BY SHERI TRUSTY
It was a bit serendipitous that the Michael Shirtz Jazz Quartet performed as a guest of the Port Clinton Musical Arts Series on Saturday, March 5, the day after the celebration of life for Dr. Harold Brown. Brown, who died on Jan. 12, was a former Tuskegee Airman, a retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel, an educator, and Shirtz’s close friend and confidant.
Shirtz performed at the Celebration of Life in Brown’s honor and again during the Musical Arts Series performance at Firelands Presbyterian Church. At the Musical Arts Series concert, the Michael Shirtz Quartet performed selections from the World War II era music that filled the airwaves when Brown served as a pilot.
The quartet also performed “The Airmen’s Flight Jazz Suite” from “To Rise Above,” a jazz narrative written by Shirtz as a musical manifestation of the book, “Keep Your Airspeed Up.” The book, written by Brown and his widow, Dr. Marsha Bordner, is an autobiographical account of Brown’s experience as a black pilot.
For two days over that weekend, Shirtz gave melodious homage to his friend.
“It felt very appropriate,” Shirtz said after the performance. “It was almost like Harold created the weekend himself.”
As Shirtz planned the concert, he chose selections he knew Brown had enjoyed.
“As I was setting this up, I was thinking about him. Harold and I often talked about the music he liked during World War II,” Shirtz said.
Shirtz said Brown knew fellow Tuskegee Airman and jazz bassist Percy Heath and was friends with jazz musician Oscar Pettiford. “He was really connected with music,” Shirtz said.
That connection gave Brown a musical foundation when Shirtz was composing “To Rise Above.” The work gives musical sketches of Brown’s story, expressing the experience of war through music.
“I wanted to take the book and put his story to music,” Shirtz said.
The music portrayed audible images of the fear, fighting and triumph of battle.
“The first movement of the Airman’s Suite is about waking up, walking to your plane, watching the sunrise, and taking off. The second movement is about the mission – about the bombings, the protecting, the engaging,” Shirtz said. “You can’t hear it. You can’t watch it. But listening musically, you can sketch it out in your mind.”
Although Brown was not a musician, he helped guide Shirtz as he turned flight into song. The two often talked through the work, binding the story to the music as they shared Chinese dinners in Brown’s home.
“It was an honor to share ideas with him and have him be a part of this piece,” Shirtz said.
Shirtz provides vocals and piano for the quartet, and he was accompanied by Dwight Bailey on bass, Reggie Jackson on drums, and George Michael on saxophone. The quartet played a variety of World War II era songs that Shirtz had arranged with his signature jazz style, including “In the Mood” and “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore.” Between songs, Shirtz told stories of his grandfathers – one a World War II B-17 crew chief and one a World War II Big Band musician.
The quartet’s performance was part of the Musical Art Series’ 20th season. The next concert will feature nine young musicians from the Cleveland Institute of Music (CIM) on Sunday, April 2. A list of upcoming concerts can be found at https://musicalartsportclinton.com/2022-2023-concert-season/.
“Every spring, the CIM sends us a ‘trio of trios. It’s really very popular with the audience. They like to see these young people who are fine musicians who will be great successes,” Peggy Debien said.
Pianist James D’Leon of Arizona, who is known for his dazzling artistry, will perform on Saturday, May 13, and crowd favorite Max Rabinovitsj, a violinist from Lakeside, will perform at a yet-to-be-determined day in June.