Thurman Barker
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Thurman Barker

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South Side Suite


South Side Suiteis a piece that Thurman Barker is currently working on. Following are some thoughts from him on what has and is shaping this work in progress.


Composer Thurman Barker

Notes by Composer Thurman Barker

From the late 1950s through the 1970s, Chicago was home to an active and vibrant music scene. There were all varieties of jazz and blues, plus community orchestras and contemporary music ensembles, like the one led by composer and conductor Ralph Shapey at the University of Chicago. The Regal Theater on 47th Street was pumping out five daily shows on weekends, showcasing the future stars of Motown. The Sutherland Hotel featured artists from New York and Los Angeles in addition to local acts. Theaters in the Loop were busy hosting touring musicals from Broadway. As a young musician, I eventually became a part of this remarkable scene. Because it was so diverse, I was able to hone my skills as a percussionist in a wide range of musical styles.

I began studying music at the American Conservatory in Chicago at the age of 13 under James Dutton, director of Percussion Arts, and later with Harold Jones, formerly of the Count Basie Orchestra, on trap set. This institution gave me a solid foundation for understanding music and all its elements. By 1965, at age 17, I began performing professionally. My first experience playing contemporary music came under the direction of pianist, composer, and founder of the AACM, Muhal Richard Abrams. Performing with his "Experimental Band" expanded my musical vocabulary well beyond the limitations of conventional jazz standards.

By 1970, I wanted to further my studies in percussion. I enrolled in Roosevelt University's Musical College to study under Edward Parimba, a percussionist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Lyric Opera of Chicago. He introduced me to the contemporary orchestral music of Robert Kraft, Edgard Varèse, Béla Bartók, and Ralph Shapey.

The culmination of all these experiences is South Side Suite a composition for jazz quintet and orchestra. In this piece, the quintet represents the vocabulary I learned in those early years as a combo player. The complete work is in four movements; however, in this setting, only the first two movements will be performed. The Introduction begins with a downbeat from the tympani, and the orchestra answers on the upbeat. The viola sets the tone with a repeated figure as the orchestra joins in, section by section, and builds to a climax on an A-flat augmented 7th chord with a sharp 9th.

The First Movement centers around a theme that shifts from section to individual instrument, and then back to the section. The Second Movement sets up a repeated vamp while sections play cat-and-mouse with each other, reaching a finale on a repeated ostinato pattern from the strings.

Thurman Barker, 2017