Composer Michael Colgrass remembered for bringing light touch to the orchestra

TORONTO — Michael Colgrass was a serious composer, but he also knew how to make audiences “laugh out loud,” his wife says.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning Toronto musician died at 87 on Tuesday after a battle with cancer, Ulla Colgrass said.

She said the American-born music writer and educator wouldn’t want people to mourn his loss, but rather connect with the joy he tried to spread through his music.

“People always think, oh, composing is very serious business,” said Ulla Colgrass, a music journalist. “He would write music that was outright funny sometimes.”

Born in Brookfield, Ill., on April 22, 1932, Colgrass fell in love with music upon discovering Chicago’s jazz scene as a child.

He enrolled in University of Illinois as a percussion student, but was about to drop out after finding the curriculum paled in comparison to his gigs at night, his wife recalled. A teacher told him if he was so unsatisfied with the school’s repertoire, he should write music of his own.

After graduating, he moved to New York to become a freelance composer, supporting himself by playing percussion for audiences on Broadway and in clubs with Dizzy Gillespie.

In 1974, Michael and Ulla Colgrass determined that the tri-state area was no place to raise their young son, Neal, and decided to move to Toronto after seeing the city featured on “60 Minutes.”

Her husband made a name for himself writing pieces for wind ensembles, Ulla Colgrass said, blending his jazz and classical influences to hone a distinctive “whimsical” style.

He fielded commissions from orchestras in Toronto, Ottawa, Boston, Washington and San Francisco.

In 1978, Colgrass won the Pulitzer Prize for Music for “Deja Vu,” commissioned by the New York Philharmonic.

But even as his star rose on the international stage, Colgrass never achieved the same recognition in Canada as he did south of the border, Ulla Colgrass said.

“The joke is that in the U.S., he’s Superman. In Canada, he’s Clark Kent,” she laughed.

Outside his career as a composer, Colgrass spoke and wrote about the psychology of performance, authoring books on the creative process and his personal journey.

He developed a system to help children discover the joy of writing music through improvised symbols rather than traditional notation, which he workshopped at schools in Toronto and Nova Scotia.

A passionate music teacher, Colgrass would spend hours with young students, regardless of whether they could pay for the sessions, Ulla Colgrass said.

“To him, they were as important as a rehearsal with the Boston Symphony,” she said. “He wanted them to develop their own voice.”

As illness wore away at his body, Colgrass was “ready to go” towards the end, Ulla Colgrass said, but she hopes his memory will live on through his compositions.

“Listen to his music, and wish him a good trip, wherever he is,” she said.

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