Tomorrow night Cityfolk's celebration of Dayton born pianist/composer Billy Strayhorn comes to an end. Rounding out the week long tribute will be a performance from the Stivers School for the Arts Jazz Orchestra. Jerry Kenney reports on the student's at Stivers and how they're learning a legacy.
In a large music room crowded with chairs and music stands, practice is underway for most of the students who make up the Jazz Orchestra at Stivers School for the Arts. They've spent weeks learning the music of a man who passed away almost thirty years before they were born. Claude Thomas directs the Jazz Orchestra. He's taught at Stivers for 22 years and confesses that with his involvement in the Strayhorn Celebration the teacher became the student.
"We as a group normally don't do Strayhorn and Ellington, matter of fact, we haven't done any until this experience. So it's forced me to go into my studies to figure this stuff out, and it's been a great experience. The music is so rich," says Thomas.
"It's a different experience, but it's a good experience overall."
Tall and slender like the alto sax he plays, student Tyrone Martin is a featured soloist on several Strayhorn tunes including It's Fine, Star Crossed Lovers and Take the A-train. He stopped playing long enough to give us his take on the music he's learning.
"I like all the music," says Martin. "But there's something...it's a different experience, but it's a good experience overall."
Freshman Matthew Quinn plays clarinet and baritone sax. He likes the different styles of music in the Strayhorn program but says his challenge lies in playing some of the slower pieces.
"The ballads are really hard because you have to watch your time. Like 'Anatomy of a Murder,' it has to be right in time. It's really slow, and it's really hard to keep your focus," says Quinn.
"A whole bunch of music that they may have never been exposed to before"
George Balog teaches Jazz History at Stivers. He's excited that students are learning the music of Ellington and Strayhorn.
"Their musical talents just mesh to such a degree that they produce this fine body of music, and once the kids discover that, from Ellington it goes to Strayhorn. From Strayhorn, it goes to Johnny Hodges, from Johnny Hodges to Ben Webster. They discover a whole bunch of music that they may have never been exposed to before," says Balog.
Recently introduced to that jazz culture Balog is referring to is freshman Christine Hoy. She plays piano in the Orchestra and her training up until the last year has been in classical music. In that year Hoy seems to have learned a lot about the music she's now playing, by listening to jazz musicians... and to the words of her teacher Claude Thomas.
"Earlier in the rehearsal Mr Thomas said that all the music basically started with the piano, and I can probably agree with that because the chord changes are just like the base for all the music that's ever played," says Hoy. "Even if you go back to Bach, you'll see the same chord progression that you see in maybe some jazz piece. It's just played in straight fifths; it's just played classically."
"As authentic as possible"
Understanding that commonality in music styles, along with talent and a little luck should help the students in performing what Director Claude Thomas says is some very difficult music.
"What we want to do for the show is to play as authentic as possible," says Thomas. "And Billy Strayhorn wrote for professional musicians that had been in a band for years. So it's a little different trying to fit it in for high school age students, but we gave every student a recording. And they studied that recording and worked at it, and I think it's going to be a good show. "
The Stivers School for the Arts Jazz Orchestra performs with the Terell Stafford Quintet tomorrow night at 8 PM, in Centennial Hall