Maurice Peress, Conductor Who Worked With Ellington, Dies at 87
By NEIL GENZLINGERJAN. 4, 2018
Maurice Peress leading the Queens College Aaron Copland School of Music orchestra in 2012. Julie Glassberg for The New York Times
Maurice Peress, a conductor who worked closely with both Leonard Bernstein and Duke Ellington, and whose twin passions for jazz and classical music were reflected in his penchant for reconstructing important concerts from the past, died on Sunday at his home in Manhattan. He was 87.
His son, Paul, said the cause was leukemia.
Mr. Peress spent the last 33 years conducting the student orchestra at the Queens College Aaron Copland School of Music, where he established a master’s degree in conducting. But before settling into that role he led major orchestras, conducted the premieres of important works by Bernstein and others, and helped Ellington orchestrate some of his signature compositions.
Mr. Peress (pronounced PER-ess) also examined the historical underpinnings of American music, most notably in his book “Dvorak to Duke Ellington: A Conductor Explores America’s Music and Its African American Roots,” published in 2004.
Antonin Dvorak, the Czech composer, spent three years in the United States beginning in 1892, urging the development of an American musical tradition and famously saying, “In the Negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music.”
Mr. Peress noted that two men who studied under Dvorak — Will Marion Cook and Rubin Goldmark — went on to be teachers of Ellington, Copland and George Gershwin. For Mr. Peress, perpetually interested in intersections between American jazz and the classical tradition, it was a pivotal connection.
“All the stories in my book are about the transfer of the center of creative power from Europe to America,” he wrote, “Dvorak being the prophet and Ellington its fulfillment.”
Mr. Peress might have seemed an unlikely champion of the importance of music drawn from the black experience. He was born on March 18, 1930, in Manhattan, the son of Jewish immigrants. His father, Henry, had been born in Baghdad into a family of traders and used to relax by playing the oud and singing in Arabic. His mother, the former Elsie Tygier, sang Yiddish and Polish folk songs to Maurice.
His parents owned a lingerie shop in Washington Heights in Manhattan. Young Maurice took up the bugle, playing reveille at scout camps. He made himself a hybrid instrument by cobbling two bugles together, and the noise from his practicing in his apartment apparently either annoyed or impressed an upstairs neighbor. One day, he recalled in his memoir, “Maverick Maestro” (2015), the neighbor, a mustachioed man in his 80s named Nell Speck, rang his doorbell.
“I played cornet for John Philip Sousa,” the man said. “What kind of cornet are you playing?”
When Mr. Peress showed him the contraption, the man brought him a better instrument — and gave him lessons to boot.
Mr. Peress conducting the American Jazz Orchestra at the Cooper Union in Manhattan at a rehearsal for a concert of Duke Ellington’s music. Vic DeLucia/The New York Times
He kept at it, playing in a dance band in the Catskills for a time and entering New York University as a music major. He graduated in 1952, in the midst of the Korean War, and was drafted into the Army the next year.
He spent most of his almost two years in the service assigned to a regimental band that had historically been black; President Harry S. Truman’s desegregation of the military was slowly integrating the unit. Mr. Peress’s children said they thought his love of jazz and interest in African-American influences in music really took hold when he was surrounded by black musicians in the Army.
While teaching at N.Y.U. and continuing to play, Mr. Peress was also studying conducting at the Mannes School of Music.
“I wanted to be in the music, not just one part of it,” he explained years later to The New York Times. “I wanted to be in the middle of it.”
In 1961, he auditioned for a one-year appointment as one of Bernstein’s three assistant conductors and was chosen, along with Seiji Ozawa and John Canarina. As part of a Carnegie Hall program in May 1962, Bernstein turned the New York Philharmonic over to Mr. Peress and Mr. Ozawa, who jointly conducted Charles Ives’s “Central Park in the Dark,” as the composer specified.
“Mr. Ozawa and Mr. Peress did their brief stint with thorough professionalism,” Harold C. Schonberg wrote in The Times.
Bernstein became something of a mentor to Mr. Peress, and a decade later would give him what he regarded as one of his most memorable assignments: In September 1971, Mr. Peress conducted the premiere of Bernstein’s “Mass” to open the Kennedy Center in Washington. He revisited the work in 2014, conducting it at Queens College.
After his year as Bernstein’s assistant conductor, Mr. Peress led the orchestra in Corpus Christi, Tex., for a dozen years, simultaneously conducting Austin’s orchestra for part of that time. He led the Kansas City Philharmonic from 1974 to 1980, which proved to be an unhappy period.
“The audience didn’t want to hear much new music,” he told The Christian Science Monitor in 1989. “I would introduce a new piece, and they would start booing and hissing.”
Parallel to his conducting career, Mr. Peress was working with Ellington, whom he met during a cultural festival at the White House in 1965; Mr. Peress was conducting a performance by the Joffrey Ballet there.
“Polite applause covered our exit,” he recalled in “Dvorak to Duke.” And then Ellington came on with his band and brought what had been a rather stiff crowd alive.
Mr. Peress, left, and Leonard Bernstein in 1975. Four years earlier, Mr. Peress conducted the premiere of Bernstein’s “Mass” to open the Kennedy Center in Washington. Paul Peress
“I was fired up,” Mr. Peress wrote, “wondering how a symphony conductor like myself could take part in this important music, music that spoke to me as profoundly as any other, music that reached out and embraced everyone.”
Afterward, he asked Ellington whether he had ever considered scoring his extended composition “Black, Brown and Beige” for symphony orchestra. The two worked together on that and other projects, capturing works that in some cases were ephemeral, tailored only to Ellington’s own band.
One piece they worked on was “Queenie Pie,” a musical that remained unfinished at Ellington’s death in 1974. In 1986, Mr. Peress joined with collaborators, including George C. Wolfe and Ellington’s son, Mercer, to complete the work and stage its world premiere at the American Music Theater Festival in Philadelphia. Robert Palmer, reviewing the production in The Times, called it “a wonderfully vital and coherent work.”
The “Queenie Pie” project drew on Mr. Peress’s talent for reconstructing and salvaging, which he displayed on a number of occasions.
In July 1989, he recreated the 1943 Carnegie Hall debut concert of Ellington and his orchestra for the hall’s Landmark Jazz series. In February 2014, at Town Hall, he marked the 90th anniversary of the program, which had included the premiere of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” by restaging it.
“I’m a re-creative artist,” Mr. Peress once said. “I’m not a creative artist, so to speak.”
Mr. Peress’s first marriage, to Gloria Vando, ended in divorce in 1980. His second wife, the former Ellen Waldron, whom he married in 1989, died in 2010. In addition to his son, a drummer and composer, he is survived by two daughters, Lorca Peress, a theater director, and Anika Paris, a singer; a brother, Herbert; two stepdaughters, Jennifer Waldron and Wendy Waldron; a granddaughter; and four step-grandchildren.
Mr. Peress’s musical curiosity was not limited to jazz and the black experience. In 1968, when he was leading the Corpus Christi orchestra, he was asked by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to be the project director for an initiative to bring performances to American Indian reservations that merged classical and tribal influences.
“We are looking for a project director, preferably American Indian, to lead a new music program,” he said he was told, someone having mistaken his last name for “Perez.” “Being that you are of Mexican origin and from Texas, we thought you might be our man.”
Mr. Peress, always quick with the witticism, responded efficiently.
“I replied, ‘I have only one word for you — Shalom!’ ” he recalled in his memoir.
Then he took the job.