Byron Stripling’s dad was a classically trained singer, music professor and choir director.
“I could always sing,” said Byron, whose day job is as the director of the Columbus (Ohio) Jazz Orchestra.
Every Sunday in church his dad would need a voice. It could be a tenor or an alto and he’d draft Byron to sit in and sing. You didn’t say no to Luther Stripling.
“Whatever he needed on a given day I had to sing. That is why I can read music pretty well today. All my life I had to look at all those parts. He would teach them to me. I became a quick study. I even sang alto on a couple of Sundays. He didn’t ask you; he told you.”
But singing wasn’t Byron’s main musical interest. That was … and is … the trumpet.
“It was the thing I always wanted to do. It was sparked by my dad playing Louis Armstrong records. He had two trumpet players he loved … Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie.”
Luther also loved other players such as Clark Terry, a man who would put Byron into his band later on..
When Byron heard the trumpet “it would take me to a different level. I always tell people when you get up to heaven at the Perly Gates, you aren’t going to see a flute player there or an oboe player. You will be welcomed with a fanfare of trumpets.”
And that interest turned into a passion and a career that truly began at Stripling’s family home.
“My father was a classical singer. He taught voice at university. And so I listened to classical music all day and I loved that. But my father’s other passion was jazz.
“I think a lot about my dad these days because he has dementia. The way we can communicate with him in the past few years is through music.
“One of great gifts he gave me was the love of jazz. He always played jazz after work, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, all those people. As a family it was important to go to all those kinds of concerts.”
That beginning has taken Stripling a long way. He’s worked with many of the finest players of our time from the aforementioned Clark Terry to Dizzy Gillespie to Lionel Hampton. He’s played around the world before he settled down in Columbus and the CJO.
He also does his own shows and he’ll be at the NAC this week singing, playing and conducting his version of a Christmas concert with the NAC Orchestra.
“We call it Holiday Swing. I come from jazz and swing and I tend to integrate jazz into anything that I do.”
In his concert there will be familiar titles, but the musical settings will not be traditional.
“I have some straight classical songs that I will conduct. But most everything else will be ‘pat your foot’. When Count Basie was asked to describe his music he said those three words ‘Pat your foot’.”
That’s what this concert is, he said. Patrons will get holiday cheer and the only difference is they will “be patting their foot.”
For example, he’ll take What Child Is This? put it in a different tempo and inject a jazzy new age feel into it.
“It won’t be Kenny G,” he said in reference to the smooth jazz reed man. “It will be better.”
He’s taking Elvis Presley’s Blue Christmas and adding a Hammond B-3 Organ to the mix. It will be played by the keyboardist he’s bringing with him to Ottawa.
“We’ll go totally gospel with Go Tell It On the Mountain. Right back to the old gospel church I was raised in.”
And he’ll do a song, I Have A Little Dreidel that he learned from the actor Fyvush Finkel, who is a star of the Yiddish Theatre in New York.
“When I moved to New York City, I became friends with so many Jewish people. They would have me over to their homes. I became good friends with Fyvush Finkel.”
Finkel would perform Yiddish songs for Byron at his home and the Dreidel song was one of those.
“So I sing that in tribute to him. I do jazz it up though.”
Stripling is open to so many forms of music. It comes from his father who made the connections between the many genres. And it comes from the churches, he said, where they celebrated those musical connections.
“You know why? The church is very forgiving and it’s a perfect training ground. You can go there and the old ladies will still love the way you sound.”
Music in this way is a metaphor for life.
“If we think about life, you have to be open to the field of infinite possibilities. If you think about creativity, that’s how you come up with new stuff. You don’t just do the same things over and over.
“The fun part of creativity is reaching out and grabbing hold of stuff that is new and different. This not only goes for music, it goes for life.
“I always try to celebrate the differences rather than the other way around. Isn’t that a metaphor for a healthy society too?” he asked.
The key to a good jazz performance is improvisation, Stripling says, so how does one bring an orchestra into that.
“We don’t consider the orchestra as secondary to the show at all. Our goal, whenever I work with an orchestra, is to put them front and centre.
“In rehearsals, usually everybody is like … another day, another concert. But then the charts come out and they realize they are going to have to play something more than whole notes. And then they wake up.
“I work really hard to make sure what we do have are really good arrangements. You win the orchestra over when you have good charts.”
Stripling knows what it means to sit in an orchestra and play lousy music.
“You hate it when a concert sucks. The orchestra wants the concert to be good because they love playing good music. They know what the musical experience is and they want to have it.”
It’s the same for an audience, he said.
“People play $50 for a ticket and it’s so disappointing when it is not at the level it should be. They want me to succeed. That feels good because I know I can deliver.”
Stripling’s been a professional musician ever since he dropped out of the Eastman School of Music in his final year. He got a job with Lionel Hampton’s band and couldn’t pass up the gig.
Of course he had to tell his father and mother.
“When I told them I would leave school I said that I had just gotten a call from Lionel Hampton and I wanted to do this. I asked for their blessing.”
Stripling’s parents are from a generation of black families that believed education was the way out of poverty.
“I could tell they were disappointed. My father said ‘Let me talk it over with your mother and I will call you back.
His parents called back and asked: “‘What if we told you we didn’t want you to go’. I said, ‘I would go anyway’ and he said, ‘That’s what we thought. You have our blessing’.”
He dropped out of school then but he has no regrets. His professional experience has been his education. Time spent with Hampton and the Count Basie Band and Woody Herman’s Band and Dizzy Gillespie have given Stripling the best training.
“It’s central to everything I do today.”
And jazz offered his trumpet more freedom to shine.
“The individual voice that the trumpet gives you, the spirit of it, jazz offers that. That’s what attracted me. That’s what Clark Terry showed me.
“He picked up a flugelhorn and he made it a classic instrument. That unique individual sound that I got permission to have, that’s what brought me to jazz.”
That doesn’t mean he’s stopped learning.
“I never knew I was a bass singer until about 10 years ago. I learned how to sing jazz for me. I learned how to sing Louis Armstrong’s music. I listened to his records. He was in the tenor range.
“I was working with the keyboard player I am bringing to Ottawa. He said ‘Why do you always sing so high?’
Stripling replied: “What are you talking about? He said ‘You are a bass, did you know that? Then he got on the piano and said sing these notes.”
They went through some songs and Stripling realized he had been singing in the wrong key for years.
“I am a changed man.”
Holiday Swing with Byron Stripling
Where: Southam Hall
When: Dec. 6-8 at 7 p.m.
Tickets and information: nac-cna.ca