Golden Valley Composer John Penny Pursues Musical Muse

Local composer John Penny pursues his musical muse.

Some songwriters “hear” melodies in their heads. Golden Valley resident and composer John Penny hears full symphony orchestras, and derives original melodies from those “ear worms.” For years, Penny has made a living (or supplemented his primary income) by playing guitar and composing music for TV commercials, films and other purposes.

Over the past three decades, Penny’s music has been heard nationwide in TV commercials for advertisers including Best Buy, Frito-Lay, Target, and NBC News. His film music has included scores for the film Patti Rocks, industrial film scores for the Minnesota Twins, United Way, Honeywell, and many more. As a sound designer—combining music and sound effects—he’s contributed to feature films, HBO specials (including one for singer Billy Joel), political campaigns, the Super Bowl, and the audio that accompanied comedian Louie Anderson’s live show. He got a kick out of working with Anderson, who Penny says “showed up at my studio downtown in a robe and slippers.”

The 66-year-old Penny recalls that when he broke into composing commercial jingles back in the early 1980s, “I could cold-call an ad agency and be writing jingles the next week. There were only a half-dozen jingle houses in the local phone book. Now there are hundreds locally.” Penny has also been a prolific composer on his own time, creating instrumental music combining elements of jazz, classical, and world folk music in solo and group settings.

Penny, an Illinois native, moved to the Twin Cities in 1976 along with the other members of an R&B band called Solstice. He later played around the Upper Midwest with a traveling pop band, and also worked days as a sound editor while playing music at night.

He’s been composing since 1980, sometimes during a stint working days as an IT specialist where he says his job involved “taking care of corporate networks.”

Even when Penny is writing for a guitar trio, he usually hears an orchestra in his head, so he writes down chord sequences. “Melodies often appear out of the overtones in those chords,” he says. Why? It’s no mystery, says Penny, who grew up with a sister, older by nine years, who played classical piano; he figures he heard classical music while still in the womb. Penny began his own classical studies at age 5, and went on to earn a music degree from the University of Iowa.

Penny also has an intriguing early connection to jazz. Birth records indicate that when he was born in 1950 in Alton, Illinois, the attending doctor at his birth was dentist Miles Davis Sr.—father of iconic trumpeter Miles Davis.

Penny says he is still evolving as a guitarist, no easy feat for someone who has been playing as long as he has. “Every day is a new frontier. Every six months I hear a different guitar player,” says Penny, who aspires to emulate the creativity of the “constantly changing style and cycle of growth that happened in pop music between (roughly) 1965 and 1975,” which he calls “a golden age.”

One way Penny keeps changing musically is inventing new guitar tunings, like one based on music for string quartets by classical composers Bela Bartok and Maurice Ravel, among others. Changing tunings leads him to discover new chord voicings and new sounds. He also uses guitar synthesizer technology to emulate the sounds of other instruments—keyboards, horns, percussion—as needed to flesh out his musical sketches.

These days, rock is more commonly used for TV and radio ad spots, but Penny has still found opportunities to use his classical training writing commercial music and film scores. He wrote a nine-piece orchestral score for a Minnesota Twins ad and has written for classical trios, quartets and quintets scoring films and commercials.

As a writer, Penny doesn’t think of himself as creating music. “Everything I so-called ‘created’ already existed. My job is like an archaeologist—to dig it up.” He pays attention to everyday, ambient sounds, especially those in nature, such as birds singing. “My job is to notice it’s there, put it on paper and arrange it with a certain rhythm for people to listen to. Picasso once said that most of his works were already on canvas. His job was to make them come forth,” Penny says.

Last December, Penny released a CD called Urban Tumble, the first of a planned four-part series collecting tunes he has written and recorded over the years. Now retired from his day job in IT, Penny has been capitalizing on the opportunity to focus full-time on his music. He is writing prolifically and estimates he already has enough instrumental music—demos or fully finished recordings—to release another eight or nine CDs.

Vocalist Bruce Henry, a member of the band Solstice who moved here from Illinois in 1976, introduces Penny to other friends as “a genius.”

“As sure as I say his name, he is all that. Even though he has been around a long time, he is still evolving and growing. My hope is that the world gets to hear more of his music,” says Henry, who is known as one of the most talented jazz and pop vocalists in the Midwest.

Over the years, Penny has also performed and recorded with some world-famous jazz musicians, such as the late Hammond organ master Captain Jack McDuff, harmonica player Howard Levy, drummer Bernard Purdie, and drummer Erik Gravatt, a longtime Twin Cities resident who has played with Weather Report, McCoy Tyner, Pharoah Sanders and other noted jazz artists. Penny has produced records for other jazz musicians that have included his compositions and guitar playing.

Penny continues to play occasional local gigs, both as a bandleader and sideman, sometimes accompanying local jazz vocalists, including singer Pippi Ardennia. On January 28, he’ll be playing at the Dakota jazz club with a sextet called Wild Horses Run Free. He’s also working on getting those other CDs out.

John Penny’s Musical Beginnings

• Began playing trumpet in fourth grade and started playing tuba in junior high when his trumpet teacher said Penny had the lips of a tuba player.

• Taught himself guitar at age 15.

• Played in rock bands in high school, along with playing tuba in the marching and concert bands.

• Attended University of Iowa school of music in 1968; majored in tuba, also played trumpet and string bass. Advised by a music instructor to “put away the guitar.” Chose not to do that.

• Co-taught the University of Iowa’s first accredited course in jazz history while still an undergrad.

Corporate Compositions by John Penny

Best Buy | Frito-Lay | Target | NBC News | Patti Rocks | Minnesota Twins | United Way | Honeywell | HBO | political campaigns | the Super Bowl