Thursday, July 22, 2010

Music feature: FAU's Zager brings golden touch to commercial music program

Michael Zager.

By Bill Meredith

When Michael Zager founded the commercial music program at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton in‭ ‬2002,‭ ‬it's unlikely that some students knew about the level of commercial success he'd achieved in the music industry.

Perhaps they know now.‭ ‬The‭ ‬67-year-old professor and eminent scholar has had a‭ ‬50-year career as a keyboardist,‭ ‬composer,‭ ‬producer,‭ ‬arranger and educator that includes‭ ‬13‭ ‬gold or platinum records and three instructional books.

The Passaic,‭ ‬N.J.,‭ ‬native has also worked with jazz artists Herb Alpert,‭ ‬Joe‭ ‬Williams and Arturo Sandoval as well as R&B acts The Spinners,‭ ‬Luther Vandross and Peabo Bryson,‭ ‬written chart-topping hits,‭ ‬and discovered future six-time Grammy Award-winning singer Whitney Houston when she was only‭ ‬14‭ ‬years old.

‭“‬I was producing a record for her mother,‭ ‬Cissy Houston,‭”‬ says Zager,‭ ‬who lives in Delray Beach with his wife‭ (‬and has sons as old as some of his hit songs at ages‭ ‬40,‭ ‬37‭ ‬and‭ ‬33‭)‬.‭ “‬One of her background singers couldn't make the recording session.‭ ‬When I asked Cissy who she wanted to sub,‭ ‬she said her‭ ‬14-year-old daughter,‭ ‬and I thought she was crazy.‭ ‬But Whitney came into the studio and seemed like she'd already been in the business for‭ ‬40‭ ‬years.‭ ‬I'd never heard anything like her,‭ ‬and had her sing on some‭ ‬of my own albums afterward.‭”

Some of Zager's original scores and recordings‭ (‬with Houston,‭ ‬The Spinners,‭ ‬and his own self-titled band‭) ‬are on display at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland.‭ ‬The professor's life experiences,‭ ‬as well as his multi-faceted musical education,‭ ‬helped to form the curriculum of his commercial music program.

‭“‬The goal is to produce graduates who are prepared for virtually every facet of the music industry as professionals,‭” ‬Zager says.‭ “‬We not only train them in the classroom,‭ ‬but we also have a professional record label,‭ ‬Hoot/Wisdom Recordings,‭ ‬so whatever they learn in class must be applied to a digital,‭ ‬globally‭ ‬distributed label.‭ ‬We have a creative track for students who want to be composers,‭ ‬arrangers and producers‭; ‬a technology track for those who want to be engineers,‭ ‬and a business track for those who want to be executives.‭ ‬We also have two masters programs,‭ ‬one with a concentration on commercial music and the other focusing on music business administration.‭"

“I got my master’s in commercial music at FAU in‭ ‬2006,‭”‬ says‭ ‬46-year-old Israel Charles,‭ ‬a Fort Lauderdale-based composer,‭ ‬producer,‭ ‬drummer and educator.‭ “‬Now I teach music technology and production at the performing arts wing of Dillard High School.‭ ‬It was great learning music production from Prof,‭ ‬and being able to make it my career.‭ ‬He talked to me at an educational conference in‭ ‬2003,‭ ‬attracted me to his program,‭ ‬and was a great professor.‭ ‬I'd bring in mixes of songs that I thought were hot and ready to go,‭ ‬and he'd tell me what was missing and send me right back to the drawing board.‭ ‬He'd always find one or two elements that were needed,‭ ‬and he was always correct‭! ‬Now I get the chance to show kids that knowledge in return,‭ ‬which is an awesome job.‭”

Zager was surprised to be hired full-time by FAU in the first place.‭ ‬A‭ ‬1964‭ ‬University of Miami graduate,‭ ‬he'd gone on to study at New York City institutions like Juilliard,‭ ‬the Manhattan School of Music and Mannes College of Music,‭ ‬a division of New School University.‭ ‬When he applied for a part-time position at FAU,‭ ‬administrators clearly knew about his history.

‭“‬I wasn't even a music major at Miami,‭” ‬Zager says.‭ “‬I loved warm weather‭; ‬my grandparents were here then,‭ ‬and I studied to work in television,‭ ‬something that my oldest son ended up doing.‭ ‬He's a producer at Paramount.‭ ‬But I never wanted to go back to the cold weather.‭”

“I'd started teaching two courses in‭ ‬1997‭ ‬as an adjunct professor‭ ‬at the Mannes College of Music,‭” ‬he continues,‭ “‬back when I was a full-time composer and producer.‭ ‬But I wanted to move back down here and teach,‭ ‬and it was an accident that I got this full-time position.‭ ‬I really just came down here for an interview to teach a course as an adjunct professor.

‭“‬The vice president asked if I wanted to apply for my current position and it worked out,‭ ‬even though I'd never been a full-time academic.‭ ‬It was like‭ ‘‬The Godfather‭’ ‬in that they made me an offer I couldn't refuse.‭ ‬And it was the best decision I ever made to this point in my career.‭”

He'd certainly made some other good ones.‭ ‬Zager may not have planned to be in the music industry,‭ ‬but his career started rolling in‭ ‬1968‭ ‬as a member of the band Ten Wheel Drive‭ ‬--‭ ‬horn-heavy contemporaries of Blood,‭ ‬Sweat‭ & ‬Tears and precursors to Chicago and Tower of Power.‭ ‬The keyboardist co-founded the group with guitarist Aram Schefrin,‭ ‬who now resides in Wellington.‭ ‬After a‭ ‬1969‭ ‬appearance at the Atlanta Pop Festival,‭ ‬the band was signed to Polydor Records,‭ ‬and released four albums by‭ ‬1974‭ ‬on either the Polydor or Capitol label.

‭“‬I was a jazz nut,‭ ‬and we were one of‭ ‬the early jazz-rock horn bands,‭” ‬Zager says.‭ “‬We got a record deal and became quite successful.‭ ‬But our management turned down Woodstock,‭ ‬or we might have been more successful.‭ ‬Although who knew then that Woodstock would be Woodstock‭? ‬Once we saw what it turned into,‭ ‬that was our lowest point.‭”

Zager started composing for TV,‭ ‬radio,‭ ‬and films afterward,‭ ‬and built an impressive résumé that includes everything from IBM,‭ ‬Budweiser and Buick to‭ ‬Ally McBeal‭ ‬and the films‭ ‬The Eyes of Laura Mars‭ ‬and‭ ‬Summer of Sam.‭ ‬But the mid-1970s also produced a new musical trend called disco,‭ ‬something that Zager embraced wholeheartedly.

‭“‬I didn't know anything about disco,‭” ‬he says.‭ “‬My musical partner,‭ ‬Jerry Love,‭ ‬was the head of A&R at A&M Records in New York City at the time.‭ ‬When he left,‭ ‬we formed our production and publishing company in‭ ‬1975,‭ ‬Love-Zager Productions,‭ ‬where he handles the business end and I handle the creative side.‭ ‬He started hanging‭ ‬out at Studio‭ ‬54,‭ ‬and he said,‭ ‘‬This disco thing is going to blow up,‭ ‬so let's make some dance records.‭’‬ I started listening to it and really liked it,‭ ‬right as it exploded.‭ ‬We ended up having hit after hit.‭”

The biggest was‭ ‬Let's All Chant by the Michael Zager Band,‭ ‬which reached‭ ‬No.‭ ‬1‭ ‬on the‭ ‬Billboard disco chart in‭ ‬1978.

‭“‬I get more checks now for that song,‭” ‬he says.‭ “‬I sold more than five million copies of that record,‭ ‬and it's bigger than ever,‭ ‬especially outside of the United States.‭ ‬That's the case with most of my records.‭ ‬But I had a hit here with The Spinners called‭ ‘‬Working My Way Back to You,‭’‬ and‭ ‬one with Peabo Bryson called‭ ‘‬Do It With Feeling,‭’‬ which went to the top of the R‭&‬B charts.‭”

Disco may be a four-letter word to some music fans,‭ ‬but Zager is unabashedly unapologetic about the genre.

“Disco is bigger than ever now,‭ ‬but they just call it dance music or electronica,‭” ‬he says.‭ “‬What do you think Lady Gaga is‭? ‬There's no difference,‭ ‬other than they're using synthesizers instead of orchestras.‭ ‬They use more tricks in the studios now.‭ ‬Look at the talent from that era.‭ ‬There were some of the greatest singers and musicians in the world recording disco.‭”

Most figures as‭ ‬successful as Zager don‭’‬t go back to school after topping the charts,‭ ‬but he checked his ego at the door of Mannes College between‭ ‬1984‭ ‬and‭ ‬1988.‭

“I wanted to start film scoring and do big orchestrations,‭ ‬but I got scared that I didn't know enough,‭”‬ he says.‭ “‬So I went back to school and majored in composition.‭ ‬And this was after I'd been at Juilliard and the Manhattan School of Music,‭ ‬plus studied with Stephen Sondheim for several years.‭”

Zager‭’‬s students praise the professor for showing them the intricacies of the music biz.

‭“‬When you walk into Prof's office,‭ ‬you see gold and platinum records on the wall,‭” ‬says Charles,‭ “‬so the hardware speaks for itself.‭ ‬As a songwriter and producer,‭ ‬that's the same impact that you want to make on the music industry.‭ ‬He has so much practical experience to go with his knowledge that you just keep quiet,‭ ‬listen,‭ ‬and try to soak it all in.‭ ‬He let me produce my own‭ ‬10-song CD as my thesis,‭ ‬since I wanted to do something hands-on rather than written.

‭“‬I got an area singer I was working with,‭ ‬Rachel Brown,‭ ‬to contribute vocals.‭ ‬After I graduated,‭ ‬I formed my own label.‭ ‬And one of those songs,‭ ‘‬Let's Fall in‭ ‬Love Again,‭’ ‬ended up going to No.‭ ‬1‭ ‬on the‭ ‘‬Billboard‭’ ‬hot R&B single sales chart.‭”

Zager is at work on a fourth educational book,‭ ‬plus producing a singer named Karina Skye.‭ ‬He even released his own independent smooth jazz CD called‭ ‬South Beach Wind a few years back.‭ ‬While some in the industry avoid South Florida because of its tourist-driven music scene,‭ ‬Zager shakes his head at his good fortune.

‭“‬I wasn't even familiar with FAU before Jerry Love told me about it,‭” ‬he says.‭ “‬It was one of those things that happens once in a lifetime.‭ ‬I love being here.‭ ‬My job as an eminent scholar is to stay very active professionally,‭ ‬so it's very fulfilling,‭ ‬especially when I see my students get out into the world and do well.‭ ‬It's a dream job.‭”

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