The Copy Cat: Remembering Al Schoonmaker

Volume CX, No. 4April, 2010


Jack Reilly

Al Schoonmaker (left) and
Jack Reily

My friend Al Schoonmaker, 90, a composer, arranger and copyist, and a member of Local 802 since 1954, died on Feb. 12.

The copyist is an absolute necessity, the sine qua non to the realization of the composer’s dream. A 20th century phenomenon who had to understand and intuit the music he was going to copy, the very best copyist studied theory, counterpoint, transposition, score-reading and piano. The copyist had to know the ranges and proper clefs of all the instruments of the modern orchestra, and play piano at the virtuoso level. Some have also been composers in their own right.

Yet the copyist has been a behind-the-scenes unsung hero of the musical world. Forget about public recognition – musicians don’t even appreciate the copyist! Only the composer knows how important the copyist is to a successful performance of his works, let alone to the composer’s career as a whole.

Al Schoonmaker was my copyist, my unsung hero, who with his pen and ink painted my compositions onto score paper, readying them for performances. I use the metaphor “painted” because when he completed the copying work, the score looked beautiful, as if it were screaming to be framed and hung on the wall of a museum, like a Renoir, for all the world to see and enjoy.

Al mastered all the musical subjects mentioned above. At 88 years of age, he copied my most recent work, “Blue Sage Variations,” a piano work arranged for jazz trio. Al’s piano score for the work was so clean, clear, and easy to read that it was unnecessary to extract bass and drum parts for those concerts – the bassists and drummers accompanying me at those concerts just followed the piano score!

Al never lost his patience when trying to decipher my handwritten score. If he spotted an ambiguous note – such as what looked like an F touching the E line on the staff – and it was unclear which note I actually meant, he could internally hear and figure out the correct pitch by analyzing the harmony so the chord was married to the pitch, and vice versa.

He would always write me comments at the end of each assignment, sometimes humorous but mostly encouraging me to compose more. He always insisted I go to his apartment to pick up the finished scores and parts because he refused to mail them. He feared their loss en route to my home would be a disaster and he’d have to begin anew!

Al was a humble man full of great stories about composers, musicians and conductors. He copied for all of the great 20th century composers: Leonard Bernstein, David Diamond, Aaron Copland, Elliott Carter and others.

God blessed the world by giving us Al Schoonmaker and I was especially blessed by knowing him. He was my unsung hero, a true copy cat!

Friends of Al who want to read more about him, including a longer version of this article and an interview I did with him, can e-mail me at

This is an edited version of an essay that first appeared in print in the Winter/Spring 2008 edition of The NOTE, the official magazine of the Al Cohn Memorial Jazz Collection at East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania.