Fred Sturm Interview with Mizar5 online magazine

M5: Where were you born and where did you grow up? How did your love for music start, and can you tell us something about how your early influences and journeys since then have impacted your career?

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, then the principal trumpet with the Milwaukee Symphony who went on to become the great principal trumpeter with the Minnesota Orchestra, Boston Symphony Orchestra, and New York Philharmonic.

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. 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 growing phenomenon of 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. I also switched instruments -- from trumpet to trombone. Through my remaining jazz and composition studies at the University of North Texas and the Eastman School of Music and during my 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 naïve, 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 tunes and have arranged compositions by Argentine tango-meister Astor Piazzola. Can you name a few other projects that are special to you?

FS: I had the thrill of composing, arranging, and adapting the music for a terrific concert project titled Migrations: One World, Many Musics with vocalist Bobby McFerrin and the NDR Big Band in Hamburg, Germany. The project featured selections inspired by the indigenous music of two dozen countries from around the globe. I had worked with Bobby on three occasions in the past, and I've written a number of different big band and orchestral things for him. He's one of the great creative artists and one of the true gentlemen in the arts world today.

I also had the joy of engaging in a true labor of love, doing the orchestral composing and arranging for The Baseball Music Project. My Eastman School of Music classmate and fellow baseball fanatic Bob Thompson (former CEO at Universal Edition, one of the world's largest publishing houses) 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 was scored for symphony orchestra and included music about the game dating from 1858 to the present, and it's been performed by the Boston Pops, Chicago Ravinia Festival Orchestra, and the symphony orchestras in Seattle, Nashville, Hartford, Indianapolis, Miami, Detroit, and many others featuring Hall of Fame star Dave Winfield as narrator.

In the mid-1990s, I developed a text and corresponding CD titled Changes Over Time: The Evolution of Jazz Arranging. 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.

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.

I also love writing for kids and educational ensembles. Thanks to the folks at Sierra Music Publications, Kendor Music Publications, Neil Kjos Music, and Lorenz Heritage JazzWorks, I've composed over three 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 has kept the projects fresh, varied, and ever interesting.

M5: Let's take a look at your extended project of arranging 11 Steely Dan compositions for jazz big band. It was recorded by the HR Big Band (Hessischer Rundfunk) in Frankfurt, Germany. Did you offer this CD Do It Again to Donald Fagen & Walter Becker or in any other way communicate 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 kindly offered to deliver copies of the CD to Steely Dan leaders Donald Fagen and Walter Becker. I had no contact with them prior to or during the work on the project, and I never expected to hear anything from them. I was overjoyed, however, to receive a complimentary email from Donald, which may be the most meaningful commentary I've ever received about my music. I've felt a deep connection to the Dan recordings since the release of their first album in the early 1970s, and it's been a joy to see them still recording and touring after 4 decades.

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 strength of improvisational music, in your opinion?

FS: Teaching is the great privilege in my musical life. After 35 years of university teaching, I still have a fire in my belly conducting ensembles, teaching composition and arranging, coaching young improvisers, and 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 whose careers are heavily entrenched in the arts. Our son Ike Sturm is a bassist and composer in New York, leads his own ensemble, and serves as Music Director for the Jazz Ministry at Saint Peters (The "Jazz Church") in Manhattan. Daughter Madeline Sturm studied clarinet performance and art history at the Eastman School of Music and is now the senior designer for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. 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 the seasons, I hope to compose a program of music featuring family and friends.