Michael Colgrass left a big trail of creativity when he died on July 2, 2019 at the age of 87. I’m Ulla, his wife for 55 of those years. Our son Neal and I knew that his papers and recordings had to be preserved, because the range of his work was so diverse and unusual. It is bound to inspire other artists.
Michael began as a jazz musician and spent the early part of his career as a crossover percussionist, able to play with both the Modern Jazz Quartet and the New York Philharmonic. Composing his own works started as a fluke while at the University of Illinois, and it continued throughout his twenties along with performing. After I joined him in New York City in 1966, he decided to give up playing and concentrate on composing – though that is not how it turned out. A steady stream of works for symphony orchestras, chamber music and solo works continued to flow from his imagination, but he also studied acting, singing, dancing and commedia dell’arte in Europe, wrote poetry, librettos, developed a method for children to write their own music, composed music and an opera for them to perform, learned Neuro-Linguistic Programming and became a therapist who cured musicians of stage fright and other phobias. His two hefty books teach performance skills mainly in universities and conservatories, and his memoir Michael Colgrass: Adventures of an American Composer is a popular read.
Michael had tremendous energy and loved his work. Fortunately, he also had a good business sense and was rather proud of making a living from his art. Neal and I helped him live as long as possible, and after he died we had to muster that Colgrass energy to sort through his packed studio as well as many boxes of papers in storage. We spent months during the time of COVID sorting scores, notes, letters, programs, reviews, recordings, photos, videos and documentaries, drawings, manuscripts, poems, articles, ideas, pranks...an endless array. Every piece of paper was examined, as we tried to put things in order to save an archivist from nervous breakdown.
Several universities in the USA, where Michael was a frequent guest artist, had expressed an interest getting his collection. We considered it, but during the pandemic they all seemed so far away. His career was largely in the States and outside Canada, but he lived happily in Toronto for 45 years and was a dual US/Canadian citizen. So we offered the collection to the Music Library in the University of Toronto, and they received our mountain of boxes with enthusiasm. Archivist Becky Shaw made a most impressive 30-page finding aid for the Michael Colgrass fonds. The content of all 50 boxes is available at the U of T Music Library, and searchable via Discover Archives, which includes a handy search field in the left column.
You can access the collection by visiting the Reading Room at U of T’s Music Library (Monday to Friday, 10 am - 4pm). If you’re not in Toronto, the library can digitize materials upon request for research purposes only. In either case contact Music Archivist Becky Shaw (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Neal and I were always inspired by Michael’s creative spirit. We hope you will find it in this U of T collection too. We can be reached at email@example.com if you need more information.
Ulla & Neal Colgrass