Faculty Profile: Bill Scism
After four decades Bill Scism, a professor in the Jazz Composition Department, retired in the summer of 2016. During a recent phone call, Scism reflected on his musical journey, the largest portion of which includes his 41 years as a faculty member at Berklee.
“I grew up in Cornwall, NY, near West Point, and started taking trumpet lessons with a West Point band member as a kid,” he recalls. “At that point, I just wanted to learn about the trumpet, but the lessons leaned a little toward the classical side.” Of necessity, Scism’s interest in jazz would bloom later. At the time there was no jazz band at his high school. Actually, many educational institutions frowned on students playing jazz, even in the practice rooms. Then a seemingly chance event as he was to preparing to apply to a state university in New York, changed his direction.
“Someone showed me an ad in DownBeat magazine for Berklee,” he says. “It seemed like a good place to go. I majored in music education, but was always oriented toward performance.” During the late 1960s when Scism was a student, Berklee offered many opportunities to play in jazz ensembles and a majority of the students were horn players. “My interest in writing started because of the curriculum,” he says. “As a music education major I had five semesters of arranging. I took Herb Pomeroy’s line writing course as a student. It’s funny, about 20 years ago I took his Duke Ellington writing course while we were both faculty members. His courses were great.”
Scism graduated in 1969 receiving his music education degree from the “Berklee School of Music.” “That’s what is on my degree,” he recalls. “I decided then not to teach music in the public schools.” The Vietnam War was raging at the time, and the draft was in effect. Seeking some control over his destiny, Scism opted to enlist in the U.S. Army and became the leader of an army big band in New Jersey for the duration of his service.
The group played the standard big-band repertoire—Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman charts—but also penned its own arrangements. “As the bandleader, I encouraged the players to write and I wrote a chart each week,” Scism says. “We ended up with seven people writing. We even wrote original music. The musicians played in the big band, a marching band, concert band, and in brass quartets. In my spare time I played with an orchestra on the Jersey Shore, and with other big bands. For me it was continuous music.”
Scism left the army in 1972 and returned to Boston. There he joined the band Swallow, a group that made a splash and stood out among other rock bands at the time due to their having a horn section. He toured with Swallow and other groups, and one pivotal day, stopped by Berklee looking for leads on other gigs. Someone suggested that he teach, and after an interview with the late Berklee administrator Bob Share, he accepted a teaching position. Some of the faculty members who remembered Scism as a student, including Ted Pease and John LaPorta, asked him to teach courses they oversaw. “Back then, we all taught many hours,” he remembers, “and for half of those hours, we were playing with the students. We were more integrated with the students in those days. I’d have the same kids in a class and an ensemble, and then at night I’d go play gigs with them.”
In particular, Scism enjoyed teaching arranging and jazz composition courses. “The jazz comp students were fantastic,” he says. “I would have students from many different countries. No one advised them to study jazz composition because they could go out and make a living writing jazz. But for those going into film scoring, taking jazz composition is of vital importance.” He says that those who took his freshman chord scales course—which was essentially an arranging course—were top students at the school. “We called them the ‘hot shots.’ I had people who had earned their master’s degree at the Paris Conservatory, but then came to Berklee to learn the dialect of the jazz writing department. I got to run them through a two-semester class in one semester. They’d learn to get a three-chorus chart done in a week. It was a very successful course.”
Due to health problems a few years back, Scism started playing less trumpet and focusing more on writing and teaching. “I started getting sick in the early nineties,” he confides. “I’ve been pretty open about my health issues. I had 37 radiation treatments and never missed a day of teaching. I am now in my fifth year with cancer, and I also have AFib [Atrial Fibrilation].”
These days Scism is applying the same energy he poured into writing and teaching music to managing his health challenges. “I go to the gym five days a week working to build up more stamina,” he says. “The number one priority is to get strong enough to do the things I want.” Among the things on Scism’s wish list is travel.
As he leaves teaching, Scism has memories of former students who went on to develop brilliant careers. One was the late Iskandar Ismael ’77, who became a celebrated composer and music director in Singapore. Another is Living Colour drummer Will Calhoun ’86. Scism stayed in touch with Calhoun through the band’s heyday in the early 1990s. “I told Will that after two albums and two Grammys, the band needed a gimmick: a paunchy white trumpeter to play some solos. They invited me to sit in with them when they played at the Orpheum Theater in Boston. That was a great honor.”