Guest Post: Behind PuerlingPalooza with Justin Binek

Justin Binek and I are old friends and fellow WMU alums – we sang together for a year in Gold Company in 2000-2001. He is currently a Vocal Jazz Doctoral Fellow at the University of North Texas, and as such got to be on the inside for a lot of the planning and preparation for the recent Gene Puerling Tribute Concert. I asked him to share a little about his experience, and he sent this piece recollecting a series of conversations with Jazz Singers director Jennifer Barnes.


May 26, 2014: “Hi, Jennifer!” “Hi, Justin! Do you have a moment?”

I was on my way back from having made another run to the Salvation Army; after nine years in Philadelphia working at the University of the Arts, I was getting ready to move across the country to begin working on my doctorate at the University of North Texas. Jennifer Barnes (the head of the vocal jazz program at UNT) and I had been chatting regularly about a number of things on tap for the coming year, but this time she was calling me to tell me that UNT was in the final stages of reaching an agreement with Helen Puerling that would result in Helen donating Gene’s entire musical archive to the school. As a vocal jazz writer and arranger, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to study these amazing works. Little did I know what was in store in the coming months.

October 6, 2014: “Hi, Justin!” “Hi, Jennifer! So, I have this project…”

In yet another fortuitous circumstance, my Jazz Research and Analysis seminar with Dr. John Murphy included a unit on current practices in creating critical editions of historical jazz works, and the members of the class were asked to create critical editions of previously unpublished manuscripts. When I asked Jennifer if there were any Puerling charts that she might like to get a head start on, her response was, “How about Tangerine?” The next day, I found myself with Don Shelton’s rehearsal copy, which included his editorial markings from the studio. At this point, Jennifer and I were talking regularly about the editing process and came to a philosophical epiphany. Because these charts were written to be recorded, we were working from TWO “primary sources”: the charts themselves, and the studio recordings. And because there were significant changes made in the studio, we decided that the recordings would, in fact, be the final authority. In other words, we weren’t doing “chart editing” as much as we were doing “guided transcription.”

Don Shelton’s rehearsal score for “Tangerine”; my transcription workspace

December 14, 2014: “Hi, Jennifer!” “Hi, Justin! We’re still on for Wednesday, yes?”

On Wednesday, December 17, Jennifer and I met up at the Willis Library to dive into the files with the help of Collections Librarian Maristella Feustle. At this point, Jennifer had a “rough working list” of charts to be considered as possibilities for the Jazz Singers spring concerts, which were now being revised to feature music from the Puerling collection. We were hoping to at least find most of the parts for most of the songs under consideration. What we found was a treasure trove.

“What we found was a treasure trove.”

First, we found everything on her list. Second, the parts were in pristine condition – in most cases, the last time they had seen the light of day was in the studio session. As Jennifer and I pored through the scores, we found ourselves spontaneously breaking out in giddy laughter. “Look! It’s all of the Pat Williams scores and parts!” “Oh, look: all of the Rob McConnell parts, here in this tub.” “Huh. The original handwritten score for ‘Life Is Just A Bowl Of Cherries.’ No big deal.” At this point, it was becoming very real. Also, at this point, the amount of work ahead was becoming very real.

March 1, 2015: “Hi, Jennifer!” “Hi, Justin! So… Can we have those three new charts ready to go on Tuesday?”

The UNT Jazz Singers had just returned from performing at the ACDA National Conference in Salt Lake City. At this point, the group had “Willow Weep For Me,” “Like Someone In Love,” and “Children’s Games” in hand… Which now meant that the ensemble had seven weeks to get eleven Puerling charts ready for performance. And in the end… Well, I have been privileged to both sing in and direct wonderful vocal jazz ensembles that made wonderful music. But I have never seen a student ensemble work as diligently and with as little grumbling on such an insane program as the 2014-15 UNT Jazz Singers. It was a true honor to be part of this collection of singers. And it was an honor to make my own contribution to it.

Five scores ready for rehearsal!

April 16, 2015: “Do I even want to know how many hours you put into this?”

During the first of the two concerts this past week, I was honored and humbled when Jennifer acknowledged my contribution onstage. She jokingly asked if she wanted to know how many hours I had put into these scores. I jokingly responded that she didn’t… But this was a true labor of love. The opportunity to be part of something like this was once-in-a-lifetime, and I feel privileged and blessed to have been involved. I also feel as though, through editing these scores, I’ve learned more about vocal jazz arranging in the past seven months than I did in the previous thirty-seven years combined. Thank you, Gene Puerling, for your amazing gift. Thank you, Helen, for your wonderful donation that allows Gene’s music to live on. And thank you, Jennifer, for letting me be part of this amazing experience.

—–Justin Binek is a Doctoral Teaching Fellow at the University of North Texas. He is also a member of the NAfME Council for Jazz Education, and serves on the teaching faculties of the Halewynstichting Jazz Workshop (Dworp, Belgium) and the ProMusic Summer Camp (Tiffin, Ohio). For more on his music, visit: