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The Michigan Jazz Suite
by Paul Keller
They say, “Write about what you know.” So that’s what I did with the Michigan Jazz Suite. The idea of composing a jazz suite dedicated to my home state of Michigan came to me, ironically, as I was sitting on a plane heading to California where I was about to play at a jazz festival. As the son of a United Methodist minister, our family lived in six Michigan cities while I was growing up: Union City, Battle Creek, Rockford, Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, and Muskegon. As a professional musician, I’ve traveled to play gigs all over the state and discovered unexpected treasures from Algonac to Allegan, the Irish Hills to Idlewild , Marquette to Morenci, Saginaw to Saline, Torch Lake to Taquamanon Falls, Paradise to Hell, Northville to South Haven to East Jordan to West Bloomfield. I definitely know Michigan. I decided as I sat there buckled into my airplane seat, “I will honor my home state by composing a series of jazz tunes dedicated to specific people, places and icons of Michigan. And why not start right now?” So I did. By the time we landed in San Francisco four hours later, I had written down 15 possible titles and sketched out musical ideas for several new tunes! It had begun.
Over the next few weeks, the fully realized Michigan Jazz Suite began to take shape as the ideas for songs and arrangements flowed out of me like water from a faucet. It was an incredible feeling to be connected to such potent inspiration and then rejoicing in the completion of each new original piece that held so much meaning for me. It also became clear that there would be no way to fully represent all of the deserving towns, people, and items of historical interest that one could choose to include in a musical opus honoring such an important, diverse and culturally rich state as Michigan. The Michigan Jazz Suite recognizes and explores the greatness of the entire state of Michigan through the prism of these 15 songs inspired by people from Michigan I’ve met, Michigan events I’ve enjoyed, and places I’ve visited with my family throughout Michigan.
The opening tune, Big Mac, is a salute to one of Michigan's most recognizable icons: the Mackinac Bridge. Anyone who has ever crossed over the Mackinac Bridge from Michigan's lower peninsula into the upper peninsula is familiar rhythmic sound made by your car's tire's on the metal grates of the bridge's floor “Ba Bump! Ba Bump! Ba Bump! Ba Bump!” Big Mac also reminds the listener of the sounds of the construction of this mighty edifice and honors those connected with the conception and creation of one of mankind's greatest engineering achievements. Listen to the first notes of this tune and you’ll hear this rhythmic pattern Ba Bump! Ba Bump! as your car crosses over Big Mac.
Kitchitikipi is the Ojibwe name synonymous with The Big Spring, which is located in Michigan’s Upper Peninsular just off M-149 (15 miles north of US-2) near Thompson. This song is an homage to the ancient first settlers of Michigan, the original native Americans, the Ojibwe (aka Ojibway or Chippewa), Sauk, Fox, Kickapoo, Menominee, Miami, Noquet, Potawatomi, Ottawa, Huron (aka Wyandot), Iriquois, and Shawnee tribes who flourished here for centuries, long before anyone ever called this land Michigan.
Soo’s Blues honors the magnificent locks at Sault Saint Marie. Every day, as they have for over a century, the Soo Locks usher dozens of slow-moving super-freighter ships from Lake Superior into Lake Huron and back.
In antiquity, Michigan Indians often marked their trails by bending a small tree to indicate the trail’s direction. These “crooked trees” became Michigan’s first street signs. Crooked Tree is a tip of the hat to the Petoskey/Harbor Springs area and to the Crooked Tree Art Center where I’ve performed many times over the years. Crooked Tree was spontaneously composed at the recording studio and features clarinetist Dave Bennett in flight, soaring high above Petoskey at tempo presto!
Cherry Jubilee is inspired by the Traverse City Cherry Festival and the Leelanau Peninsula. This title has a double meaning in that the song is loosely based on the musical form of Hoagy Carmichael’s Jubilee. Just add cherries and viola! Cherry Jubilee.
Sleeping Bear is a jazz soundscape that evokes the majesty, mystery, charm and allure of Michigan’s largest and most impressive sand dune. The musical imagery of this impressionistic tone poem is vivid, expressive and dramatic.
I have many wonderful memories of happy days living in Saugatuck, MI and playing jazz along the Lake Michigan coast, being young, having fun and loving life! The title of this song Blue Star comes from the Blue Star Highway, which traverses the coast between Holland and Saint Joseph.
If you’ve ever been to Saugatuck’s Oval Beach at sunset, you may have seen the sun’s rays magically change the colors of the sand right before your eyes! Pink And Silver Sands is a musical snapshot of that place at that time of day.
Tulip Time is devoted to the Tulip Time festival held every May in Holland celebrating Holland’s history with Dutch dancing in wooden shoes and traditional attire of the Netherlands, Dutch cuisine, street washing, special concerts, parades, fireworks and, of course, millions of beautiful tulips planted all throughout the town.
Grand was originally conceived as an ode to my “hometown” of Grand Rapids. But as this tune revealed itself, I began to feel that it was proper to also honor the many other famous “Grands” of Michigan including Grandville, Grand Beach, Grand Blanc, Grand Haven, the Grand Hotel, Grand Island, Grand Ledge, Grand Marais, the Grand River, Grand River Avenue, and the Grand Traverse Bay. This optimistic melody affirms all that is Grand about life in Michigan.
Corn Flake is a jazz portrait of Battle Creek, the home of Tony The Tiger and Kellogg’s. Battle Creek is also the town in which I attended kindergarten at Westlake Elementary School in 1968.