Professor of Music Thomas Erdmann had an article published in the professional trumpet journal.
Professor Thomas Erdmann in the Department of Music had an article published in the January 2021 issue of The International Trumpet Guild Journal.
The article, “John McNeil: Overcoming,” is about jazz trumpeter John McNeil. He is now 50 years into a storied and landmark career and commands respect for his lightning-quick improvisational reflexes and subtle soloistic nuances. Critical acclaim is universal. The Chicago Tribune wrote, “(McNeil’s) refusal to fall back on prefabricated hip licks was another sign of his commitment to emotional truth.” The Washington Post said McNeil plays with, “a balance of understatement and uninhibited swinging.” Famed critic Ben Ratliff notes, in The New York Times, regarding McNeil’s wide range of improvisational acumen, “(McNeil) delivers high-level improvisations… with astonishing harmonic acuity and a uniquely liquid, even sound… pulling together jazz’s postwar strands: bebop language to the letter, tricky-meter tunes, free jazz, (and) 20th-century classical harmony.”
Born in Yreka, California, in 1948, McNeil taught himself to play the trumpet and read music. Playing professionally immediately upon graduating high school, and after a stint at the University of Portland in Oregon, he moved to New York City via Miami and Louisville, in 1974. There McNeil become a fixture in Greenwich Village’s underground scene, in time garnering gigs with the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra and Gerry Mulligan’s Concert Jazz Band, among others. His career was launched when McNeil beat out 10 of New York City’s finest jazz trumpeters to win the trumpet chair in Horace Silver’s quintet. It wasn’t long before McNeil also became known for his ability to compose and arrange music, as well as produce recordings for others. Today he leads his own bands and co-leads a quartet named Hush Point.
Later in life McNeil took up teaching when his life-long struggle with the neurological disease Charcot-Marie-Tooth (CMT), a form of muscular dystrophy, disabled him for a time. Teaching at the New England Conservatory (NEC) one-and-a-half days a week he became one of the nation’s most acclaimed and successful trumpet and music teachers; his list of successful students staggers the mind. In pursuit of helping others McNeil is the author of two trumpet tutorials and co-authored a third with Laurie Frink. Their book “Flexus” is described by trumpeter Ray Vega as “the most important trumpet method book of the new millennium.” Vega goes on to state, “It stands with Arban, Clarke, Schlossberg, Stamp, and Caruso as standard material for any serious student of the trumpet.” McNeil’s first book, 1976’s “Jazz Trumpet Techniques,” basically his practice routine at the time, helps trumpeters develop articulation and fast fingers. The subsequent 1999 “The Art of Jazz Trumpet” goes further. He also edited a collection of guitarist John Abercrombie’s compositions, “Timeless – The Music of John Abercrombie” (2013). While Abercrombie selected the tunes, McNeil’s annotations provide insightful commentary drawn from his own interviews with the guitarist.
While CMT doesn’t define him, it is amazing how McNeil has persevered. CMT, not generally fatal, is a progressive disease marked by loss of muscle tissue and touch sensitivity, which flares in waves. It invaded his facial muscles, diaphragm, fingers, namely everything needed to play the trumpet. It has made it more difficult to walk and it caused him to have a back surgery which reduced his height by one-and-a-half inches. High doses of Human Growth Hormone (HGH) have helped him tremendously. That McNeil hasn’t let it slow him down is perhaps the greatest testament to a lifelong love of jazz, the trumpet, and musical excellence ever demonstrated.