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Clare Fischer

Grammy Award-winning composer, jazz pianist Clare Fischer dies at 83

Published: Friday, January 27, 2012
Courtesy PhotoClare Fischer, Grammy Award-winning composer and jazz pianist, grew up in Grand Rapids.

GRAND RAPIDS – Grammy Award-winning composer and jazz pianist Clare Fischer, who arranged music for pop/rock icons including Michael Jackson and Prince, died Thursday. He was 83 years old.

Though he lived in Los Angeles at the time of his death, Fischer was born in Durand and grew up in Grand Rapids, graduating from South High School in 1946 before going on to study music at Michigan State University, which awarded him an honorary doctorate in 1999.

In a long career in music, Fischer worked in almost every possible genre.

“I’m not a pianist who writes — I’m a composer who plays,” he said in February 2001 on National Public Radio’s “Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz.”

Jazz icon Herbie Hancock called Fischer “a major influence on my harmonic concept”

“He and Bill Evans, and Ravel and Gil Evans, finally,” Hancock said. “You know, that’s where it really came from. Almost all of the harmony that I play can be traced to one of those four people and whoever their influences were.”

Fischer was nominated 11 times for a Grammy Award, winning twice, in 1981 for “Clare Fischer and Salsa Picante Present 2+2” and in 1986 for “Freefall.”

A couple of his tunes, “Pensativa” and “Morning” have entered the standard jazz repertoire.

In November, Fischer was nominated yet again for Best Instrumental Arrangement for “In the Beginning” from the recording “Continuum” featuring the Clare Fischer Big Band.

He began his career as pianist and arranger for The Hi-Lo’s in the 1950s, Fischer worked with bebop icon Dizzy Gillespie, moved on to Latin music in the 1960s.

In the 1980s, he became one of the most in-demand arrangers in pop/rock music, working artists such as Paul McCartney and Celine Dion.

Fischer suffered a cardiac arrest earlier in January.

He is survived by his wife, Donna; his children, Lee, Brent and Tahlia; two stepchildren, Lisa and Bill Bachman; three grandchildren; and a brother, Stewart.



Born on October 22, 1928 in Durand, Michigan, Clare Fischer is an uncommonly versatile musician, a master with many muses. Trained in the classics, inspired by jazz artists, healed by the rhythms of Latin and Brazilian music, his eclectic sound finds expression in every chart and instrument he touches.

A veteran studio musician and a composer of rare quality, Fischer began his studies in Grand Rapids, Michigan, at South High School with director of music, Glenn Litton. After receiving his master’s degree in composition from Michigan State University, where he studied with Dr. H. Owen Reed, he traveled extensively with “The Hi-Lo’s” as pianist-conductor for 5 years. About the same time, his musical ascension began with his critically acclaimed arrangements for Dizzy Gillespie’s “A Portrait of Duke Ellington.” Fischer’s influences, absorbed along the way, are as distinct as his music: Stravinsky and Shostakovich, Bartok and Berg, Dutilleux, boogie-woogie pianist Meade Lux Lewis, Nat “King” Cole, Duke Ellington, Bud Powell and early Lee Konitz – Fischer’s self-expression knows no boundaries.

“I relate to everything,” he explains. “I’m not just jazz, Latin, or classical. I really am a fusion of all of those, not today’s fusion, but my fusion.”

In 1983 classical concert artist Richard Stoltzman commissioned Fischer to write a symphonic work using Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn themes. The resulting composition, “The Duke, Swee’pea and Me,” features Stoltzman on clarinet, and is performed with symphony orchestras around the world. More recently Fischer was commissioned by Stoltzman to write a “Sonatine for Clarinet and Piano” in three movements, which he has recorded with RCA on his album, “American Clarinet” and is being published by Advance Music in Germany.

In 1986 Clare won his second Grammy Award – this one for his album, “Free Fall,” the first having been won in 1981 for his album, “Salsa Picante plus 2 + 2.” Since that time he has spent more time as a jazz educator, performing solo piano concerts and conducting clinics and master classes in universities and music conservatories in Scandinavia, Europe and throughout the United States.

In the last few years Clare has appeared in Paris, Finland, Norway, Germany with the WDR Big Band, Holland with the Metropole Orchestra, Austria at the Vienna Konzerthaus and in Mexico City at the Ollin Yolítzli Concert Hall in a concert commemorating the music of Antonio Carlos Jobim on the anniversary of his death in December, 1996. In October of 1998 he performed at the Choro Festival with Hélio Delmiro in Sáo Paulo, Brazil and returned in July, 2000 for a three-city tour in that country with Delmiro. In May 2001 Clare completed a European tour teaching master classes and performing solo piano concerts in four countries.

In addition to Dizzie Gillespie, Fischer has written for Cal Tjader, George Shearing, Diane Schuur, Natalie Cole, Chaka Khan and Rufus, The Jacksons, Earl Klugh, Prince, Robert Palmer, Paul McCartney, Michael Jackson, Spike Lee, João Gilberto, Paula Abdul, and most recently Brian McKnight, Regina Belle, J. Spencer, Norman Whitfield, Branford Marsalis, Tori Amos, Terry Trotter, a French group – “Charts,” a Japanese group – “Sing Like Talking,” Vanessa Williams, Brandy, Tony! Toni! Toné! and many others. His arrangements for strings are truly a revelation.

Since beginning his professional career, Fischer has recorded over 45 albums as leader and has arranged, composed and/or played on another 100 plus albums for other recording artists. His discography reads like a “Who’s Who” of the recording industry. Recent releases include “Clare Fischer’s Jazz Corps,” a big band album made up of 20 brass, 6 woodwinds plus rhythm; and “Symbiosis,” recorded with Hélio Delmiro on unamplified Brazilian guitar and Clare on digital piano. In January 2001 Fischer produced his first classical CD, “After the Rain,” made up entirely of his own symphonic works.

In December, 1999, Michigan State University School of Music conferred an Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts Degree on Clare in recognition of his “.creativity and excellence as a jazz composer, arranger and performer..”

Clare has three grown children; Lee, Brent and Tahlia; and two stepchildren, Lisa and Bill Bachman. He is married to his high school sweetheart, Donna, who he lost when he was 20 and she was 18 because her mother didn’t approve of “jazzers.” After being apart for 43 years, they are enjoying their storybook marriage of unbelievable happiness, now in its eighteenth year.


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