Expert Testimony

Given by arranger, composer, and former faculty member Mike Gibbs to Mark Small

A look back at a life in music 


Born in Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia, (now known as Zimbabwe), Michael Gibbs ’63 has enjoyed a long and distinguished career as a composer, arranger, and bandleader. After graduating from Berklee, he began working in London. An early highpoint was writing the orchestrations for John McLaughlin’s 1974 Apocalypse album (produced by George Martin, featuring the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas). After that, Gibbs received offers to write orchestrations for Peter Gabriel, Joni Mitchell, Pat Metheny, Jaco Pastorius, John Scofield, Gary Burton, and more. Producer Narada Michael Walden hired Gibbs to pen charts for records by Angela Bofill, Whitney Houston, Stacy Lattisaw, Sister Sledge, Elton John, and others. Gibbs also released many albums under his own name and with Germany’s NDR Bigband. His work included scoring some 50 movies and TV productions before he left London a few years ago to live in Spain.

Between 1974 and 1983, Gibbs was a much sought-after faculty member at Berklee. His courses on arranging and composing had a deep impact on numerous young composers who went on to busy writing careers of their own.

Gibbs will return to Boston for a celebration of his work to mark his 80th birthday. On Thursday October 19, he will direct the Only Chrome-Waterfall Orchestra at the Berklee Performance Center in a redux of his famed concerts during the seventies.

Can you describe your beginnings in music?

My mother used to play pop music of the day on piano, and encouraged me to start piano at age seven. I studied classical music until I was 13. One night when I was about 17, I heard two pieces on the radio that just spoke to me. One of them was a Billie Holiday song, and after that, I just knew that my life was going to be in jazz. It was in me but I didn’t know until this music revealed it to me. Prior to that I was good at chemistry and it looked like I’d work in a laboratory somewhere. Then this music said, “No, this is what you’re going to do.” Since the first gigs I did with Gary Burton when I was a student, this has been my way to make a living.

[In Rhodesia] I had a teacher who was a jazz fan and turned me on to Louis Armstrong and Jack Teagarden. Through him I discovered Shorty Rogers, Gerry Mulligan, and Dave Brubeck. It was modern music and very exciting to me. That teacher also taught me to write a little bit. He had a band that was playing Glenn Miller’s music, and I started writing for the band. I started playing trombone at 17.

My father enrolled me in the university in South Africa to study chemistry, but in my second year, I failed my courses. From hanging out with local jazz musicians, I discovered DownBeat and Metronome magazines where I saw ads for schools teaching jazz. There was an ad for Berklee and I told my father that I wanted to study jazz. He agreed to that and I started saving money and getting the visas needed to come to Berklee. I arrived in 1959 at age 21.

Were you primarily interested in learning about writing music at Berklee?

Yes. I already knew a bit about arranging, but was very interested in learning the rules Berklee was teaching for writing.

Who were among the students you met at Berklee?

In the dorm, [saxophonist] Steve Marcus [’61] was one of my roommates. [Guitarist] Gábor Szabó [’59] and [arranger and vibraphonist] Gary McFarland [’60] were also students then. I met Gary Burton in my second year and we became friends immediately. Gary formed a band that had himself, Marcus, and me as the frontline. I was a good section trombonist but I couldn’t improvise very well. Gary replaced me quite quickly, but encouraged me to write tunes. Around that time, he did a record date in New York for his Who Is Gary Burton album and asked me to write and arrange a tune for the album.

What sorts of things influenced your writing style?

I found all of my Berklee classes exciting. Herb Pomeroy had told me about the Lenox School of Jazz, a three-week summer program, and I got a scholarship to attend. George Russell was there teaching his Lydian Chromatic Concept. I didn’t do a lot with his system, but my goal became to write more chromatically in a tonal situation. I still love tonal music but feel that I have the chromatic scale available. That was in contradiction to what I was learning at school, but it was a positive contradiction. The rules gave me structure, but I had my own goal within the structure.

Although I was always a jazz musician at heart, the differences between jazz and classical music have always blurred for me. Some of my most favorite music is by Wagner. I discovered the Debussy trio for flute, viola, and harp as a student. I heard it the other day and it still affects me just as it did back then.

Describe your early work in London where you went after you finished at Berklee.

I was in London for a week and then decided to go back to Africa because I had been gone for four years. While in Rhodesia, I met the girl who became my wife and we returned to England where she was from.

I had met Graham Collier [’63] at Berklee and within my first week in London, I started working in his band with [trumpeter] Kenny Wheeler and [drummer] John Marshall. That introduced me to the local jazz musicians. While playing with a rehearsal band, I met [saxophonist and bandleader] John Dankworth who needed a trombonist to back his wife, [singer] Cleo Laine. We became friends and I started writing for John. After that, the BBC heard my music, I formed a band in 1968, and things never stopped.

What prompted your return to teach at Berklee in 1974?

Gary [Burton] was a faculty member at the time and arranged to bring me over to be an artist in residence for one year. I ended up staying nine years. I created arranging and composition classes that were built around what I was doing professionally. One arranging class was done in the studio where students learned to book musicians, work with an engineer, and record and overdub parts. I had an analysis class where we would analyze any kind of music. So there was the analysis class, three arranging classes, and a composition class. I taught what I felt the students needed to know.

You wrote orchestrations for so many artists. What made you a fit for that type of writing?

I arrived at Berklee to teach just after I did the orchestrations for John McLaughlin’s Apocalypse album in 1973. It was very popular and attracted students to my classes. After hearing that album, Peter Gabriel called me for a project. After I arrived in Boston, I went right to Electric Lady Studios in New York to work with Stanley Clarke based on what he had heard of the McLaughlin album. But jazz fusion all began with Gary Burton’s early albums with Larry Coryell. By Gary asking me to write for them, I became part of that music. I’m labeled as a fusion musician, but that was never my intention, it just came out that way.

Has your approach to writing music changed over the years?

I’ve always applied the same process. My goal was always to search to the end of my own envelope and do my best regardless of what the music was. The degree to which I could push the envelope was different from movies to pop music to my own jazz. On the projects I did with [producer] Narada Michael Walden, I knew not to go too far out of bounds. I have listened to Debussy for years, and at the end of La Mer, he wrote the highest A-flat I had ever heard in classical music. It’s an octave above the A-flat on the fourth ledger line above the treble staff. Narada asked me to work on a piece in A-flat and I couldn’t resist putting that note in the strings two times. After we listened back, Narada looked at me as if to say, “What are you doing?” I told him I’d never recorded a double A-flat in any of my repertoire. He took one out and left the other in for me. I thought that was a sweet gesture.

On October 19, Berklee will host a concert that will hearken back to your concerts at Berklee in the 1970s. Will it represent music from different periods in your life?

It will. I have a list of pieces I am drawing from. One or two of them will be from that original Only Chrome-Waterfall Orchestra concert from May 1975. Susan and Lee Berk [former Berklee president] attended that concert as their first date, and Susan has commissioned me to write a fanfare for the concert.

Ti Muntarbhorn [’80] is organizing logistics for the concert in Boston. Greg Hopkins will rehearse a band made up of Berklee students and faculty members. Bill Frisell [’77], Gary Burton, and Jim Odgren [’75] will be guest soloists. I plan to spend two weeks in Boston so I can go to the rehearsals. I also want to see people from my days in Boston.