Stripling joins Fox Valley Symphony for powerhouse performance
Mar. 3, 2018
The dictionary definition of a “stripling” is a humorous description of a small, young man. But the Fox Valley Symphony’s guest artist on Saturday, Byron Stripling, was the fullest measure of a man to have ever graced our Fox Cities Performing Arts Center stage.
Stripling is a powerhouse trumpet virtuoso, having led and soloed with the Count Basie Orchestra, Dizzy Gillespie, Woody Herman, Clark Terry, the Boston Pops and many others. And he has the chops to prove it. From the moment he took the stage — with no introduction, no overture, no dialogue — Stripling let his instrument (at first) do all the talking.
Take the opening selection: "Tiger Rag," a New Orleans Mardi Gras standard. His range of expression was complete, with clear melody giving way to a showcase of impossibly difficult runs, piercing high notes, a rich brassy bottom, and a really cool trick — circular breathing (pushing air out of his mouth while he refilled his lungs) that allowed him to hold a steady note for what seemed like minutes. Impressive, and the audience immediately agreed, led by a Shropshire hoot and holler from the second row.
Being a trumpet virtuoso is extraordinary in itself. But Stripling is also an accomplished actor, comedian, storyteller and master vocalist. He played the trumpet but he sang like a trombone, with the kind of rich baritone raspiness you’d expect to find in an authentic deep south juke joint. Delta blues, soul, gospel, jazz, ragtime, spirituals — he sang them all at times, and sang them so authentically well.
"St. James Infirmary" was hot. So hot, in fact, that the row of silver-haired ladies in front of me were literally fanning themselves with their programs! "Maple Leaf Rag" featured Bobby Floyd on piano. It was as if Scott Joplin himself were there. Floyd nearly stole the show with electric performances on an authentic Hammond Organ (he literally travels with it!) that harkened back to his days as a studio musician with Ray Charles. I’ve never heard anyone finer. Can I get an “Amen?”
In this type of concert, the Fox Valley Symphony does play the role of a studio orchestra. Background, occasional solos, but necessary color and depth to support Stripling and Floyd. They were great. Special note to the embedded Dixieland Band of clarinetist Chris Zello and trombonist Kyle Samuelson. They fit perfectly with the featured artists, which also included the legendary Robert Breithaupt on drum set and Appleton’s very own Mark Urness (who deserves every opportunity to perform with the finest jazz musicians around).
What amazed me most was that the audience didn’t really experience Stripling alone — it seemed as if he was the living 6-foot-3-inch embodiment of more than 150 years of black American cultural accomplishment. This historic presentation was no small feat and was done in a way that crossed the bridge between cultures that seems more divided than ever. His vehicle to cross that bridge was the power of music itself.
Stripling’s ongoing contributions to music education are just as valuable, and just as necessary today. He gave an emphatic shout-out to the important educational outreach of the Fox Valley Symphony, and indirectly to the critical role of music in our schools.
“If you give our young people the opportunity to hold a trumpet or a violin, they’re much less likely to be caught holding a gun,” Stripling declared.
Earlier in the day, young area musicians participated in the Appleton Area School District’s Solo & Ensemble Festival — exactly how Stripling started, which he argues is the best vehicle for the future prosperity of our children. The Fox Valley Symphony knows this, as does Heid Music, and the Lawrence Academy of Music, among others, and it may be the most important work in our community today.
“I don’t sing because I’m happy,” Stripling noted. “I’m happy because I sing.”
Can I get another “Amen?”