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interview with Jerry Bilik
June 19, 2009

Friday, June 19, 2009


Okay, I've got the interview with Jerry Bilik ready for ya. Jerry gave the final approval plus added more details. I'm sure you're going to love reading this. He was such a joy to talk with. Here is another link to his site.

Bio of Jerry

I saw Jerry Bilik accompany a chorus at the condo complex in Florida where I was vacationing with my family over 1 month ago. I had heard that he was a professional musician with quite an illustrious career so I tracked him down and he graciously agreed to this interview.

Debbie: Tell us about your musical background, Jerry.

Jerry:I am a composer, arranger, conductor, orchestrator, music director and producer. I play the string bass, trombone and piano. I took one piano lesson when I was a child but hated to practice so I stopped. I began learning trombone in the fourth grade, and took up the string bass so I could join the elementary school jazz band.

Although I gave up piano lessons, I used to pick out music by ear at the piano and gradually taught myself how to read music. When I was still young, my older brother (8 years older) used to challenge me to a “guess that tune” game – if I lost, he’d get my dessert, or I’d have to do one of his chores. I never won because I could only play a few simple songs. Then, a few years later, when he was away at high school, I would sit at the piano and work out ways of “disguising” songs, by “hiding” the melody, or making up different chords to throw him off. After several months, I actually began to win, so I spent even more time learning how to manipulate notes and chords, and accidentally began unconsciously assimilating arranging and composing techniques.

My parents weren’t really musical, but were very supportive of my “creativity” – as awful as it must have sounded at first! At age 13, I first attended the National Music Camp at Interlochen, Michigan, and later the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. By the time I graduated and served in the U.,S. Army, I was playing professionally on Bass, Trombone, and Piano, and writing and arranging professionally as well. At that time I also was invited to join the faculty of the Univ. of Michigan School of Music, where I taught Music Theory and Arranging for several years before ultimately moving to Hollywood.

Debbie: How about your experience working in Hollywood on such shows as Johny Carson, Starsky and Hutch and others?

Jerry: Nothing special – many composers, arrangers, conductors and performers work in Hollywood- a very talented group – all capable of performing and writing music of any style, any era with virtually no rehearsal. The usual system is to write something, score it, have the performers read it once, and then usually go right for the recording (or telecast or broadcast)

Debbie: How did you get involved with Disney on Ice?

Jerry: I had done music for a previous ice show when the producer made a deal with Disney and asked me to become involved. I have now orchestrated and arranged music for over thirty different Disney on Ice shows which have been performed all over the world. Right now, as Vice President of Creative Development for Feld Entertainment, Inc., which produces Disney on Ice, I am spending more time creating the shows, writing scripts, and coordinating the efforts of other musicians, performers, etc., and doing various updates or revisions of the 12 different shows (both on ice and on stage) we now have playing world-wide.

Debbie: Tell us about the show you wrote and produced about Louis Armstrong.

Jerry: My wife Helga and I spent many days at Louis’ home in Corona, New York obtaining an oral history of his life from his widow, Lucille. From the invaluable information she provided, I created a full-scale stage musical about Louis Armstrong, writing it, directing it, and composing some original music for it as well. It was very unusual. The producer and I agreed that the only way this play could work is if we used real jazz musicians rather than actors, because Louis’ life was all about jazz and it wasn’t about anything else. That was his love.

So we went around the country and eventually hired a phenomenal cast of excellent jazz musicians and dancers. A gentleman named Maurice Hines (brother of Gregory Hines) was the choreographer. It was unbelievable. We had Wynton Marsalis’ father, Ellis, serving as an advisor. We wanted everything to be absolutely right, and to be certain the show was totally legitimate in every way.

Then, at one point, the District Attorney of New Orleans called. A few months before, one of his people had taken my wife and I on a tour to view where we might open the show. We wanted to open it in New Orleans, and researched the various theaters that might work.. As we started rehearsals in New York, the gentleman called and said, “Jerry, I wonder if you could do me a favor. My son is in New York, staying in a room at the YMCA and he needs work. Could you possibly use him as a rehearsal pianist? He does read music and he really knows the New Orleans style.”

I felt we owed him a favor after his hosting us in New Orleans, so I said, “Sure, I’ll give him a shot, Mr. Connick.”

Yes, our rehearsal pianist was Harry Connick, Jr.! Although he’s so well known for his singing and acting, Harry is also a FANTASTIC JAZZ PIANIST, and he was wonderful to work with – the entire cast loved him. Not long after our rehearsals, his first album was completed, and, as they say, the rest is History!

Anyhow, we completed rehearsals in New York, then moved to New Orleans, where we opened in the “Louis Armstrong Theater”. At the end of the first public performance the reaction was phenomenal. The audience jumped up en masse – we were all startled – and even more so, for, after every show the same reaction occurred. .

While the audience loved the show, I was still busy training all the jazz musicians to act their character roles, and become comfortable on the stage when they WEREN’T playing!

Then the producer told me that a date had opened up at the Kennedy Center. The idea was that we didn’t want to go straight to Broadway because the acting style of the musicians was rough and it had to be refined and they had to get comfortable with what they were doing. They were not used to talking. So we went from New Orleans to Atlanta, and then to Charlotte, all the time refining the skills of the musicians, and all the time experiencing this amazing standing ovation right as the last note sounded!

When we finally got to the Kennedy Center, while half of the reviewers absolutely raved, unfortunately, the Washington Post and others did not, criticizing the language and the “stiffness” of some of the acting. It was very controversial because these weren’t real actors, and the language was all based on direct quotes from Louis, so it didn’t have the “Broadway slickness” because Louis wasn’t slick – he just loved music.

At any rate, when the show got to the Kennedy Center I had to go off and start work on another Disney on Ice show. At the same time the producer became concerned about how the negative reviews would affect business, so he brought in a “play doctor” and, at least in my opinion, that play doctor destroyed the show. I of course was out of town, but my administrative assistant kept going every night to The Kennedy Center. She reported that, despite the reviews, every night after I left, the audience got larger and larger. The word of mouth was unbelievable, until they started putting in the “play Doctor’s” changes and from the first performance, she reported that the audience got smaller and smaller.

Debbie: What were the changes he made?

Jerry: Because he was a Broadway person, he said the play didn’t have enough “conflict”. It needed “edge”. So, to “liven things up”, he took Louis Armstrong’s mother, who I had portrayed as a very loveable, warm person (because his widow told me she was), and essentially turned her into an alcoholic prostitute! And other things of that nature.

The irony is that I had to work on a television special with that very same guy who was slowly destroying the play at the exact same time. It was very difficult. When Helga and I went to the opening night in Boston (the show’s next date), my wife gave me this long lecture saying that I needed to disconnect myself, that it wasn’t my show anymore. Just be cool. So I was cool, but she was so upset at what he had done, at Intermission, she started smoking again after twenty years off! She said it was the worst thing she had ever seen.

But, despite this terrible experience, when asked if it was worth it, the answer is yes. I would guess every performer or writer, down deep would like to get to Broadway somehow. Even now, the producer says it was a shame what happened, but, there were other factors – financial factors – that came into play. We took our shot, and we do know from the audience reaction that it was very successful. And, although it’s a rationalization, it helps to consider that Broadway isn’t exactly all that it used to be – at least many theater-goers and creators feel that way. Regional theaters and universities are doing marvelous things to take up the slack. We live in Washington now and there are many theaters that do spectacular productions without all of the financial burden. It’s very hard to get really effective original material. But it would have been nice.

Debbie: Well, you’ve done so much! You don’t need Broadway.

Jerry: It’s always that goal to be on Broadway, though. But as you get older, you realize that if you can make anyone have an enjoyable experience with music, that’s it. It doesn’t have to be THE people. It can be anyone, which you probably saw at the picnic. I heard people got up in the back and started dancing and you just can’t ask for anything more than that.

Debbie: Yes, my daughter was one of them dancing! The chorus brought tears to my eyes.

Jerry:That’s what happened to me my first Summer at Interlochen too. I thought the music I was hearing was so beautiful that all I wanted to do was to be part of this particular art.

Debbie: My typical student and subscriber to this music newsletter, eNotes, took lessons as a child but didn’t want to go that route now. They want to get back to playing but they don’t want to play so many scales and read notes. They want to play more by ear. Do you have any advice for them?

Jerry:I’m the worst person to ask because I am not a pedagogue in the technical sense, but I am passionate about making music and creating beauty. That’s what didn’t happen at my lessons as a child. Scales to my young ears were simply not beautiful. Had it been chords and chord progressions and had there been a way of making technique evolve through making pleasant sounds, then maybe I would have liked the lessons more.

If I had to suggest something, from my own experience, I would try to use melodies in familiar songs as a teaching tool to get quickly to the production of music as opposed to the technical, particularly for older people, if that’s their motivation. What comes out in their playing should be something they recognize, whether it’s “Over the Rainbow” or whatever the song. It’s kind of how I’ve taught myself. Then, as you play the melody, you can discover that in the LEFT hand, some notes played with the melody sound good and others don’t. Try to remember what sounds good and how to play them to make it very functional.

The best motivation for anyone is if the sound that comes out has beauty – even a very simple beauty, I think particularly older people would understand that. What I’ve always said is that a person who is trying to teach is doing the most noble thing because they are making people aware of beauty, whether it is through art, poetry or music or whatever. You should never get discouraged because what you are doing (learning music) is one of the best things you can do – making people aware of how beautiful art can be.

Debbie: Well, that’s great. I think we’ve got a lot here. Thank you so much for talking to us.

Jerry: I hope it was helpful. Thank you.


Arrangements are firming up for the ONE NIGHT SUMMER WORKSHOP in Lexington, MA. All information will be sent in next issue of eNotes!
Have a great weekend and I'll talk to you next week.

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