Steve Kujala (1973) Saxophone and Flute
Autobiographical Sketch – A Testimonial
Ed. Note: Steve Kujala was a member of the 1972, and 1973, New Trier West Recording Jazz Ensembles. He traveled, with the jazz ensemble, on a tour of Europe, which included the famed Montreux High School Jazz Competition.
At that competition Steve was the winner of the ’best flute’ award. In addition, Steve was promoted to be a Student Director of the jazz ensemble in 1973. In that capacity he directed, and taught, members of the Lab Jazz Ensemble, and in doing so imbedded himself in the hearts of a number of younger players, some of who later went on to music careers as he has done. Finally, Steve was the recipient of the Downbeat Magazine Student Jazz Composer Award, for his composition Outta Gas as well as the American Music Foundation Award.
It was suggested that I have a ‘Story That Needs To Be Told.’ Actually, each and every Recording Jazz Ensemble Alumnus has such a story! I was prevailed upon to write this sketch as a way of resurrecting an era lost during the merger of my high school with our sister school. While writing this, memories of some fifty years ago almost magically came to life again. The easiest way for me to start this ‘story’ is with some fond recollections.
I grew up in a classical music family. My father, Walfrid Kujala, was the principal piccolo of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Professor of Flute at Northwestern University. My mother, Alice, was a Suzuki violin teacher in the Winnetka, Illinois public school district. I began my musical upbringing studying piano at five years of age, and flute when I was ten. After ‘Beatlemania’ hit the U.S., I added guitar when I was eleven.
During the summer of 1969, right after eighth grade, I decided I would quit the flute, grow long hair, and be a rock ’n roll guitarist. Mercifully, those hopes were dashed when Roger Mills, Director of the Jazz Ensemble and Samuel Mages, Director of the Orchestra, made an appearance in my freshman year homeroom.
A little backstory here: Roger had studied, in the flute methods class, with my father at Northwestern. Sam was our neighbor, five houses down on Ash Street. My orchestra teacher at Washburn Jr. High was Dr. Milton Goldberg, who was a good friend of Sam’s, and also my mother’s mentor in the Suzuki Violin program, just getting underway in Winnetka, Illinois. Unbeknownst to me, by exploiting these myriad connections my parents persuaded Roger and Sam to stage an ‘intervention’ in my homeroom. (Roger insists it was in a study hall. Who knows; it might as well have been ‘Breakfast Club!’ But I digress…)
First, Sam ‘drafted’ me into the orchestra (and in so doing, renewed my childhood quest to follow in my father’s footsteps). Later that year, Roger invited me to join the Neophonic Jazz Ensemble (an offshoot of the NTW Recording Jazz Ensemble), which needed a flutist for a chart by Russ Garcia called Adventures in Emotion: Pathos. That was my entree into the world of Jazz, and with Roger’s encouragement I picked up the tenor sax that summer, studying with John Vames.
Within a couple of years, I worked my way up through the Lab Jazz Band, Orchestra, Chamber Orchestra and other ensembles, eventually playing first flute in the Orchestra and landing a spot in the sax section of the New Trier West Recording Jazz Ensemble. Additionally, I was given the honor of becoming one of the Student Directors of both the Lab Jazz Ensemble and the Recording Jazz Ensemble during my senior year.
Alongside all of these curricular pursuits was my extra-curricular activity: playing rhythm guitar, Farfisa organ, flute and tenor in a rock band, doing group originals and Jethro Tull covers. Thus, the roots of my eclecticism and versatility were firmly planted and nurtured – as were the roots of my hair, which I grew long after all! I was taking full advantage of everything New Trier West had to offer, which also included music theory, jazz improvisation and arranging, all taught enthusiastically by Roger Mills. During that period of time New Trier was generally rated the #1 high school in the country for Music/Drama/Arts.
In 1972 the New Trier West Recording Jazz Ensemble was chosen as one of ten bands, after prolonged competition with many bands from all over the country, to appear and compete at the first ever high school jazz competition. That final competition was to take place in Switzerland at the famed Montreux Jazz Festival. Excited, we all worked hard to raise money, while at the same time raising our game, and we ultimately raised our mugs in celebration. Our Jazz Ensemble won first place, was voted the most exciting band of the entire competition, and our musicians won nine out of the fifteen Best Soloist Awards. Les McCann presented the awards and personally presented me with the Best Flute award. Upon arrival home, a police escort led us back to our school for a dignitary led celebration. During the tour we performed in Switzerland, Germany, Amsterdam, and France. Quite a tour that was!
Though that tour was definitely the highlight of my Jazz Ensemble tenure, my big band chart Outta Gas, performed, and recorded by the Jazz Ensemble, came in a close second during my senior year. Who would have guessed that running out of gas on the way to a jazz ensemble rehearsal would inspire a chart that would win the Downbeat Magazine Student Jazz Composer Award? (And who would have guessed that 50 years later, as a Tesla owner I would experience so-called “range anxiety”! Perhaps someday I’ll find occasion write a sequel to ‘Outta Gas.’ I’ll call it “Outta Volts”!) In addition, I received the American Music Foundation Award which was presented for excellence in Modern American Music.
Meanwhile, in my parallel life as principal flute of Sam’s orchestra and chamber orchestra, I had the honor and thrill of performing with the NTW Chamber Orchestra, J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 for two flutes and violin, along with my father playing the first flute part, and my sister as the solo violinist. Later, I was honored to play the North American debut of Otar Gordelli’s Concerto for Flute and Orchestra with the full orchestra. My father had discovered the score and parts to this 1958 composition in the Library of Congress, and soon published it himself.
To further advance my orchestral training, I also performed during my senior year with the Chicago Youth Orchestra and the Chicago Summer Civic Orchestra. These ensembles represented the creme de la creme of the Chicago area’s high school and college musicians, respectively.
Admitted to the Eastman School of Music in the fall of ’73, I set aside my other instruments and committed myself to intensive flute study with my father’s former teacher and mentor, Joseph Mariano. At the end of my freshman year, Mariano retired unexpectedly, and for my sophomore year my father regained his role as my teacher when he was hired as ‘visiting professor’, commuting from Winnetka to Rochester every Sunday. I studied with the future legendary James Galway during my junior year.
But alas, my parallel life intervened once again, when Eastman’s burgeoning Jazz and Contemporary Media Program proved too much to resist. In a deja vu of my freshman year at New Trier, I was ‘drafted’ into the #2 Jazz Band. Apparently someone tipped off the jazz faculty that I played some ‘swingin’ tenor and could ‘double’ on flute (even though sax was actually my ‘double’). My three years at Eastman were, for all practical purposes, an exact duplicate of my New Trier years.
I played in two jazz ensembles, took courses in improvisation and arranging, and performed in festivals. We won the ’75 Notre Dame Collegiate Jazz Festival, taking home all the major awards, just like the NTW Recording Jazz Ensemble did in Montreux, ’72. Jazz Flutist extraordinaire Hubert Laws himself presented me the award for ‘Best Jazz Flutist’.
In 1976, my jazz-rock fusion group, Auracle, decided to leave Eastman and move to Los Angeles: “The Recording Capitol of the World”. As the youngest member, I took a leave-of-absence, never to return. After numerous and obligatory major label showcases and rejections, we were finally signed to Jethro Tull’s record label Chrysalis, via our publishing deal with The Beatles’ North American publisher, ATV Music. Our debut album, Glider, was released in 1977 and the label sent us on a promotional tour which included my return visit to the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1977. (Our performance on the Casino stage was videotaped for TV broadcast, along with all the other artists at the festival – and I have a VHS copy of Auracle’s segment. What a shame that no video exists of our New Trier West Recording Jazz Ensemble performance from 1972….or does it?)
Thus began a 45-year professional career during which time I had the pleasure of working for, and alongside of, many of the guest artists and composers whose charts and appearances I benefited from at New Trier and Eastman.
A couple of fond memories
Clare Fischer wrote a chart called The Duke which we performed at NTW. On a TV session in the late 70’s, I decided to introduce myself to him by playing, during a ten-minute break, the opening to that chart on flute. He was duly impressed that I knew the chart! A few years later I did a lot of work for Pete Myers on a show called Dynasty. Back in the 60’s Pete had written his famous arrangement of Love for Sale, for Buddy Rich, that both the 1970 New Trier West ‘Mexico Band’ and the 1972 ‘Montreux Band’ played and recorded. I got to perform that, a few decades later, at a party at Family Guy (a show I played on for 18 seasons) creator Seth MacFarlane’s house. The band included several Buddy Rich alumni, including lead trumpeter Chuck Findley.
The Chick Corea Years
In 1980, Joe Farrell was leaving the Chick Corea band mid-tour, and they needed a replacement. Chick knew me from the Auracle album, and his trumpet player, Al Vizzutti, knew me from Eastman. I got a call from Chick to come and rehearse with the Tap Step band for a few days, and to perform three nights at The Roxy in Hollywood. Joe played the first night while I looked on from the wings; Joe and I alternated and played together the second night; the third night I was on my own. I finished out the U.S. tour with them, and that turned into a five-year association with several different configurations of Chick’s bands. These included, at various times, percussionist Don Alias and flamenco guitarist Paco DeLucia. Hard to believe that Chick, Joe, Don, and Paco are all gone: musical giants, mentors, and gentlemen all…
Interestingly, Chick’s and my 1984 duet improv tour, and ECM recording, was the natural culmination of the numerous duet improv interludes that Chick and I did during the group tours. Even more interesting: the seeds for that collaboration were actually planted back in the summer of 1972, after my junior year at NTW, when the first ever flute/piano improv that I attempted was during the opening of my recital. Bill Purse (NTW jazz alumnus) was my piano accompanist at Northwestern’s Lutkin Hall. We opened the ‘show’ with a completely unrehearsed and spontaneous free improv for flute and a borrowed Fender Rhodes electric piano! This not only loosened us up for the rather difficult standard flute repertoire that followed, but stood me in good stead in the early 80’s when Chick and I began to explore our duet improvisations.
Chick’s and my ECM duet recording, Voyage, was nominated for a Grammy in ’85. Sadly, the live double-album that we recorded in Frieburg, Germany, was never released due to the fact that the distributor, Warner Brothers, was a direct competitor of CBS Records. CBS had signed me as a solo artist in 1986, once again after rejections from seven or eight other major labels! And, the president of ATV Music publishing, which was about to be sold to Michael Jackson, arranged a solo publishing deal for me with a Toronto-based publisher, TMP, helmed by Canada’s sub-publisher for ATV. My CBS contract had a ‘non-compete’ clause which prohibited me from appearing as a named, featured soloist on any competing label – like ECM’s distributor Warner’s – so that duet concert has been languishing in a vault somewhere for the past thirty-seven years. Maybe it will be released someday.
Nevertheless, my Fresh Flute album was released in late January 1986. It featured nine of my original compositions and one by Bill Purse, who I had engaged to be my pianist/synthesist, arranger and producer. The two most seminal cuts on the record were Tutti Flutti, featuring no less than 126 tracks of overdubbed flutes and piccolos, and the Fretless Flute Song, which utilized a new technique I had perfected.
About the Fretless Flute Technique
I began developing the Fretless Flute technique in the summer of 1974, while on summer break from Eastman. Similar to a ‘whammy bar’ on the electric guitar, the ‘Fretless Electric Bass’ pioneered by Jaco Pastorius, or a pitch-bend wheel on a keyboard synthesizer, this technique allowed me to bend notes on my modern flute over wide intervals.
After the critically acclaimed release of the Fresh Flute album, I received numerous offers to record with other artists, featuring my ‘fretless’ technique. I soon became known in the flute world as ‘the guy that bends notes on the flute.’ Bill and I recorded and produced a follow up album a year later, but that was never released due to the Sony buyout of CBS, which resulted in numerous artists and executives being dropped from the new label.
I was soon signed to an independent, LA-based label, and put out a few more self-produced CD’s, but by then I had a growing family (which now includes two grown daughters and four grandchildren), and in addition, had gained entree into the highly coveted Hollywood recording scene. With my Chick Corea sideman years and my solo artist career behind me, I began working my way up the ladder in the L.A. studios. I started with TV sessions, on some fifty different series, and ‘graduated’ to motion pictures, playing on over six hundred soundtracks to date. As of this writing (Dec. 2021), the newest of those films, Spider-man: No Way Home, was recently released, and we are just finishing Lightyear, the Pixar spinoff of the character Buzz Lightyear from the original Toy Story (which I also played on back in 1995!) for a summer ’22 release. Both of those scores were composed by Michael Giacchino.
My most interesting and creative work can be heard on thirty-five or so movies scored by composer Thomas Newman, who featured me performing on various flutes (including my ethnic flutes), while utilizing my extended flute techniques, such as the ‘Fretless’ technique, whistle- tones and others. Each new project began with a couple of months of small group ‘pre-records,’ with six or seven of us improvising within a well-defined structure. This was followed by as many as two weeks of double sessions with a full orchestra. Fun, creative times!
Overlapping with the movie work (my ‘day job’) came an 18-year run at The Pantages Theater (my ‘after-hours job’!), where I was the principal flute in the pit orchestra, performing for a couple of dozen Broadway touring shows. My favorite was a two plus year run with The Lion King, for which I played on fourteen different flutes, modern and ethnic. ‘Hakuna Matada’!
For twenty-seven summers I was principal piccolo with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. (The Bowl was the Hollywood equivalent of Ravinia.) Additionally, as a staff writer for Killer Tracks in Hollywood, I composed nearly a hundred ‘production library tracks’ – including one which became the theme song for the Lexus December to Remember ad campaign, now in its 22nd year.
Now that I am semi-retired from free-lance work, I am pursuing one of my longest-running ambitions: writing a Musical. It is based on Mozart’s opera, The Magic Flute, featuring the theme and technique from my Fretless Flute Song. Now entitled The Magic Flute Song, it features a wonderful lyric written by my collaborator, lyricist Teri Desario. To date we have finished eleven songs, with eight or nine more to go. After that we will begin the long, arduous process of developing it and pitching it to producers from regional theaters and Broadway. Exciting, and daunting at the same time.
Credit Where Credit Is Due
Were it not for my parents, Walfrid and Alice, my mentors, Roger Mills and Sam Mages, and my Eastman connections, it is fascinating to contemplate what my life would have been without them. Quite different for sure! I am eternally indebted to each of them for their nurturing, steady influence, and mentorship.
A Final Thought
I am one of the original TEAM members who worked on the idea and development of this website, that has been titled A Story That Needs To Be Told. I hope that this story brings back to all my fellow NTW Jazz Ensemble members our many great memories, as it has done for me. We were all fortunate to be on a team, with a determined focus, wonderful accomplishments and a great deal of camaraderie, while at the same time receiving an education that has been a continuing force throughout our lives. I am indebted to every member of the New Trier West High School Recording Jazz Ensemble that I was privileged to know, learn, and to perform with. I remember you all well! We were also incredibly lucky that Roger has preserved all these pictures, recordings, film, and mementos of that seminal time in our lives.
Steve Kujala, Los Angeles, December 2021