Stewart ‘Dirk’ Fischer: An Appreciation

Jazz It! flyerFischer left a brilliant legacy of 60-plus years of arrangements and compositions.

The Santa Clarita Valley lost a legendary composer/arranger and music educator, his family lost its remaining patriarch, and I lost a great friend when Stewart Roussard “Dirk” Fischer checked out on Monday afternoon, Feb. 25, 2013, at the age of 88.

On Mar. 22, College of the Canyons’ Jazz Department, which Fischer headed for 27-plus years between 1977-2005, celebrated its erstwhile leader at a special concert at the Santa Clarita Performing Arts Center starting at 7:30.

“Jazz it!” featured what turned out to be the last two arrangements Fischer wrote. Read the preview story here. On May 3, COC Jazz will dedicate its entire annual Pops! concert to his music.

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Staying in the Game

Fischer had been in declining health for the last several years, even as he stayed active after retiring.

He’d been writing arrangements for and hanging out with the local nine-piece little big band Off the Record led by Dan Cobb, and working on material for KC Manji, head of COC’s Jazz Department since Fischer retired, to add to the massive canon of originals and arrangements the master contributed to the department over the decades.

“It keeps me in the game,” Dirk recently said at one of our occasional lunches, usually at the Light & Healthy sushi restaurant off Lyons in Newhall.

Fischer stayed in the game right through the bottom of the 9th. He had just finished scoring some material for George Stone, a former Fischer student and protege, now an in-demand horn player, bandleader, recording artist, and producer/engineer, as well as an educator at Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo. The day Dirk died, his sheets of score  meant for Stone were sealed in a large manila envelope in Dirk’s music room/office, ready to be mailed.

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Studio Jazz Ensemble directed by Dirk Fischer, COC, Nov. 23, 2004. Photo: Stephen K. Peeples

Studio Jazz Studio Ensemble directed by Dirk Fischer, COC, Nov. 23, 2004. Photo: Stephen K. Peeples

First Encounter via Sax-Playing Son

Fischer and I first crossed paths in 2003, when my son Scot, an alto sax player since 7th grade, auditioned for and joined the COC Studio Jazz Ensemble big band, which Dirk directed. Fischer was already in his late 70s and in some ways reminded me of my father at that age — well-educated, sharp-witted, irascible, quick to crack wise, but a streak of kindness too wide to hide.

My dad had introduced me to Glenn Miller, Ellington, Benny Goodman with Gene Krupa, Count Basie, the Dorseys, and Bing Crosby. I first heard Les Paul on Bing’s “It’s Been a Long, Long Time,” one of Pop’s favorites, as a kid in the late ’50s, but didn’t know it till years later. Pop did not dig my early rock heroes, like Little Richard, Jerry Lee, Elvis, Chuck Berry and Gene Vincent. Now, I get why. They orbit in separate universes.

When I saw Joe Morello playing drums with the Dave Brubeck Quartet in 1959, at a concert my dad took the family to at the University of Miami gym, I knew that’s what I wanted to do, and have been playing since 1962, in school bands then later in small bands and combos.

But the sound of a big band playing jazz with fire and precision just about always sends me back to the womb.

Stewart 'Dirk' Fischer, Nov. 23, 2004. Photo: Stephen K. Peeples.

Stewart ‘Dirk’ Fischer leads a rehearsal of the COC Studio Jazz Ensemble, Nov. 23, 2004. Photo: Stephen K. Peeples.

So I’d see Dirk and Scot with the Studio Ensemble rehearsing at COC or playing a local gig, and dig watching my own son playing alto in the front sax line of a big band as the players ripped through a chorus of the Duke’s “Take the ‘A’ Train,” just to warm up, or cool down. Quite the dad moment for me.

Scot left the band about the same time Dirk retired, effectively at the end of 2004 and officially in mid-February 2005, at age 81. I was a feature writer at The Signal then and wrote a massive piece about Dirk’s life, retirement and legacy under the banner head “Hanging Up His Baton,” illustrated by some classic pics he provided from his personal archives.

Soon after, Leon Worden — a former student of Dirk’s when Leon was just a lad — invited me to interview Dirk for a Newsmakers piece on SCVTV, a feature shared at the time by the paper and the station, and I took it as a huge honor.

Of course, Dirk no more quivered his baton in 2005 than John Lennon had hung up his guitar back in 1975. Both of them stayed in the musical game, always creating something.

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Sushi Lunches: ‘It’s getting old out there’

Fischer and I stayed in touch after those Signal and SCVTV pieces ran and aired, and after others chronicling  his continued involvement with COC music events, like the jazz band’s annual spring and winter concerts.  He appreciated my continued interest in how and what he was doing. I’d usually say something like, “My pleasure,” and not go on about it. But I was thinking, “Are you kidding? You are fascinating professionally, and enormously interesting personally. I am honored and humbled to be in your presence, and by your friendship.”

“I don’t get out a lot these days,” Dirk told on the phone in spring 2011, when I invited him out to lunch. “It’s getting old out there.”

He didn’t drive anymore, he said, so I told him I’d be happy to be his chauffeur. “Great!” he said. “Lunch is on me!”

Stewart 'Dirk' Fischer, Newhall, Calif., April 8, 2011. Photo: Stephen K. Peeples.

Stewart ‘Dirk’ Fischer goes for the Light & Healthy in Newhall, Calif., April 8, 2011. Photo: Stephen K. Peeples.

Over a big bowl of healthy food (he was a diabetic) at Light & Healthy, Fischer would speak with me candidly, off the record, about things like the adverse effects of state budget cuts and internal politics at COC on the college’s music program, and in particular, the jazz department.

He was particularly unhappy with the way the RK Downs Jazz Festival, where for more than 25 years local high schools fielded their best jazz bands, was being neglected. During his tenure, he had nurtured that festival, which funneled the best high school musicians right into COC’s music departments.

It was clear his love and passion for the music and students and the protectors and nurturers of the music remained undiminished.

Dirk talked a lot about his family, proud of their accomplishments and potential. He very much missed his second wife, Roz, who died in 2005.

And he’d also crank a bit about his crumbling body, which he noted had diminished in stature with age. “I’m shrinking!” he said with semi-mock alarm.

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Fisher and Off the Record on ‘House Blend’

Speaking of Off the Record and SCVTV, Fischer also mentioned that afternoon that an SCVTV crew had recently shot a bunch of video of the band Off the Record performing his charts, led by Dan Cobb. Leon Worden, now SCVTV CEO, and Megan Perez, the station manager, confirmed that to me later, and said the footage hadn’t aired.

Dirk Fischer and Stephen K. Peeples on the 'House Blend' set at SCVTV in Newhall, Calif., May 31, 2011.

Dirk Fischer and Stephen K. Peeples on the ‘House Blend’ set at SCVTV in Newhall, Calif., May 31, 2011.

So I suggested we invite Dirk to the TV studio and have him intro the clips as an expanded, super-special hour-long edition of “House Blend,” the SCVTV music-and-interview TV show yours truly hosts, writes and co-produces with Megan, who also directs. Dirk graciously accepted our invite, Cobb gave it the thumbs-up, and it was very cool to catch up with Dirk on the record. The result aired in June 2011 and you can see it here.

COC’s November 2011 Tribute

In November that year, Manji and COC’s Music Department staged a full concert of Dirk’s post-2005 arrangements in a tribute to “Mr. SCV Jazz” at the Santa Clarita Performing Arts Center. I emailed them for quotes and wrote up a preview for my Sept. 30 “Peeples Place at KHTS” post.

As it turned out, Manji was tied up with another school project, and had asked Fischer to step in.

“I’m subbing for KC while she directs this year’s COC stage musical, in effect preparing this concert for her,” Dirk wrote back. He described the evening as “a tour de force of my treatment of selections from the American songbook.”

Stewart 'Dirk' Fischer and KC Manji, College of the Canyons, Feb. 11, 2006. Photo: Stephen K. Peeples.

Stewart ‘Dirk’ Fischer and KC Manji, RK Downs Jazz Festival, College of the Canyons, Feb. 11, 2006. Photo: Stephen K. Peeples.

“Since I took over the band, Dirk has continued arranging music for the band and COC,” Manji wrote in a separate reply. “I often make a request and he has produced great arrangement in as little as a week. A big project involved Dirk arranging an operetta called ‘The Three Piggy Be-bopera’ that was premiered at COC last May. It involved young children as well as professional singers accompanied by our big band and consisted of about 11 pieces of music, classical music themes arranged in various jazz styles. It was a lot of fun.”

Manji wrote that she wanted to “celebrate Dirk as much as possible.”

“His music indeed makes up the majority of our COC jazz library, and he’s a wealth of jazz history and information, having not just studied it, but lived it, too,” she said. “His memory is phenomenal, recalling individual jazzers as well as bands, directors, singers, dancers, touring halls, arrangers, composers, styles and performance practices. He is still working hard supplying music for various ensembles, printing and publishing jazz tunes for publishing companies, and has donated many pieces to our local high school jazz bands and directors.”

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Clare Fisher Memorial

A few months later, Clare Fischer, Dirk’s older brother and a renowned Hollywood-based arranger/composer for film, TV and recordings, passed away. There was a memorial service at Forest Lawn on Feb. 4, 2012,  where I had the opportunity to meet more of Dirk’s extended family, including his son Andre Fischer and Clare’s son Brent Fischer, who are now carrying the family’s musical torch.

Stewart 'Dirk' Fischer and family, Forest Lawn, Feb. 4, 2012. Photo: Stephen K. Peeples.

Stewart ‘Dirk’ Fischer and family. From left: Kyle Fischer; his father Andre Fischer; Andre’s father Stewart ‘Dirk’ Fischer; and Neicha Osai-Hardeman and Alix Fischer, Stewart’s granddaughters. Forest Lawn, Feb. 4, 2012. Photo: Stephen K. Peeples.

Dirk looked a bit more frail and more dependent on his cane when we last had lunch at Light & Healthy on Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2013. I didn’t take photos that day. We talked more about his brother Clare, about Dirk spending most of the holidays hanging out with family and eating like crazy.

“They’re all such great cooks,” he grinned. “I’m just now recovering.”

Fischer told me again how much he’d enjoyed our “House Blend” experience, asked about the show’s budget, advertising and sponsorship, and said he wanted to make a donation to SCVTV (a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization) — but only if the donation went to “House Blend.”

Music to mine ears.  “Wow, that’s great, thanks!” I sputtered.

Then he asked, “Would you get a piece of that?”

“I doubt it. It would probably go right into the production budget, and I’m OK with that,” I said. “If you include a note to Leon that you want your contribution to go to ‘House Blend,’ I would think he’d gratefully accept on behalf of the station and respect your wishes.”

“Okay,” he said, and we left it at that.

Stewart 'Dirk' Fischer on the set of SCVTV's 'House Blend' with Stephen K. Peeples, Newhall, Calif., May 31, 2011. Photo: Stephen K. Peeples.

Stewart ‘Dirk’ Fischer on the set of SCVTV’s ‘House Blend.’ Newhall, Calif., May 31, 2011. Photo: Stephen K. Peeples.

On Friday, Feb. 22, I received a small manila envelope in my snail mail. Inside was a letter-sized envelope Dirk had sent to SCVTV, but the post office returned it, so he re-mailed it to me. There was a “House Blend” taping the next day, so when I was at the station I left Dirk’s envelope, still sealed, on Leon’s keyboard on Saturday morning.

‘Are You Driving?’

Early Tuesday afternoon, Feb. 26,  driving north into the Newhall Pass on the way home from an appointment in L.A., I called Dirk’s house to tell him the letter had been delivered, and to thank him for whatever the donation was.

I heard a younger man’s voice instead of Dirk’s answer the phone. He said he was Dirk’s youngest son, George Fischer, and asked gently if I was sitting down and not driving.

“Ahhh, I’m sitting and driving. Did Dirk die?” I asked right away.

“Yes, and please pull over…”

At that precise moment, the idiot driver to my right changed lanes into my lane. I had to swerve into the thankfully empty lane to my left to avoid a collision. So I missed the 14 freeway cutoff and wound up a few miles farther up the 5 freeway before I could tune into George’s voice again, as he was giving me the details.

He invited me over to Dirk’s house, at the top of Friendly Valley Parkway, and on the way, I made three calls — to my son Scot, to Perry the news director at KHTS, and left a message for Leon. Then I drove in silence, trying to hear how a Dirk-less world would sound. It was like trying to process the world without my own father, who checked out in November 2003 at age 82…not too long after I’d met Dirk.

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Stewart 'Dirk' Fischer (second from right) and (from left) George C. Fischer; Kyle Fischer; Andre Fischer and (far right) Stephen K. Peeples.

Stewart ‘Dirk’ Fischer (second from right) and (from left) George C. Fischer; Kyle Fischer; Andre Fischer and (far right) Stephen K. Peeples.

George Fischer welcomed me into the house, saying Dirk had often spoken well of me. Wow. I expressed my condolences to him and his wife Michelle and daughter Delena, who were going through photos in Dirk’s music room.

Dirk’s former student George Stone happened to be in town from San Luis Obispo, and had also stopped by the house. Stone and I had exchanged emails about Dirk back in late 2004 about the two albums of Dirk’s music Stone had produced (“George Stone & Friends Perform the Music of Dirk Fischer” in 2004 and “Coming of Age” in 2011, both on the SeaBreeze Jazz label) but Stone and I had never met, so the face time was cool, though we agreed it was under uncool circumstances.

As we were talking, Stone saw that envelope of sheet music addressed to him, but not yet mailed, opened it and started reading at the beautifully hand-written charts.

“Nobody does charts that way anymore, without computers,” George Fischer said.

A couple of hired housekeepers were industriously cleaning and mopping up the kitchen and living room. Dirk’s presence was in every room, even if his body wasn’t. It was eerie.

Stewart 'Dirk' Fischer's hand-written chart for 'Better Know It,' for alto and soprano sax. Photo: Stephen K. Peeples.

Stewart ‘Dirk’ Fischer’s hand-written chart for ‘Better Know It,’ for alto and soprano sax. Photo: Stephen K. Peeples.

An email from my colleague Megan Perez at the TV station blipped into my phone: “Can you write Dirk obit?” I was reluctant. I didn’t respond right away.
Son George encouraged me to do it, and said he’d do whatever he could to help. I heard the voice of my dad, the editor, who always encouraged me to go for it. And how could I let anyone else do this story and probably eff it up?

It’s weird how shock and grief give way to duty, but that’s how it goes for a lot of people, including me. Being with the family and having their support made it easier to shift mode from FOF to journo. It’s what they expected me to do.

On the phone, Leon said he wanted the story for that night’s news. It was already 2:30 p.m.; I had until 4:30 because KHTS’s deadline is earlier than SCV News’s.

So I whipped out my pocket digital audio recorder which I always carry and got five quality minutes with each George. Son George provided basic death details, survivor details, and a few photos, then I hauled ass home, 10 minutes away, thinking of how to nutshell Dirk’s life into three-to-seven graphs.

My published Signal stuff about Dirk was off-limits; the carpetbaggers from Georgia own it. Then I saw two emails from Leon. One included a copy of a bio he said I’d written. Actually, it was the excellent, quite scholarly Wikipedia entry about Dirk. I called son George and asked him if he could confirm the Wikipedia info. “Yes,” he said, sat down in front of a computer right then, read through the entry, said it was all good.

“That was actually researched and written by someone as part of a doctoral thesis,” Fischer added.

Okay,  so I had audio interviews, vetted background info I could pull from (without plagiarizing, of courseand photos enough to rock this news obit. I fact-checked with son George at about 4:15, and filed the obit that follows at about 4:25. Both Leon and Perry had it posted within 15 minutes, bless them both, and the story made it into the nightly radio and TV news (SCVTV has it archived here). We beat the local fish-wrap and even COC by at least 24 hours.

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Stewart 'Dirk' Fischer. Photo: Courtesy FIscher family.

Stewart ‘Dirk’ Fischer. Photo: Courtesy FIscher family.

COC Jazz Legend Stewart ‘Dirk’ Fischer Dead at 88

By Stephen K. Peeples, KHTS-AM 1220 and SCVNews.com
Feb. 26, 2013

Stewart Roussin Fischer, better known as “Dirk” Fischer, noted composer, arranger, trumpeter, valve trombonist and head of the College of the Canyons Jazz Department for more than 28 years, died Monday at Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital in Valencia. He was 88.

Family members and friends were at his side, said George Fischer, youngest of Dirk’s four sons.

Fischer had been battling colon cancer for almost a year, and it is believed that caused his death, George Fischer said. “There will be no autopsy. My father did not want any extraordinary life-saving measures at all, yet wanted to die with dignity, in comfort and at peace, which he did.”

Born Sept. 1, 1924 in Durand, Mich., Fischer picked up the trumpet and saxophone at age 13, about the same time he picked up the nickname “Dirk” from his piano-playing mother (his father played banjo). Dirk’s older brother Clare Fisher, who died in 2012, was also a musician and composer/arranger.

After graduating high school, Dirk formed a group called The Aristocats, which lasted until he was drafted. He served three years in the Army during World War II, moving his way from kitchen duty to leading Army Services bands. He was sent to Fort Lee to work with Army jazz bands instead of being shipped overseas. At Fort Lee, he also studied jazz arrangement with Gil Evans, who was assigned to the same post.

After the war, under the G.I Bill, Fischer studied trumpet and during the late 1940s and ‘50s toured as a member of several bands booked out of Omaha by the National Orchestra Service.

After the NOS folded, Fisher moved to Los Angeles, and worked as a composer/arranger on the L.A. studio scene for about six years. He met and married his second wife, Roz, and they co-owned the Owl Coffee Shop in Van Nuys for 14 years. During that time, Fischer resumed his education at Cal State Los Angeles and Cal State Northridge and earned a teaching credential.

At his wife’s suggestion, Fischer checked out the music program at College of the Canyons and initially studied under R.K. Downs, who headed the college’s music department. With Downs’ encouragement, Fischer’s involvement at COC gradually shifted from student to instructor, and Dirk was named the college’s first head of Jazz Studies in 1977.

Fischer built COC’s Jazz Department into a powerhouse that produced countless musicians and earned regional and national recognition. He founded the Studio Jazz Ensemble big band, which became an ambassador for the college and its music program. Fischer also produced the annual RK Downs Jazz Festival at COC, showcasing the best high-school jazz talent each year.

Fischer formally retired from day-to-day activities with COC’s music department in mid-February 2005, but remained active behind the scenes, arranging and occasionally conducting music for the students’ regular public performances.

When he died, Fischer was working on a piece to be performed by the jazz band under the direction of KC Manji, who was named head of the department after Fischer retired.

Many of the arrangements played by the COC Studio Jazz Ensemble were the creations of Dirk Fischer, and his work remains the core of the college’s Jazz Studies program.

Fischer was preceded in death by his second wife, Rosalindo (“Roz”) Joyce Fischer, who died in 2005.

Fischer is survived by first wife Lula Frances Leak; eldest son Louis Andre Fischer and his family; middle son Eric Fischer and his family; youngest son George Fischer and his family; daughter Mischa Fischer and her family; and stepson Michael Satin and his family.

George Fischer said his father knew his time was getting short. Over the past several months Dirk expressed his wishes for how the family would handle his death.

“During these conversations, I’d try to think what my life would be like without my father,” George said. “I lost my best friend.”

He took a moment to compose himself. “He may have been my father, but we had a friendship that I think cut through a lot of things that fathers and sons go through and we said to each other many times that you’re my best friend. I could speak to him like I couldn’t speak to anyone else. I’m going to miss him dearly.”

Funeral arrangements are pending.

Read a transcript of the SCVTV Newsmaker interview with Fischer from Dec. 1, 2004, just as he was retiring, [HERE].

Watch Fischer on SCVTV’s “House Blend” with host Stephen K. Peeples from June 2011, [HERE].

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Fischer’s ‘House Blend’ Contribution

After filing the obit I was about to quit for the day when I figured I’d better check Leon’s other email. He’d sent me the text of Dirk’s letter, which Leon had found on his desk when he arrived at work Monday. It read:

“Dear SCVTV,

I am donating this check in hope that it can be earmarked to support your program, ‘House Blend.’

Music has been my whole life and this program has been encouraging to me in my old age.

Sincerely, Dirk Fischer”

Well, I lost it for a few minutes. I couldn’t have cared if Dirk’s check was for a penny or $1 million. That he’d thought enough of the show, which is really a labor of love for my co-producer and director and her crew as well as for me, to take the time to do that, was priceless. So was the timing of it all.

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George Fischer Q&A

I regret that because of the tight deadline, not all of George Fisher’s comments were included in the original obit. Here’s more of our Q&A from Tuesday afternoon, Feb. 26:

Stephen K. Peeples: Can you recap what happened in the last few days before your father passed away?

George Fischer: Friday evening, after a good day of music, my father retired about 7 p.m. and about 9 p.m. woke up with severe gastrointestinal pain. After he alerted me I came to his aid, and was able to get him to the emergency room at Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital. After he was admitted, a CAT scan and an ultrasound confirmed that he had a stage four tumor in his transverse colon and it had spread to his liver, and it was not a good situation.

Immediately they admitted him, and were giving him some sedation, and (he) was doing fine. Sunday there was a little bit of pain (and) they put him on a morphine drip, and by about 3 o’clock Sunday afternoon he slipped out of consciousness. Monday afternoon at 2:45 approximately he took his last breath, and he was pronounced dead at 3:10 p.m. Monday afternoon on Feb. 25, 2013.

Peeples: Has the cause of death been officially established?

Fischer: Official cause of death has not necessarily been determined, but definitely from the Friday night admittance it would probably be the spread of the cancer. There is no autopsy to be performed according to my father’s wishes. My father also had a ‘do not resuscitate’ order and also didn’t want any extraordinary life-saving measures at all.  (He) wanted to die with dignity and comfort and peace, and he did so.

Peeples: Who was with him Monday afternoon?

Fischer: He had my mother-in-law and father-in-law at his side (George’s wife Michelle’s parents). A very close colleague and friend by the name of Joel Leach, who was director of a jazz band at Cal State Northridge, happened to be present as he was visiting my father.  (I) was there at his side shortly thereafter as was his grand-daughter Delena and his daughter-in-law Michelle. All of his (children) were notified right away and were at least able to express gratitude for their father.

Peeples: Please forgive the question, I realize it might be too soon to process all this, but…you’ve lost your dad. What do you think about that?

Fischer: It is soon but we’ve been preparing for this scenario for a while. We had a diagnosis of the cancer roughly about nine months ago, and a couple of corrective surgeries for an aneurism.

Many of our discussions were about what happens, what’s going to take place, what are his wishes, how does he want to be treated. And as we would have those discussions I would try to think what life would be like without my father. And…(I’ve) lost my best friend. (He chokes up; pauses; carries on). He may have been my father, but we had a friendship that I think cut through a lot of what fathers and sons go through, and we said to each other many times that you’re my best friend. I could speak to him like I couldn’t speak to anyone else. I’m going to miss him dearly.

But I also… can hear his voice inside my head, saying, ‘Take care of business. You must move on, you must make sure that my grand-kids are taken care of, my daughter-in-law is taken care of, and my wishes are fulfilled.’ And I intend to see every last one of them out. It’s going to take a little while, it’s going to take a little time, might take a little effort, but it will be done, and I’m going to enjoy completing those tasks for him because I will be thinking of him whenever I do them.

Anytime I hear his music played, I want people to understand that it’s not just music. He was a loving man, a great father, and I think the friendship that’s coming out definitely comforts me. I’m sad but I think I have to be happy, too. There’s no more pain, he’s on to a better place. He’s with my mother…maybe he’s having a jam session, maybe he can finally hit the notes he wanted to hit that he couldn’t hit because he was so old. (So) I’m happy, and I’m sad, and I’m going to miss my friend.

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George Stone checks out charts by Stewart 'Dirk' Fischer, Canyon Country, Feb. 26, 2013. Photo: Stephen K. Peeples.

George Stone checks out charts by Stewart ‘Dirk’ Fischer, Canyon Country, Feb. 26, 2013. Photo: Stephen K. Peeples.

George Stone Q&A

Unfortunately, none of George Stone’s comments made it into the original obit, but they shed more light on Dirk’s musical legacy, and follow:

Stephen K. Peeples: What do you do right now, George?

George Stone: Professional composer, arranger and jazz piano player, trumpet player, and teacher of music at Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo.

Peeples: And you were a student of Dirk’s way back when. Give us an overview of what Dirk taught you, what you got from him, how important his mentorship was for you.

Stone: I wouldn’t be able to do what I do in music on an improvisational level, melodic improvisational level, and on an orchestration arranging level if it wasn’t for his mentorship.

(He is) probably one of the biggest reasons why I write the way I write, harmonically and melodically, which has now developed into a trademark for me – people can now say “Hey, that sounds like a George Stone tune,” because they maybe don’t know Dirk. They are really saying, “That sounds like a Dirk Fischer chart.” And of course, Dirk would then say, “Well, that sounds like a Duke Ellington chart.” (Dirk) always said we’re just stepping stones, carrying on the tradition, trying to make it remain valid and ever-present, because as you know, we live in a society now where everything changes in six months and nobody really cares or remembers.

Peeples: What do you think Dirk’s legacy is?

Stone: He has an army, a battalion, of students who have come under his directorship, and we’re all trying to carry on all the incredible things that he taught us, all the way back from basic improvisation skills when we were literally children, 12, 13, 14 years old, to also maintaining a high level of integrity in our music and in our performance, because the fads come and go.

Dirk would say something like, “Pop music is just whatever flavor of the month is popular, but good quality musicianship and best foot forward and integrity and attention to musical detail as a craft and an art will always remain ever-present.” Those concepts he taught us through little exercises, through the charts we played (with the)  College of the Canyons band… Just last night I was talking to Glen Marhevka, who was also a good friend of Dirk’s and played in the band, and we were just commenting (that) we could not do the music we do, in the fashion we do it, high-quality with integrity, if it wasn’t for Dirk’s principles and the groundwork he laid out for us at our early age.

I was recollecting the first time I met him. I was probably about 10 or 11, and College of the Canyons had just released a jazz series. (I had) asked my dad if it would be OK to ask Mr. Fischer if he could play a song, and my dad said sure, go up to him.

I tugged on his tail and said, “Mr. Fischer, would you play ‘Four Brothers’ by Jimmy Giuffre?” And of course he was delighted – as I would be today, ’cause I’m now probably the age he was then. If I had some 10-11-year-old kid come up and ask for a jazz tune, I’d be pretty delighted by that. He goes, “I can’t believe it! There’s this little kid that walked up and asked for a jazz tune. How about that!”

That was literally the beginning of our association, and it blossomed into an amazingly satisfying and incredibly important part of my life.

Peeples: And now you’re also carrying the torch as a music instructor, passing on his legacy to all of your students.

Stone: Right. I said earlier that there’s a battalion of us, but in the educational field, there may be a smaller number. But there’s no doubt about it that the way he either rehearsed the group or the way he balanced the group or the way he stressed harmony and melody, whatever the musical concept was, I do the exact same thing.

By the way, it’s proven to be successful, too. Obviously we were well-taught, and back then, you didn’t know that those things you were learning from this master of orchestration and arranging…you didn’t know how far everything was going to go because you were living the moment. But now it’s been 30-plus years, and (I) realize, really truly, that the way I write and compose and orchestrate is just a continuation of Stewart’s.

We often spoke about melody construction and the harmonic principles behind that — what drove that, how you can’t have melody without harmony and how you can’t have harmony without creating the melody. And to be honest, that’s how Clare worked, too. Clare was freaking brilliant. So you have these two men who actually shared the same family and bloodline and everything, and they’re absolutely just geniuses. Two completely different men outside of their music, by the way.

I think maybe perhaps because when I was younger, I enjoyed gravitating toward older people who were just geniuses. I was attracted to them, and I think Dirk — I’m not trying to put anybody down, but Clare was a different bird, and he did the things the way he did it — was obviously a little bit more nurturing and more understanding, and more compassionate. He didn’t put up with any garbage, either, but if you’re here to work, then he’s here, ready to help you. But there was a side that could shed some tears if you had to, and he’d come around with an arm for you. That’s been a big help, and also a big loss.”

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COC’s Press Release

Late the next day, Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2013, College of the Canyons issued this press release:

COC Mourns Loss of Local Jazz Legend and Music Professor Dirk Fischer

Renowned musician, composer and longtime College of the Canyons jazz professor Stewart Roussin Fischer — affectionately known to family, friends, colleagues and students as ‘Dirk’ — died Monday, Feb. 25, in Santa Clarita. He was 88.

Fischer began his teaching career at COC in 1977 at a time when most academic institutions had yet to fully incorporate jazz studies programs into their curriculum.

In fact, it was Fischer’s venture back into student life in the mid-’70s, while looking for fellow musicians to play alongside, that eventually led to his chance encounter with former COC music instructor RK Downs.

A few short years later Fischer would be named the college’s first instructor of jazz studies and director of the college’s jazz band.

Before retiring in 2005, Fischer dedicated his 28 years at the college to building COC’s music department, while working to establish several of the college’s most endeared and longstanding musical traditions, including jazz band performances at the college’s annual commencement ceremony.

“Dirk was equally devoted to music and teaching. He was uniquely gifted in both areas, and we were blessed that he shared those gifts so freely with us at College of the Canyons for nearly three decades,” COC Chancellor Dr. Dianne Van Hook said.  “I will miss him greatly. And I will certainly remember him fondly at commencement when I hear the band playing.”

Aside from his time spent mentoring the award-winning COC Studio Jazz Ensemble and lab jazz combo bands, Fischer also worked extensively with other professional orchestras and student musical groups. During his illustrious career Fischer’s compositions and arrangements were performed by jazz ensembles in high schools, colleges and professional bands and orchestras throughout the United States, Netherlands, Nova Scotia and Japan.

“His work supplying music for various bands and ensembles, publishing new jazz tunes and donating many of his pieces to the COC jazz library continued right up until he died,” said KC Manji, who succeeded Fischer as the college’s musical director in 2005. “He possessed a wealth of jazz history and knowledge from his many years having not just studied this musical form, but from having lived it.”

Indeed, Fischer’s work with the COC music department and its students never slowed, with his compositions and original arrangements featured at nearly all of the college’s annual holiday, spring and Pops! jazz concerts, as well as the campus’ RK Downs Jazz Festival.

In the spring of 2011, Fischer debuted his arrangement of the operetta “The Three Piggy Opera,” which was staged at COC and included a mixture of children, student and professional musicians performing a selection of classical music themes arranged in non-traditional jazz styles.

Fischer also maintained a presence in the classroom after his retirement, making guest appearances at classes, practice sessions and performances each semester — even posting his personal e-mail address on the music department’s website for students interested in contacting him directly.

“We were really so fortunate that Dirk continued to lend his time and talents to our students,” Manji added. “I’m so very grateful for that.”

In 2010, Fischer had the opportunity to catch up with one of his most successful former students, when Big Bad Voodoo Daddy lead trumpeter Glen Marhevka was in town to play a show at the Santa Clarita Performing Arts Center (PAC).

“He was patient and so smart. He was amazing — he is one of the most talented arrangers I’ve ever met,” Marhevka said at the time, in reflecting about his years learning under Fischer. “He gave me passion for music and is a big reason I am here today. COC was a huge learning phase in my life, and I owe a lot to Dirk and the college.”

In addition to mentoring scores of student musicians to professional success, Fischer also produced countless original compositions and musical arrangements. Two of his most recent works will be featured at the upcoming COC spring jazz concert on Friday, March 22.

The COC music department is also planning a musical tribute to Dirk Fischer, as part of the college’s annual POPS! concert on Friday, May 3.

Following his passing, family members confirmed that Fischer had been battling colon cancer in the months preceding his death. Funeral arrangements are pending at this time.

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Western Mich Hysterical Society

On March 3, I noticed the West Mich Music Hysterical Society had posted our obit about their favorite son, but without any attribution to the source, or a byline, for that matter. Bad journo. But I checked out the rest of the page, which has lots more great Dirk history and photos. So just because this is all about Dirk, I’m going to be a nice guy and link to the WMMHS page so you can check it out, too.

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Stephen K. Peeples is also on Google+.

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