FRED STURM

A Bodacious Cowboy


M5: How did your love for music start and can you tell us something about your early influences and journey in that respect, like where were you born, where did you grow up and looking back, has this been significant in your career or any relevant decisions?

FS: I was born and raised about an hour from Chicago. My Dad was a cellist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and my Mom was an operatic contralto who doubled as a commercial group studio singer in Chicago television and radio stations. The first music I heard as a child was a wonderful mix of CSO recordings, rehearsals of Dad's string quartet in our living room, the repertoire that Dad and Mom were practicing, and the material they were teaching in lessons with their students. I wore out my Dad's CSO LP test pressing of Ottorino Respighi's "Pines of Rome" and the first melodies I learned were from the Dvorak Cello Concerto and the Bach Cello Suites. Those sounds were imprinted into my musical vocabulary as a boy. They're still there.

My folks arranged lessons for me on piano, cello, and violin, but I abandoned each instrument. I frequented Dad's orchestra rehearsals and concerts, however, and eventually asked to take trumpet lessons when I reached 15. For two years, I had the privilege of studying with Charles Schlueter, now the great principal trumpet with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Dad outlawed rock & roll recordings and radio in the house, which made them all the more enticing to me. I secretly listened to the Beatles and other early 60's pop groups on the radio at night through an earplug in my transistor radio. I played Hendrix, Cream, and Clapton on the stereo when Dad was away from home. And when Blood, Sweat, and Tears burst upon the scene in the late 60s, I became addicted to everything with horns- blues bands, R&B groups, Motown, James Brown, and the jazz/rock, fusion.

My uncle, a nightclub pianist/organist in Chicago, played Louis Armstrong records for me when I was a teenager. A high school buddy turned me on to Woody Herman recordings, and we got hooked on big bands: Woody, Stan Kenton, Buddy Rich, and Maynard Ferguson. And I had a great high school band director who organized a strong school jazz band.

When I entered Lawrence University as a freshman, there was no jazz in the curriculum, and the only jazz on campus was a big band that was loosely organized by a music fraternity. A year later, I was privileged to direct that ensemble, which triggered my interest in jazz education. Through my remaining studies at the University of North Texas and the Eastman School of music and during my 4 years "on the road", my aspirations to teach were always in my heart and mind.

M5: Arranging/composing music and in particular for big band or ensembles: What are your ideas behind arranging almost 'classic' standard jazz music the way you do and what was the first arrangement you wrote feeling 'this is what I hear'?

FS: I've always blurred the lines of demarcation between composing and arranging. When I'm composing, the processes of arranging and orchestrating are integral components of the entire effort. When I'm arranging, I approach the given materials as if I had composed them myself. Like a lot of other contemporary writers, many of my arranging efforts involve taking significant liberties with the original material. I look for small cells, motives, identifiers, and hooks that carry the potential of generating variation, manipulation, and transformation.

I'm very critical of my past writing efforts, and it's difficult for me to listen to recordings of my early compositions and arrangements. To my ears, many of those projects were na´ve, uninformed, busy, artificial, and glaringly derivative. I certainly developed a lot of craft and technique during those years, but there was no semblance of a unique creative voice being illustrated. Speaking frankly, I don't think that I generated anything of real musical consequence until just a few years ago, when I was nearing 50 years old. Those recent efforts are more unified, more organic, and truer to my own history -- and the musical things that I genuinely love.

M5: You've arranged Steely Dan music, arranged songs from tango-meister Astor Piazzola ... Can you name a few other projects that are special to you?

FS: I've been contacted to compose and arrange the music for Bobby McFerrin's next jazz CD, so I'll spend the summer of 2006 preparing that material. I've worked with Bobby on three occasions in the past, and I've written a few things for him. He's one of the great creative artists and one of the true gentlemen in the arts world today. I can't wait to roll up my sleeves and jump into that project.

I'll spend the next 6 months in a true labor of love, doing the orchestral arranging for "The Baseball Music Project". Two brilliant musical minds and fellow baseball fanatics - Bob Thompson (CEO at Universal Edition, one of the world's largest publishing houses) and Mike Mushalla (President of Double M Arts & Events and former VP at Columbia Artists) - have engaged me as artistic director for the project, and we traveled to the Baseball Hall of Fame to research their fabulous Steele Baseball Music Collection. The program will be scored for symphony orchestra and will include music about the game dating from 1858 to the present. They're already booking dates with American orchestras 2-3 years into the future.

In the mid-1990s, I developed a text and corresponding CD titled "Changes Over Time: The Evolution of Jazz Arranging" (published by Advance Music in Germany). That 5-year obsession illustrated, through comparative case studies, the development of jazz arranging from the 1920s to the present. I located or transcribed and dissected some of the greatest jazz arrangements in history by Don Redman, Fletcher Henderson, Benny Carter, Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Gil Evans, Thad Jones, Bill Holman, Manny Albam, Bob Brookmeyer, and Clare Fischer. It was a remarkably informative process that dramatically altered my perspective as a composer and arranger.

I love writing for kids. Thanks to the folks at Lorenz Heritage JazzWorks, a fine U.S. jazz publishing company, I've composed over two dozen works for high school and middle school jazz ensembles. In what we believe is a revolutionary publishing concept, every composition is pedagogically designed to explore a particular improvisational technique or aural training process.

My musical tastes - and hence my writing projects -- have become increasingly eclectic over the years. I've written for Broadway "Phantom of the Opera" star Davis Gaines, composed original works for symphony orchestra and wind ensemble, generated numerous compositions for chamber ensembles, and have published several arrangements for voices. In the 70s and 80s, I freelanced constantly as a composer, arranger, and producer for commercial television, radio, and industrial film projects. I'm an admitted "musical mutt", and the mix keeps my projects fresh, varied, and ever interesting.

M5: Can you tell a little more about the book and CD, your 'Changes over Time: the evolution of jazz arranging'. How would you describe the evolution of jazz arranging, if possible, in a few words and what characteristics can you name to classify this, per era-decade etc etc?

FS: The first great jazz arrangers emphasized rhythmic and melodic embellishment as their primary tools; they essentially "jazzed up" the basic tune in the same spirit as the early jazz instrumental soloists. As the art form evolved, artistic arrangers assimilated the evolving rhythmic vocabulary and melodic language of the premier jazz improvising soloists, and simple ornamentation gave way to creative linear reconstruction. Harmonic variation and substitution became primary fixtures in the arranger's pallet. As soloists departed more dramatically from the confines of an original composition in their improvisations, the arranging giants incorporated more composed material within their charts. By the middle of the 20th Century, the most influential arrangers had effectively erased many of the contrasting lines between improvisation, composition, and arranging. In recent decades, a global perspective of the world's music and its diverse schooled, ethnic, and commercial streams have opened new doors to melody, harmony, rhythm, timbre, improvisational elements, and dramatic features. Most of the innovative writers on the jazz scene today emphasize form and structure as the great remaining frontier, and many have grown comfortable taking enormous liberties with the original material that they are arranging.

M5: Let's take a look at your Bodacious Cowboys project , the arranging of Steely Dan songs for Big Band. It was recorded by the German HR Big Band in 2003. Did you offer this CD 'Do It Again' to Donald Fagen & Walter Becker or in any other way communicated with them?

FS: Steely Dan group singer Carolyn Leonhart was my student during the decade I spent teaching at the Eastman School of Music in New York, and she has kindly offered to deliver copies of the CD to Donald and Walter. I've had no contact with them and would never expect to hear anything from them. It's impossible to know how they might react to my arrangements of their music, but I've felt a deep connection to their recordings since the release of their first album in the early 1970s, and I can only hope that they would recognize the respect and admiration for their work that went into my renditions.

M5: This project didn't include their 'Everything Must Go' release. If you had to add a song, to make your project 'complete', what songs would that be and are there perhaps any plans to arrange EMG songs?

FS: I was just finishing my Bodacious Cowboys project when 'Everything Must Go' was released, so I couldn't incorporate any of those tunes. I joked about doing a Becker & Fagen "Green Medley", using "Green Earrings", Donald's "Green Flower Street", and "Green Book" from the new CD. I like the grooves to "Godwhacker" and "Lunch With Gina" off the new CD. Narrowing my project to just 11 Steely Dan tunes was frustrating, for I had to omit so many others that I've loved for years. I have no plans to do another SD project, but if the opportunity came along, I'd have no problem coming up with another dozen of their great compositions to tackle.

M5: Are you familiar with the Simpsons, the succesful cartoon series and the fact their tune is differently arranged in almost every episode? That sure makes one warm up to the art/craft of arranging, don't you think?

FS: Absolutely! Alf Clausen is a monster - his imagination as a composer, arranger, orchestrator, and musical adaptor appears to be as bountiful as the creative writing of Simpsons creators Matt Groening, James Brooks, and Al Jean.

M5: You combine elements of jazz, classical music as well as pop/rock in your arrangements ... What would be the ultimate challenge for you, as in create an entire new mood to a composition people know in a certain way ... Are there compositions or songs you'd like to 'change around' and could you name a few that might have your interest?

FS: As I've often told my writing students, it's a unique challenge to arrange a tune that an audience knows intimately, but it allows for so much to be implied. For example, I recently heard an amazing live recording of pianist Fred Hersch performing Duke Ellington's "C Jam Blues". Duke's 2- pitch melody may be the simplest jazz tune ever written, and it's immediately identifiable. Fred played the melody once and his audience immediately knew what was up - that's all they needed. From there, he proceeded to transform that little melodic cell through a remarkable set of variations.

At the same time that Becker and Fagen were influencing my pop and commercial music ears, the group Weather Report was having an enormous impact upon my jazz sensibilities. I've long entertained the idea of doing a project of their music. Zawinul and Shorter are great heroes of mine.

Among more contemporary jazz artists, I'd love to work with the music of Bill Frisell, Dave Douglas, Chris Potter, Mike Stern, Richard Bona - that list is endless.

M5: Your work as a musician takes you to different levels of the field, as a composer, teacher, conductor, arranger, producer ... You're the Director of Jazz and Improvisational Music at the Lawrence University Conservatory of Music in Appleton, Wisconsin. What are the priorities attached to this job/position and what's the strenght of improvisational music, in your opinion?

FS: Teaching is the great privilege in my musical life. After almost 30 years of university teaching, I still have a fire in my belly conducting ensembles, teaching composition and arranging, coaching young improvisers, leading pedagogy classes. My life in education has afforded me a constantly shifting mix of projects, and the endless energy and passion of my students continues to inspire me.

Engaging in the creative process - as composer/arranger, teacher, and performer - is the lure in teaching. Like most jazz educators, I'm well aware that the vast majority of my students will not likely go on to experience highly visible professional jazz careers. But the creative work that we do - most notably in jazz performance practice, improvisational music, and composition/arranging -- has an abundance of metaphors in every imaginable discipline and field.

M5: The last question, although we may leave a lot unsaid here ... But looking back on your career so far and taking a glance at the future, can you name some highlights and what's on your list of 'to do' things?

FS: My wife and I have been blessed with two great kids who are now both professional musicians. Our son Ike is a bassist and composer in New York, leads his own 10-piece ensemble, and serves as Assistant Director of Music for the Jazz Ministry at Saint Peters (The "Jazz Church") in Manhattan. Daughter Madeline studied clarinet performance and art history at the Eastman School of Music and is now a web designer for Boom Design Group in New York and a freelance clarinetist. I've enjoyed a career's worth of superb students and have assembled a wonderful collection of dear musical friends. When my writing assignments settle down in another year or two, I want to compose a program of music featuring family and friends.


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