Who Remembers Keith Stirling, Australian Jazz Legend?
Keith Stirling was a jazz trumpeter who passed away in 2003, but lives on courtesy of You Tube. This clip (below) also includes former Head of Jazz Studies at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, Craig Scott, on bass. Other musicians are Jay Stewart on piano, Ron Lemke on drums and Steve Brien on drums. Where are they all now…? Who knows…
I first encountered Keith Stirling back in the early 1980’s. When I was still at high school, every Saturday afternoon from 3pm – 6pm, I used to take myself along to the jazz workshops put on by the Jazz Action Society. I’d only been playing trombone a short while, but ambitiously wanted to be able to play jazz.
Pianist Dave Levy ran the workshops. I still marvel at this man’s enthusiasm for the idiom of jazz. He would arrange for an experienced local jazz musician to come along and teach whoever turned up how to analyse a song and how to construct a solo over the chord progression. My foundation of understanding musical harmony came from these weekly workshops. Jazz is a mystery to most people, yet it is surprisingly simple once you understand the basis of it. Attending these workshops was a revelation.
The weekly workshops were held at the old Journalist’s Club on Chalmers St, Surry Hills. I’ll never forget the two weeks that Keith Stirling was the “guest lecturer”. The song he was analysing was “Stella By Starlight”, which is harmonically quite a complex tune. I must admit, I was struggling to keep up. I’d only been playing trombone for a couple of years, at that stage. I tried to process the information the best I could manage.
The bit I will never forget is the last fifteen minutes of Keith Stirling’s second week. Dave Levy suggested that Keith should now perform the song to put into context what he’d spoken about for the last two weeks. Keith initially resisted, but was coaxed into agreeing to give a performance. Before he played, he explained what he would do. First he would use the melody and work around embellishing this. Next, he would play around with guide tones and the chord notes. Then he would start using modes. Finally, he would extend upon all of these approaches.
Keith then played about ten choruses of “Stella By Starlight”. It was a total revelation. Everything made sense. Everyone who was there to listen was taken on a journey. It was as if that performance of that song at that moment time had it’s own unique life. The song was born, it lived and then it’s life was over, but it had experience all that there was to experience in that ten minutes it took for Keith to play very that song. There were no cameras or recording devices. This was twenty years before You Tube existed, but that performance lives on in my mind.
Here’s a performance by Keith Stirling at a Jazz Action Society concert about ten years later, in 1993. The song is “I Hear A Rhapsody”. Along with Keith are Dave Levy on piano, John Pochee on drums and a very young Nicky Parrott on double bass.
In later years, I was lucky enough to play alongside Keith Stirling in Billy Field’s “Bad Habits Band” and Jimmy Shaw’s “Shawnuf Bigband”. He was such a sweet guy, always encouraging and with a great sense of humour. When he played with Billy Field, his go-to song (in the first warm-up set, before Billy came on to sing) was a funky version of “Ode To Billy Joe”, originally recorded by Bobbie Gentry. I love that song whenever I hear it now, because it always reminds me of Keith.
Here is a link to John Clare’s obituary on Keith Stirling.