Michael Colgrass (b. 1932) began his musical career in Brookfield, near Chicago, where his first professional experiences were as a jazz drummer (1944-49). He graduated from the University of Illinois in 1954 with a degree in performance and composition, and his studies included training with Darius Milhaud at the Aspen Festival and Lukas Foss at Tanglewood. He served two years as timpanist in the Seventh Army Symphony Orchestra in Stuttgart, Germany and then spent 11 years supporting his composing as a free lance percussionist in New York City, where he performed with the New York Philharmonic, American Ballet Theater, Dizzy Gillespie, the Modern Jazz Quartet, the original West Side Story orchestra on Broadway, the Columbia Recording Orchestra’s Stravinsky Conducts Stravinsky series, and numerous ballet, opera and jazz ensembles. He organized the percussion sections for Gunther Schuller’s recordings and concerts, as well as for premieres of new works by John Cage, Elliott Carter, Edgard Varese, and many others. During this New York period he continued to study composition with Wallingford Riegger (1958) and Ben Weber (1958-60).
Colgrass has received commissions from the New York Philharmonic and The Boston Symphony (twice). Also the orchestras of Minnesota, Detroit, San Francisco, St.Louis, Pittsburgh, Washington, Toronto (twice), the National Arts Centre Orchestra (twice), The Canadian Broadcast Corporation, The Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society, the Manhattan and Muir String Quartets, The Brighton Festival in England, The Fromm and Ford Foundations, The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and numerous other orchestras, chamber groups, choral groups and soloists.
He won 1978 Pulitzer Prize for Music for Déjà vu, which was commissioned and premiered by the New York Philharmonic. In addition, he received an Emmy Award in 1982 for a PBS documentary “Soundings: The Music of Michael Colgrass.” He has been awarded two Guggenheim Fellowships, a Rockefeller Grant, First Prize in the Barlow and Sudler International Wind Ensemble Competitions, and the 1988 Jules Leger Prize for Chamber Music.
Among his recent works are Crossworlds (2002) for flute piano and orchestra commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and premiered with soloists Marina Piccinini and Andreas Heafliger. Pan Trio was commissioned and premiered by Soundstreams Canada in 2005 with Liam Teague, steel drums, Sanya Eng, harp, and Ryan Scott, percussion. Side by Side (2007) for harpsichord and altered piano was commissioned by the Esprit Orchestra, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP) and the Richmond Symphony Orchestra with Joanne Kong as soloist. In 2003 Colgrass conducted the premiere of his chamber orchestra version of the Bach-Goldberg Variations with members of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in his living room for is wife’s 65th birthday.
As an author, Colgrass has published many articles about music and two books. His first was My Lessons With Kumi, a narrative/exercise book outlining his techniques for performance and creativity. More recently, Adventures of an American Composer is an anecdotal account of his life in jazz and classical music. He also gives workshops throughout the world on the psychology and technique of performance.
He lives in Toronto and makes his living internationally as a composer. His wife, Ulla, is an arts journalist who is active in developing Toronto's waterfront.