Bomwell: A journey through jazz

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Emily Sun and Celine Kiriscioglu

“Music is the one thing that I could never give up,” said Michael Bomwell, music teacher and director of Wind Ensemble and Jazz Combo. “It’s always giving something back to me. I learn something about myself every time I listen to it or play it.”

Since his childhood in Canandaigua, a small town in upstate New York, Bomwell has been immersed in the world of music. His father played classical trombone and piano and his family listened to classical music on drives, he said. “I still remember Mahler’s Symphony No.1 — we played it the whole ride one time, and it was still going on when we got home,” Bomwell  said. “So we just stayed in the car until it finished.”

Bomwell started learning the saxophone in fifth grade. He took lessons in school and from his father, and he then joined the saxophone quartet and jazz band in eighth grade, he said.

At times, Bomwell said he wanted to give up and “throw the saxophone out the window.”. However, his father’s investment in him and his friend, who also played the instrument, inspired him to stick with it.

“My dad told me, ‘you’ll go through periods where you feel like you’re really getting better, and then it’ll plateau and you won’t see any difference,’” he said. “But really, things are happening, it’s just that you don’t notice, and you have to work through those phases to get to the next ascent.’”

After high school, Bomwell studied classical saxophone at the University of Michigan under Donald Sinta, a renowned saxophonist. Sinta shared his knowledge from playing with musicians at Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall, Bomwell said. “He was so excited about [music], he had so much energy, and you just fed off of it.”

Bomwell said he and his peers ate, slept, and breathed music for those four years. “It’s a really magical time because you’ve left high school, you’re thrust into this new environment where so many new possibilities are in front of you, and you’re having your eyes opened left and right with things that you never realized were possible or that existed,” he said.

Bomwell played gigs around Michigan for two years after he graduated college and then moved to New York City in search of more opportunities, he said. He found jobs as an itinerant music teacher at different schools around the city, he said.

He arrived in NYC a month before 9/11, which canceled much of his freelancing work and made him doubt his decision to leave Michigan, where he played gigs regularly, Bomwell  said. “I thought, ‘what have I done? This was a huge mistake.’”

Bomwell said he still faces anxiety that he is not where he wants to be as a musician. “That’s something that always dogs me: feeling like I should be doing something else that I’m not doing,” he said.

Despite moments of uncertainty, Bomwell is drawn back to music because it strikes at his emotional core and tells him what he craves in life at that moment. “There’s a direct conduit between the inner emotional material that you hold and the response you have to music that you don’t access with anything else,” he said. 

Eventually, Bomwell’s freelancing picked back up when he helped found Red Baraat in 2008, a band that mixes North Indian bhangra with hip-hop, jazz, and punk. They performed at a South by Southwest festival, Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, Montreal Jazz Festival, and in 2012, at the White House for the Initiative on Asian-American and Pacific Islanders.

At one of Bomwell’s freelance gigs in New York in 2004, he ran into Jay Berckley, a saxophonist with whom he played in college. Berckley, who was then teaching music at HM, informed Bomwell about a job opening for a saxophone teacher at the school. Bomwell accepted the job, and later took Berckley’s position when he left the school in 2009. 

“Teaching has been one of the most rewarding things in my life,” Bomwell said. “Sharing knowledge with somebody else and seeing that turn a light on for them is such a great feeling.”

Since everyone learns differently, he also enjoys the challenge of presenting information in a way that clicks for each student, Bomwell said. His teaching style is grounded in an excitement about sharing music and reaching  students no matter where they are at in their music journey, Music Department Chair Timothy Ho said. “There is a sense of, ‘come as you are, please bring all of your amazingness and your ugliness and your stress, and let’s be here in the moment and see what we can make together.”

He encourages students to express their individual voices as they respond naturally to what the music needs and what the ensemble is collectively going for, Alex Rosenblatt (11) said. “[Playing in Jazz Combo] is really spur of the moment, which I wasn’t used to, so he helped me find the joy in that experimentation.”

Students not only feed off of one another as they play but they also feed off Bomwell, Abigail Morse (12) said. “He’s such a passionate conductor and he gives so much energy to the band.”

One of Bomwell’s personal goals is to lead his own ensemble and have the confidence to realize his own artistic vision, he said. He also wants to complete an album, which he had started to record in 2008 but did not finish. “I felt like I was just doing it because I thought I should; it never felt like I have to get this out there to the world,” he said. “I want to do it again and really make it a reflection of who I am as a musician.”

Bomwell said music marks points in your life that you can always return to, such as when he bought and listened to his first jazz album, Dave Brubeck’s Time Out. “There’s this tune on that album called Strange Meadowlark,” he said. “To this day, when I hear [the saxophonist] Paul Desmond come in, it just sends chills down my spine.”

Bomwell wishes students will find a similar experience at the school. “I hope you all have at least one great musical moment while you’re here that you can take away with you,” he said. “No matter what you ended up doing, music is always going to be there for you, and it’s always going to be something that you can learn from.”