Happy Birthday again, Fred Sturm

Two years ago today I wrote a post about my dear friend, the late Fred Sturm. (You can read that post at: https://kurtdietrich.net/2021/03/21/happy-birthday-fred-sturm/) Today, on what would have been Fred’s 72nd birthday, I’m writing about him again.

This June will mark the 50th anniversary of the graduation of the class of 1973 from Lawrence University. That class was Fred and my class. In those 50 years that have passed, I have been invited to a lot of class reunions at Lawrence. Officially, I have not gone to any of them. Unofficially, I’ve briefly attended a number of them. Back in the 1980s, during Fred’s first of two distinguished stints on the Lawrence faculty, for a number of years he would put together a big band to play for a dance in the Riverview Lounge of the Lawrence Memorial Union for reunion. I’d show up along with the other members of the band to read through dance charts, have a few beers, enjoy each other’s company — and we’d even get paid a little. I’d usually see a few reunion attendees that I knew; and that was enough reunion for me.

I finally made a little more of an appearance at the 2013 reunion. Several things came together that year. It was, of course, our 40th reunion, but normally that wouldn’t have mattered much. However, some of my classmates made a point of honoring our freshman-year theory teacher, Marjory Irvin, and our class in her first-year theory course. She told those of us who met with her in 2013 that our class had saved her teaching career, which she claimed she had been about to give up in desperation. I’m not sure I completely believed her, but if what she said was true, we deserved some kudos. I have said numerous times to all kinds of folks that her course was the best class I ever took — anywhere, at any level. She was brilliant, and I, who had only then decided to just try music to see if I wanted to major in it, was completely hooked. She went on to teach many more years, continuing to shed her brilliance on many, many more students. I also managed to interview another Lawrence grad at that reunion, whose story ended up being one of those related in my 2018 book Wisconsin Riffs: Jazz Profiles from the Heartland. Finally, at that 2013 reunion members of my class performed in recital. I humbly joined that program with some of my more accomplished classmates. But I sounded pretty good, because I performed in duo with my mentor, the great pianist John Harmon. John can make anybody sound good. We did one of John’s pieces (“Come September,” which we played together countless times in Matrix) and in Fred’s honor a piece of his that was new at that time, “Breathing.” Fred wrote this beautiful little piece during a period when he was experiencing a period of relatively good health in his long battle with cancer. (Fred died in 2014.)

As had happened so many times before, I was prepared to let this year’s 50th reunion pass relatively unnoticed. But early in the process a couple of my classmates came to me with a proposal that eventually developed into something that I could not possibly say no to. They wanted Fred to be honored at the reunion. And they wanted there to be a program of Fred’s music. For there to be a concert of his music that could be at all reasonably assembled, it was going to have to be a concert largely of his big band music. For that to happen, someone had to recruit players, choose the music, rehearse the band and lead it on the concert. The rehearsal would need to be short, and there would be no pay for those involved. Although being essentially entrusted with these duties by my classmates, I was selfishly hoping to get Fred’s hand-picked successor as leader of the Lawrence University Jazz Ensemble, Patty Darling (who is also profiled in Wisconsin Riffs), to use her great skills to do the lion’s share of the work. But Patty is still working hard; and I am retired. So I was stuck with it. But it’s the least I could do for Fred. And Patty has been a wonderful help, not only offering to play piano in the band, but recruiting several of her Lawrence faculty colleagues to play as well, and arranging logistical support. The two of us have also been going back and forth talking about which of the wealth of Fred’s charts would work best for an interesting and varied program — prepared with that limited rehearsal time.

The bottom line is, we’re going to have a terrific band of Fred’s former students and associates. Everyone I’ve asked wanted to play. We have more terrific charts at our disposal than we can possibly program. I believe that John Harmon — not just my mentor, but Fred and Patty’s mentor as well — is also going to reprise “Breathing.” For those of you who know Fred’s music, the band will probably be playing at least one of your favorites. I’m not sure what the public access to this program is going to be, but we’re hoping (and pushing behind the scenes) that it will be open and free to the public, not just reunion attendees. For those of you in the area, it will be on Saturday, June 17 at 1:30 in the afternoon at the Lawrence Chapel. We’ll do our best to “do Fred proud.” Stay tuned.

And happy birthday, Fred. You’re never far from our thoughts.

One thought on “Happy Birthday again, Fred Sturm

  1. Beautiful Kurt! That sounds like a fantastic “reunion” concert! I have heard of that school beforešŸ¤” In my early years in Ripon’s Alumni Office, the Alumni Office up there was very helpful! Sadly, I only remember a few music alumni groups having such plans for our reunions. Thanks for sharing. Good luck herding those “cats’! Stay warm and well, Bill


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