There is a phrase that Byron Stripling learned early in his career and that continues to apply to his work as a trumpeter, vocalist, actor, educator, conductor and more. It consists of only three words. They have taken him from tutelage in the Count Basie Orchestra to tours and recordings with a far-ranging list of jazz giants (Dizzy Gillespie, Dave Brubeck and Clark Terry among them) to a fascination with Louis Armstrong so devout that Stripling has led full tribute programs for combos and orchestras.
The phrase? “Trust your text.”
“What that means is if what you’re delivering is good, just trust it,” said Stripling, who will help the Lexington Philharmonic adopt a jazz attitude for its annual New Year’s Eve concert at the Lexington Opera House. “If you’re doing what you’re supposed to and you deliver a performance correctly, you have that trust, and it’s going to come right off the stage to the audience. That’s the thing when you play great jazz music.
“When I played in Count Basie’s band, we were probably on the road almost 200 days a year, and it never felt old. We played ‘April in Paris’ every night. We played ‘One O’Clock Jump’ every night. Not only did I hear them and feel them as something new at each show; I actually felt I was part of the experience. Nothing can ever get old in jazz, because it’s meant to be felt differently all the time. We allow for that even when we play with an orchestra. We strive for the spontaneity. We yearn for it. That’s what gives the music excitement, so it’s hard to get bored with a great text, with the great music, with the great songs. It’s hard to get bored when the spontaneity is always there.”
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Nothing can ever get old in jazz, because it’s meant to be felt differently all the time.
The program that Stripling and the Philharmonic are planning is geared toward music that dominated the bandstands of such famed Harlem jazz venues as the Cotton Club, the Savoy Ballroom and Minton’s Playhouse during the 1930s, along with works that became cornerstone tunes of an entire jazz age. That means songs penned and/or popularized by Duke Ellington (“It Don’t Mean a Thing”), Cab Calloway (“Minnie the Moocher”) and Stripling’s jazz idol, Armstrong (“St. Louis Blues”).
“This was a really potent era for creativity,” Stripling said. “The Cotton Club was located in Harlem, but you had all these amazing musicians performing there, people like Duke Ellington. He was probably the most famous, but also people like Cab Calloway would stop by. So would the great drummer Chick Webb, who employed Ella Fitzgerald. You also had Fats Waller.
“So what we did was focus on music from that hot jazz era with these great musicians, because jazz was bubbling in a whole different way back in that time. This was when a live performance was really the essence of the way to experience music, so we wanted to give that feeling to this show.”
Collectively, these songs and inspirations form the “text” that Stripling has schooled himself in for all of his professional life. His career today centers around duties as artistic director for the Columbus Jazz Orchestra, but his touring activities just in the last month have included a holiday program with the Columbus Jazz Orchestra, collaborations with orchestras in Evansville, Ind., and Long Beach, Calif., and a pair of intimate collaborative concerts with keyboardist Bobby Floyd. In understanding his text, Stripling has striven to understand his own jazz voice. That was a key lesson passed on to him by the masters of the music.
“I spent a lot of time with Dizzy Gillespie on the road,” he said. “As soon as you got into a concert hall with Dizzy, he would be at the piano. The musicians would gather around him, and he would show his chords and different things he was talking about. One of the things he always said was, ‘Do it your way. Put your thing on it.’ He would say to me, ‘Do Byron.’
“Another of my mentors, the great (trumpeter) Clark Terry, said that learning this music was really a three-step process. First, it’s imitation. Then it’s assimilating that information. The final thing is innovation. Not everyone gets to the innovation stage, but that’s the goal: to develop your own unique voice. So while I love Louis Armstrong and listen to his recordings and try to play along with them, I’m also looking for that thing that’s Byron, that’s my own.”