HAPPY BIRTHDAY, FRED STURM

If Fred Sturm were still walking this earth, today he (and we) would be celebrating his 70th birthday.  Some of us will anyway.

Fred was one of the great jazz educators.  Ever.  (Our friend Greg Keel referred to him as “the gold standard.”)  Fred was, thankfully, recognized for that during his lifetime, in official ways.  But he was recognized for it much more widely unofficially, by those who knew and were touched by his work.

Since shortly after the day that Fred and I walked onto the campus of Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin as freshmen in the fall of 1969, I thought of Fred as one of my closest and dearest friends.  But a part of Fred’s great gift as a person was that huge numbers of people over the course of much of his life considered him one of their closest and dearest friends, whether they had known him for a week, a year, or decades.  So I guess I couldn’t say that I was a closer friend to him than hundreds of others were; I just was one of those close friends for many, many years.

In college, we shared so many of those times together that live on in stories that get better (and much more embellished) over time.  On the musical side, though, we started playing in a brass quartet together freshman year, when Fred was still a very good (but frustrated) trumpet player.  By the next year Fred had switched to trombone, and we remained in a brass quartet together for the next three years, with our good buddies (and future Matrix mates) Jeff Pietrangelo and Mike Hale on trumpet.  We played a lot gigs, with the Easters of 1972 and 1973 being particularly memorable, as we played four services each of those years – in ’72 at four DIFFERENT churches across the Fox Valley.  Breakfast at George Webb’s restaurant afterwards was the ritual.

We also had breakfast at Webb’s after a number of the gigs that we played with various manifestations of small jazz/pop groups that we had over our college years, often playing for fraternity events at Lawrence.

We also shared those years and times in the concert bands of the great Fred “Prof” Schroeder at Lawrence.  And the orchestra, other brass groups, pit bands, and miscellaneous ensembles at LU. 

And then there was the jazz band at Lawrence.  Our first year, ’69-70, the jazz band at Lawrence operated as it had previously there:  student run, it got together late in the school year for a few rehearsals and a concert, getting music anywhere we could dig it up.  Although the band starred the outstanding saxophonist Denny Young that year, even as a freshman Fred was a moving force in the group, and wrote an arrangement of Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man” for us.  The next year Fred really got his organizing and people skills together, and largely through his efforts, we rehearsed and gave a concert during each of the three academic terms.  He was finding himself as a writer, too.  And as the Conservatory administration was in a state of change and some chaos, largely through Fred’s efforts we managed to get through the hierarchy a proposal for getting credit for jazz band.  And the topper was that Lawrence hired John Harmon to come to school the next year to lead this new jazz program.  It was a sea change.

Senior year Fred and I lived together off campus with four – or five (it was somewhat fluid) – other guys at the infamous “Lodge” on Washington Street; a residence known for its parties and good music.  As we were ready to move on from Lawrence, that year Fred and I even did our student teaching together, at Einstein Junior High and West High (under the purview of the wonderful Ike Spangenberg), trading off days at the schools.

Glory days in the mid-’70s. Matrix at La Bastille in Houston. Yes, that’s Fred, looking tough, standing second from the left.

You can read all about Matrix and much more about Fred in my book Wisconsin Riffs (and John Harmon’s upcoming book about Matrix).  But today I’d just add a couple more personal things.  Fred left Matrix several years before the band disbanded.  He already felt the call of his hall of fame teaching career (not to mention getting married to Susie and starting a family).  After the band did stop traveling, I ended up in the area again, and after I had been in one wedding band that my Matrix buddy Larry Darling and I put together, I defected to the more established wedding band that Fred had formed a few years earlier.  The quality of this band is reflected in the fact that I was playing bass and Fred was playing piano.  I will say that even if we weren’t accomplished instrumentalists on our adopted instruments that we were good enough musicians that the band sounded pretty good anyway, and got a lot of work.  Those years in that band (along with Mike Hale again) tightened our bonds even further. 

My family has an indelible memory of visiting the Sturms at their home in Honeoye Falls, NY when Fred was teaching at Eastman.  Maria and I routinely pulled our two sons out of school for a week every fall, when Ripon College had its fall break, to take a meaningful family trip.  In 1996 we went East, visiting Maria’s relatives in NY and PA, going to the baseball Hall of Fame, and visiting Fred, Susie, Ike and Maddy.  We stayed at their home the night of October 14.  There was a Monday night football game between the Packers and their big NFC rivals at the time, the 49ers, which the Packers pulled out in overtime on a long Chris Jacke field goal.  Some of you diehard Packers fans will remember it as the “Don Beebe” game.  (He had 220 yards receiving.)  My 12-year old and 8-year old were thrilled to be allowed to stay up to see the whole game.

As a long-time Wisconsinite, I will not address Fred’s undying lifelong devotion to the hated Chicago Cubs.

What a gift it was to have Fred come back to Lawrence for the last part of his career.  His bands and his program at Lawrence were so strong, inventive, fresh and rewarding.  The heart-breaking part was having to watch Fred go through his 10-year battle with cancer.  That was marked by victories, followed by the next chapter of suffering.  But oh my God, he continued to work, to write, to teach until his death in 2014.  He didn’t like to talk about all that he was going through, but I have archived on my computer hundreds of emails I got from him during those years, as he was willing to share with me all the ups and downs of his health journey.  A profile in courage.

When Wisconsin Riffs was released by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press, the very first “book event” that I did for it was at the Jazz Estate in Milwaukee.  I had a long visit there with Don Haack, long-time principal trombonist with the Milwaukee Symphony.  At some point Don, who had worked a summer with Fred in the pit orchestra of the Melody Top Theater way back when Fred was in college, said to me, “the only thing that would make this better would be if Fred were here.”  After a moment of silence, he added.  “But I guess he is here, isn’t he?”

R.I.P., old friend.

On Fred’s birthday, enjoy your memories of this amazing (no, I’m not saying he was perfect . . .) guy.  Listen to his music.  Go to his website:  http://www.fredsturm.com/#bio

Right on that first page you can listen to the moving section of his Baseball Project, “Forever Spring.” 

Check out the beautiful little piece he wrote during one of his periods of recovery, “Breathing.”  It’s played by his former student and now successor as leader of the Lawrence University Jazz Ensemble, Patty Darling.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g0R_lnDLpOA

I’d even immodestly recommend my son Paul’s big band tribute to Fred, “Green Fields.”  With the permission of the family, Paul borrowed two chords from “Forever Spring” and went on to honor his teacher and mentor.

5 thoughts on “HAPPY BIRTHDAY, FRED STURM

  1. Thanks Kurt. Loved reading this and seeing the photos. Will try to check out the music links soon.
    Best to you and yours.

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  2. What a time it was
    ! So great to be a part of the beginning chapters of the LUJE! Fred just had a way…………still have his last email….still full of optimism and vision!

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  3. Thanks for your reflections on Fred, Kurt! Having taken the percussion professorship in 1984 at LU, I had a lot of memorable times with the big man. But the time we spent in Hamburg performing the premiere of Migrations with McFerrin and NDR big band topped it all. Great conversations,walks and beer between rehearsals and sleep!
    Thanks again! Best, Dane

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  4. Thanks for sharing this history. Never knew he was your contemporary and your friend. I now understand in a different way the affection for
    him you expressed in you intros to his pieces, which were part of about every other Ripon Jazz Band concert. Please know that I found great joy in his compositions and was always pleased to see his name on the program for the concerts.

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