Fred Irby III: Hall of Fame for Jazz Education

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“He knew how to administer to the needs of a beginner, and had the skill set and patience to teach somebody young,” says saxophonist Greg Osby of his first music teacher, Fred Irby III.

(Photo: Courtesy Kennedy Center Opera House)

The 2023–’24 academic year marks the 50th year that Fred Irby III taught in Howard University’s Department of Music, serving as the coordinator of instrumental music, trumpet instructor and director of the acclaimed Howard University Jazz Ensemble.

So, it’s especially fitting that Irby has been inducted this year into the DownBeat Hall of Fame for Jazz Education.

It’s not the first honor Irby has received during his distinguished career, with other honors from Grambling State University, Disney Performing Arts, The Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival, The DC Jazz Festival and Southern Illinois University.

Irby’s accomplishments as a professional musician are impressive, too, as a longtime member of the Kennedy Center Orchestra, and performing for numerous award and TV shows as well as musicals.

In a recent conversation, Irby focused not on his accomplishments, but on those who inspired him and the students he’s nurtured.

“I was born and grew up in Mobile, Alabama, and I remember marching bands parading through the neighborhood,” recalled Irby. “I was one of those kids always trailing behind the band. I would say to my father that some day I want to play music and be in a band. In fourth grade, my father purchased a trumpet for me and I’d practice all day — they couldn’t take it away from me. I had a great teacher early on, Ulysses Miller. I kept playing through high school and got a scholarship to Grambling.”

In college, Irby and fellow students interested in jazz approached professor Frederick Tillis about starting a big band to workshop the music of Duke Ellington and Count Basie.

After graduating college, Irby took a job teaching music in St. Louis. He also started playing with the Municipal Opera Orchestra as well as other professional groups. And he made sure to follow the advice of William Scolala, his trumpet instructor at Grambling.

“He told me that wherever I go to make sure and study with the principal trumpet player in the orchestra there,” Irby explained. “I got to St. Louis and sought out Susan Slaughter, principal trumpet player with the St. Louis Symphony. She was teaching at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville across the river, and I enrolled in grad school there. That was one of my most gratifying experiences playing trumpet — learning repertoire and how to be a professional musician.

“While I was there, I also met a dynamic music educator who cemented my decision to teach music,” said Irby. “Her name was Dorothy Tullos, and she had such a passion about music education that I consider her one of my most important mentors.”

One of Irby’s young students in the St. Louis public schools was Greg Osby, who has gone on to build an international career performing and recording as an alto saxophonist and composer. Osby recalled first meeting Irby when he visited Osby’s elementary school.

“He stuck his head into the classroom and asked if anybody wanted to learn to play an instrument,” said Osby. “Me and my best friend bolted down to the cafeteria to talk to him. He gave me a clarinet and I took to it immediately. Through his tutelage, my progress was rapid, because he knew how to administer to the needs of a beginner, and had the skill set and patience to teach somebody young.”

In Irby’s second year at Howard, he started the Jazz Ensemble, and over the years, he has taken the group on international tours, recorded annual albums and worked with students who went on to notable jazz careers, including: Osby, Geri Allen, Wallace Roney, Winard Harper, Tim Warfield, Gary Thomas, and James Brandon Lewis.

After his upcoming retirement, Irby said his main focus will be on working to support the program at Howard. “I never had enough money to do everything I wanted to do,” he said. “I know the person who comes after me will have the same challenges, so I want to do whatever I can to support them.” DB



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