Aquinnah native Jesse Wiener makes music in NYC, soon LA

Jesse Wiener — Photo courtesy of Jesse Wiener

On Their Way is an occasional series, in which The Times introduces people who grew up on Martha’s Vineyard and have moved on to establish themselves in careers on- or off-Island. We are looking for young people who have distinguished themselves by their accomplishments in the arts, business, in social services, in the military, in academics, in fact in any meaningful way. Your suggestions are welcomed by The Times.

Jesse Wiener is moving to Los Angeles next month to pursue a career in the movie music business. Now a New York-based musician, composer, and teacher, he grew up in Aquinnah. After attending Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (class of 2004), he studied music at Harvard, graduating in 2008.

The twenty-five-year-old wants to write for the movies, which prompted his move west. “There is more opportunity in LA,” he said. To date he has scored two movies and is currently working on a third.

He moved to New York after college to write musicals and has been making a living by working in musicals, playing piano and guitar, vocal coaching, doing music copy work, and creating sheet music for shows mostly off-Broadway.

He has realized that the New York music business is uncertain and that he really wants to focus on writing music, not necessarily everything else he has had to do to make a living which has included working as an office temp to pay the bills. “Being a Broadway composer is pretty much a crap shoot,” he said.

His time in New York has not been without success. Moving to New York with a plan to work in music he began teaching some piano, and got a job with the show “Rock of Ages” on Broadway as a production assistant for the show’s music department.

He has played for auditions, subbed on Broadway in “Godspell,” for nine months, worked on readings for musicals that involved copying the music and creating sheet music. He did the string arrangements for a Bruce Springsteen concert at Madison Square Garden, has written a musical and has sung as a professional tenor in a church.

One show, produced by Whoopi Goldberg, took him to Chicago for a fully staged production with the plan to bring it back to Broadway. The band that was hired for the show had a guitar player “who just couldn’t handle the music, so I ended up playing the guitar. I was supposed to be there for three weeks and I ended up being there for the entire run, four months,” he said. That show has not yet made it back to New York.

One of his many marketable skills is music transcription. He listens to a recording and writes down the music. “It is and will be a big part of what I do,” he said. Many composers, he said, compose by ear and don’t write it down, “I can listen to what they have recorded and put it down on paper. I don’t have perfect pitch, but I have very good relative pitch.”

Mr. Wiener grew up in Aquinnah, the son of Jerry Wiener, a retired builder, building inspector, sculptor, and flight instructor and Carolyn Feltz, who is now the Aquinnah town clerk, “Neither of whom are musicians but they both love music,” he said. He grew up listening to his father’s eclectic collection of records, which included classical, jazz, and rock and roll.

Aquinnah is a quiet town where he says there “wasn’t all that much to do.” So he spent a fair amount of time during his teenage years working in his basement. His father set him up with early computer music programs and he reproduced music that he heard and liked, figuring out the chords and melodies on his guitar and piano and recording his own versions.

Mr. Wiener began honing has musical skills at an early age, learning from Island musicians. He started guitar lessons at the age of five, with Will Pfluger. He took piano lessons with Peter Hutchings and more guitar with Mike Mason.

While a middle school student at the Charter School, he met Will Luckey, another music teacher. He began studying piano and guitar with Mr. Luckey. “We clicked immediately. He has a way of pushing you, not like a parent, but making you feel responsible for practicing. I felt like I was just exploring music and I got really excited about piano and music.” He sang and performed with a local theater program.

At the regional high school Mr. Weiner said he took the freshman chorus class “on a whim. I enjoyed singing.” He then started auditioning for a variety of off-Island competitions. He studied voice with Linda Berg and developed an interest in classical music. He sang with the Minnesingers.

He met his future wife, the actress Maggie Joy Anderson, a native of Sandwich, at the All Cape and Islands Music Festival while in high school. “There was an audition for a duet and we got the parts and we hit it off immediately,” he said. They dated through their college years and even worked together the summer of 2010 in Booth Bay Harbor, Maine, at the Carousel Music Theater, where she performed and he was the music director.

At Harvard he majored in composition and sang with the Harvard University Choir and the University Choral Fellows. He conducted “Cabaret” his junior year and conducted Stephen Sondheim’s musical “Sweeney Todd” his senior year. Mr. Wiener said, “It was amazing, a real trip, with a full 21-piece orchestra, at the Loeb Drama Center,” the 540-seat home of the American Repertory Theater. “It was kind of my brainchild, I got my best friend to direct it. It was amazing.”

Mr. Wiener is working on three major projects at the moment. One is a new semi-autobiographical musical with a producer and actor who played “Tony” in the first revival of “West Side Story” in 1968, called “In the Summer of ’68.” “It will take another year to finish,” he said. He is also helping his accountant father-in-law, who also writes songs, fashion some of his music into a musical. And he is writing music for a short film.

Mr. Wiener and his wife are looking forward to living in Los Angeles. He said she really wants to open a bakery when they get there. She plans to audition for TV, film, and commercial work but will also market her baked goods at farmers’ markets in LA before opening a shop.

“I’m a foodie like she is,” he said. “So I’m looking forward to getting involved with her in that too. I am really excited about heading to brighter skies. I am really not a winter person.”