Michael C. Colgrass Jr., a Brookfield native whose talents as a composer earned him a Pulitzer Prize for Music, died last month at the age of 87 in his adopted hometown of Toronto.
Colgrass, who died July 2, was a widely admired composer for his experimental pieces, including “Déjà Vu,” commissioned in 1977 by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.
The piece for percussion quartet and orchestra comprised four concertos featuring four soloists. The following spring, in April 1978, “Déjà Vu” won the Pulitzer Prize for Music.
According to a story about Colgrass written by Chris Stach and published in 2005 by the Landmark, it was the Chicago Sun-Times that broke the news, reporting that “Mike’s mom heard the Pulitzer news while making an apple pie. She was so ‘greatly elated,’ she couldn’t finish the pie.”
Colgrass was born April 22, 1932, to Ann and Michael Colgrass Sr. His father would end up serving as Brookfield’s postmaster for 38 years, from 1934 to 1972. Colgrass’ younger sister, Cathy Colgrass Edwards, would go on to make a name for herself in local politics.
After serving as the village’s recreation director, she was elected to two terms as a village trustee before being elected village clerk in 2013, two years before her death at the age of 68.
Music became an obsession for “Buddy,” as Michael was called early on. When he was 10, he saw a film that included jazz drummer Ray Bauduc and bassist Bob Haggart performing “Big Noise from Winnetka,” a largely improvised duet in which Bauduc beats out the rhythm on the bass strings.
“I hounded my father for a drum, and when I got it, I immediately played the rhythms that I heard Bauduc play in that movie,” Colgrass recalled.
While a student at Riverside-Brookfield High School he started playing in jazz bands, like Three Jacks and a Jill, a name inspired by the wartime movie “Four Jacks and a Jill.” Colgrass played the drums.
Later in his high school years, he developed an interest in bebop and more experimental music. At the University of Illinois, Colgrass began composing his own music, starting with “The Three Brothers” in 1950.
After graduating from Illinois in 1954, he served for two years in the Army, performing with the Seventh Army Symphony. After his hitch in the service, he set out for New York City.
According to Stach’s 2005 article, Colgrass freelanced as a percussionist in New York, playing with Dizzy Gillespie, the New York Philharmonic and in the pit on Broadway for the musical “West Side Story.”
He also studied with Eugene Weigel, Darius Milaud, Lukas Foss, Wallingford Riegger and Ben Weber while in New York, and in 1966 traveled to Denmark on a grant-funded study opportunity.
It was there that he met his wife, Ulla, who survives him. In 1974, the couple would move to Toronto.
In 1967, the Boston Symphony Orchestra performed his piece “As Quiet As” and he premiered “New People” for the Chamber Music Society of London in 1969.
Colgrass was the subject of a PBS documentary, “Soundings: The Music of Michael Colgrass,” which earned an Emmy Award. And in 1985, his composition “The Winds of Nagual” earned him a $10,000 Louis Sudler Award.
Riverside-Brookfield High School honored Colgrass with an Alumni Achievement Medal in 2000, and four years later he returned to his alma mater to speak to Kevin McOlgan’s band class.
According to Stach, the students “played for him, and then they talked with and listened to him, long after the seventh-hour class had been dismissed. The students were fascinated by this man who had gone so far in his chosen career, yet had once been just a student here, like any of them.”
In addition to his wife, Ulla, Colgrass is survived by a son, Neal, and his sister, Gloria Lokay.