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To Mongolia, with Love

Thomas A. Blomster of Local 20-623 (Denver, CO) (with black bow tie) was made an honorary member of the Morin Khuur Ensemble (pictured here) and presented with official pendants and a commemorative history book of the ensemble. His score of Postcards to Mongolia was placed in the Mongolian national archives as a permanent part of the country’s more than 2,000-year history.

Last summer, Mongolia’s Morin Khuur Ensemble, performed the world premiere of Postcards to Mongolia, by American composer and conductor Thomas A. Blomster of Local 20-623 (Denver, CO)—a first for both maestro and orchestra. The concert was broadcast live on Mongolian TV and the score was placed in the Mongolian national archives.

“Making music, the arts, are an integral part of the Mongolian people,” Blomster says, “There’s a real sense of identity. You combine that with the music making and it’s really powerful.” Ulaanbaatar, the capitol, hosts world-class concerts; the opera singers are veterans of major opera houses around the world. What’s more, there is an audience for these concerts. “In this developing country, there is tremendous support for the arts,” he says.

He and his wife, pianist Noriko “Nikki” Tsuchiya, also of Local 20-623, were guests at the opening ceremonies of the midsummer Naadam Festival. Dating back to Genghis Khan, the elaborate, highly choreographed event is Mongolia’s version of the Olympics, with competitions in archery, wrestling, and horse racing. Plus, it showcases performing arts groups: traditional ensembles, choirs, and dancers, ballet, military bands and choir, and pop singers. The whole time, Blomster says, “The Mongolian Philharmonic was in the pit supporting them.”

The Soviet influence in Mongolia is still in evidence, especially in its cultural institutions. The training of Mongolian musicians is pure Russian conservatory. “Everybody in the [Morin Khuur] ensemble is at a virtuoso level,” Blomster says. “There is a high level of technical ability, but the intonation is a whole other level. Their approach is different. I could hear them tuning between every piece. Each player was sensitive to this—for instance, when a musician was tuning his morin khuur, you could hear the yatga softly play the intervals. You combine this technical expertise of the ensemble with heart and soul—the Mongolian culture is alive and well. Genghis Khan is not dead!”

Blomster’s journey to Mongolia began 20 years ago, when he attended an exhibition at the Denver Art Museum. He watched a loop of a film from World War I, so old it was inaudible, but clearly it was the Nadaam Festival. “I could see the musicians playing these giant oversize finger cymbals and as a percussionist I was dying to know what the sound was like.” Years later, he found Mongolian cymbals in a junk shop which, he says, “I immediately dropped a fortune on.”

Eventually, he made a connection at the Mongolian Philharmonic, with the assistant executive director Erdene-Oyun Burgedee, who visited Denver and introduced Blomster to the work of the Morin Khuur Ensemble, a traditional folk orchestra associated with the philharmonic. They became good friends as he helped her navigate the Denver arts scene. The thought occurred to Blomster, “What if I wrote a piece for the Morin Khuur Ensemble?’”

A bowed instrument similar to a violin, the morin khuur holds a sacred place in Mongolian culture. Says Blomster, “It’s the soul of the country. In the old days, even in the yurts, every nomad owned a morin khuur, in part, to keep away evil spirits. It’s an instrument that has many powerful associations.”

“[In my composition] I tried to be respectful of the aspects of their music, which could easily be overwhelmed by my Western training. Using pentatonic scales was at the forefront and being careful about not having too much moving harmony.” For instance, he says, “There are a whole bunch of hotshot yatga players—which has some of the same limitations as a classical harp. If it’s set in a certain key, that’s the note choice you have, but I also know the bass strings of the harp—even if you don’t hear them out in the audience—are really good for reinforcing the bottom harmony.” 

Blomster, who is director of the Colorado Chamber Orchestra, splits his time evenly conducting and playing percussion (including timpani and vibes) in other orchestras as well as jazz ensembles. “A big part of what attracted me to the country was the landscape—the mountains and huge steppe plains,” he says. He drew inspiration closer to home, from his relationship to the land between the Rocky Mountains and the Great Plains.

They were not expecting to be cultural ambassadors, but the American musicians were treated as emissaries and introduced to a number of government dignitaries, including the advisor to the American ambassador at the US Embassy. Blomster says, “We were hanging out with the deputy prime minister!” 

The language barrier posed a challenge, he says, “But ultimately the music became our common ground.” As a tribute to the American conductor, the ensemble ended the program with a Souza march arranged by the director.

No stranger to the world stage, Blomster studied at Berlin’s Hochschule fur Musik, where he trained with members of the Berlin Philharmonic and the Deutsche Opera. He spent many years performing at the Aspen Music Festival, where he also worked with Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Elliott Carter and acclaimed Polish composer Kryzstof Penderecki.

When Blomster talks about his work now, it’s teaching that fulfills him. When the school district on the south side of Denver eliminated its elementary instrumental music program, one of his colleagues started a before- and after-school program, which now includes 1,500 students. He says, “For me, in many ways, it’s the most significant thing I’ve been a part of in my life because of the influence that we’re having.”

A longtime union official and member since 1974, Blomster says the AFM is invaluable for a musician’s career. He’s finishing his third term on the board of Local 20-623 for which he has also served as vice president. The union supports better wages and working conditions, but on a personal level, he says, “The union has gone to bat for me when I’ve been in situations where I needed some muscle behind me.” He adds, “Today, technology is turning our industry upside down—all the more reason to stick together.”

Paul Nowell

Paul Nowell: From Jazz to Hip-Hop, L.A.’s Trombone Evangelist

Paul NowellOne of the first gigs Paul Nowell landed just out of Berklee College in 2007 was a world tour with the Glenn Miller Orchestra. The repertory was straight out of the swing era and he remembers that some of the sheet music was in Miller’s own handwriting. He says, “I thought, ‘Wow, this should be in a museum. Why am I on the bandstand reading this on a gig?’”

Nowell discovered the trombone in the fourth grade when his family moved to Cleveland, Ohio. “The band director told my parents my arms weren’t going to reach it. I didn’t care. When I found out the trombone could do the plunger sounds from Peanuts—the adult character voices—I thought, oh, that’s cool.”

By 17, he was making forays into the jazz scene, leading ensembles around downtown Cleveland. It was at one of those gigs that he met Ron Ellington Shy, the nephew of Duke Ellington—an unexpected opportunity that fortified his decision to make music a career. Two days later, Nowell was at Shy’s house working on music. He says, “I saw a lot of gold records! As a kid that was quite something to experience. He told me about playing with one of  my trombone idols, J. J. Johnson.” J. J. used to tell him that when you improvise, be aware of creating little melodies in your solo, rhythm first, then melody. If people can’t sing along you will lose them.

In the summer of 2008, right before he played the pit in the Broadway hit Memphis—which at the time was in a pre-Broadway run at the La Jolla Playhouse—he joined the union. He says he knew it was the right thing to do and it’s served him well. It’s about establishing lifelong relationships, Nowell says. “A lot of the people I went to school with are union members and we get the opportunity to work together now in the real world. It’s cool to see those relationships continue to develop.”

Now living in Los Angeles, 34-year-old Nowell of Local 47 (Los Angeles, CA), bills himself as “Paul the Trombonist” and is a much sought-out session player for big bands. He leads a three-piece horn section, directs his own jazz combo, and does solo gigs as a DJ trombonist. For the latter, he explains, “It’s me, keyboards, looping devices, and my trombone. I’ll cover pop tunes, some of the old standards. An older audience is exposed to new stuff and a younger audience gets to hear the classics for the first time. It’s like cross-pollinating so everyone can learn something new.”

Nowell has played with 10-time Grammy winning trumpeter and Local 47 member Arturo Sandoval (with whom he created a series of online videos) and considers his Berklee professor, the virtuosic Phil Wilson, a member of Local 9-535 (Boston, MA), his mentor. He says, “Phil saw what I was doing after I graduated and he came to LA to work with me to do a video series. It was an important moment; it opened a lot of doors because he’s so respected.”

Nowell promotes his instrument with rhapsodic fervor. “I’m like the Johnny Appleseed of the trombone,” he laughs, “I want people to know about this instrument, its history, and what it’s capable of.” Now his career is four-fold: educator, producer, freelancer, and Internet personality.

“If I’m playing in a great ensemble and everyone is in the zone—reading and blending, it’s fun. There’s another feeling when you’re playing in a small jazz group and you’re letting improvisation take over and it’s going great places and you’re free,” he says. “Then when I go and play in nightclubs and I’ve got all these people dancing, who might have never heard the trombone. They’re surprised by the music, that the trombone can have that affect. It’s very satisfying.”

Whether it’s presenting an Internet program, teaching a master class, or playing a music festival, Nowell immerses himself in knowledge of his instrument. For his video series on the history of jazz trombone, he transcribed 12-bar blues from 56 of the most influential trombonists up to the bebop era, breaking down each musician’s performance so the audience could hear the different styles.

“What I’ve noticed about the people I look up to is that they’re still students. They have that drive, that thirst to learn; they constantly want to get better. In the case of Arturo Sandoval, he’s like a kid when it comes to his excitement about music. It’s infectious. He gets excited about playing, learning new techniques, and studying. He’s still inspired, has that energy. It’s an important trait if you want to do this in your life.”

On his YouTube program, Bone Masters, Nowell plays host to famous trombonists he grew up listening to. You get a lesson in articulation from Local 47 member Dick Nash, different slide techniques with Alan Kaplan of Locals 7 and 47, and a languid duet with Bill Watrous. “I have an entire wall of every trombone player I ever heard,” Nowell says. “I’d study the earliest trombone players, the contemporary trombonists, and transcribe all of them, hundreds of players, from swing to bebop. I think it’s important to know where we came from in order to gain a new perspective and find your own voice.”

Nowell likes a full-bodied trombone sound, influenced by the tones of J. J. Johnson and Clifford Brown. He says, “I don’t like to overplay. I like to use space that people can latch onto so they can sing along to the melodies.”

Good lines are a priority for him. He says, “Chet Baker used to say, ‘If you have a good sound, everything you play will always sound good.’ So, for me, sound has been key in terms of what I want to convey on my instrument. And it supersedes any technical facility or trying to impress people. Phil Wilson, my mentor, always told me, ‘Paul, good lines impress. A good sound and good lines will resonate with the audience—none of that trickery. I remember I was in a lesson with him and I had learned a technique—doota lot dooo—and Phil said, ‘Knock that off.’”

He says, “It’s your trombone and the audience—just the trombone to get their attention. If you can do that with a single-line instrument, then when you get together with an ensemble, you’re going to be way stronger as a musician.”

Journey to the World is Nowell’s first record, a mix of electro soul, hip-hop, jazz, and melodic pop. He imagined it as an exploration of different galaxies. He says, “I wanted to keep the natural acoustic quality of the instrument without manipulation.” Having grown up in the electronic world, with hip-hop, dance music, and techno, he chose to fuse the sounds.

Earlier this summer, Nowell participated in the International Trombone Festival in Redlands, California, where he conducted clinics on improvisation, home recording studio setup, making videos, how music is organized, and solo playing.

Kristian Bush: Rediscovers His Voice Through Southern Gravity

Kristian Bush has been a successful professional union musician since the 1990s, but it’s only recently that the Local 257 (Nashville, TN) member launched his first solo album, Southern Gravity. After spending his most recent 10 years as the silent but creative voice behind the duo Sugarland, the singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist says some people are surprised to hear him sing.

“When I started Sugarland it was pretty clear that my voice was not going to fit on country radio. At the time, the singers signed had rich baritone voices, but now my voice feels like a good fit for current commercial country music. So this first record, my third first record, weirdly enough, is right on time,” says Bush.

Long before Sugarland, Bush had already achieved commercial singing success in the folk rock duo Billy Pilgrim with
Andrew Hyra more than 20 years ago. That’s when he first joined Local 148-462 (Atlanta, GA). “I’m a very proud union member,” he says. “It always feels like there’s another person in the conversation every time I get paid, which I am grateful for because this business is complicated and has changed dramatically since I signed up
in 1994.”

Kristian-BushBush later transferred to Local 257 with Sugarland. “The Nashville union is very thorough on their approach to protecting musicians,” he says, “really making sure everybody gets the most they can get paid out of every session.”

Bush founded Sugarland in 2002 with his friend Kristen Hall. Jennifer Nettles, also a member of Local 257, was the fifth singer to audition for lead vocalist and co-songwriter with the group. “She blew it out of the water,” says Bush.

“The second song we wrote together was ‘Baby Girl,’” he says, recalling their quick success after Nettles joined. As Sugarland’s debut single, the song eventually went to number two on the Billboard Hot Country Singles & Tracks charts, and stayed on the chart for a record-setting 46 weeks. Sugarland became a duo when Hall dropped out after the first album.

Between 2004 and 2012 Sugarland released eight successful albums and racked up dozens of music industry honors, including the 2005 American Music Awards Favorite Breakthrough New Artist, the 2006 ACM award for Top New Duo or Vocal Group, two Academy of Country Music (ACM) awards for Top Vocal Duo and one for Single of the Year, five Country Music Association (CMA) Vocal Duo of the Year awards, four Country Music Television (CMT) Duo Video of the Year awards, and two Grammy awards.

Check out the gear Bush prefers using.

Tragedy Follows Success

Kristian-Bush-stairsSugarland’s success was suddenly and tragically tempered by pain on August 13, 2011. The stage collapsed above them as they waited underneath to begin a show at the Indiana State Fair. Seven people were killed and 100 others were injured, among them stagehands, security personnel, and fans. Though he and Nettles were uninjured, Bush says the event changed him forever in ways that he hasn’t even totally understood.

“Music should be a safe place, no matter what. I certainly look up now every time I walk on stage,” he says. Some of the stage crew led a charge for better stage safety following the tragedy, which has resulted in new regulations for safer outdoor stage rigging techniques.

In 2012, Nettles decided she wanted to take a break from Sugarland to start a family and make a solo album. When the pair put Sugarland on hold, Bush says an independent career wasn’t something he’d even considered. However, fueled by a particularly emotional time in his life, he suddenly found himself flooded by songs.

Not only was he dealing with the aftermath of the stage collapse, but also the breakup of his 12-year marriage. He didn’t speak publicly about either until earlier this year. Instead, he poured his emotions into songs. “There was a lot of sadness and mourning, but every once in a while an incredibly bright song would pop out. They are like hot air balloons; you just kind of want to hold onto them and see if they lift you up,” he says.

But, with his sudden productivity, came self-doubt. “I usually write about a song a month—12 to 15 a year; suddenly, kind of as soon as we parked the bus off the last tour, I was writing one almost every other day,” he says. “I was a little worried that the songs weren’t any good because they were coming too fast. It was unsettling and it started to make me question what I should do for a living. What if, at this level of success, people aren’t telling me the truth?”

To counter his doubts Bush sought collaborators. “I thought the only way I could figure out an honest answer was to write with the best people I could find. I went all over the world,” he explains. “I went to see Will Jennings in LA, and I said, ‘Teach me how to write for film’; I went to Stockholm and Jøgen Olsen and said, ‘Teach me how to write a pop song’; and I went to Nashville, to Paul Overstreet and Bob DiPiero [of Local 257], and said, ‘Teach me how to write the best country music’; and I went to London to Sacha Scarbeck and James Blunt.” These influences and co-writers can be heard on Southern Gravity.

Right Time for Radio

kristian-bush-featureBush says that, even when he knew he had the songs, he was still reluctant to take focus away from Sugarland. “Then, I figured out that my voice, Jennifer’s voice, and the band can be on the radio at the same time; it was not going to affect my band for me to have a solo record,” he continues. “I now have two careers. Sugarland is still together; we have a couple records left with our label and it’s going to be super exciting when we get to do it.”

The final hurdle was figuring out, from all the songs he’d written and recorded, just what he wanted to sound like. “Thinking about what I sound like can be unsettling at first,” he says. “I wrote 300 songs for this record and recorded them all. The process of that almost felt like discovering my voice.”

Bush co-produced the album with executive producer Byron Gallimore and Tom Tapley, whom he also worked with on Sugarland’s studio albums. “I love producing albums,” says Bush, “but it’s weird to produce your own vocals. You have to emotionally detach yourself. So the hardest part is the speed. I would do full takes, cut them together, and then take it home and listen to it for two or three days.”

In the end, they created an album far removed from the emotional turmoil where it began. Instead, Southern Gravity is hopeful, even joyful. “These songs are like Post-it notes that you might put around your house as inspirational reminders,” says Bush. “I listen to them for that reason sometimes—to remind myself that no matter how hard it gets, you can make things out of the pieces that are smashed.”

Once the songs were complete, it was time to begin his first solo tour. Bush admits that, even as a veteran musician, it felt strange to take the stage as a solo act. “I was so nervous my first show. It was strangely at the [huge] O2 Arena in London and I was opening for Little Big Town and Tim McGraw. I walked out on stage and my heart was practically beating out of my chest. I broke into the first song, and suddenly it was like, ‘Wait a minute, I totally know how to do this!’” he recalls.

Bush recently had the opportunity to look back on his career through a new documentary to air this month called Walk Tall (also the name of one of the tunes on his album). “It’s about Southern Gravity, but it’s also a journey, and what it’s like to make music after terrible things happen,” he says of the film. “As Americans, as people, the idea of never giving up is really important. When you have a passion, a belief, a joy, whatever life throws at you, the only choice you really have is how you deal with it. I’ve started to realize that there’s a resiliency in loving what you do and you go back to it as a way to ground yourself.”

Two tips for upcoming singer songwriters from Kristian Bush:

1) “Don’t give up; don’t judge yourself until about 100 songs because it’s going to suck for a while. They are going to be emotionally very much like your babies; write them as exercises.”

2) “There is so much technology out there to give you rhythms to write against. Whether it’s an app on your phone, a piece of software, or a drum machine, write against a beat.  I love the way lyrics bounce against a rhythm.”

Nelson to Be Honored with Gershwin Prize

Nelson to Be Honored with Gershwin PrizeLibrarian of Congress James Billington announced that Local 433 (Austin, TX) Willie Nelson will be the next recipient of the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular music. The Gershwin prize honors a living music artist’s lifetime achievement in promoting song to enhance cultural understanding; entertaining and informing audiences; and inspiring new generations. He will be recognized for the honor in Washington, DC, in November.

“Willie Nelson is a musical explorer, redrawing the boundaries of country music throughout his career,” says Billington. “A master communicator, the sincerity and universally appealing message of his lyrics place him in a category of his own, while still remaining grounded in his country-music roots. His achievements as a songwriter and performer are legendary. Like America itself, he has absorbed and assimilated diverse stylistic influences into his stories and songs. He has helped make country music one of the most universally beloved forms of American artistic expression.”

Nelson has written numerous country-music standards, and has made 200-plus recordings that cross many genres. He is also a noted author, actor, and activist, who continues to thrive in a career that has spanned six decades.

Previous winners of the Gershwin Prize for Popular music include Local 802 (New York City) members Paul Simon and Carole King, Local 5 (Detroit, MI) member Stevie Wonder; and the songwriting duo Burt Bacharach of Local 47 (Los Angeles, CA) and the late Hal David.

Assistance for Union Plus Storm Victims

Union members who participate in Union Plus programs (credit cards, insurance, mortgages, etc.) and live in areas impacted by the recent severe storms and widespread flooding in Texas and Oklahoma, may be eligible for financial assistance. Disaster Relief Grants of $500 are available to help participants who live in Harris, Hays, and Van Zandt counties in Texas, and Cleveland, Grady, and Oklahoma counties in Oklahoma and are facing financial hardship due to this devastating natural disaster. The money does not have to be repaid.

To qualify for a Union Plus Disaster Relief Grant, a union member must:

  • Have been a victim of the severe weather in counties designated by FEMA as qualifying for individual assistance.
  • Have experienced a significant loss of income or property within the last six months due to the disaster.
  • Have had a Union Plus Credit Card, Union Plus Insurance policy, or Union Plus Mortgage for at least 12 months with the account or policy in good standing (be up-to-date on payments).
  • Describe his or her circumstances and document the income or property loss.

To apply for a disaster relief grant, Union Plus participants can call: 1-800-622-2580 (Union Plus Credit Card) or 1-800-472-2005 (Union Plus mortgage or insurance: 1-800-472-2005).

Union Plus Mortgage and Credit Card holders may also be eligible to receive payment extensions or other special help.

Goals and Intentions

Success consists of having a good relationship with all the people that have traveled through life with us, especially those who have touched our inner soul and spirit. Thus, we must give the best of ourselves touching their souls and spirits. One of the main goals in our lives should be that we must live the best way we can, to love, forgive, and offer the best of who we are as the greatest musicians in the world. Most of the successful professional union musicians I have had the pleasure to share my musical journey with these many years were motivated with a goal to achieve. Remember, every person can always step into a life of greatness. Just be prepared to face challenges head-on; they will always lead you to a better place!

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