William (Bill) Susman (1978) Piano, Composer
Autobiographical Sketch

Ed. Note: William (Bill) Susman was a member of the 1976, 1977, and 1978 NTW Recording Jazz Ensembles. In 1978 he received the Samuel A. Mages Award, presented for excellence in musical performance. In addition, he received the prestigious American Music Foundation Award presented for ‘Excellence in Modern American Music.’

Bill Susman in 1978

First some background and context. I began piano lessons at age 7. Not an uncommon occurrence. My older brother, sister, and I were required to take lessons from the profoundly gifted, patient, and kind Sarah Guroff. I was the one that stuck with it. By age 12 (1972), I had reached a tipping point. I had been introduced to a requisite sampling of eurocentric composers and could play them proficiently, yet I was losing interest; I did not exhibit any traits that shouted here is a gifted classical pianist. I needed something different to keep me engaged. Fortunately, my brother, John (1975), who was three years older, played drums in Roger Mills’ jazz band at New Trier West High School and I went to see the band perform at a school concert. I was hooked and wanted more. I was lucky that there was a jazz piano teacher in the area named John Vames. (My brother left the band shortly thereafter to focus on recording music in a program also founded by Roger Mills called Soundtraks).

Looking back, my brother must have asked Mr. Mills for a name, and John Vames was recommended. From my first lesson, I loved the sound of the chords, the approach of building them called open position chord voicing and, most importantly, the tradition of the ‘American Songbook.’ Within a year, I was playing parties for friends and family. By the time I entered New Trier West, I was excited to play in the jazz ensemble and was studying piano with Alan Swain. (Mr. Vames, who was an outstanding Chicago saxophonist, suggested it was time to move on.) I mention this story to demonstrate the reach Roger Mills had in the community and as an educator. His influential program, that he founded some years earlier (1966), extended to middle school 7th graders!

Throughout high school, Mr. Mills pushed us to play challenging pieces and to improvise. To become a better improviser and more technically adept, I started studying classical again (Bud, Oscar, Art and Bill; Herbie, Chick, Keith and McCoy all had deep classical roots and were an inspiration to go further). By age 15, I had a greater appreciation of the western classical tradition and better understood how music was a continuum reaching back centuries. Observing and jamming with the juniors and seniors in the NTW Recording Jazz Ensemble, and the Creative Jazz Ensemble, inspired me to practice more, listen to recordings, go to the Jazz Showcase, in Chicago, as often as possible and study with other local jazz greats.

From Alan Swain, I learned modern jazz; from Willie Pickens, bebop; and from Steve Behr, stride. In addition, I studied traditional music theory with Ralph Dodds a professor from Roosevelt University. For three consecutive summers I attended Jamey Aebersold’s jazz workshop at Northern Illinois University and was fortunate to have combo leaders such as Joanne Brackeen, Dave Liebman and Woody Shaw. Among the many jazz greats milling about with whom I had a chance to mingle with were Eddie Gomez, James Williams, and Ronnie Matthews. These were masters I had heard at the Jazz Showcase and other Chicago venues! All of these experiences were guided by the goal of excelling as a player.

From an early age, I was focused, driven, and challenged. The question is why? I simply loved the music, and Roger Mills gave us a means and platform to express ourselves. He was the founder, in 1966, of a jazz program, at New Trier West, that encouraged and pushed us to work hard and excel. In some ways it was a precursor to El Sistema, a publicly funded Venezuelan classical music-education program founded in 1975 by José Antonio Abreu. As with El Sistema’s national influence in Venezuela, hundreds of jazz bands throughout the US were modeled on the New Trier West Jazz program. Roger Mills normalized jazz ensemble as part of the high school educational landscape. The band was competitive and finding a teacher was essential to getting a chair in the band. Roger connected us with some of the best players in Chicago. Many of the players in our band had the opportunity to take lessons with these outstanding musicians after school in the music building’s practice rooms. (Our high school had a building dedicated to the arts. It was an unusual and rare public high school institution.) NTW also gave me the opportunity to compose the annual high school musical my senior year, a yearly tradition called Potpourri that brought together students in theater, music and dance.

Roger even started an after-school combo practice to work on improvisational skills and small ensemble performance. We were all practicing and developing study habits and as Mr. Mills used to say, “a seriousness of purpose.” Roger brought a uniquely American music tradition to us. It was our responsibility to run with it. For me, interacting and listening to the older students such as Mark Kupferberg, Don Robin, John Berman and Mike Friedman were an essential part of motivating and inspiring me. A core philosophy of El Sistema is older students guiding and coaching younger students, and Roger encouraged and supported this interaction through the after-school combo program, through the creation of the Student Director Program, and through promoting younger players when a chair opened in the Recording Jazz Ensemble.

In essence, Roger Mills taught us responsibility to ourselves and to our band members. This core value was an unspoken mission statement. For some of us, music became our careers. Whether or not we chose music as a life pursuit, Roger Mills’ jazz program taught us to work as a team as well as independently. Because I was not a naturally gifted pianist, nor an improviser or composer with innate skills, I had to practice and study long hours. Through perseverance and a group effort, we achieved a unified sound and improvisation skills very few high school bands, let alone college programs, display. This visionary program brought us to a level of excellence that, for me, translated into a driven and goal-setting work ethic in college and beyond.

By my sophomore year in college, I knew I wanted to major in music. I attended Tulane University for a year- and-a half and had the good fortune to have an outstanding classical piano teacher named Robert Hirsch. He introduced me to the music of Ginastera, Messiaen, Scriabin, and Webern, and I fell in love with their sound. Also, at that time John Cage and his seminal writing Silence had a strong pull over my aesthetic and the small pieces I composed on my own. In the second semester of my sophomore year, I transferred to the University of Illinois, at Champaign-Urbana, with a focus on music composition. I also wanted to continue my piano studies and it was necessary to audition for a teacher. Robert Hirsh had prepped me well for this process. In front of the University of Illinois piano faculty, as was required, I played one piece each from the Baroque, Classical, Romantic and 20th Century periods. Most likely having bored them with my average renditions of the three B’s, I enthusiastically jumped into my 20th century piece. Their ears perked up when I announced I would play Webern’s op. 27. (Most of the students were playing Debussy, whose rhythmic gesture is firmly rooted in the 19th century.) I mention this audition story only because they also wanted us to play something by ear and asked me to play America (My Country ‘Tis of Thee). I think they also enjoyed the jazz voicings, walking 10ths and improv because before they shut the door to confer – as they had been doing with the other auditions – I was ‘awarded’ the opportunity to study with a piano teacher in addition to composition studies. I was assigned a wonderful classical teacher named Kenneth Drake, who specialized in Beethoven. He even owned a vintage Broadwood piano from the classical period. I also studied with a fine jazz pianist on the faculty named Tony Caramia.

Throughout my time at the U of I, I continued to play in jazz combos at local pubs et al., but my main focus was the study of contemporary classical composition. For just a moment, I considered playing in the jazz band at the U of I, but when I heard them, I knew I had already had that experience. At New Trier West, the material we covered and the level we played at equaled or exceeded what I heard. Roger gave us an advanced education not only in jazz performance and improvisation but also in the most technically sophisticated and challenging repertoire, whether it was music by Ellington, Sammy Nestico/Neil Hefti/Basie, Buddy Rich, Maynard Ferguson, Woody Herman, Frank Zappa, Toshiko Akiyoshi and Lew Tabackin, Super Sax, Weather Report, Don Ellis or David Baker. (Roger’s associations allowed him to procure musical arrangements directly from several of these bandleaders.) Brilliantly, Roger invited Clark Terry and Monty Alexander to talk and perform for us. It was one thing to see them on a bandstand at the smoky and boozy Jazz Showcase (with the inescapable ice-blender blasting another strawberry daiquiri through pianissimos) but it was a surreal and awe-inspiring experience to see them in broad daylight talking and playing in our fluorescent-lit band room!

At Illinois, and into my early 20s, I wrote pieces for orchestra and smaller chamber ensembles emulating mid-century modernism. It was Iannis Xenakis’Pithoprakta that excited and introduced me to the possibilities of writing for orchestra. My early compositions were reminiscent of much of Xenakis’ sound world as well as pieces such as Ligeti’s Atmosphères, Penderecki’s Threnody, Carter’s Concerto for Orchestra and Stockhausen’s Grüppen. (But these early pieces I wrote at Illinois – explorations emulating modernism – were essentially student compositions based on the work of others. By my late 20s, I would find my own way forward.) I had wonderful teachers and a great cohort of musical friends. My composition teachers, starting with Paul Zonn (who introduced me to serial technique via Charles Wourinen’s book Simple Composition – which I quickly abandoned), included Herbert Brün, Ben Johnston and Salvatore Martirano. However, Wourinen’s book supported my thinking about music numerically, and that is something that has continued to the present.

The University of Illinois music school was large, with a wide variety of teachers, personalities, and styles. One of my friends, Greg Zuber, was the drummer in our jazz quintet. He went on to become principal percussionist in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and to teach at Juilliard. More recently, I have written pieces for Greg and his wife, flutist Patricia Wolf Zuber, who also attended the U of I and has played in the Met Orchestra as well as in many others in NYC. A few years ago, Greg performed drum set with my ensemble OCTET at Carnegie Hall and on a follow-up album. OCTET is a scaled-down big band of one each of the brass (sax, trumpet, trombone) plus a rhythm section and vocals, playing contemporary classical music. So, jazz has not only informed my compositional direction but also re-connected me with musician friends from the U of I that are now collaborators again!

Following Illinois, I received a graduate fellowship, at Stanford (1982-1984), to study computer-generated sound. Back then, it was considered the next development in music composition and sound. I also had an invitation from M.I.T.’s Media Lab but thought Stanford could provide a better balance of performance and technology. Nowadays, there is more computing power on our cellphones than the main frames we used in the early 80s. At Stanford, I met my wife Liz and we ultimately made the San Francisco Bay area home. For my master’s thesis, I wrote a piece for divisi orchestra, three choral groups and soprano called Pentateuch. In 1984, following graduation, we were pregnant with our first child. The following year, I entered the piece in the BMI awards competition, and it was selected. At the awards reception in NYC, I met one of the judges, Earle Brown, who had championed it. My BMI Award subsequently led to a commission from Earle Brown through an organization he was heading up at the time called The Fromm Music Foundation. This commission was for a piece for chamber orchestra and included a premiere at the Aspen Music Festival. The piece was also performed a few months later at the Gaudeamus Festival in Holland with the Netherlands Radio Chamber Orchestra. (Coincidentally, Ernest Bour, the conductor of my piece with the Netherlands Radio Chamber Orchestra, was renowned for conducting and premiering works by my early inspirations Ligeti, Stockhaussen, and Xenakis.)

Throughout my 20s and 30s, I continued to evolve as a composer, receiving national and international commissions and awards, teaching, and working nights playing jazz piano throughout the San Francisco Bay Area.

By the 90s, I was doing music and sound design for educational software such as Electronic Arts and The Learning Company. I also began scoring documentaries, many which appeared on PBS, The Discovery Channel and at Film Festivals. Working with film began at Stanford in 1983 where I played live accompaniment to a series of 1920s silent film classics, including Un Chien Andalou, Entr’acte and Nosferatu. In a bizarre coincidence, two decades later I scored and co-produced a contemporary silent film shot with a 1924 Cine-Kodak camera called Native New Yorker (2005). This film – depicting events before, during and after 9/11 – toured the world and won best documentary short at the Tribeca Film Festival, ultimately screening at the National Gallery of Art. It is considered a seminal work in experimental film and is taught at film schools.

Today, my compositional sound world is firmly rooted in the rhythms and harmony of jazz as well as non-western traditions. The music is distinctly American, and one could call it a post-minimal mélange of sounds and influences in which jazz has played a major role. I am grateful to have had my music recorded and performed around the world by some of today’s leading soloists, ensembles, and orchestras. I have been fortunate to have received several awards for my music, and many of the films I have scored have been lauded at renowned festivals.

Yet, my first recognition in music was a Samuel A. Mages award at New Trier West High School, thanks to Roger Mills. My time at New Trier West gave me my first in-depth music education and a taste of what it would be like to head down this bumpy and uneven road.

In gratitude to Roger Mills, all our teachers, bands and students, and the community that supported his visionary endeavor.

William Susman
rev. 01/14/2022