10
May
10

Stitely Soundboard: Jeff Stitely, a blogger

Hi,

I’m Jeff Stitely, owner and founder of Stitely Entertainment.  We at Stitely Entertainment are starting this blog to give our clients an insight into how we work.  Our philosophy is that the music matters, and we strive to give every event the attention it deserves. I have been a musician for 30 years and have had all kinds of experiences. Because of this, I think I might have some insight to offer regarding the music scene in Chicago.

For my first blog ever I thought I would introduce myself and the company so you know better who I am and where I am coming from. I was born in Hollywood, FL and began playing piano at age 8 then picked up drums when I was 10. By the time I was 15 I had my own neighborhood Jazz and Big Band and I spent a summer working on a cruise ship with some great musicians from the States, England and New Zealand. By my senior year of HS I was directing the Jazz Band full time and I started and ran a percussion ensemble.

I got a performance degree in Percussion from the University of Illinois in Champaign planning to be a classical percussionist. However, when I hit the final big GONG in the opera Madame Butterfly 8 bars early ruining the whole opera I decided that wasn’t the life for me. During that time I was living with 4 other jazz musicians and playing 4 nights a week and deeply immersing myself in the great jazz masters. I was smitten and devoted myself to being the best jazz drummer I could be. I moved to Chicago and started playing with many great jazz musicians on the local scene: Von Freeman, Joe Daley, Willie Pickens, Ed Peterson, Brad Goode, Patricia Barber, Andrew Bird, SOM Brazil, Bobby Lewis and many others. I was also fortunate to play with some great nationally known master musicians like Zoot Sims, Wynton Marsalis, Eddie Harris, Chick Corea, “Groove” Holmes, Kathleen Battle, Randy Brecker and quite a few others.

In 1991 I started my own band and after many months of trying to come up with a catchy name we settled on something original, the Jeff Stitely Quartet. That was a really creative period for me, writing music for the first time. The most fun part of this band was the level of creativity, and our ability to improvise with a lot of freedom, never really knowing where the music was going to go. It was a powerful group with great musicians, guitarist John McClean, bass trumpeter Ryan Shultz and bassist Larry Kohut.

We put out 3 CDs right around the time when CDs replaced vinyl. Our first, “Chameleon Eyes,” was voted one of the top 10 CDs of the year by WBEZ (Chicago Public Radio) and the Sun Times. There’s a great story about a guy who started a record company after hearing us live, solely so he could promote us, and who was then bought out by a new label called “Lake Shore Jazz” which was owned by EMI (the Beatles’ label).  It was under this label that we put out two more CDs. One was music all written for us by a great pianist/composer Dennis Luxion. The quartet toured Europe and we opened for Sonny Rollins in the Chicago Jazz Festival. We ended up winning 3rd in the Hennessey National Jazz Competition in 1996. It was a great run for 5 years playing for lots of packed houses, and that was my first foray into leading a band and doing the business of building a band/project, marketing, selling, managing, booking etc. This was when I fell in love with the biz part of the music business in addition to playing.

Around this same time is when I met this beautiful woman who is now my wife of 20 years, Liz Fischburg! One of our early dates was a drumming party. She had great rhythm and that was it. We now have two children Evan, 11, and Olivia, 8. Evan is an excellent musician and a rabid reader. I mean he speed-reads a whole Harry Potter book in 5 hours. Olivia is an excellent pianist, singer, and is way into dance, studying at Giordano’s. She puts on dance shows at our house multiple nights a week. It’s a joy being a parent and I take partnering with Liz to raise our children very seriously. I’m not a mostly absent dad like so many of us grew up with. In fact, while I was touring with Patricia Barber, and had been with her for 10 years, she got Blue Note Records contract and let me know that she was planning on touring 6 months out of the year. Liz was due to deliver our first child in 2 months, so I quit the band so as not to miss my kids growing up.

I’ve always had a love for world percussion and got the opportunity to dive deeply into two great traditions. The first, tabla (Indian classical drums), I studied very seriously for 5 years culminating in two summers with Usted Allah Rakha who was Ravi Shankar’s tabla accompanist for 20+ years.  A few years later, a group of we jazz musicians in Chicago that loved studying and playing African drums actually brought a master drummer from Ghana to Chicago to teach us. This ended up being a 5-year relationship of studying and performing Ewe and Dagbani traditions with Midawo Gideon Foli Alorwoyie. Gideon was the Master Drummer of the Ghana National Dance Ensemble for many years before coming to Chicago and working with us. I love the dancing and drumming of that tradition and ended up teaching that and a lot of other musical concepts to K-12 inner city kids through Urban Gateways for many years.

At the same time I started my Jazz quartet, I joined a leadership-training program at the Wright Leadership Institute led by Bob Wright. That group really helped me think bigger and out of the box with my quartet in the early 90s. I was drumming with the African Gahu club at the time, and kept telling Bob about how great it and how we were performing for weddings and other celebrations of the Ewe community. Bob challenged me to start my own business playing the celebrations of our own community in Chicago. That was a major challenge since I was a “jazz artist” and didn’t play weddings. Well, after a while I started playing weddings and realized how much fun it was to play rock, funk, and R&B, and to get people dancing. I also was humbled by how challenging it was to play those styles well. So I started studying, practicing, and letting people know we also play for parties, and Stitely Entertainment was born.

The last 15 years have been a trip, with the business changing from me in my attic doing everything myself, to having an office in Evanston, 5 bands, an office manager, a COO/Assistant, a sales person, 5 interns and more than 80 musicians we work with every year. We did more than 200 events last year alone! It’s been a wild ride developing the systems to plan and execute that many events smoothly, and to train people and manage all the details with a high level of impeccability. I liken it to the creative process of playing with Legos for adults. We are building this wonderful and evolving organization to bring joy to any celebration.

I look forward to sharing my experiences and meaningful moments, as well as insights into planning events, and just some fun stories and anecdotes along the way.

-Jeff Stitely

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