do the piece for the performing group at the games.

Also, in 1996, the Cadets Drum and Bugle Corps, who I write for, played the closing ceremonies. They started the closing ceremonies in the Atlanta games. And because I was their arranger, it made sense for me to do some more music for that. So, again, the IOC kind of gave us free reign to do whatever we wanted to do to start that show off. We did it with some marches, some "Stars and Stripes," and some "Semper Fidelis." I also did some of the sound bytes, 30-second John Williams fanfares that he had written also for that group.

WWBW: I did a little bit of research on you, and there's one consistent thing that people talk about, is the sound of your brass arrangements. How does an arranger find a signature sound, or do you think you have one? Is it consistency of the density of the harmony, or recurring dynamics?

JB:  I tell my students all the time, because I thought, just like you just asked, when I was growing up, I thought I would just go to clinics with the great arrangers/composers, and ask them how they get their sound. Every time I did that, they would all look at me, and go, "There's no secret to this." The secret is to use the harmonic series. It's there for a reason, because it exists. So you score by using the natural harmonic series.

What I tell my students is, really, because when they take independent studies with me they always ask, "How do I score to get this?" I'm, like, "It's not how you write. It's what you write." There's no secret to how. The secret is what is the material is. That's what makes it exciting and tuneful from the listener's standpoint. You choose the right material to write, and then just score it, like you would, naturally, for the instrument.

There is no secret to, oh, if you double this, or don't double this. I don't really worry much about that. You just get the instruments in ranges where they really speak, and then make sure you're using the right material. And then, of course, you obviously have to be careful about the keys you're in, depending on the groups you're writing for. With professional groups, that doesn't matter. But, certainly, with school groups, you need to try to find keys that traditionally work best. B flat, E flat, F, for winds.

WWBW:  What's next for Mr. Bocook?

JB:  It's crazy as ever.

WWBW:  More of the same?

JB:  More of the same. I just finished this orchestral piece at the end of the year. And then a Marine Drum and Bugle Corps out of Washington, commissioned me to write the last five minutes of their performance show, which is a show about Respighi, all the great Respighi hits. So I just finished a five-minute work for the Marine Drum and Bugle Corps. They're trying to become more contemporary in their approach while maintaining the standard marches and ceremonial music they play. I just finished that.

I have two more concert bands commissions in the works that are both due by the end of next year. Usually September is my best month to write commissioned pieces. I'm still writing for three drum and bugle corps, the Cadets. They're Cadets 2, which is their senior corps version of that, and then the Blue Knights out of Denver, Colorado.

WWBW:  What's the state of competitive of DCI, etc., these days? Bigger and better than ever?

JB:  Well, it's better than ever. It's not bigger than ever, because it's an expensive business. Thirty years ago, 40 years ago, there were little drum and bugle corps in every town in the world. Now we're down to 25 or whatever it is, because they travel all summer. It's a multi-million dollar business. The mom and pop guys are gone, so it's just the big boys. But the big boys are better than ever. The talent is fabulous. These kids are all music and music ed majors from universities in the top groups. Thirty years ago, they didn't read music. They were just community kids just learning to play their instruments for the first time.

Now these kids are all going to be band directors. They want to really learn how to do this, so they all march a year or two with a drum corps to see what that's like. So the state of the art is quite good. It is expensive. Who knows how long it will keep going, with how expensive it is. But, yeah, it's still quite good. The top groups are absolutely fabulous.

WWBW: Is there anything that I might have missed?

JB:  No. I'd love to see it when you get it done. I'm sure you'll do a great job.

WWBW:  Yeah. I tidy it up. I take out "ums" and "ers", and make sure that we both sound like we have a brain left in our heads.

JB:  [laughs] I know. It's been a pleasure talking to you. It really has.

WWBW:  Thanks very much.

JB:  I look forward to it.

WWBW:  OK. Take care. We'll be in touch.