Composer, arranger and saxophonist Edgar (Ed) Summerlin is probably best recognized for one of his earliest compositions, a jazz liturgical service to memorialize his nine-month-old daughter who died of heart disease. Written in the spring of 1959 while he was a PhD candidate teaching at North Texas State College school of music (now University of North Texas), Requiem for Mary Jo is now understood to be the first-ever liturgical jazz service. Less than a year later, a debut album including Requiem became the centerpiece for a nationally broadcast NBC-TV World Wide 60 special hosted by Chet Huntley.
During the decades of the 60s and early 70s, Summerlin continued writing commissioned works for religious groups throughout the U.S. and beyond. At the same time, he was establishing himself as an avant garde tenor saxophonist, composer and arranger working and performing with a broad spectrum of musicians, dancers, artists and poets.
In 1960, he was asked to join the faculty at The Lenox School of Jazz in Massachusetts. This is where Summerlin built connections with numerous jazz musicians who were both instructors and students – connections which would remain with him throughout his lifetime. Among them, John Lewis, Ornette Coleman, Connie Kay, Percy Heath, Gunther Schuller, Freddie Hubbard, Jim Hall, J.J Johnson, Milt Jackson, Steve Kuhn and Don Heckman.
Heckman and Summerlin would later collaborate on the album, Don Heckman- Ed Summerlin Improvisational Jazz Workshop (Ictus Records, 1965) which was released a year later in England with some but not all of the same musicians and titled Jax or Better. The album featured Lew Gluckin, Bob Norden, Steve Kuhn, Ron Carter, Joe Hunt, Steve Swallow, Joe Cocuzzo, Heckman, and Summerlin on four compositions – two by Heckman and two by Summerlin. A 1967 Downbeat review awarded the album an impressive 4 ½ stars out of a possible 5.
During the 1960s, Summerlin composed, assisted in the development of and played in nearly a dozen 30-minute performance pieces on the long-running Sunday morning CBS series, Look Up and Live – the precursor to CBS News Sunday Morning. Among the musicians and other performers in those broadcasts were Ron Carter, Steve Kuhn, Freddie Hubbard, Don Heckman and the Anna Sokolow Dance Company. The final performance of the First International Jazz Festival held in Washington D.C. in June of 1962 was a piece written by Summerlin (Evensong, A Jazz Liturgy) commissioned by Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI) and sponsored by then President John F. Kennedy’s Music Committee of the People-to-People Program. The performance which was held at The Church of the Epiphany was filmed by CBS and rebroadcast two months later for Look Up and Live. The performers for this nonet were Don Ellis, Lew Gluckin, J.R. Montrose, Eric Dolphy, Slide Hampton, Dick Lieb, Barry Galbraith, Ron Carter and Charli Persip. Summerlin conducted; the lyrics were written by the Reverend John Harrell.
Mr. Summerlin received numerous commissions to write and perform everything from services to happenings for many denominations in small and large communities, on college campuses, for national denominational conferences and for the National and World Council of Churches (NCC/WCC). His works were performed in the U.S., Europe and Asia. Many of these pieces were collaborations with Dr. Roger Ortmayer, head of the Department of Church and Culture at the NCC and formerly a theology professor at Southern Methodist University. Dr. Ortmayer had played a role in Summerlin’s first liturgical service, Requiem for Mary Jo. Ortmayer would write interesting and always contemporary texts, verse and poetry for these compositions.
Among Summerlin’s contemporary liturgical compositions written during the 1960s and early 70s were Sourdough and Sweetbread, Liturgy of the Holy Spirit, Christ Lag in Todesbanden or Where Do We Go From Here?, Celebration of Man’s Hope and Bless This World. Additionally, he composed many distinct liturgical jazz services, original hymns and shorter liturgical jazz works. On October 30, 1969, Summerlin was invited to Croydon, England to premiere yet another commissioned piece, Pentecost: Ecstasy Breaks Out, as part of a contemporary multi-religious conference titled Four Seasons of God. Summerlin’s designated season was summer; other composers – Donald Swann, Sidney Carter, and Michael Garrick – wrote compositions for autumn, winter and spring, respectively.
In 1971 he began teaching at the City College of the City University of New York and soon thereafter established the college’s first jazz program within the music department. He remained there until 1989, teaching his students theory, composition and performance as well as continually expanding the department and students’ experiences by bringing into his classroom many of the most prominent jazz composers and performers of the day: Ornette Coleman, Gil Evans, Lee Konitz, Jim Hall and Dizzy Gillespie to name a few. These classroom interactions might extend for a week or a month during which time Summerlin would write and rehearse big band and small group arrangements of many of the artist’s tunes to correspond with the instrumentation of his students. The entire experience would culminate in a public concert.
During the course of his two decades at CCNY Summerlin encouraged a number of these notable musicians such as John Lewis, Ron Carter, Sheila Jordan and Bob Norden to join the jazz faculty. Charlie Palmieri was also brought in to direct the Latin band.
Over the course of his life, Summerlin arranged for many jazz artists in addition to those previously mentioned. Freddie Hubbard, David Liebman, Steve Kuhn, Hank Jones, vocalist Sheila Jordan, the Viola Farber Dance Company and tap dancer Brenda Bufalino were among them.
In the 70s and 80s Summerlin composed, arranged and conducted music for five Caedmon recordings for children, including A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh, sung by Carol Channing; Othello Bach’s Whoever Heard of a Fird? read by Joel Grey; James Thurber’s Many, Many Moons read by Peter Ustinov and two H.A. Rey Curious George albums read by Julie Harris. Summerlin composed music for a number of films including the only full-length American film chosen for the Venice Film Festival in 1967 and was awarded twoTellys for scores he wrote for the New York City Housing Authority. He was, for two years, the musical consultant to the Actor’s Studio in New York City. Mr. Summerlin was the recipient of numerous grants and commissions including those from the Rufino Tamayo Museum in Mexico City and the Cultural Center in Abu Dhabi. In 1990 to commemorate their 50th anniversary, BMI named him a jazz pioneer.
Summerlin was the arranger and conductor of a 1973 RCA Camden album, Saturday in the Park, consisting of tunes by the band Chicago and performed by top NY jazz musicians.
For many years during the 1970s and 80s, he was a regular performer in the New York City Avant Garde Festivals organized by Charlotte Moorman.
Post retirement from CCNY but still active in composing, arranging and performing, Summerlin released his first of three CDs, Still At It, in 1994, This was a joint venture with trombonist, former Eastman classmate and best friend Bob Norden. All the compositions are by Norden or Summerlin. They were joined by drummer Chris Starpoli and bassist Charlie Kniceley. Still At It was followed by Sum of the Parts and Eye on the Future. These two CDs featured drummers Adam Nussbaum and Joe Chambers; bassist Tony Marino; alto saxophonist Ron Finck; Bruce Ahrens on trumpet, Norden and Summerlin.
There were recordings for a fourth CD but unfortunately throat cancer made it impossible to complete. Summerlin was born in Marianna, Florida on September 1, 1928, grew up in Lexington, Missouri and graduated from Central Missouri State College (now University of Central Missouri). He earned a master’s degree from The Eastman School of Music, Rochester NY, and continued advanced studies at North Texas in Denton. He studied composition with Hall Overton, Sam Adler, George Russell and Gunther Schuller. From the early sixties he made his home in upstate New York. He died in Rhinebeck on October 10, 2006.