Monday, August 5, 2013

Kerry Strayer

From the moment Kerry suggested it, I thought the idea was brilliant.


Kerry Strayer was the obvious choice.  He had led his own successful big band for years. He was so personable; I didn’t know anyone who didn’t like him. He was a master of the baritone sax. He didn't just enjoy writing arrangements for big bands, he was terrific at it. And he had been a member of the orchestra since its start.

So when the founders of The Kansas City Jazz Orchestra decided it was time to move on to new challenges, Kerry was selected as the new Musical Director and Conductor.

I was not an obvious choice. Sure, I’d helped organize jazz festivals years ago, and I loved the music and wrote this blog, but I had most recently worked in advertising. However, I was available, a mutual friend the Board of Directors trusted recommended me, and at the time they couldn’t find anyone better. So I was hired as the new manager of The Kansas City Jazz Orchestra.

As far as I was concerned, this was Kerry's orchestra. The musicians knew him and trusted him. His programs, the arrangements he wrote or commissioned and the guest artists he selected would establish the orchestra’s presence on stage. I was just there to make sure the lighting and sound guys knew the concert dates, negotiate ad rates and pay the bills.

As far as Kerry was concerned, he and I were a team.

He wanted my input on guest artists, and to know my thoughts on his ideas. And when some members of the Board of Directors decided a performance of Bobby Watson’s Gates Barbecue Suite would be too modern for this orchestra (some Board members apparently felt music peaked around 1938), Kerry and I jointly developed the arguments to convince them otherwise.

This was Kerry’s orchestra. I was on his team.


I also wrote grant requests for the orchestra. After attending a seminar, I decided we should shoot for the top. We should pursue a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).

I would write a grant request to underwrite the first performance of the Gates Barbecue Suite by a professional orchestra.

Then I discovered all of the steps involved, all of the online forms required, and all of the government departments which need to recognize and approve of your organization before you actually have the chance to request a grant from the NEA.

I got The Kansas City Jazz Orchestra recognized and approved by all of them. But I completed that process two days before the grant application was due. It was too late to properly prepare the request.

The National Endowment for the Arts accepts grant applications twice a year. We would just need to pursue the next opportunity. The request, though, needed to cover a performance occurring during a defined time period. The Gates Barbecue Suite show would be over by then. What else could The Kansas City Jazz Orchestra perform that might be worthy of a National Endowment for the Arts grant?

I phoned Kerry. He had an idea.

All of the sheet music of legendary trumpeter, composer and arranger Buck Clayton reside in the Marr Sound Archives, on the UMKC campus. However, Clayton’s compositions were written for (if I now recall correctly) nine and ten piece bands. Jazz is rarely performed by that size of group today. So most of the music hasn’t been heard, except on recordings, for decades.

Kerry wanted to write arrangements, with the help of others, of Buck Clayton’s music to fit a modern big band. He knew of music publishers he could contact to make these new arrangements available to the public. Then, Buck Clayton’s magnificent music could be performed by high schools and colleges and by other big bands everywhere. The music could be enjoyed by new generations. And a performance of The Kansas City Jazz Orchestra during the next season would be dedicated to the newly arranged music.

The idea was brilliant.

The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra had recently performed a show of newly arranged Duke Ellington music, partly underwritten by the NEA. I told Kerry I could see how to write a grant application for this project which stood a good chance of grabbing the NEA’s attention.

Kerry and I would flesh out the process and present it to the Board of Directors at the next month’s meeting.

A few weeks later, I accepted a position back in my old field of advertising. Managing The Kansas City Jazz Orchestra was a part time position with no benefits. The new job offer was full time with benefits. I needed the money.

I don’t know what discussions occurred over Kerry’s idea after I left. I only know the orchestra never applied for an NEA grant, and new arrangements were not written for Buck Clayton’s music.

But someday, if somebody again chooses to tackle that project, you should know: Kerry Strayer thought of it first.


Kerry Strayer, a friend to everyone in the Kansas City jazz community, passed away on Thursday, August 1st, two years after being diagnosed with stage four prostate cancer. Kerry was 56 years old.

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Comments are welcome. If you prefer, you can reach me directly at kcjazzlark(at)gmail(dot)com.