Ann Arborite Jim Nissen
Conductor, composer, and teacher
by Shelley Daily
Jim Nissen cranks up the stereo until the sound of the Ann Arbor Concert Band fills his two-story living room. He nods along to the music, waves an imaginary baton, and shakes his fists with each staccato burst. Nissen, the AACB's director, composed this four-minute piece, called "Run!" Clean-cut and handsome in glasses, a crewneck sweater, and dress pants, Nissen, fifty-one, explains that "Run!" was inspired by a bizarre dream in which he was chased by Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich. "That one wrote itself in a week," says Nissen, who tries to compose at least one piece a year for the band. "But usually I have to work my ass off."
And work he does. In addition to directing the AACB, he teaches in the music department at U-M Dearborn and in the humanities department at Schoolcraft College and is music director at First Congregational Church. "He's a triple threat"--as a conductor, organist, and teacher--says U-M music prof Marilyn Mason, who's known "Jimmy" since he was a U-M student.
Nissen's drive and his talents have led to performances at Chartres Cathedral and Notre Dame in France and in Coventry, England--and even at Cary Grant's eightieth birthday party in Paris. But Nissen always finds his way back home to Ann Arbor, which he calls "the greatest city on Earth"--and to his regular teaching gigs: up to thirteen sections of arts, music, and humanities classes at the two schools.
"Put me in the trenches," Nissen says. "I like teaching best...I want to retire being the best teacher I can be." In the spring, he'll lead a group of Schoolcraft students on an annual ten-day international field study, which he initiated--this year to Paris. Prior to departure, the class studies the region's music and art history, and Nissen often arranges to play the organ at one of the stops.
Even students who don't go on the trip love him. On ratemyprofessors.com, students post comments like "great professor!!" and "TAKE HIM!" Comparisons
to comedian and actor Robin Williams are frequent.
But like Williams, Nissen has a serious side. He demands a lot from the amateur Ann Arbor Concert Band (which performs January 20 at the Michigan Theater--see Events). "He is type triple-A," says Phillip Rhodes, trumpet player and president of the band. "He expects a lot and always tries to take it to the next level." The eighty members, who range in age from about twenty-five to seventy-five, practice for two hours weekly and perform four times each year. Says Nissen, "I understand they're amateurs, but we can always be better."
Lots of music and theater people know Nissen, who's also directed ensembles for the U-M Gilbert & Sullivan Society and Ann Arbor Civic Theatre. Many old-timers remember the large, talented Nissen household on Spring Street. Nissen calls his father, Gene, a retired U-M administrator and an ordained Lutheran minister, "one of the greatest creative minds I've ever known." His mother, Pat, who died in 1997, "thought outside the box"--in 1959, she was featured on the cover of Ladies' Home Journal for choosing to give birth to his sister Anna at home.
Gene and Pat moved their young family to Ann Arbor from Hamburg in Livingston County in 1969 to escape harrassment they faced after adopting an African American son--Nissen's younger brother, Jon. Growing up in the middle of seven kids, "I had to be loud to get anyone's attention," says Nissen, who started playing the trumpet as a third grader--"The first song I learned was '[The] Victors'"--and went on to earn three music degrees from U-M.
In a household of high achievers, Nissen took nine years of French classical ballet with his sister Eva as his partner. She became a ballerina with the Stockholm Ballet and now serves as its choreographer. (Another sister lives in Singapore with her husband; a third is an engineer in Virginia; and a fourth works for a division of NBC in New York. His brother Steve works for an auto dealership in Canton; Jon died young in 1995.) But Nissen says he never felt the siblings were in competition because "we all had such diverse interests."
Nissen played trumpet through his graduation from Pioneer High, then switched to organ at the U-M. A Fulbright scholarship allowed him to study in Paris, with famed organist Jean Langlais, who was blind and read all of his music in Braille. Langlais had high expectations for the young American: "In one year I had to learn the complete works of Cesar Franck and most of the compositions of Langlais--and there are many," Nissen recalls. "I had to learn how to practice efficiently."
After returning from Paris he started teaching music history at U-M Dearborn. Although he applied to--and was a finalist for--a job at Dartmouth, he did the math and realized that between teaching at Dearborn, Schoolcraft, and doing carpentry in the summer, he was already earning more than the Ivy League school's starting salary.
So Nissen "decided to stick around." And, he adds, "I haven't regretted it at all. Who'd want to leave Ann Arbor? It's such a great town with so much music and music opportunities. Plus, my family roots are here, as well as all my closest friends."
Twice married and recently divorced, Nissen has two stepdaughters. In his free time, he watches U-M football ("my second religion"), sometimes with his dad, and he acts in the Friends of the Michigan League dinner theater (where his roles have included Mozart in Amadeus). He enjoys a quiet evening sitting in Carson's restaurant, sipping a martini while he studies his lines or reads a biography.
A biography inspired one of his latest compositions-in-progress. Upstairs in his home studio, he calls up "Genghis Khan" on his computer, and the monitor shows--note by note--the music he's created.
As the dark, dramatic sounds of woodwinds, brass, and percussion build, Nissen sways back and forth and again pulls out his imaginary baton. The piece, which he says will eventually be a twenty-minute concert work, already has the sound of an epic movie soundtrack. But Nissen adds that it still needs a lot of work. "Why be mediocre?" he asks. "There's enough of that around."
[Originally published in January, 2013.]