Alumnus Wins Jazz Competition

Trumpeter and philosophy major Bobby Spellman ’10 beat out 54 anonymous entrants last spring to win the David P. ’60 and Susan W. Wohlhueter Jazz Composition Contest with his Ethiopian-infused, Duke Ellington– inspired entry, The Kingdom of Aksum.

The piece was performed by the IC Jazz Ensemble, with special guest trombonist Vincent Gardner, last May.

Spellman started playing the trumpet in fourth grade and pursued it semi-professionally in high school before joining the IC Jazz Ensemble in college. He went on to perform and compose for jazz groups in Ithaca, Boston, and Brooklyn and said he saw the contest as another opportunity to navigate new stylistic avenues in jazz.

“I always try to push myself deeper into uncharted musical territory by combining contrasting sounds and concepts, and for this piece I wanted to apply traditional Ethiopian tonalities to the classic big-band aesthetic,” said Spellman, whose musical inspiration comes from the blending of cultures. The composition was also inspired by and dedicated to the late celebrity chef, author, and travel documentarian Anthony Bourdain, who bridged cultural gaps between people through food.

“I think we gain a lot as human beings from examining and absorbing a multitude of contrasting ideas from divergent perspectives. It’s how we got jazz music and sushi burritos. Art and culture give us a way to see life from other viewpoints and to celebrate our shared humanity,” said Spellman.

The contest rules required that the composition be written for a 17-piece jazz orchestra: five saxophones, four trombones, four trumpets, and a rhythm section consisting of piano, guitar, double bass, and drum set. Spellman, who typically writes for a nine-piece jazz band, had to make adjustments to The Kingdom of Aksum, first written and completed in December 2018. “Writing for jazz orchestra is similar in many ways, but the feel of the band and the options you have are very different when you’re working with 17 or 18 voices in four distinct sections. I had to really get into the jazz orchestra mindset in order to use the wider palette in a responsible way,” said Spellman.

This is Spellman’s first entry in a composition competition. He said that he didn’t participate for the purpose of winning but for the opportunity of producing and performing new music for jazz enthusiasts, professionals, and the general public to enjoy, while also being challenged by the contest’s criteria and deadlines.

“The purpose of the exercise for me was to create a new piece of music, and the competition part was, more than anything, a deadline and a set of parameters to follow,” he said. “I was content to have completed something new regardless of the outcome, but I was happy to hear that [the judges] liked the music.”

Spellman was awarded $1,000 and received a recording of the jazz ensemble performing the piece with Gardner. A trombonist with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra since the early 2000s, Gardner has contributed many arrangements to the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and other ensembles.

In addition to teaching, Spellman composes and performs for the Dingonek Street Band and his Revenge of the Cool Nonet, both based in Brooklyn, New York, where he lives with fellow IC Jazz Ensemble musician and fiancée, woodwind instrumentalist Emily Pecoraro ’12.

“Both Susan and I are thrilled to promote new talent in the realm of jazz,” said David Wohlhueter ’60, whose gift established the competition. “This contest is a win-win for both the aspiring writers and the young musicians in the IC Jazz Ensemble who not only get to play the entries but actually pick the winner.”