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Bill Finegan

Eddie Sauter and I were already friends, and he was studying with a composer in New York named Stefan Wolpe. He told me about Wolpe, so I went to see him. I spent a couple of years with him, and that was a great experience. He was unbelievable. I think he was a genius. I don't like to use that term lightly, but I think Stefan was. His personality! He was such a volatile, fiery, stimulating guy. He would demonstrate things. He would jump up and dance around the room. He'd climb over the sofa and go up the stairs and back. He would give you vivid demonstrations of, he used to call them, strategies more than techniques in writing. Eddie and I talked to other students of his, and they had the same experience with him.

I'd just write free composition. I wouldn't bring in any of the stuff I did for the bands. That's separate. I knew how to do that, so why show it to him. But he opened so many doors. I'm still looking around in some of the areas that he opened up, new concepts of looking at a piece, of how to write pieces. He had the quickest eye in scanning a piece and finding unrelated material. He'd say, "What, what, where does this come from?" And he'd have me. I'd say, "I'm not sure." 'Cause he had that great sense of connection from the germ of a thought, the development of that germ that all the material derived from in the course of at least that movement of the piece. And no left field material, you know.

We'd talk about Prokofiev mostly. He was probably our top favorite. But we also talked about Ravel and Debussy a lot, Bartók, Stravinsky. We had the scores and the records, and we'd listen all the time. Wolpe used to come out to my house in Tenafly for dinner. He loved Prokofiev, and I had some great recording of Horowitz playing the Seventh Sonata. I played it for Wolpe, and he was doing backflips he loved it so much. So every time he came out I had to play this Prokofiev sonata for Wolpe. And he'd get really excited, man. He was very demonstrative.

Eddie and I discovered as we went along that we both had all these principles and strategies, to use Wolpe's word, and felt that they were very important. Register contrast, that's why we did it in our band [Sauter-Finegan Orchestra]. Contrast in rhythms, for a period, don't move, just hold still. That's the best contrast to a lot of movement. Wolpe used to talk about composed silence, that some of the most dramatic moments in music is when everything stops, and that loaded silence that occurs for a few seconds. You just let it lay there for a minute. There's drama, y'know.

Jazz Oral History Project of the Smithsonian Institute, Tapes 3-A, 3-B. Interview: JB, Monroe, Connecticut, 17-18 September, 1992.

For a long time working on composing with Steve and arranging were two separate entities, they didn't join. Then inevitably whatever I did with Steve crept into what I was writing for Sauter-Finegan, or for anybody else. He had a profound effect on anybody who studied with him, and whatever you learned became homogenized into your whole process. His effect certainly was there in the Sauter-Finegan Band. Eddie played some of the early Sauter-Finegan things for Steve, and he liked them very much. I had very long lessons with him--two hours, two-and-a-half hours, ten dollars a lesson.

Controlling the circulation of the twelve pitches is still in effect with me. Steve used to show me, without naming them, the work of his other students. He said this guy will do everything to avoid writing a third. He would then demonstrate a thing for me on the piano. His demonstrations were fantastic. He would improvise a very dissonant passage with no thirds, a minute or so of that, and suddenly hit a third up in the high register. The third was like getting hit on the head by a mallet, it had such a profound impact. He said, "Why not?" He had no dogmas. If you want to write thirds, write them. He kind of laughed at the self-imposed limitations some of the students would lay on themselves.

We used to go to soirees at their apartment. He and I and Eddie would go to contemporary concerts a lot, Stravinsky and Schoenberg and some lesser known contemporary composers. There was a contemporary music society, and they used to have concerts at the New School, and we went to all of those. It was always enjoyable to go with him. You couldn't be around him without learning something. He was amazing. You learned by osmosis from him. Never took him to any jazz events. Didn't talk about jazz too much. When Steve would come out to dinner, I'd drive in and pick him up. There was a period when Ed Sauter had a recurrence of his TB [tuberculosis], and he was in bed at home. So I'd pick up Steve and visit Eddie, and we'd spend the afternoon out there. He was a very generous spirit and gave of himself all the time.

I think he had an effect even on people [in jazz] who didn't study with him. It was almost like an underground at that time the way it spread, a lot of word of mouth. The arrangers would get together and talk all night long about specific things, get at the keyboard, and play things, and discuss them, and a lot of information would pass that way.

Bill Finegan (b. 1917) began his career playing in big bands, and in 1941 was hired by Glenn Miller as a staff arranger. In the late 1940s Finegan became a freelancer and moved to France to study at the Paris Conservatory. He and Eddie Sauter formed the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra to tour and record in the 1950s. Telephone interview: AC, Monroe, Conecticut, 29 January 1998.


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