Michael Colgrass, Composer Who Transcended Genres, Dies at 87

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“I went out on the floor and stood there a moment looking at the students,” he wrote. “Then I undressed and stood on my head. There was a wave of murmuring, and the room got very quiet. I somersaulted, fell onto one shoulder, rolled to the other, raised my body on my forearms and shook my feet in the air, twisted, stretched and arched like a cat and collapsed motionless on the floor.”

When he finished, he told the students: “Your body is the first musical instrument ever invented. Like any instrument, it has to be tuned. That’s what I just did, and I’m going to show you how to do it.”

Michael Charles Colgrass Jr. was born in Brookfield, Ill., a village in the Chicago area, on April 22, 1932. His father was an Italian immigrant who had changed the family name from Colagrossi when he was working as a professional boxer; helater worked as a postmaster. His mother, Ann (Hand) Colgrass, was a homemaker.

Mr. Colgrass wrote in his memoir, “Adventures of an American Composer” (2010), that his family had not at all been musical. But when he was 10, he saw the film “Reveille With Beverly,” in which the drummer Ray Bauduc and the bassist Bob Haggart perform “Big Noise From Winnetka.” It set his mind on becoming a jazz drummer.

When he asked for a drum kit, his father insisted that he earn the money for it, which he did by persuading a local golf club to hire him as a caddy. He started his first band, Three Jacks and a Jill, when he was 11. The band, which also included a trumpeter, a pianist and an accordionist, played jazz standards at school dances and assemblies, and eventually at adult venues like the Kiwanis Club.

Mr. Colgrass enrolled at the University of Illinois as a percussion student in 1950. But when he complained to his teacher, Paul Price, that he found the school’s band repertoire boring, Mr. Price suggested that he take up composition. His first piece, “Three Brothers” (1951), for percussion, won the approving attention of John Cage during one of his visits to Chicago. It is still performed.


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