A FEW MINUTES WITH… Bill Meckley

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By J Hunter
Photographs by Rudy Lu, Glenn Kaplowitz

The way it used to be was this: You’d start out at some company, work through the system, stay there until you’re 65 whether it was your dream gig or not, and retire with a gold watch and a hearty handshake. For a multitude of reasons, that doesn’t happen any more. Bill Meckley is that rare bird that not only worked at the same place for over 30 years and is walking away on his terms, but spent that time doing something he absolutely loved.

Meckley isn’t just the jovial dude we see every spring at the front of Carl B. Taylor Auditorium, conducting the Empire Jazz Orchestra as they’ve worked with stone killers like Jimmy Heath, Benny Golson, David “Fathead” Newman, and Slide Hampton. He has a Ph.D from Eastman School of Music, and you can’t get much more prestigious without tunneling into Berklee or Juilliard. He joined the faculty at Schenectady County Community College more than three decades ago and has been part of the School of Music’s fantastic growth curve every step of the way.

Along that way, the EJO was born, which is a lot more than just a backup band for whatever legend Meckley can bring in. Think about the long, long list of great young jazzers that have popped up around Greater Nippertown in the 21st century: Almost all of them have played with the EJO at one time or another. One of those players is Dylan Canterbury, who will be taking over SCCC’s jazz ensemble next fall, and a few distinguished EJO alumni will be on stage this Tuesday night when Meckley conducts his final spring concert before finally retiring – presumably with a hearty handshake, and a lot more besides.

However, before he goes, Meckley will leave us with a nice little present: Finale, a collection of some of the EJO’s best live performances over the last few years – and this may include pieces from this year’s program, which will feature compositions by Duke Ellington, Gil Evans, Dave Holland and the EJO’s own Keith Pray. Meckley took time out from preparing for his send-off show to speak about his time at SCCC and his oncoming retirement – which will take a path you might not expect!

Q: Take us back to when you joined the SCCC faculty. Where were you in your life (personally and professionally) at that point, and what was the music program like at SCCC at that time?

A. I came to SCCC in 1984, just as I was completing graduate school. At that time there were only two full-time faculty members (including me), a handful of adjunct instructors and about 35 students. The one thing that stood out about the college was that they were willing to have high standards for music students resulting in graduates of high achievement. I did not necessarily plan on staying long, but the opportunity to do a lot of conducting and a variety of teaching kept me here.

Slowly we built the program, always based on standards of rigor, insisting that students be aware that the professional standards in music are very high and that they must be fully prepared in order to compete. Now we have expanded to close to 200 students, seven full-time faculty members and many fantastic adjuncts.

Q: You’ve also taught at the Eastman School of Music, where you earned your Ph.D. What was your experience like there, both as student and educator?

A: Eastman was where I learned what “good” really means. The school sets the bar for performance, scholarship and pedagogy. The opportunity to be fully immersed in this environment for three years was transformative. If I am a good musician, it is because of my experience at Eastman. It is a very special place.

Q: Was being an educator your primary career goal, or was it something you fell into and found you were good at it?

A: My plan coming out of undergraduate school in West Virginia was to be a high school band director. I did that for a couple of years, and had a wonderful experience, but was really interested in returning to school to pursue a master’s degree. I went to Ohio University on a teaching fellowship and was lucky to instruct a variety of courses, as well as two of the University’s jazz ensembles. I think this is where I honed my early teaching chops. Teaching, to me, has always been primarily a musical activity, whether instructing an ensemble or a music history class. Also, I really enjoy working with serious undergraduate students as they work to find their way as potential professionals.

Q: Did you even have an inkling that one day you’d celebrate 34 years at SCCC?

A: My plan was to be at SCCC a short while and move on. The problem was I enjoyed the job too much, as it let me do a real variety of things I really like: Conducting, music history, jazz studies, etc. Over the years I took a few interviews, usually at major universities, and came home knowing I was not going to leave. With the help of SCCC’s music faculty, the School of Music has become an amazing place, widely respected with a national reputation.

Q: The Empire Jazz Orchestra is an orchestra in the jazz sense of the word – which is to say, a big band. Is there a particular big band that you modeled EJO after? Are there big bands playing now that you listen to?

A: The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and the rise of repertory ensembles were the catalysts for founding the EJO. I had always loved Ellington’s and Gil Evans’ music, for example, but the scores and parts were not available. The repertory movement changed all that. As a conductor, it was just too enticing to have the chance to perform this music.

There are so many great big bands now. I am a big fan of Maria Schneider’s and Ed Palermo’s band. The difference with these modern bands is that they can be so individualized and not have to fit into any dance band stereotype. Locally, we have some great bands too: Keith Pray and Phil Allen are both leading hard-swinging bands with fantastic soloists.

Q: Every EJO concert I’ve attended at SCCC has always felt like a special occasion or even a family reunion. Has it always been like that, or is that something that’s developed since the EJO debuted in 1992?

A: It took a while to evolve a strong core of committed players. When we started, I was not that good at being a bandleader, and I was lucky that there were enough members of the band willing to stick it out as I learned. Eventually, I kind of figured out what to do leading a band of top professionals, and we really began to play at a high level. Now there is an unbelievable level of commitment on the part of the members of the EJO. The consistency of personnel has permitted me to choose music of extreme difficulty with confidence.

Empire Jazz Orchestra
Bill Meckley leads the Empire Jazz Orchestra (photo by Glenn Kaplowitz

Q: Does it amaze you, like it amazes me, that Greater Nippertown has such a deep pool of talented jazz musicians?

A: The breadth and depth of this region’s talent is breathtaking. Not only with jazz musicians, but with classical, rock and all styles. Everyone in the region should be aware of just how lucky they are to be in an area with such artists as Leo Russo, Brian Patneaude, Keith Pray, Dylan Canterbury, Cliff Brucker and the list goes on and on.

Q: Dylan Canterbury is set to be your successor at SCCC. I’ve been stunned at the growth curve Dylan’s gone through since he first popped up some years back. What’s your take on Dylan, both as a player and the man that’s carrying on your legacy?

A: I have known Dylan since he was in high school. He has developed into a truly remarkable and mature musician. He plays wonderfully, writes and arranges well, and is the total package of musicianship.

Dylan has been teaching jazz history classes at SCCC for a couple of years. He is extremely knowledgeable, especially regarding big band. It was an easy decision to ask him to expand his presence as an adjunct instructor by taking over the SCCC Jazz Ensemble.

Q: Okay, here’s a question I’m sure you’re SO done with: What’s on the menu for retirement? Will it include playing trombone, either in your own group or with others?

A: Well, trombone is definitely a big part of the equation. The vast majority of professional playing I do is as either a classical orchestral player or in shows at places like Proctors. Sometimes I have been fortunate to play in Keith’s and Phil’s bands, but my background as a trombonist really leans towards the classical path. I hope to keep playing with anyone who will have me!

Q: One thing you and I have in common is a love of fast cars – the kind professionals drive around a track. Do you think you’ll be going to more races now that you don’t have to be back at work Monday morning? (I recommend Sebring and Laguna Seca, by the way…)

A: The race track is the other part of the above equation regarding retirement. I am currently a regional high-performance driving instructor for the Porsche Club of America at tracks like Lime Rock and Watkins Glen. I will be going through training soon to, I hope, become a nationally certified instructor qualifying me to teach at any track. I would love to drive Laguna Seca, Virgina International, Mid-Ohio and many other places.

WHO: Empire Jazz Orchestra
WHAT: “Finale,” the final spring concert directed by EJO founder Bill Meckley
WITH: Guest appearances by Lee Russo, Cliff Brucker and Vito Speranza
WHERE: Schenectady County Community College’s Carl B. Taylor Auditorium, Schenectady
WHEN: Tuesday (April 17), 8pm
HOW MUCH: $20; students $6

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1 Comment
  1. Tom Pierce says

    This was an extremely well-written & exceptionally informative article, that even readers like myself who has been very involved in the Capital District Jazz scene (including Dr Meckley’s work with the EJO) still learned quite a few things.

    Many thanks, Tom Pierce

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