All That Jazz: Christianson a Member of Grammy Nominated Ensemble

Jazz Ensemble in Concert
Jazz Ensemble in Concert
Mike Christianson (teal jacket playing trombone), an assistant professor in the Department of Visual and Performing Arts, performs with the John Hollenbeck (in hat) Large Ensemble. The band was nominated for a Grammy for their album "All Can Work." Photo credit: Scott Friedlander

Mike Christianson is many things to many people — educator, band director, composer. Now we can add “Grammy-nominated performer” to the list.

Christianson, assistant professor of visual and performing arts and director of bands at Michigan Technological University, is also a member of the New York City-based John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble. The group was nominated for “Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album,” at the 61st Annual Recording Academy’s Grammy Awards, for its recording “All Can Work.”

Music Runs in the Family

A career in music was essentially preordained for Christianson, as he represents the fifth consecutive generation in his family to become a band director. (Sixth if you count his son, Aaron, a student conductor for the Michigan Tech Pep Band). “The tradition of music in our family goes way back,” he said. “My grandmother was a pianist and my father a band director. When he died, a 33-voice choir sang at his funeral.”

Growing up, Christianson was exposed to music outside the family as well. “There were always live performances of some of the biggest names and biggest bands, when I was young. I saw Count Basie, Buddy Rich, Stan Kenton and all the greats play.” With those experiences, one might assume he grew up in New York, Chicago or New Orleans, rather than his actual home town of Fargo, North Dakota.

“I saw all the great big bands as a kid. My dad talked about seeing Spike Jones and the City Slickers and other greats come to Fargo before I was born,” Christianson said. With that type of exposure, it seems natural that he stayed pretty close to home for the first phase of his education, crossing the Red River of the North, to earn a bachelor’s of music at Minnesota State University-Moorhead, Fargo’s sister city.

Taking a Bite out of the Big Apple 

Christianson, a trombone and lower brass performer, left the prairie to continue his education in New York, earning a Master of Music at the Manhattan School of Music, and a Doctor of Musical Arts from Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. It might be surprising to learn that while Christianson’s reputation in jazz continues to grow, his education was in classical trombone, not jazz.

His goal was to pursue a career as a professional musician, but conducting “had always been an idea.” At Rutgers, he was conductor of the University’s Wind Ensemble. However, New York also afforded him the opportunity to build a varied career as a musician. He has played in the pit orchestras of more than 40 Broadway and off-Broadway musicals, including, “The Music Man,” “Showboat,” “Young Frankenstein,” “Fosse” and the Tony Award-winning revival of “42nd Street.”

Additionally, Christianson has performed in some of the most hallowed halls of American music, such as Carnegie Hall, and he has recorded and toured with music legends, among them, Ray Charles, composer and jazz orchestra leader Maria Schneider and jazz composer and pianist Fred Hersch.

Jazz Connection

It was while he was playing with Charles that Christianson and Hollenbeck first got together. As Hollenbeck, a drummer by trade, recalls, "I first met Mike in Rochester, New York when he was on the road with the Ray Charles Band, circa 1988. I remember hanging out with him in the parking lot of his hotel late one night talking only about cymbals and drums. He impressed me with his extensive knowledge of drummers and cymbals."

It was a conversation that stuck with the band leader. They didn't see each other again until about 20 years later when both were playing on Hersch's "Leaves of Grass."  Hollenbeck said after hearing Christianson's "masterful musicianship on that music," he asked him to join his large ensemble. 

"He has been an important part of my group ever since. In a 20-piece ensemble like mine, certain characteristics are highly valued and Mike possesses all of them." Chief among those characteristics are reliability, punctuality and preparedness. 

"As a bandleader himself, Mike understands the challenges inherent in leading a large ensemble. He appreciates how important it is to have musicians that you can always count on to be present physically, mentally and creatively—he is definitely one of those musicians," Hollenbeck said.

“All Can Work,” is Christianson’s third recording with the Hollenbeck Large Ensemble and he continues to perform in concert with the group — a relationship that works. “I enjoy playing with him because of the way he composes. One of the ways in which his music is modern, is the subtle way it incorporates components of swing, without being a swing band,” Christianson said.

The mutual respect between Christianson and Hollenbeck is evident in the fact that both men are members of the others' group.

"I also have the privilege to be in Mike's own NYC-based wind ensemble, The Gotham Wind Symphony," Hollenbeck said. "In that ensemble, I am able to clearly witness Mike’s talents as a conductor, leader/organizer and musical interpreter. He runs this huge ensemble with ease and humor. Mike obviously delights in being at the helm of a group that easily moves from marches, to contemporary music, to jazz. I have the deepest respect for him — you are lucky to have someone with his high standards and depth of musicality at your school." 

The New York Career Didn't End at Tech

When Christianson accepted the position at Michigan Tech more than six years ago, he thought his days of big-city performing were over. “I did not imagine that I could continue to do New York City while working at Michigan Tech,” he said.

While he may have had initial reservations about teaching and conducting at a STEM institution without a music major, Professor Emeritus Mike Irish told him, “you’ll be surprised why you like this job. ”

Turns out, Irish was right. “Not being confined by the expectations of having a music major gives you freedom you might not otherwise have,” Christianson said.

At Michigan Tech, Christianson conducts the Superior Wind Symphony, Campus Concert Band (non-audition) and the world-famous Michigan Tech Pep Band. One of the hallmarks of a Christianson-conducted concert is his warmth, sense of humor and interaction with the audience. Which, as it turns out, is another family tradition. "I saw my dad speak at all of his concerts, I guess that's where it comes from."

The Christianson-led Superior Wind Symphony is in concert at 7:30 Friday (Feb. 15) at the Rozsa Center for the Performing Arts.

It's an Honor Just to be Nominated

Sadly, Christianson will have to wait to add "Grammy Winner" to his résumé. This year's award went to "American Dreamers" Voices of Hope, Music of Freedom," by John Daversa Big Band Featuring DACA Artists. But, Christianson and Hollenbeck weren't sitting crestfallen in the Staples Center when the awards were announced Feb. 10. In fact, they were more than 2,400 miles away, on the stage of the Moss Arts Center in Blacksburg, Virginia—making music.

Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and is home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, Michigan’s flagship technological university offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, computing, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is situated just miles from Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, offering year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.