Venice composer-arranger snags multiple Grammy nominations

By Bridgette M. Redman

A versatile pianist, Beasley has backed jazz icons such as Miles Davis and Freddie Hubbard

Venice composer, arranger, pianist and jazz musician John Beasley recently received four more Grammy nominations—bringing his total to 10. While he has yet to win, the nominations show the breadth of his career and he is thrilled with the accomplishment.

“I would like to win, of course,” Beasley said. “If I don’t, I would be zero and 10. On the other hand, I think 10 nominations is wonderful because it’s about the whole body of my work. I would rather be zero and 10 then one and one.”

This year he was nominated for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album, Best Arrangement, Instrumental or A Cappella; Best Arrangement, Instruments and Vocals; and Best Jazz Vocal Album. He also received his first Latin Grammy this year for Best Arrangement, Instruments and Vocals.

Beasley was also producer, arranger, orchestrator, pianist and conductor on jazz singer Maria Mendes’ “Close to Me” album, which won the Edison Award (Dutch equivalent to the Grammy Award.) for Best Jazz Vocal Album. Beasley was especially pleased that his band MONK’estra’s albums are three for three in earning Grammy nominations.

“What’s great about it is that for the MONK’estra Grammy nominations, they’ve gotten them for every record we’ve ever done,” Beasley said. “And we’ve gotten an arrangement nomination for each of the records, too. I never thought I’d get a best vocal record nomination because I don’t sing, but it’s nice to be included in that category. The Maria Mendes record is one of my most favorite productions I’ve ever done. She’s remarkable and that music just turned out to be so different. It’s a beautiful record.”

Beasley also worked on two other projects that received nominations, the Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media “1917” and Best Contemporary Blues Album “Live at the Paramount.” For the latter, he arranged five songs on the album for the Ruthie Foster Big Band.

When the award announcements came out in 2020, Beasley was in Germany with the SWR Big Band working on a recording for his “Bird” album that will be released this year. He started getting text messages, emails and even a few phone calls before he finally received the official confirmation email from the Grammys.

Beasley never thinks about whether a record is Grammy-worthy when he is making it, even though some of his band members will make those claims when they listen to the recorded process.

“I know better than that,” he said. “I’ve been around a little longer. I’m from Louisiana and I’m a little superstitious.”

Learning music down in the bayou

Louisiana was where Beasley got his musical start. Both of his parents were classical musicians. His dad was a jazz musician who was gigging in Shreveport and teaching there. When they moved to Dallas, his dad played in the symphonies and jazz clubs. Beasley said he was often taken to rehearsals when they didn’t want to pay for a babysitter.

Radio was another major influence as it introduced him to R&B while television had the country music shows. As he grew older in small towns, he and his friends gravitated toward R&B. In junior high school, he was a huge fan of Freddie Hubbard, buying all his records and learning his music, which would later serve him well when he moved to LA.

In his early 20s, Beasley watched Hubbard perform live all the time. Then Hubbard’s piano player moved on and his saxophone player Bob Sheppard, who now plays in MONK’estra, recommended Beasley as the replacement.

“I did one gig as an audition in San Francisco,” Beasley said. “I knew his music and I was ready for him, so I did the gig and he kept calling.”

Beasley continued to perform with his hero throughout his early 20s. In his late 20s, he got to play with another major jazz figure who would leave a lasting impact on his life: Miles Davis. Beasley knew Davis’ nephew, Vince Wilburn Jr., who played drums with his uncle and ended up being his assistant. Wilburn used to come and listen to Beasley in a band called Audio Mind because they had a famous drummer. He eventually asked Beasley to make a tape for Davis.

“I said, ‘Yeah, right,’” Beasley shared. “I went home and put on the drum machine and improvised for 20 minutes. Three to four months later, Miles called me on the phone and asked me to join the band. That was the ultimate jazz gig at the time. To get to be part of that was so special and I learned a lot. Miles changed music several times. I toured with him during the last few years of his life.”

Of the many famous people Beasley has worked with including Steely Dan, he said Davis might be one of the most dedicated to art that he has ever been around. Davis would listen to recordings of every show the night of performance or the next morning and would have comments for everyone in
the band.

“You would go to his hotel room and he would have canvases on the floor that he would be painting,” Beasley said. “He was talking to his valet about clothes he wanted to design. The guy was 24/7 art.”

Big band pays tribute to Thelonious Monk

In 2013, Beasley formed MONK’estra, a 15-piece big band that reimagines the work of Thelonious Monk, bringing his history and music to a new generation. Monk was someone who had inspired Beasley in his own career, encouraging him to take on work with his own sound.

“Delving into Thelonious Monk’s music and learning more about his life and the challenges he had racially and because his music was so far ahead of the times—he was made fun of, people didn’t think he was that good,” Beasley explained. “Looking at his life, it gave me confidence to really just be myself, because if he was being himself and taking all that, certainly I could. I didn’t have anything to lose, that was the huge lesson.”

The band signed a three-record deal with Mack Avenue Records, and both MONK’estra Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 earned four Grammy nominations in 2016 and 2017. The third album took a different direction.

“I’ve been composing all my life,” he said. “I wanted to bring some of my own material in. I didn’t play much piano on those first two albums, so I wanted to play more piano. There is an evolution between Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, and now Vol. 3. What I wanted to do was continue that evolution and I think we did that. We stayed true to our roots, but expanded on those roots. I have been trying to develop my own sound with this project and (Monk’s experience) gave me the extra confidence and courage to really be myself within his music.”

The album features Beasley’s original compositions while bringing in guest artists such as John Patitucci, Vinnie Colaiuta, Joey DeFrancesco, Hubert Laws and Grégoire Maret. Opera singer Jubilant Sykes also sings “Come Sunday” in gospel style. Since the band’s inception, MONK’estra has performed in more than 70 concerts around the world.

Working during the year when everything changed

In 2020, things took a different course. Beasley started out the year with four tours planned in Europe, one in Japan, one in the Middle East, and two in South Africa. He was also planning work for three records. In January, MONK’estra recorded the film score for Steven Soderbergh’s film, “Let Them All Talk” with Meryl Streep. Beasley arranged and orchestrated the Thomas Newman score and conducted MONK’estra and a string section.

He also finished the 1970s Latin rock album, “Lords of Dogtown: Men of Smoke,” which he co-wrote with Steve Lindsey before going on a West Coast tour with jazz vocalist Dianne Reeves and Brazilian musician Ivan Lins. Then he and a MONK’estra quartet left San Francisco for Abu Dhabi and Dubai just as the city went on lockdown. Twice, he was able to perform a concert just before a city shut down, once in Vancouver and once in the United Arab Emirates.

After that, all his tours, projects and events were canceled because of the pandemic.

“I was lucky to have writing projects,” Beasley said. “I worked on a commission that I had to do for Carnegie Hall National Youth Orchestra. I started writing arrangements for a Charlie Parker recording with my co-arranger Magnus Lindgren in Sweden via Zoom.”

Charlie Parker, an American jazz composer and saxophonist who died in 1955, would have turned 100 in August. Originally, there was going to be a huge celebration at the Hollywood Bowl and a tour throughout Europe, but it all got canceled. So Beasley and Lindgren paired up over the summer to create scores for the celebration using notation software, something songwriters have been using, but not many arrangers.

“We passed scores back and forth and co-wrote for the same tunes,” Beasley said. “With technology, you’re able to do this. I would start a score and a vibe on it, then I’d give it to him and he’d expand on it and send it back to me. I’d expand on what he did, it was a really interesting way to work.”

2020 was also a year where Beasley got back to the basics, which included taking classical piano lessons again. He is looking forward to what 2021 will bring and the eventual end of the pandemic. He suspects that there will be new opportunities for jazz artists like him and MONK’estra.

“The Spanish flu pandemic in 1917 and 1918 brought on the jazz age with lots of drinking, partying, F. Scott Fitzgerald, flapper girls, Louis Armstrong—people went crazy and partied,” Beasley said. “My theory is that is what is going to happen. People are going to want to get out and listen to music, go to clubs and restaurants. They’re going to want to party. I think we’ll all be pretty busy.”

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