Tom Andes

Local jazz musician Tom Andes is also a theatrical composer. His original score for the Missouri Contemporary Ballet's Alice in Wonderland will return this summer. 

You don’t forget the first time you connect with music. For Tom Andes, it happened when he was 4 years old. He experimented with the keys of a piano, making music only a 4-year-old could: nonsensical yet innocent.

His childhood soundtrack featured the talents of Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky as well as other famous names such as Bach, Beethoven and Mozart. Now, he has the opportunity to compose for the Missouri Contemporary Ballet’s production of Alice in Wonderland, which it puts on every two years since 2013. This June it will be at Jesse Auditorium.

As an artist who has produced five CDs — spanning solo jazz, solo piano, a quintet with heavy influences of trumpet and saxophone, and a Christmas album — it’s hard to imagine what Andes doesn’t know how to play. “Doing all these different styles has made me a better composer and better musician,” he says.

Most people in Columbia who have heard of Andes know him for his jazz music. That focus started at Metro Academic and Classical High School in St. Louis, where a friend introduced him to the sounds of Herbie Hancock and Oscar Peterson. In 1977, Andes attended MU, where he eventually graduated with a degree in music education in 1981.

But his musical future changed for when he attended a Miles Davis concert while teaching high school music. There was an advertisement at the concert that highlighted a two-year scholarship to the renowned Berklee College of Music.

Andes made an audition tape and got the scholarship. He packed up his old life in Missouri to start a new one in Boston. “You’re just ensconced with jazz, and it’s really inspirational to be surrounded by that many jazz musicians,” Andes says. He earned a degree in piano performance at 23, leaving the college with more finely tuned jazz skills.

He moved back to Columbia because he wanted to raise a family. He got married, had two daughters and started to play jazz three nights a week at Murry’s, a jazz club and restaurant that has become a staple of Columbia’s music scene. Twenty-eight years later, he’s still going strong. “It’s like the longest gig in jazz history,” Andes says. “Columbia is really a garden of music, and that’s always inspired me to compose for the bands that I play in.”

In 2006, he started to teach music at Stephens College, where he discovered a love for theater. This new-found admiration was so strong that he ended up writing a musical called Color Blind, and Stephens produced it.

Then Karen Grundy, the artistic director for the Missouri Contemporary Ballet, was looking for a composer to work on a recurring ballet performance. She immediately thought of Andes because he worked as a musical director for the company’s spring productions.

Andes went from writing the usual 5- to 7-minute songs that he performs live at Murry’s, to composing a piece meant for dancing — one that would end up an hour and 20 minutes long. The idea of switching up musical styles might scare some artists, but not Andes. “He’s so varied in his style and what he can write,” Grundy says. “He’s not just a jazz musician.”

Grundy decided on Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, and Andes quickly got to work. Color Blind’s score took four years to create; Alice’s first iteration took only six months. Resembling the White Rabbit from the opening of Lewis Carroll’s classic book, the melodies hopped into his brain and helped him discover this world of wonder.

Andes has a malleable process. He typically composes at the piano, but he has trained himself to also compose in his head, no keys required.

He jokes that sometimes he doesn’t write the music on paper but keeps it in his brain. “It’s kind of dangerous,” Andes says. “It’s usually just the seed of an idea that just grows in the music.” 

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