John Beasley and MONK’estra Add Sizzling, Colorful Layer to “Let Them All Talk”

Music is not just an accompaniment in film or TV; it’s another voice that tells the story. The whirlwind career of John Beasley, who arranged and conducted the original music for the movie “Let Them All Talk” and countless other projects, is proof that music is its own borderless and fascinating language. Being attuned (literally) to the story arc and emotional nuances of a movie, TV show or commercial has been the inspirational fulcrum of Beasley’s body of work.

Why did you name your orchestra after Monk; have you always been drawn to his music? 

I named my big band after Monk because I decided to start writing big band charts with Monk songs, which I think are so interesting to reimagine. And, I like making up words to have double meanings so MONK then ‘estra to show it’s an orchestra.

Yes, I’m drawn to Monk’s music because he has a singular style with its off-beat melodies, humor, strange beauty and unbounded swing. I reimagined the songs with fresh arrangements flavored with hints of New Orleans, hip-hop, Afro-Cuban, contemporary and atmospheric rhythms and colors. 

What are the challenges of composing and arranging for an orchestra that don’t exist with a smaller ensemble? 

The challenge is to keep yourself in check for feeling you have to write for every section all the time. Just because each section is there, they don’t necessarily have to be playing.

In Steven Sonderberg’s film “Let Them All Talk” what kinds of scenes informed your music, or was it more about the relationships between the characters? 

All elements of the film feed into the music. The role of the composer, arranger and orchestrator is to tell the story with music. The music can foreshadow or tease out the plot, develop the character or the relationships between them, or amplify without words the emotions you want the audience to feel. We just put out the soundtrack of this all-jazz score that is about 20 minutes long.

Reference and links:
Listen to Soundtrack:

Watch on YouTube

Let them all Talk – official trailer –

How do you achieve the right vibe when working on a film score?  

On film scores, you have to collaborate with the director to help him realize his vision for this move, then once you know that, you use your musical instincts.

Would you like to see jazz featured more in film, TV and ads?

Film music should be an appropriate match for the film genre, story, or style. It needs to complement and/or supplement the film, so it doesn’t have to be jazz music. It’s like wearing the right outfit to go to a wedding. I’ve worked in film, TV and commercials and the music has been rock, electronica, folk, country, classical, or jazz.

I’m not sure if your question is why jazz music is no longer the popular music of the day as it was in the 20s to 60s, let’s say -before rock and roll and pop music. There are many answers. An easy one may be the same reason why people may want to eat a hamburger rather than sushi. Or the lack of music stations who play jazz. Or maybe jazz isn’t being taught in music classes.

Is it difficult to put your own spin on existing songs?

When I was a young teenager, I was always reimagining how I would play other people’s songs, not just playing it like it was recorded. Each arrangement has its own life in a way, its own timetable, its own puzzle. I trust what’s in my heart and my head and don’t overthink.

MONK’estra, United Studios, Hollywood, California, 2016

What was the most memorable part of working with Miles and Freddie Hubbard?

Miles taught me not to be afraid of making mistakes because when you do it forces you to notice it then use it to carve something new – start a new story with that mistake.

I toured with Freddie’s band for about eight years. Night after night, Freddie would play at blistering tempos, which meant that I had to “comp” for a genius like him. It was an invaluable experience. I still reflect on all these years. To have all that power, energy, and be able to execute his ideas with all that feeling was astounding to me, a young 20-something at that time.

In your upcoming Charlie Parker Centennial project “Bird” how do you manage the huge discography? Did you speak to Parker’s family members? 

I came up with this project with a partner, Swedish sax player Magnus Lindgren. We are co-producing, co-arranging and co-conducting the album. We just chose songs we liked and that would work with a big band and strings or that had an interesting challenge.

We didn’t need to find family members because when you record, the label then clears the music. Family members do not need to approve what you do.

How is your work with youth bands rewarding? 

When I work with young people I get this sense of delight because I see them working out the sound, finding themselves, or playing their best. I usually work with students of jazz in colleges or conservatories, so they love jazz and their skill level is high. I just worked with the Carnegie Hall National Jazz Orchestra. Every year they hand-pick a small number of students from all over the country to meet in the summer and learn new music and get a chance to perform at Carnegie Hall and tour. I have worked with orchestras with youth who come from undeserved communities and they are as passionate and talented. There’s a lot of promise with the youth. There are more jazz schools/programs now than there ever was.

When I grew up, there was only one jazz school in America at the University of North Texas, where my dad taught. I got an oboe scholarship to Julliard, but I wanted to play jazz so I decided to tour with musicians rather than go to school. Freddie Hubbard was my college education.

What has been the most surprising part of working in the music business? 

It is hard to pinpoint the most surprising element, but I feel like I could put a lot under the category of “change.” First, musicians need to get paid properly now that people do not buy CDs but stream. Musicians cannot survive on .003 per stream on Spotify or YouTube.

There are many, many archaic rules that have not updated because when they wrote the laws, they did not know what the internet was, nor apps.

How do you apportion your time when you have so many irons in the fire?

I am a disciplined person. Since I work on global projects or sometimes the TV work will come in at midnight with a deadline for 5am, so I will get up in the middle of the night to start writing. Then, I cross that off and jump on a plane and tour, but still send arrangements in for TV work no matter where I am around the world. I like the variety of projects from recording records, going on a set to be filmed for a scene on TV, sitting in my studio and writing quietly, rehearsing a band, jumping on planes, trains, and automobiles to play for live audiences, or visiting schools to do master classes.

Other comments?

2020 was a year like no other not only because of the pandemic, but because of the police killings of Black people, and chaos, disinformation and misinformation that the US government created. All of these issues had life-and-death consequences.

As an artist, my music entertains but it also speaks out about what is happening around me or larger issues that are significant, like social, political, or economic injustice. Some of Monk’s songs speak about the injustices in his time which are the same issues we are still dealing with today, racism in particular.

Art is to help people feel and reflect, so if a song makes people look in the mirror about their life or what’s happening in their world and it inspires them to make changes, then that’s the takeaway.

For example, I just joined a group of top-flight musicians to get people to vote in the Georgia run-off election in January because we need to have better government to address societal, political, and economic issues that affect all of us: equality, racism, social justice for any gender, poverty, climate crisis, and corrupt people in leadership in every sector.

GRAMMY nominations:

1.            Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album: MONK’estra Plays John Beasley


2.            Best Arrangement, Instrumental, A Capella: “Donna Lee” – John Beasley


3.            Best Arrangement, Instruments & Vocals: “Asas Fechadas” John Beasley + Maria Mendes


4.            Best Jazz Vocal: Holy Room: Somi + John Beasley conductor, Frankfurt Radio Big Band


Lyric video:

The 63rd GRAMMY• Awards will be broadcast in HDTV and 5.1 surround sound on the CBS Television Network, Sunday, Jan. 31, at 8:00 p.m. ET/5:00 p.m. PT.

Photos courtesy of and with permission of John Beasley. Top photo (c) Lena Semmelroggen.

(c) 2020 Debbie Burke

New book by Debbie Burke

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