“To Rise Above: Journey of a Tuskegee Airman” with Michael Shirtz
“To Rise Above” is a five-movement jazz narrative highlighting experiences from retired Lt. Col. Harold Brown’s 2017 biographical memoir, Keep Your Airspeed Up: The Story of a Tuskegee Airman, written by Brown and his wife Dr. Marsha Bordner.
Shirtz writes this musical dramatization on Brown’s childhood dream of flying, overcoming the despair of racial segregation, his passion for education both as a military aviator trainer and a leader in higher education, and the lessons for all people found in the six principles of the Tuskegee Airmen – Aim High, Believe in Yourself, Use Your Brain, Be Ready to Go, Never Quit, and Expect to Win.
For nearly two decades, Michael and his wife Pamela have been close friends with Dr. Brown and Dr. Bordner. Together, the four have shared in their love of education, service, and Chinese food. Fascinated by aviation, Shirtz has spent countless hours talking with Brown about his career in the Air Force and time serving as a Tuskegee Airman. As Shirtz began focusing his attention on composing music to stories that provide inspiration and lessons in humanity, what better journey than that of retired Lt. Col. Brown.
This will be Shirtz’s first major composition premiered in five years. Using the elements of jazz, Brown’s journey is told by actor William Barrett, singer Sadiyah Babatunde, the Michael Shirtz Quartet, and accompanied by strings and a chorus of singers led by musical director Van Parker.
The work outlines Dr. Brown’s journey in the following movements.
I. The Dream: The opening movement features the tunes Morning Flight and To Follow Your Dreams, focusing on Brown’s childhood experience, developing his strong work ethic and his dream of becoming a pilot.
II. The Struggle: The Tuskegee Airman faced incredible challenges with race throughout their training and missions overseas. This movement shares Brown’s experiences as a Black man in a segregated military, the progress of civil rights throughout his career, and the lessons to continue the fight for equality.
III. The Mission: Following his training at Tuskegee through flying missions in Europe, this movement highlights Brown’s story as a fighter pilot, his crash and time as a POW, and his liberation by Patton’s army and return to the U.S. following the war. Several tunes are featured throughout this movement, such as The Flight, Dog Fight Fugue, and a moving prayer in Have You Forsaken Me?.
IV. The Man: Written in the style of Big Bands, this movement focuses on Brown’s life and career after the war years as a Colonel in the Air Force, educator and college administrator, and a look at his personality and interests. Highlighted in this movement is the cute Basie-like tune, And You’ll Be Harold Brown.
V. The Dream Lives On: The concluding movement includes the songs Evening Flight and Letters, which features narrated excerpts from letters Brown has received over the years. The movement concludes with a recapitulation of the opening tune Follow Your Dreams.
PERFORMANCE OF TO RISE ABOVE, JUNE 30, LAKESIDE CHAUTAUQUA
The work will premiere at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, June 30 at Hoover Auditorium. Future performances of the work are already being requested. Contact Shirtz for more information regarding “To Rise Above.”
Van Parker, Director
Van Parker enjoys a dynamic career as a highly sought-after orchestral and chamber musician, soloist, recording artist, new music collaborator, and music educator. Based in Cleveland, Ohio, they have been featured as a recitalist throughout the Great Lakes region and perform frequently with the Akron, Ashland, Firelands, Lima, Mansfield, and Youngstown Symphonies and Cleveland Pops Orchestra.
Parker is an advocate for the works of living composers and has participated in premieres of works by Eric Whitacre, Lewis Nielsen, John Wineglass, and Deborah Phelps, from whom they commissioned the piece Cui Bono, a duet for horn and violin. They are also a frequent performer on historical instruments as a member of Orchestra19, an ensemble dedicated to period performance of 19th century music, and as a member of the Evelyn Dunbar Early Music Festival they have performed Niccolo Piccini’s 18th century opera, La Buona Figliuola. This performance marked the opera’s first fully-staged presentation in the United States using period instruments, pitch, and tuning. Parker has toured internationally with Ensemble du Monde and is a member of New York’s Metamorphosis Chamber Orchestra. They are also principal horn with the Charleston, SC-based Colour of Music Festival Orchestra, a unique ensemble showcasing the talents of black musicians from around the world.
Currently, Parker is on faculty at the Beck Center for the Arts in Lakewood, Ohio and serves as a brass coach for the Cleveland Youth Wind Symphony and Northern Ohio Youth Orchestra, in addition to being an assistant director of the All-Ohio State Fair Band. They received their M.M. from the Bienen School of Music at Northwestern University and B.M. from the Oberlin College Conservatory of Music.
William Barrett, Actor
Portaying the story of retired Lt. Col. Harold Brown is actor and athlete William Barrett. Canton native and now from Sandusky, Ohio, Barrett began studying theatre at Firelands College in the late 90s and since then has taken roles in such productions as Into the Woods, Art, and Voices of Freedom, among others. On a break from the stage to focus on his running career, Barrett actively participates in Runs These Streets with half marathons and full marathons across the country and around the globe. He is the Assistant Coach of Track & Field and the Head Coach of Cross Country at Sandusky High School. His future goals in running include participating in the Boston Marathon in 2025. After that, his plans are to return to the stage and world of acting.
Sadiyah Babatunde, Soloist
Sadiyah Babatunde, soprano, graduated with a dual degree in vocal performance and marketing from The Ohio State University in spring 2022. She was a student of Dr. C. Andrew Blosser. During Babatunde’s time at OSU, she was part of the Women’s Glee Club & Chorale, previously titled Symphonic Choir. Within chorale, she enjoyed soloing in Benjamin Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb, Craig Hella Johnson’s “All of Us” from Considering Matthew Shepard, and Marianna Martines’ Litany in G.
In the summer of 2019, Babatunde spent her time as a counselor in Michigan at Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp. There, she claimed first place in the Staff Solo Competition and was honored as a soloist with the esteemed Festival Band. The following fall, she joined the Columbus Symphony Chorus and was a featured soloist in ‘The American Festival’ singing the choral solos within George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. April 2022, she soloed in CSO’s performance of Bach’s St. John Passion.
Babatunde has gone on to win two Great Composers Competitions, the OSU Wilson Competition, and OSU Undergraduate/Masters Concerto Competition. May 2022, she claimed second prize in the Senior Voice Division of the Lima Symphony Orchestra’s 60th Annual Young Artists’ Competition. Major concert performances include presenting John Carter’s Cantata with the OSU Symphony Orchestra and Josè Garcia’s Requiem with the Bexley HS Symphony & Chorale.
Additionally, she has vocalized with the OSU New Orleans/Traditional Swing Combo, The Ohio Show Band, and was a featured soloist with the Ohio State Jazz Ensemble and The Central Ohio Hot Jazz Society. In her most recent engagement, Sadiyah wowed the audience with her acapella rendition of The National Anthem at the 2022 Memorial Tournament Honoree Ceremony.
Michael Shirtz Quartet
The Michael Shirtz Quartet features Shirtz on piano/vocals, joined by Dwight Bailey on bass/vocals (Columbus, OH), Reggie Jackson on drums/percussion (Columbus, OH), and alto saxophonist George Michael (New York, NY).
The group plays jazz with a blend of contemporary textures, such as funk, rock, singer/songwriter, blues, and gospel. A nontraditional and percussive approach to the keyboard, mixed with his vocals and interests in polytonality and improvisation, Shirtz’s quartet sound has developed strong Brubeckian and Previn-like influences. These influences have allowed MSQ to function as a revolving host to many musicians, even featuring the sounds of harmonica, cello, vibes, and violin. The quartet has provided Shirtz with a foundation for compositional ideas and unique arrangements working with such artists as Maureen McGovern and Ellen Winters, among others.