IC Alumnus Wins Jazz Composition Contest with Cultural Mash-up

By Ashley Reedman, April 30, 2019
Bobby Spellman ’10 takes home prize with entry dedicated to Anthony Bourdain.

Ithaca College alumnus, trumpeter and philosophy major Bobby Spellman ’10 beat out 54 anonymous entrants (representing six countries and 15 states) 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.” (Aksum is an ancient kingdom in northern Ethiopia.)

The piece will be performed by the IC Jazz Ensemble with special guest trombonist, Vincent Gardner, on Thursday, May 2, at 8:15 p.m. in Ford Hall, James J. Whalen Center for Music.

“Both Susan and I are thrilled to promote new talent in the realm of jazz,” said David Wohlhueter ’60, the alumnus who 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.”

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.

Man playing trumpet

Bobby Spellman ’10 performing. (Photo by Casey Martin)

“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.

IC associate professor and jazz studies director Mike Titlebaum said, “[alongside the composition’s dedication] the judges loved Spellman’s effective blend of simultaneously descending from the jazz tradition while also being wonderfully creative and unique.”

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 will receive 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 toured with Lauryn Hill, served as an instructor at The Juilliard School of Music, and has contributed many arrangements to the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and other ensembles.

Alongside 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 fiancé, woodwind instrumentalist Emily Pecoraro ’12.