Death of William Thomas McKinley

Multifaceted musician served on faculty from 1972 to 1995.

Members of the New England Conservatory community lament the passing of former faculty member William Thomas (Tom) McKinley on February 3, 2015. A talented jazz pianist and prolific composer, McKinley’s students remember him as an ebullient mentor whose unbridled creative spirit was infectious. McKinley first arrived at NEC in 1972, when (then President) Gunther Schuller hired him to teach composition, orchestration, jazz improvisation, and piano. He served as chair of the burgeoning Afro-American Music Department (currently, the Jazz Studies Department) from 1978 to 1981, and remained on the faculty until 1995.

Born on Dec. 9, 1938, in New Kensington, PA, McKinley began classical piano lessons at the age of six and taught himself to play jazz. As a ten-year-old, McKinley was already performing with local dance bands and, by the age of twelve, had gotten his union card as a member of the American Federation of Musicians. In 1956, McKinley enrolled in the Carnegie Institute of Technology, where he studied piano with Leonard Eisner, composition with Nicolai Lopatnikoff and Alexei Haieff, and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in composition in 1960. After working as a jazz performer for several years, McKinley enrolled at Yale University. He studied with Mel Powell and Gunther Schuller and, in 1967, completed two master’s degrees, in composition and musicology. From there, McKinley went to the University of Chicago, where he taught until the time of his engagement at NEC.

In April 1956 Tom McKinley married Marlene Mildner, whom he had met in their high school chorus. Mrs. McKinley became an English professor at Suffolk University, specializing in medieval studies. She also created the text for some of her husband’s compositions. The McKinley’s had five sons—Thomas, Derrick, Jory, Sean, and Elliott. Elliott, the youngest, followed in his father’s musical footsteps and is currently employed as a professor of composition and music theory at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island. “My dad really loved life. He was very, very passionate, obviously about music, but also just about life,” Elliot said in Bryan Marquard’s Boston Globe tribute to McKinley.

McKinley was a tireless source of inspiration for his students and colleagues. In 1971, one year before McKinley was hired, composer Thomas Oboe Lee, then a young jazz musician from Pittsburgh, enrolled as one of the first recruits in NEC’s newly established Afro-American Music program. After his first year of majoring in jazz studies, Lee became somewhat disillusioned and wanted to switch to composition. In Lee’s words, “McKinley’s arrival was an epiphany for me.” Lee had identified McKinley as “a jazz legend” from his own hometown of Pittsburgh. Presented with the opportunity to study composition and play jazz with McKinley at NEC was, according to Lee, “the perfect situation.”

Among McKinley’s many noteworthy students is Michael Gandolfi, currently Chair of NEC’s Composition Department. In a letter to Elliot McKinley, Gandolfi paid tribute to his beloved teacher: “[Tom] was the most inspiring and influential person and teacher throughout my formative years. He was with me at every step. I have so many fond memories of lessons, music making, concerts, travel, reading scores and books of all sorts, discussing philosophy, baseball, and everything else under the sun.”

As a student at Yale University McKinley met clarinetist Richard Stoltzman. It was the beginning of a close musical friendship that lasted a lifetime. Over the years, McKinley composed works and collaborated with Stolzman on a variety of endeavors. “He wrote the music of my life,” Stoltzman declared in a tribute written by Leslie Kandell for Berklee faculty member Darrell Katz recalled one of their collaborations; in 1990, “we, the Jazz Composers Alliance orchestra, asked Tom if he’d bring a piece to one of our concerts.” The performance was to take place in BU’s Tsai Performance Center. According to Katz, not only did McKinley compose an original piece for the concert, but he also “brought along—at no cost to us, some good friends,” Stolzman and bassist Gary Peacock. That concert also included works by former McKinley students Andrew Hurlbut and Ken Schaphorst. The McKinley piece, Concerto for Clarinet and Jazz Orchestra, was conducted by Schaphorst, who now serves as Chair of NEC’s Jazz Studies Department.

William Thomas McKinley’s catalog of original music includes over 400 works for symphony orchestra, jazz and chamber ensembles. His 1982 tone poem, The Mountain, originally commissioned by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, has been performed more than 200 times. He was the recipient of many prestigious awards, with a list of honors that includes a grant from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Guggenheim Fellowship, eight grants from the NEA, Koussevitzky International Recording Award, and a Pulitzer Prize nomination. He also received commissions from the Fromm Music Foundation, the Walter W. Naumburg Foundation, and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, among many ensembles and organizations.

McKinley’s music has been performed throughout the United States and Europe in concerts by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Boston Pops, Boston Musica Viva, Collage New Music, the Warsaw Philharmonic, the Bolshoi Theater, the London Symphony, the Jazz Composer’s Alliance Orchestra, the New York Chamber Symphony Orchestra among others. As a pianist, he performed with many jazz greats, including Dexter Gordon, Hank Mobley, Roy Haynes, Wes Montgomery, Wynton Marsalis, Miroslav Vitous, Billy Hart, Gary Peacock, Eddie Gomez, and Stan Getz (seen in photo with McKinley, © Herb Snitzer).

NEC benefitted greatly from William Thomas McKinley’s contributions. His musical ingenuity and bountiful creative voice were generously shared with the community through many remarkable faculty and student performances of his work that resounded in NEC’s concert halls. May his musical spirit and unique voice continue to fill those halls.

Read a reminiscence of McKinley by NEC alumnus Marc Rossi '78, '80 M.M. at New Music Box.