The music of the late Fred Sturm ’73, a revered composer and music educator who led the Lawrence Conservatory of Music’s jazz program into national prominence, will be featured in a concert in Lawrence University’s Memorial Chapel 50 years after he graduated from the liberal arts college.
The Class of 1973 will present the concert at 1:30 p.m. June 17—a big band concert in honor of their friend and classmate—as part of Lawrence’s Reunion weekend. Free and open to the public, the concert will feature five Conservatory of Music faculty members, 11 Conservatory alumni who went on to careers performing or teaching music, and three other Wisconsin musicians who were deeply influenced by Sturm.
They’ll perform music composed and arranged by Sturm, who launched Lawrence’s first jazz ensemble while a student before embarking on a career as an award-winning composer and nationally recognized jazz educator. Sturm’s jazz pursuits were already well respected by the time he graduated from Lawrence in 1973. He would return to his alma mater four years later and spend 26 years teaching in the Conservatory—split into two stints, 1977-91 and 2002-14. He launched the now-named Fred Sturm Jazz Celebration Weekend in 1980 and proceeded to draw a bevy of big-name jazz artists to Lawrence’s stages.
“In my judgment, he was the finest educator I've ever witnessed, and I've seen a bunch of them,” John Harmon ’57, Lawrence’s first director of jazz studies, told The Post-Crescent at the time of Sturm’s death in 2014.
Kurt Dietrich ’73, a friend and former bandmate of Sturm’s who himself became a long-respected music educator, took on the task of organizing the June 17 concert. He had to find musicians who would be available for several hours of rehearsal leading up to the afternoon concert. It turned out to be an easy ask, he said, because of how deeply these musicians feel indebted to Sturm.
“Everyone felt the same way about Fred,” Dietrich said. “He was a major inspiration for anybody who ever had him as a teacher. It was an easy sell. There were logistical problems, but as far as getting people who wanted to do it, there was nothing to it.”
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Five members of the current Lawrence faculty are set to perform—Patty Darling ’85, Mark Urness, Dane Richeson, Tim Albright, and Jessica Jensen ’10. In addition to Dietrich, alumni scheduled to perform include Allen Cordingley ’02, Craig Hietpas ’93, Ryan Alban ’03, Kate (Nelson) Hardt ’06, Craig Gall ’90, Dave Cooper ’87, Marty Robinson ’91, Paul Dietrich ’10, and Larry Darling ’76. The other members of the band are not alums but are connected to Sturm: Tom Washatka, who taught in the Conservatory, John Kirchberger, who performed with Sturm in the band Matrix in the 1970s, and Mike Wagner, who took music lessons with Sturm early in his tenure at Lawrence.
Harmon, a jazz pianist and composer who taught in the Conservatory when the Class of 1973 came through, will join the concert for a special solo piano piece, Breathing, that Sturm wrote during the time he was battling cancer.
“It’s a great band and the music is so good,” Dietrich said. “It’s going to be such a meaningful occasion.”
Lawrence’s jazz program, now led by José Encarnación, continues to thrive. It was the recipient of two 2023 DownBeat Awards and has won six DownBeats in the past six years, among the highest honors in jazz education.
The Reunion concert is a tribute to Sturm’s lasting influence.
“This whole band, almost all of them are music educators of some sort,” Dietrich said. “That’s part of Fred’s legacy. He’s got people like that all over the country.”