Biography

Thomas Claude Pierson Jr. was born in Ashland, Wisconsin, March 11, 1948. His parents Thomas Claude Pierson Sr. and Beth Polhemus Pierson both were violinists and teachers. Tom Jr. however studied the piano. By the time he was a teenager he wanted to be a classical soloist. At the age of 13 he played the 1st mvt of Mozart K414 with the Houston Symphony. He later played the 1st mvt of the Khachaturian Piano Concerto and the Rachmaninoff Concerto #2 with the same orchestra. After hearing Tom play the Khachaturian, Sir John Barbirolli wrote "I was greatly impressed by this boy's gifts. Apart from his already considerable command of the keyboard, I was particularly pleased to find
something which is far rarer -- a most sensitive musicality and feeling for the finer shades of tone and expression. He should go far." (11/20/1962)

Tom attended the Juilliard School, graduating in 1970 with a degree in piano. He studied with Sasha Gorodnitzki for 5 years. Through Gorodnitzki Tom can trace his pedagogical heritage back to Beethoven (Gorodnitzki/Siloti/Liszt/Czerny/Beethoven). At Juilliard Tom held Teaching Fellowships in Music History and the Literature and Materials of Music. At this time Tom played piano recitals at various colleges and universities in the US, mostly through his father's professional contacts. He realized however he would never be a classical soloist. Tom suffered from acute stage fright, especially in competitions, which were a necessary step towards a concert career.

He turned his efforts towards conducting, studying with Dennis Russell Davies and Carl Bamberger. Tom conducted Leonard Bernstein's Mass at the Metropolitan Opera House. He also guest conducted the Houston Symphony and conducted the premiere of Galt Macdermot’s concert oratorio Take This Bread. These activities however did not turn into a career.

Having married at the age of 20, Tom needed to make a living. Interested in all styles of music, he became a freelance musician in NY. From 1968-78 he conducted summer stock (Mickey Rooney, Jane Powell, Molly Picon), Broadway shows (Dude, Via Galactica, Cyrano, Shenandoah, Candide, The Wiz), orchestrated shows (Shelter, the revival of Where’s Charley, By Bernstein, The Baker’s Wife) and television (NBC, WNET), orchestrated for other composers (Arthur B. Rubinstein, Howard Shore), and composed incidental music for 2 plays and an NET documentary. He played rehearsal piano for the New York City Ballet. He gigged as a studio musician (Tom is the pianist on Judy Collins’ recording of ―Send In The Clowns‖). He also arranged and edited music by Dave Brubeck for publication by G. Schirmer.

Tom’s love of jazz began to manifest in a few opportunities. He travelled as pianist with the Stan Kenton Orchestra when Kenton was ill. He composed Nefertiti Variations (based on Wayne Shorter) for Chuck Israels’ National Jazz Ensemble, the very first jazz repertory group. Tom also appeared as pianist with Francois Rabbath and Ornette Coleman at Carnegie Hall.

The most important creative work from this period was Tom’s first band Turning Point. Tom had begun to compose while at Juilliard. Interestingly, the first compositions of this classically trained musician were jazz pieces. Turning Point was an electric band. Tom’s original music was adventurous, sometimes bordering on the avant garde, more influenced by ―jazz-rock‖ then the later, more bland, ―fusion‖. The band, with Blue Lou Marini, Tom Pierson, Tom Barney, Kenwood Dennard, and Rick Cohen, recorded Tom Pierson, his first album. The name Turning Point had been abandoned after a popular movie about ballet was released with the same name. (This album actually became #1 on one station, WEOS, Geneva, NY!) (station playlist February 1987)

About the same time, Tom’s commercial activity peaked with his involvement in film scoring. He was music director and vocal arranger for Milos Forman’s Hair. He adapted and orchestrated Gershwin for Woody Allen’s Manhattan. The Manhattan soundtrack album, recorded by the NY Philharmonic, was Billboard’s #1 classical album for many weeks. He also worked for director Robert Altman, composing ‖Romance Concerto‖ (performed by pianist Mona Golabek and the LA Philharmonic) for A Perfect Couple, the original score for Quintet (performed by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by the composer), and additional music for Popeye.

Thinking he could balance film scoring and composing concert music, Tom turned down the movie Fame to begin work on a symphony. Thus ended another promising career. (Tom also had neglected to get an agent.)

By the time his electric quintet album was released in 1982 Tom had already formed a new band. Jazz was beginning its regression into the past, and most of the active big bands were playing stylistically dated music. Tom thought the time was right for a really modern big band. Also, the prospect of composing written parts for 16 players appealed to his classical composer’s interest in harmony and counterpoint. It took 2 years to write the music. The Tom Pierson Orchestra, featuring Ray Pizzi on lead alto and Chester Thompson on drums, made its debut at Pasquale’s in Malibu May 14, 1982. Tom continued to compose classical works. The experience he gained composing and orchestrating for films took the place of any formal study of composition. He also never studied jazz academically, instead learning by doing, the old-fashioned way. The compositions Antiphony and Piano Concerto (1983), as well as the more advanced music for electric quintet and big band, combined extended classical forms with the featured improvisatory statements characteristic of jazz soloing.

In 1985 Tom reorganized his big band in NYC. The Tom Pierson Orchestra played over 90 engagements, including regular Monday nights at 7th Avenue South and The Jazz Center of NY, and Thursday nights at Northern Lights in Harlem. The membership of The Pierson Orchestra reads like a Who’s Who of jazz instrumentalists, including at various times Tom Harrell, Wallace Roney, Randy Brecker, Dave Douglas, Lew Soloff, Don Byron, Vincent Herring, Blue Lou Marini, John Stubblefield, Scott Robinson, Ralph Bowen, Gerry Niewood, Charles Owens, Robin Eubanks, Ray Anderson, Jimmy Knepper, Garnett Brown, Eddie Bert, Fred Wesley, Steve Turre, Frank Lacey, Anthony Jackson, Alex Blake, Ira Coleman, Tom Barney, Lonny Plaxico, Chester Thompson, Pheeroan akLaff, Marvin "Smitty" Smith, Kenwood Dennard, Jeff Watts, and many others. The participation of these players was all the more remarkable because the band was virtually subsidized by the musicians themselves.

In 1989 the Pierson Orchestra recorded an album Planet of Tears which was later released on the Japanese label Auteur. The title track from Planet was chosen by the Smithsonian Institute for their 5CD historical retrospective Big Band Renaissance. This comprehensive collection includes Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Gil Evans, and many other masters of orchestral jazz, as well as the Tom Pierson Orchestra. Planet was also selected by Shukan Asahi, the Japanese equivalent of Time Magazine, as one of the 3 best CDs of the year.

Tom had finally freed himself from commercial music. This was partly because he had become extremely anti-violence, refusing to work on any entertainment which depicted homicide. When offered to take over conducting the Broadway musical Cats, Tom looked at the show, saw that one of the cats was murdered as part of the story, and declined the job. His income dropped so low he applied for and received food stamps, but he was finally focused on his own creative work.

Tom moved to Tokyo in 1991 to escape the violence of the US, where he had been a victim of crime 7 times. He organized the third geographical manifestation of The Pierson Orchestra, appearing at the club Someday in Tokyo and other venues. He returned to NY at the beginning of 1999 to make another CD with his NY band, The Hidden Goddess. Later that year he released a live video of his Japanese band. It is interesting to compare two different interpretations of the same compositions. He also recorded as a pianist, performing standards, something he would not have dared to do when he was younger.

Tom’s most recent project was yet another departure. He wrote and directed a feature film Turkey Boy, a romantic comedy with music. A rock band is an important part of the story of Turkey Boy. This gave Tom a chance to compose for electric guitar, an instrument he has always loved. He also wrote music and lyrics for the band’s songs. Turkey Boy was released in 2009.

Currently Tom is composing an opera, mastering a 3CD solo piano set, preparing a multiCD set of his classical works, and writing a new film script. He teaches at Senzoku Gakuen and Kunitachi Music Academy, and does the occasional hotel gig (―Girl From Ipanema‖ anyone?) to pay the bills.

Tom Pierson’s music has been heard in many countries, including Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hong Kong, Hungary, Israel, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the UK, and the US. His music has been recorded on Auteur, CBS, Channel Crossings, 8bells, Inner City, Adamo, and Applause Records. Radio programs profiling Tom and his work have been broadcast on NPR, WBAI, WKCR, KEDT, WPKN, KCRW, KCED, FM Tokyo, and others. He has been the subject of articles in The New York Times, The New York Post, The Japan Times, Audio Accessory, Tokyo Journal, Sound Choice, The Wall Street Transcript, Cadence, JazzTimes, Jazz Life, Swing Journal, Japan Airlines’ ―Winds‖ Magazine, Pacific Friend, CD Journal, Asahi Weekly Magazine, The Corpus Christi Caller-Times, Hot House, Digital Sound, The Houston Post, Nihon Keizai Shimbun, Sound Stage, The Weekly Economist, The Omaha World Herald, Variety, Frau Magazine, The Sunday Patriot-News, The Lincoln Journal Star, The Daily Yomiuri, Image Forum, and others. He was on the cover of the Oct/Nov 2004 issue of Jazznin, the bilingual jazz magazine. Tom was also the subject of a chapter in David Wallechinsky’s book Midterm Report, the Class of ’65.

Tom’s works have been performed at The International Organ Festival in Bonn, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, the Music Center in Los Angeles, The International Organ Recital Series at St. John the Evangelist, Steinway Hall, Merkin Hall, CAMI Hall, Lincoln Center Out–Of–Doors, The Juilliard School, The Manhattan School of Music, the CUNY Graduate Center, Composers Concordance, Eclectix, Gageego, and others. As a jazz musician he has appeared at venues on both coasts and in Japan, including The Blue Note, The Village Gate, Pasquale’s in Malibu, 7th Avenue South, Central Park’s Summer Stage, J’s, Mikell’s, Northern Lights in Harlem, The Chelsea Westside Theater, Zanzibar,
Visiones, Circle-In-The-Square, Beowulf, The West Bank Cafe, the NY Jazz Museum, Neither/Nor, Blue Hawaii, Environ, The Jazz Center of NY, At My Place, The Blue Lagune Saloon, Kenny’s Castaway, the CMJ Music Marathon, Jazz West, The California Institute of the Arts, the Acme, Cafe Rakel, the Sun Mountain Cafe, the Speakeasy, The University of NY at Buffalo, Blues Alley Japan, Body and Soul, Coltrane, Alfie, Shinjuku J, the Yokohama Jazz Promenade, Sometime Kichijoji, the Shinjuku Pit Inn, Blueberry Hill, Liberu, Acoustic House Jam, Lady Jane, Art Hills, TUC, GH Nine, and others.