What Does a Music Director Do?

Music-industry vet John Beasley defines the gig and offers advice

Herbie Hancock and a jazz dream team, onstage at the White House
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John Beasley
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Miles Davis alum John Beasley has stepped into the role of music director for a diverse slate of projects-from tours with Steely Dan and Queen Latifah to the Thelonious Monk Institute gala, International Jazz Day and American Idol-and though the job varies project to project, there are some constants. “We help pick material, show order, musicians, sometimes sound [engineers], and rehearse the band,” Beasley says.

The job is part arranger-conductor, part logistics and all stress. “You’re trying to help management, the artist, the tour manager, the record company,” he explains. “Everybody’s got their say about what should happen and why, so you’re getting a lot of different information from people and you have to make it work.”

Most important, he hires the best band possible. “You have to hire people that have experience; you can’t hire people that are going to be prima donnas on the road,” Beasley says. “So lesson number one in being an MD: Hire people you know who are totally professional and will have your back.”

On American Idol, Beasley rehearsed contestants, advised on repertoire and wrote arrangements for the band. “Our first season, for the first two episodes I actually had to mix the audio, because they hadn’t hired a fulltime music mixer,” Beasley says. “At that point it was still wild and woolly.”

At the 2016 International Jazz Day Global Concert, held in April at the White House, in addition to managing the acoustics of the Blue Room and holding sound check in a tent erected on the South Lawn, Beasley added heightened security to his list of challenges. There were several mandatory evacuations, but at an event of that scale, the interruptions can offer a welcome moment of relaxation to a harried music director. “At one point, I was going back to check the mixes and I got stuck in the hallway. They said, ‘POTUS on the move! You’ve got to evacuate,’ and they threw me in this room,” Beasley says. “I was stuck there for 25 minutes. So I took the opportunity to sort of reflect and sit there and rest a little bit, because those gigs are balls to the wall every waking minute of the day.”

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