Memories of Manny Albam

In the summer of 1987 after spending about a year arranging for big band at what is now Baldwin Wallace University, Rayburn Wright admitted me to an intermediate summer jazz arranging course at the Eastman School of Music.  He felt that I would only benefit from the experience than sitting at home trying to figure things out on my own based on my limited time composing. He was correct. My teacher for the two weeks was Manny Albam. The highlight of the class was hearing his music with the scores in front of us. Manny held up a pencil on the what was probably the first day of class and reminded us as arrangers that this was our instrument and we needed to practice everyday. At some point in his career he set his saxophone down and focused exclusively on composing. Manny was prolific as a composer.  At one point in his career from what I can recall he mentioned that for a period of five years he had composed two charts a week.  During one class he recounted the grueling work schedule surrounding the making of his West Side Story album.  Manny wrote all night long in order to make recording sessions each morning followed by mixing in the afternoon. By evening, work began writing once again for the next days session.  The album was completed in a week. Manny’s copyist had a dual role of preparing parts from his score and keep him from nodding off before each nights work was done. I gathered from hearing him tell the story that very little sleep of any kind took place that week.  Leonard Bernstein was impressed enough by the recording to invite him to write for the New York Philharmonic.   His Westside Story recording is a nice contrast to the work of Johnny Richards version for the Stan Kenton Orchestra. One day Manny put a score in front of us and described what we were about to hear on the recording. The recording pretty much put my jaw on the floor. He had the three horn sections of the big band playing all 12 notes of the chromatic scale within the range of an octave and they were swinging hard through a series of phrases. It was not as dissonant as I would have expected. His orchestration of each section of the band made that possible. His use of colors in orchestration show great attention to details and sensitivity to his arrangements as a whole. If you are not familiar with his work, I recommend in addition to the West Side Story Album, that you listen to the Brass on Fire  album in which the sax section of a big band is replaced by a french horn section and The Drum Suite which featured four drummers whose parts were mostly written out. You can read more about these albums as well as The Blues is Everybody’s Business and  The Soul of the City on the Thursday, December 29, 2011 entry of jazzprofiles. 

Those interested in studying his scores can purchase some of his works from or approximately 500 holograph scores and parts for small groups, big band, Studio, Symphony and Chamber Orchestras at the Institute of Jazz Studies at the Rutgers University Libraries. An appointment with Collections Specialists is necessary.

Poster Presented at the 2008 International Jazz Composers’s Symposium

Flexible Motifs 

Motifs are the building blocks of music construction.  They help to define a theme and distinguish it from someone else’s music. Melodic, rhythmic, contours, articulation and timber all play a role in the defining of your themes.  Repetition of the motifs and the implementing of variation techniques allow our ideas to develop into strong musical identities. Contrasting motifs allow initial ideas to sound fresh once again as they return.  The more use of repetition of the melodic motifs and return of themes, rhythmic motifs, form, harmonic progressions or harmonic entities, the more the listeners attention can be brought into focus. 

Expectations, delayed gratification of an expectations and the fulfillment of an expectation gives the composer or improviser tools for engaging the listener.  Too much change over too long a period of time and the average listeners attention may be lost. Expectations delayed for extensive long periods of time will put a much greater demand on the listener and once again may mean that you lose the listeners interest.  Both of these points of course depend on the listener’s musical knowledge and experience as a listener. Too much repetition with not enough variation or contrast may as a result bore the listener. 

Consider for a moment contour, articulations and timber.  These elements of a motif or theme may provide a source of inspiration for varying traditional melodic motifs, linking contrasting motifs or become the seeds for new themes. As an outgrowth of what has come before, they can lead the listener into new directions. Utilized either individually or in combination, contours, articulations and timber may open up directions for your music to unfold, as you consider moving away from specific melodic, harmonic and rhythmic devices typically used to define a theme. 

The shape of a contour that is repeated, possibly in the form of a sequence, will provide in time its own identity. Study Jimmy Rowles ballad “The Peacocks” for a good example strong contours.  When you focus on contour(s), the pitches of a motif, intervallic relationships and rhythm can change dramatically and yet still show a relationship to what has come before. The more repetitive and distinct the contour, the easier it will be recognized.  Consider the following motifs extracted from McCoy Tyner’s “Blues on the Corner” solo. Six distinct contours can be observed that help organize his solo. Most appear as four note groupings.  Whether consciously considered or not on his part, the repetition of these shapes cannot be denied as these contours occur throughout the solo and help define his improvisation. Having six to draw upon make their recognition less obvious to the listener. Considering the speed at which these improvisation occurs, I feel the organization of the contour motifs are sensed rather than understood on the part of the listener.








Articulation patterns do not really need to rely on melodic motifs, rhythms, harmony or contour. Altering of various articulation patterns over time can lead to new motifs. Use of repetition of the new alterations will allow the listener to sense the variation and organic development.  

Timber motifs would not rely on melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, contours or articulations for identity. In my dissertation Kaleidoscope, based on Sebastien Japrisot’s novel “Trap for Cinderella”, many elements of music were used to define two characters whose identities were distinct. Over time the two themes, performed by the alto saxophonist, with their distinctive qualities become blurred by their combination. Timber becomes the final clue as to the identity of the main character, an amnesiac, for the listener. Rhythms from the main thematic statement have been altered to a point that they are no longer useful for determining the identity. As rhythms have been augmented in the first and last of these phrases, the contour, while present for the specific theme, is not recognizable either to the listener.