Jerry Bilik: Illuminating others through the power of music

  • Jerry Bilik (left) and singer-actor William Warfield rehearse Bilik's band transcriptions of vocal accompaniments for the University Wind Ensemble concert at Interlochen Center for the Arts in 1976.

  • Jerry Bilik at his piano.

Jerry Bilik (IAC/NMC 47-50, UNIV 51) has chalked up many achievements over the course of his life. His composition, "Block M," was selected by band directors as one of the top 100 marches of all time. He arranged music for the TV series "Starsky and Hutch" and "Charlie's Angels." He's worked with legendary artists and performers like Leonard Bernstein, Danny Kaye, Dick Van Dyke, Barbara Streisand, Bobby McFerrin, Johnny Carson and Neil Diamond. He was formerly Vice President of Creative Development for Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey and "Disney on Ice," and composed and arranged much of their music as well as writing and directing the shows. He created and directed "Satchmo," a large-scale musical about the life of Louis Armstrong. His impressive list of accomplishments goes on.

But ask him about that first moment when he knew that music was in him and his voice glows with wonder and awe.

"I was at Interlochen the summer of 1947. It was my first time there and the first summer Interlochen had an Intermediate Program. One night we went to the Bowl and heard the Mozart Requiem. It was an epiphany," he said. "It was twilight. I was only 13, but it was just like, 'Wow! What's going on here!'

"Maynard Klein was the choral conductor then. I had been to children's concerts in New York. I knew music, but something happened that was so emotionally overwhelming … the beauty … the whole situation … Interlochen the way it was … the physical setting and the sound. I remember when I got home at the end of Camp, I ran out and bought the 78-RPM records of The Requiem. I played it and played it and played it. And I remember thinking, if someone can create something that had that kind of an effect on me."

For a brief moment Bilik is that kid again. Awestruck. The total experience replaying in his mind.

"I didn't even know what the rest of the audience was doing. I thought, 'That is really cool that you can reach someone that way from the stage.' And that was it! There was no question in my mind. I really just wanted to make music. The writing came much, much later. That fall I got very involved in everything with my high school chorus, band and orchestra and also the theatre."

Nearly 70 years have passed since Bilik's first summer at Interlochen in 1947. "I totally fell in love with Interlochen and it's never stopped meaning as much as it did from that first time. I came back last summer and saw a performance of Collage and was completely blown out of my mind by what I saw. The spirit—and this sounds very hokey—but the spirit of that place … . Being there, I was amazed that the initial impression I had when I was a kid was reinforced. The transformation for me was so profound considering that I wasn't primed for that at all. But constantly—the original image of me sitting up in the bowl rehearsing with Dr. Maddy—how many works we played by the time I got in high school orchestra and how we got that internal familiarity with the music. Week after week after week. That experience and the fact that it was accessible to someone like me—not the star of some famous anything—but the concept of music-making available to anybody...that's the intangible greatness of Interlochen. I have an incredible feeling of gratitude towards the place. And particularly the Interlochen faculty … their total, unselfish dedication is the highest form of art."

Throughout his life, Bilik has used the power of his music and creativity to inspire and empower others to be more. He aspires to create in them the opportunity to feel the way he did on that shimmering summer night when he first heard Mozart's "Requiem."

In the early 1950s, Bilik enrolled in the music program at the University of Michigan. There he developed his skills as a composer and arranger. His imaginative scores played a prominent role in creating U of M Marching Band's famous sound.

Bilik was also the marching band's leader of Rank 1 (the front line). He pushed his fellow students to dig deep for their performances and to find the courage to take creative risks.

One of the alto sax players in his rank was a young Ed Downing who years later would become President of Interlochen. As Mr. Downing remembers: "We all marveled at Jerry's ability and his creativity. It was just fun to be around him—that's what he brought to Rank 1. He could do things in the band environment that others were afraid to do or wouldn't take the risks to do. He was an inspiration.

"I remember saying to myself at that young age that I was part of something that was the best of its kind. It took commitment, focus and dedication to reach that level and to stay at that level. It's a great feeling to have because you're setting all your standards and goals. That is something that I carried with me.

"Jerry has always been a great friend and was a wonderful supporter of me and the things that I did throughout my career."

Several years later, Bilik and his wife, Helga, developed a musical about the life of Louis Armstrong, "Satchmo." Their goal was to find real musicians in New York and Jerry would train them to be the show's actors. That's how they discovered Byron Stripling (IAA 78-79, IAC/NMC 77-78), "a terrific guy" and the principal trumpet player and soloist with The Count Basie Orchestra. Byron threw himself into honing his acting skills with amazing results. Jerry clearly remembers the last moment of the production's world premier in New Orleans. "The show was terrific! I have never seen a show where at the end of the performance, the entire audience literally jumped up out of their seats screaming." Stripling continues to perform internationally in his featured shows including "What a Wonderful World. A Tribute to Louis Armstrong."

During the development of "Satchmo," Bilik got a call from the District Attorney in New Orleans. The DA had offered one of his assistants to drive Jerry and Helga around the city to visit different venues in which to premier "Satchmo." After returning to New York, The DA called to make sure everything had gone well. When Jerry expressed his heartfelt gratitude, the District Attorney asked if Bilik might be able to help his son. "He's staying at the Y on 92nd Street. He made a record, but he has no money, 'coz he doesn't have a job or anything. He had to put all of his money toward the record. But he can really read music. He knows New Orleans stride-style piano. Could he come by and play for you and show you what he can do?"

Bilik replied, "Yeah. Of course, Mr. Connick."

So, before his first album was released, Harry Connick Jr. did come by and they all fell in love with him. For the next several weeks he served as the musical's rehearsal pianist.

Bilik has also been committed to promoting diversity and opening doors for disadvantaged kids to learn music-making his whole life. He was an early and staunch proponent for Interlochen's goals to provide greater diversity for Camp and Academy students and staff. He continues to be involved with Interlochen and several other organizations with similar altruistic goals.

And, when he is not composing, arranging or performing, he simply must teach. It gives him tremendous satisfaction.

"Learning art provides a person with a feeling of self-respect that cannot be achieved through technology. Making art is a creative process and it comes from within. It lifts people up. It is transformative.

Thank you, Mr. Bilik. Shine on.

—Gordon Berg