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A Conversation with Jeff Commings, Host of The Baton: A John Williams Musical Journey Podcast

A Q & A With Jeff Commings, Host of the Podcast John Williams, A Musical Journey

Happy Holidays everyone, Brad here. At some point in our lives, we have all been dazzled, calmed, thrilled and moved by the music of John Williams, perhaps the finest film score writer/conductor who has ever lived. If you're like me, you grew up with his themes for Yoda, Superman, Indiana Jones and many other iconic characters on your record/CD/tape/mp3 players on a fairly constant basis. However, I never studied music in any kind of formal way. But I wanted to learn more about the construction and meaning of those themes that have been such a soundtrack of my life. Thus, my discovery of Jeff Commings' podcast The Baton: A John Williams Musical Journey.

A couple years ago, Jeff set out to build a podcast on analyzing, one by one, every musical score Williams has written dating back to the start of his career in 1959. It was an ambitious project, but one that comes to a conclusion tomorrow (December 30) with the publication of the final episode.

The Baton: A John Williams Musical Journey is a remarkable body of work. Jeff explores Williams' scores with depth, knowledge, clarity and the fun we all have experienced in listening to the music. Along with nearly two dozen guest hosts spread across more than 100 episodes, Jeff has created a definitive audio tome of Williams' unparalleled career. 

What follows is a 10-part Q&A with Jeff, who was kind enough to provide insight into why he started the podcast, what he's discovered along the way, and the aspects of Williams' music that he's been the most passionate about.

Follow The Baton: A John Williams Musical Journey on Apple or Podbean.

What was your original inspiration for starting the podcast The Baton?
I was watching the movie “A Guide for the Married Man” on Turner Classic Movies in 2018, and since I began watching 15 minutes after it started, I wasn’t aware that John Williams wrote the score. Besides being somewhat repulsed by the plot, I thought the score was pretty good, full of different musical genres. After the movie, the TCM host mentioned that John Williams did the score, and I was shocked. I went to the Internet and learned that it was the first collaboration between Williams and lyricist Leslie Bricusse, and just one of many comedy scores Williams would write in the 1960s. That was so fascinating to me because I thought comedy was a genre Williams hardly touched in his career.
After a week of more research, I learned a lot more about John Williams’ career in the 1960s, including his stint in the Air Force. That’s when I started to think that someone needed to write a biography about John Williams, because there was no central source to get this information. I thought I could tackle it, but because it was a subject involving music, it would be best to do it in an audio format. That spawned the idea of doing a podcast, and it evolved into the idea of watching all 109 films in chronological order. That was something I had thought of doing a long time ago, and I finally had a reason to do it!

You have stated that Jurassic Park was one of your first and most impressionable exposures to John Williams’ music. What was it about that score that resonated so much with you?
I was 19 years old when Jurassic Park was released, and I had a passing knowledge of John Williams. My older brother is a big Star Wars fan, and I remember him playing the LP of the Star Wars score in 1977 when I was very young. And, we would watch the original trilogy together on TV every Christmas. And many movies I enjoyed had his music. But it was the helicopter arrival at Isla Nublar and that grand statement on the brass that changed things forever. I got goosebumps, a tingle went up my spine … all the big emotions. Sure, all the music before that point in the movie was good, but this was so powerful to me.

And then, the music for the introduction of dinosaurs really stirred something in me. I found myself more amazed by the music than the sight of these realistic-looking dinosaurs! I saw John Williams’ name in the credits at the end of the movie, but it didn’t really register much at the time. But those two hours in the movie theater really opened my ears to what movie music could do. Again, I knew that music was a part of the movies, but Jurassic Park sparked a curiosity that led to becoming a lifelong John Williams fan, and a fan of really good movie music.

Six months later, I watched Schindler’s List and was moved to tears several times, all because John Williams knew how to push the right emotional buttons with his music. When I saw his name in the credits, I remembered that this was the same person that wrote the music for Jurassic Park. This is an amazing person to be able to write music for dinosaurs and then for the Holocaust almost back to back.
This was at the beginning of the Internet as we know it, so I relied on library books to help fill in the gaps. Reading the long list of films that featured John Williams music opened the floodgates. I didn’t know much about music, but I knew how much I loved the Star Wars theme, Indiana Jones’ march and the wonderful theme for E.T.
Every time I watch Jurassic Park now, I start crying as the music for the journey to the island plays. They’re happy tears! I get emotional knowing that it was this music that turned the corner for me.
Through your podcast, what have been the biggest previously unknown things you’ve learned about Williams’ music?
The most shocking thing was realizing how much music he wrote in the 1960s. Take 1966 for example: He wrote music for five films in that year! And none of them were throwaway scores: The Rare Breed, How to Steal a Million, The Plainsman, Penelope, Not With My Wife You Don’t.
Another big revelation for me was discovering Henry Mancini’s role as a mentor to John Williams. I had known that John Williams worked as a session pianist before becoming a film composer, but to find out that he played piano for Mancini’s Peter Gunn theme and the Pink Panther theme was jaw-dropping. It was great to know that Williams had a mentor of sorts to guide him into his film scoring career, and it explains why Mancini was so happy to give John Williams his Star Wars Oscar. This also brings up the interesting point that John Williams has not taken on that mentor position in his career.
Let’s say someone who had never heard of John Williams or the films he’s scored came to you asking to be introduced to Williams’ music. Which film score would you pick to be this person’s introduction to the music of John Williams, and why?
You’d have to go with one of the big ones, right? Maybe Star Wars or Jaws. Those are probably the best gateways into his career. Both films have music that spans various moods, and it goes without saying that those scores remain timeless because of the mastery in Williams’ ability to strike the right tone with the visuals. They also emphasize what roles music can play to make a movie even better if done correctly.
After they watch one of those two films, I would ask them to watch Schindler’s List to show Williams’ versatility. And then I would ask them to listen to my podcast to marvel at the rest of the amazing scores Williams has written these past 60 years!

How do you go about selecting the co-hosts you’ve had on The Baton?
I have to give all the credit to Gianmaria Caschetto, who was the first person to write to me after the podcast began. He offered some praise and criticism, and also suggested that I consider adding cohosts to add variety to the show. I had already recorded about 15 episodes by then, so I decided to cast an open call for cohosts starting with the next episode on the list, which was Fitzwilly. I got a flood of requests after that.
Naturally, almost everyone wanted the big scores: Superman, Jaws, Harry Potter, almost all of the Star Wars films. But, I really wanted people to help dissect the music for the smaller scores as well, and I got those requests after a while. Gianmaria was my first cohost, and he went on to appear in three great episodes.
Some of my cohosts told me about their musical background when “applying” as a cohost, and I made sure to make room for those who were professional musicians. Chris Hatt is one of my favorite cohosts, not only because he’s the music director for Hamilton in the UK, but because he surprised me with more knowledge than I thought he possessed when we co-hosted the Cinderella Liberty episode. That’s why I asked him to join me for the Star Wars episode.
I had 23 cohosts on the podcast, and I’ve made 23 new friends in nine countries as a result.

Are there consistent elements you notice in the scores Williams has done for the films of Steven Spielberg?
Every score that John Williams does for Spielberg seems to service the visuals over trying to just be heard. I never find a wasted note in those scores. It’s quite obvious that Spielberg knows music and knows to let John Williams do his thing, instead of dictating what kind of music should go into a movie.
Everyone knows the story of marrying the music for the finale of E.T. to the visuals, and that continued for many more Spielberg films after that, especially AI: Artificial Intelligence. It’s amazing how much reverence Spielberg gives to Williams’ music, which obviously began with Jaws and never went away. You contrast that with the way the score was butchered in the Star Wars sequel trilogy, even though the directors said they held Williams in such high regard.
Among all of Williams’ work, why do you think his Star Wars scores have endured so much over the years?
It all comes back to the melody. Those scores feature themes that can be hummed quite easily, which makes them very memorable. Well, maybe the scores from the original trilogy have that quality more than the six films that followed, but the statement still stands. John Williams has said creating those iconic themes took a lot of work, but the genius comes from the fact that they sound so natural. And George Lucas created a world of characters and stories that made it very easy to create the rich musical artistry that is a part of every person’s life.
Some of the classic movie scores have endured for that same reason, going back to Gone With the Wind, Psycho and a score I mentioned earlier, The Pink Panther.

Describe your feelings now that you have completed The Baton.
You would think I’d be sad, but I’m not. Since I knew this project had an established completion date from the very beginning, I was ready for this moment. And, when the schedule got really crazy around the halfway point, I started looking forward to being done with the podcast! Now that I have recorded the final show, it feels good to have seen it through and stuck with the weekly episode release. I liked the idea of people planning their Wednesdays around downloading a new episode.
What is next for you now that you have completed this wonderful project?
Before I started this podcast, I was expanding my musical prowess by playing music on my keyboard almost daily. I am no virtuoso, having only learned to play in 2013 when I was 38 years old. I haven’t touched my keyboard since this podcast started, and I am anxious to return to it and learn new pieces to play. I learned how to play the Schindler’s List theme in 2014, but it wasn’t flawless, so I want to return to that. I also have the sheet music for Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C Sharp Minor waiting for me. I don’t think my fingers are nimble enough for the middle section, but I’m excited for the challenge.

What do you hope listeners of The Baton take away the most from all of your episodes examining the music of John Williams?
I just want people to learn one new thing in every episode they play. I learned something new in every episode I produced, and I was fascinated by the new information I discovered. I know many John Williams fans think they know everything, but I hope this podcast proves them wrong!
I do hope people listen to the episodes chronologically. I feel like I’ve created a biography of John Williams, or at least the best I can do without access to the man himself. And I don’t think many people start reading books at chapter 21!
Jeff Commings was born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri, where his grandmother tried to teach him piano at age 11. Swimming took priority over any other extracurricular activity, and music education would have to take a back seat for more than two decades. In between that time, he became an accomplished swimmer, representing the United States at the 1991 Pan American Games by winning a bronze medal in the 100-meter breaststroke.
Jeff competes as a Masters swimmer these days, and runs a swim school in Tucson, Arizona. When he was 38 years old, he took community college classes to learn to read music and play basic piano. There isn’t a day that goes by without him listening to at least one piece of music from John Williams.

Brad Monastiere
I live in Michigan and have been an unconditional fan of Star Wars and Indiana Jones for decades. Follow me on twitter @bmonastiere

The Bearded Trio - The Site For Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, John Williams and a whole lot more.


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