William Thomas McKinley, Jazz-Loving Composer, Dies at 76
William Thomas McKinley, a prolific American composer whose music was infused with the jazz he had performed since childhood, died on Feb. 3 at his home in Reading, Mass. He was 76.
He died in his sleep, his son Elliott said.
Writing in a style he called neo-tonal, Mr. McKinley produced hundreds of orchestral, chamber and vocal works that were known for their lyricism, rhythmic propulsion and accessibility. His music, which could recall not only jazz and blues but also Bach, Debussy, Ravel and Vaughan Williams, was performed on major stages, including those of Carnegie and Alice Tully Halls in New York.
Among the well-known musicians who played Mr. McKinley’s work are the clarinetist Richard Stoltzman, with whom he had a long association; the pianist Peter Serkin; the violist Walter Trampler; the cellist Colin Carr; and the conductor Gerard Schwarz, who performed his compositions — including one of his best known, the 1982 tone poem “The Mountain” — with the Seattle Symphony.
A hallmark of Mr. McKinley’s music was his acute sensitivity to the tonal possibilities of each instrument: the come-hither voice of the clarinet, as in his many collaborations with Mr. Stoltzman; the tumbling rumble of the marimba, for which he wrote a number of pieces, including a concerto; and the lush, songlike sonorities of a string ensemble, as in his haunting “Elegy for Strings,” from 2006.
So attuned was Mr. McKinley to an instrument’s range of colors that his scores often contained admonitions to the performer like “Play with a vivid red tone” or “with silver intensity.” (One piece also included the somewhat more nebulous directive to play “as if dangling in space.”)
As a jazz pianist, Mr. McKinley performed or recorded with eminences including the saxophonists Dexter Gordon and Stan Getz.
A distant cousin of the doomed 25th president of the United States, William Thomas McKinley, known as Tom, was born in New Kensington, Pa., near Pittsburgh, on Dec. 9, 1938. He began playing the piano by ear as a boy, and before he was out of short pants he was performing in local jazz clubs. He joined the American Federation of Musicians at 12, becoming, in all likelihood, the union’s youngest card-carrying member.
After being accepted into the music program of the Carnegie Institute of Technology — now Carnegie Mellon University — Mr. McKinley received a bachelor’s degree in composition there in 1960. (Auditioning for the program, he had performed a spontaneous composition of his own on the piano, telling the admissions jury that he was playing a piece by Ravel.)
He went on to earn master of music and master of fine arts degrees from Yale. At Tanglewood, Mr. McKinley worked with Aaron Copland, Lukas Foss and Gunther Schuller, who became a lifelong champion.
The winner of a Naumburg Foundation award for chamber music, Mr. McKinley was also the recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship. A longtime faculty member of the New England Conservatory, he had previously taught at the University of Chicago.
In the early 1990s, Mr. McKinley founded a record label, MMC (for Master Musicians Collective), which recorded primarily the work of modern American composers.
His other compositions include a tango for violin and orchestra, the orchestral work “Flyin’ Home” and vocal settings of poems by Pablo Neruda.
Besides his son Elliott, who is also a composer, Mr. McKinley’s survivors include his wife, the former Marlene Mildner; a sister, Karen Lee Ranson; four other sons, Joseph, Derrick, Jory and Gregory; and 12 grandchildren.
In a sideline not traditionally associated with composers of concert music, Mr. McKinley was a knuckleball pitcher of no little skill. In 1975, by invitation, he gave what was almost certainly the most unusual public performance of his career, pitching batting practice for a Boston Red Sox home game.
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