Michael Colgrass, composer who transcended genres, dies at 87

NEW YORK — Michael Colgrass, a composer of vivid, genre-crossing orchestral and chamber works who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1978 for “Deja Vu,” a concerto for percussion quartet and orchestra, died on July 2 in Toronto. He was 87.

His wife, Ulla, said the cause was squamous cell carcinoma, a form of skin cancer.

Mr. Colgrass refused to align himself exclusively with any of the warring postwar new-music styles. He found his own path by drawing on whatever styles and techniques suited the composition on his desk.


He used 12-tone and serial techniques alongside soaring lyricism. The rhythms, timbres, and energy of jazz — his earliest musical passion — are heard in several works, including “Deja Vu,” in which jazz-tinged brass figures seem to arise from the colorful percussion writing and take on lives of their own amid slow-moving, atmospheric string scoring.

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Elsewhere — for example in “Folklines: A Counterpoint of Musics for String Quartet” (1988) — Mr. Colgrass borrowed from disparate world music styles. And in some works, such as “Letter to Mozart,” he used quotations from composers of the past, transforming them with modernist techniques.

Another such work, “The Schubert Birds” (1989), briefly alluded to Schubert within a texture that included bird calls. This variation was meant to evoke the jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker (whose nickname was Bird), as well as otherworldly percussion and harmonically spiky string writing. Often, there was an undercurrent of humor in these juxtapositions.

Mr. Colgrass usually built his scores on imaginative and often whimsical ideas, rather than standard structural models. When he did use classic models — as in “Concertmasters” (1975), which he patterned after a Vivaldi triple violin concerto, complete with harpsichord in his orchestration — there was usually a twist; in this case it was 12-tone themes replacing Vivaldian sequences.

Michael Charles Colgrass Jr. was born in Brookfield, Ill., a village in the Chicago area, on April 22, 1932. His father was an Italian immigrant who had changed the family name from Colagrossi when he was working as a professional boxer; he later worked as a postmaster. His mother, Ann (Hand) Colgrass, was a homemaker.


Mr. Colgrass wrote in his memoir, “Adventures of an American Composer” (2010), that his family had not at all been musical. But when he was 10, he saw the film “Reveille With Beverly,” in which drummer Ray Bauduc and bassist Bob Haggart perform “Big Noise From Winnetka.” It set his mind on becoming a jazz drummer.

When he asked for a drum kit, his father insisted that he earn the money for it, which he did by persuading a local golf club to hire him as a caddie. He started his first band, Three Jacks and a Jill, when he was 11. The band, which also included a trumpeter, a pianist, and an accordionist, played jazz standards at school dances and assemblies, and eventually at adult venues such as the Kiwanis Club.

Mr. Colgrass enrolled at the University of Illinois as a percussion student in 1950. But when he complained to his teacher, Paul Price, that he found the school’s band repertoire boring, Price suggested that he take up composition. His first piece, “Three Brothers” (1951), for percussion, won the approving attention of composer John Cage during one of his visits to Chicago. It is still performed.

Mr. Colgrass completed his bachelor’s degree, in performance and composition, in 1954. He also studied with composers Darius Milhaud, at Aspen in 1953, and Lukas Foss, at Tanglewood in 1954.

After service in the Army, during which he played timpani in the Seventh Army Symphony Orchestra, Mr. Colgrass moved to New York, where he studied further with composers Wallingford Riegger and Ben Weber. He continued to compose but supported himself, in the late 1950s and into the ’60s, as a freelance percussionist.


His steadiest job was in the pit band for the premiere run of “West Side Story.” But he also participated in recording sessions — most notably for Columbia’s “Stravinsky Conducts Stravinsky” series — and performed with the American Ballet Theatre, the New York Philharmonic, and several jazz ensembles.

By the mid-1960s, Mr. Colgrass was getting enough commissions to give up most of his performing work. In 1964, he won a Guggenheim scholarship to work in Copenhagen, where at a record session he met Ulla Damgaard, a Danish journalist. They married in 1966. She survives him, as do their son, Neal, and a sister, Gloria Lokay.

Mr. Colgrass and his family moved to Toronto in 1974, and he took dual citizenship. He continued to receive commissions from some of the largest American orchestras, including the Chicago Symphony and the New York Philharmonic.

His Pulitzer-winning work, “Deja Vu for Percussion Quartet and Orchestra,” was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic and had its world premiere with that orchestra in October 1977.

Composing was always the center of Mr. Colgrass’s creative life.

“You need things to live,” he told the Chicago broadcaster Bruce Duffy in a 1986 interview. “Camus said, ‘I write for the same reason I swim, because my body needs it.’ Well, my body needs good music, and if I don’t have it I don’t feel right. As a composer, if I don’t compose for a certain amount of time, I begin to feel odd and funny. I begin to get irritable, and a lot of things begin to go awry.”