remember when I haven't been composing or arranging music. It
began at home, playing sheet music collected by my mother and
grandmother. Then at various Chicago-area venues, performing in
variety shows, choral concerts, vaudeville acts, dance bands,
you name it.
As a student at New Trier High School, I would sit for hours
listening to LP records, groove by groove, in order to
transcribe various vocal and instrumental parts. I would then
arrange these parts for shows that I conducted or accompanied.
Later at Northwestern's Music School, in addition to gaining a
formal music training, I would also compose and arrange music
for Men's Glee Club performances, Waa-Mu shows and
countless other student productions. The main Off-Off-Off
Broadway venue at Northwestern was Cahn Auditorium, so my
musical life revolved around that wonderful space.
After graduating from New Trier High School in 1955, I wanted to
become a Music major at Northwestern University. But not having
practiced piano for over a year, I was afraid I couldn't pass
the required performance audition. So I took a "back road"
approach: I enrolled in the fall as an English major at
Northwestern, then applied to transfer to Music the following
quarter (which miraculously did not require an audition). It
I was soon auditioned by Director William Ballard to serve as
accompanist for the Northwestern Men's Glee Club. I would be
replacing a revered graduating accompanist, David "Thumbs"
Thorburn, so called because he often made tumultuous mistakes
while playing the piano. I assured Bill that I could make
mistakes with all of my fingers, not just my thumbs - so I got
the job. The gig lasted five years.
Throughout my college years I arranged many songs for the Glee
Club. "Love, Look Away," a hit song from 1958's Broadway show Flower
Drum Song, was recorded in studio by the Men's Glee Club
and released by Mercury Records in their album Broadway
Goes to College.
"Broadway Goes to
College" album cover, 1959
NU Men's Glee Club
and Denis (barely), 1958
Love, Look Away,
performed by Northwestern University Men's Glee Club
with unknown vocal soloist, arranged and accompanied
by Denis, conducted by Bill Ballard, 1959
In 1957 I met Steven Bach, a fellow student at Northwestern. We
became partners in several respects, and soon envisioned
ourselves as the next great song-writing team (George & Ira,
Richard & Lorenz & Oscar, you name it). So Steve and I
wrote song after song, year after year, and submitted them to
Northwestern's Waa-Mu Show,
in hopes of having some of the songs included in the annual
production. The Waa-Mu Show billed itself as the
nation's premiere collegiate variety show. It was directed --
from 1929 to 1975! -- by Joe Miller, who started many performers
on the road to stardom. Steve and I were sure that being a part
of Waa-Mu would open all kinds of doors.
Scorecard after four years:
Number of songs submitted by Steve and me: 45.
Number of songs accepted by Waa-Mu Show: 1.
"You Can't Lose Love" was the beginning - and unfortunately the
ending - of our budding songwriting careers. (Steve later found
another creative venue: He went on to become senior
vice-president and head of worldwide productions for United
Artists Studios. Unfortunately, again, he was in charge of
production for Heaven's Gate, the 1980 film that
bombed and sank United Artists. But that's a story for a
Steven Bach, 1959
"You Can't Lose
Love," Waa-Mu Show, 1959
You Can't Lose
Love, performed by Northwestern University
Waa-Mu Show chorus and orchestra with vocal
soloists Judith Bement, Gary Crabb and Robert
Davenport, composed by Steven Bach and Denis, vocal
arrangement by Denis, orchestration by Fred Smale,
conducted by John P. Paynter, 1959
the Memories -- 1958
Medley of 2 songs: "Where Do Dreams Go?" - "Two O'Clock
Steve Bach and I were members of the Northwestern Men's Glee
Club and were also writing songs for the Northwestern Waa-Mu
Show. So what better project than to create something combining
the two groups?
I chose five notable songs from Waa-Mu's twenty-seven
previous annual productions and arranged them in a medley, using
phrases from the Waa-Mu theme song "To the Memories"
as a transition between songs. Steve wrote a narration for the
medley plus some additional lyrics. The fifteen-minute medley
was performed by the Northwestern Men's Glee Club in Cahn
Auditorium and later recorded by the Glee Club. This webpage
features a five-minute selection from the medley.
Steve and I had hoped that Joe Miller, the general director of Waa-Mu,
would be so impressed by this effort that he would name us as
the staff composers for the next Waa-Mu Show.
Apparently Joe didn't get the memo.
Steven Bach, 2007
"To the Memories"
album cover, 1958
To the Memories,
performed by Northwestern University Men's Glee Club,
vocal soloists Patsy Peterson and Alan Wagner,
narrator Arnold Cohn, narration and additional lyrics
by Steven Bach, arranged and accompanied by Denis,
conducted by Bill Ballard, 1958
Even though I graduated from Northwestern University in 1960, I
continued composing and submitting songs for Waa-Mu.
John B. Jones was the new lyricist on the block. John and I
wrote several works and were pleasantly surprised to learn that
"S B X" was chosen for the 1962 Waa-Mu Show.
in the title refers to the Student
Book Exchange, a store
in downtown Evanston, which was a popular source of textbooks
for Northwestern students.
John B. Jones, 1962
"S B X," Waa-Mu
S B X,
performed by vocal soloist Robin Deck, accompanied by
Northwestern Univeristy Waa-Mu Show
orchestra, composed by John B. Jones and Denis, vocal
arrangement by Denis, orchestration by Fred Smale,
conducted by John P. Paynter, 1962
The John and Denis song-writing team carried on the tradition
begun by the Steve and Denis song-writing team -- one song
accepted by Waa-Mu, all others not.
Among our also-rans was a fun piece called "Poetic Justice."
John's brilliant concept was to team the Romantic poets Byron,
Shelley and Keats as a vaudeville team, bemoaning the fact that
modern poets can't compare with the earlier masters.
When our work was rejected by Waa-Mu, John and I
concluded that the Waa-Mu Show movers and shakers
obviously weren't sophisticated enough to appreciate the finer
points of English literature. (John later found another
sophisticated venue: He went on to become a theatre professor at
Brandeis University, writing widely about musical theatre. Take
that, Joe Miller!)
Bush Jones, 2003
composed and performed by John B. Jones and Denis,
accompanied by Denis, 1961
I began a ten-year stint teaching at junior and senior high
schools in the Chicago area. My arrangements and performances at
various venues increased substantially, particularly at New
Trier High Schools East and West. Recordings of some of my
arrangements from that period can be heard in other chapters of
this website. Recordings of most of my arrangements, however,
have been lost to the sands of time and into the recesses of
memory. Pictured below are some photos from that period, just a
few of my Chicago area Off-Off-Off Broadway venues.
Denis with Northwestern alums, 1963
Denis with Avoca
Junior High School students, 1963
Denis with Avoca Junior High School students, 1964
Denis with New Trier
High School West students, 1970