Steve Kirby’s Northern Prairie Jazz


By Charlene Diehl

A decade ago, the Faculty of Music at the University of Manitoba was looking to inject some energy into its jazz offerings, and Steve Kirby, a respected jazz bassist in New York, was on their list of candidates. Fast forward ten years, and U of M now has the only Bachelor of Jazz Studies degree in Canada, and the fledgling program has attracted a faculty of internationally-recognized musicians, many world-class guest performers, and the attention of major players all over the continent. It’s churning out accomplished young musicians who are performing, touring, recording, composing, and turning heads locally, nationally, and internationally.

SteveKirby pic2

Steve Kirby at work in Italy

Steve Kirby has made an impression on this city. A big man with big ideas and a big personality, he has brought a deep philosophical and political dimension to this community’s understanding of jazz. He has shared his passion for this music in every imaginable setting, from the stages of the jazz festival and the Asper Jazz series, to inner city parks and community centers, to churches and rural coffee-circles, as well as in a couple of recordings, Wicked Grin and Stepchild.

He has also told more than a few stories—painful and hilarious—of his challenging childhood in the St Louis projects and his accidental but apparently inexorable drift into a serious jazz career. But perhaps drift is too gentle a word for Steve’s career path. After spending his youth on the street and then in the US army (where he also learned to box), he snagged a job in a music store and cornered old blues guys (many of whom came to the store to visit their pawned instruments) to teach him how to play guitar. Since he was strong and interested and had his own wheels, he was soon conscripted into a band as the roadie who aspired to get through a whole tune on the electric bass before the drummer reached over and flicked off his amp. From that late start, already in his early twenties, Steve created a musical career that has included touring with legendary musicians like drummer Elvin Jones, singer Abbey Lincoln, trombonist Steve Turre, and pianist Cyrus Chestnut, among many. Along the way, he got a Master’s degree in composition from the Manhattan School of Music, taught in several outreach programs, performed as a clinician for high school and university bands around the country, and won a major composition award.

I’ve had a chance to work a lot with Steve over the time he’s been in Winnipeg. We perform periodically as a bass-poet duo. I’ve been his next-in-command at dig! magazine, Winnipeg’s feisty bi-monthly jazz publication, almost since its first issue in 2004. Three years ago, I helped him implement The Bridge Program, an inner-city music outreach program that’s been a long-time dream of his. All these vectors of engagement have deepened my appreciation for the demands of jazz as an art form and a cultural expression. They’ve also taught me a lot about writing.

I cornered Steve last week to talk about the current state of jazz in Winnipeg. Here’s what he had to say…

I begin with the caveat that jazz is a slave name, so it invites you to think less of it, and not to see the full scope of its importance to our modern culture. The music we call jazz is actually the result of many cultures amalgamating, preserving each ethnicity while simultaneously experimenting with various different interminglings. Think of New Orleans jazz, or Afro-Cuban jazz—you can hear all sorts of different influences that contribute to those sounds. On the one hand, we’re building new cultural expressions, and on the other we’re preserving cultural traditions. It’s like always having good water and good flour so you can always make good dough.

So… I’m from St Louis, and I’ve traveled all over the world, playing and listening to music, but now that I have set down roots in Winnipeg, I’m listening for the sound that is particular to this place—I’m calling it northern prairie jazz. I really believe there’s a rich and high-level culture here that the rest of the world will greatly appreciate.

I’ve noticed that people in this country tend to focus on the west coast and the Toronto-Montreal corridor, and skip over the prairies—it’s ridiculous to think talented artists are limited to those areas! We’re challenging that assumption directly these days with students who are going to New York, the world city for jazz, and garnering their highest honours.

Luke Sellick entered a master’s program in jazz at Juilliard on a full scholarship last year, and is playing all over New York as he makes his way through that program. Both Juilliard and the Manhattan School of Music had a bidding war to attract our recent graduate, drummer Curtis Nowosad, to their master’s programs in jazz this fall. Curtis is just back from a couple of weeks at the elite Betty Carter Jazz Ahead workshop in Washington DC. The alumni of that program are a who’s who of jazz, so being singled out for that kind of attention says a lot about Curtis’ future as a serious jazz musician.

DEVONGILLINGHAMThen there’s Devon Gillingham, a bass player who is in his last weeks of high school. He entered his first ever big band chart in a composition contest at Wynton Marsalis’ Essentially Ellington Festival in New York—and he won. The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra flew him to New York this May, where they recorded the piece and performed it for the bands attending the festival. While he was there, Devon got private coaching on both his composing and his instrument, and hung out with Wynton Marsalis and the rest of the Jazz at Lincoln Center gang.

These musicians are bringing a northern prairie jazz sound to the big world. I hate to be shameless in my promotion of the U of M’s Jazz Studies program, but these people are there because of their exposure to what we offer, and because the whole community here is maturing to a point where its young musicians can speak this language and be supported—and heard—by us all.

Our program has world-class teachers along with many top-level world guest artists. We have a weekly jam session and we take ensembles out into the community. The goal is to set the bar high and letting everybody see what to shoot for. As an end result, the students every year come of out of high school at a higher and higher level. They’re seeing what we’re doing—and some of them can even top us.

Partly what we’re doing is inspiring, and partly what we’re doing is teaching. The bottom line is this: the hardest work is changing the culture a bit. This culture is bent toward the protocols of industrial-style learning where you’re batched together by age, moved through a bunch of classes, and certified to be a certain thing. The culture of jazz—and many other non-Eurocentric traditions—is more about self-directed learning and realization of your goals. So teaching jazz is partly about creating an atmosphere where people can grow at their own pace. All the paces are valid, and so are differences in voices, attitudes, aesthetics. The goal is to find ways to meet one another musically, and to offer one another attentive listening and honest expression.

Jazz education is really music education, with the ultimate ideal of turning music into a speakable language. Improvisation is at the centre of jazz because, when it’s done well, it combines the spontaneity of conversation with the artistry of composition. Ideally, jazz musicians use their instruments the way people use their mouths—they speak in music.

The reason that jazz matters, more than anything else, is that it offers tools for community-building and for designing a personalized musical culture.  What I mean by that is that each musician builds a musical language based on his or her personal life experience and values. If you value wide open spaces and lots of room, you’ll have a language that sounds like that. If you value lots of jagged edges and excitement, you’ll have a language that reflects that. But you’ll be able to make those choices because you’ll be able to speak musically in your own language.

A jazz musician is a poet, creating a thing to take home with you, a thing that haunts you, challenges you, informs you, changes you. Jazz gives voice to those who so often remain unheard.


  1. Posted May 29, 2013 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

    Ditto, the Kirby family is very proud of Steve and his many accomplishments. You go ahead Steve do your thing.

  2. Posted May 29, 2013 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

    I really enjoyed this article. Thank you Charlene Diehl. My brother is an awesome artist, this is just the beginning. Keep that great music coming Steve.

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In the Pocket

Charlene Diehl

Charlene Diehl is the associate editor of dig! magazine and the director of THIN AIR, Winnipeg’s annual literary festival. Her last book is a memoir, Out of Grief, Singing.