Meet the Musician: Trumpeter Fred Irby, III

Where did you grow up? When did you start playing the trumpet?

I was born in Mobile, Alabama and started playing the trumpet in the 4th grade. My first trumpet teacher was Mr. Ulysses Miller, an excellent trumpeter and a great role model. Other teachers that influenced me were William Scarlata of the Shreveport Symphony and Susan Slaughter, former principal of the St. Louis Symphony. The latter two teachers were my undergraduate and graduate university trumpet professors, respectively.

What made you want to become a professional musician?

I have always enjoyed collaborating with other musicians and always felt that music chose me. I feel lucky and honored to be an active performing musician. I have traveled around the world, met and performed with some of my musical idols.

Fred with Arturo Sandoval & Quincy Jones, 1997 at VP Al Gore's residence

When did you join the musical theater orchestra at the Kennedy Center? Describe for us what it was like in the beginning playing with that orchestra and how it is now.

My first job at the Kennedy Center was in 1975. I was hired by Joseph Willens, the Kennedy Center contractor, to perform in a concert with Pearl Bailey in the Opera House. It was an exciting time for me because I had been in town for only 6 months and I was honored to be performing at the Kennedy Center. The musicians were very friendly and helpful especially George Recker, Orrin Olson, Jimmy Badolato, Donald Charnock, Norman Katz and Dave Summers.

The KCOHO today is an excellent group of musicians that are very versatile in many musical styles. In the beginning there was no technology, computers or cell phones: unable to contact musicians or family quickly, could not leave messages, could not receive traffic alerts, could not receive music in advance and most importantly, could not monitor payroll or pension accounts. The musicals today are very challenging in that rehearsal time has been reduced, lots of preparation is required prior to rehearsals, some productions require the musicians to be in separate locations and to perform with a live streamed video of the conductor & click track, you have your own sound monitor that you can control, multiple trumpets (flugelhorn, cornet, piccolo, etc.) and mutes are required and some productions are eliminating brass, winds, strings and percussion from the orchestration. The orchestrations are very demanding (technically and stylistically) and with the reduced instrumentation, every note is a solo. 

Have you always worked in the DC area, or have you worked in other cities around the country too?

2015 Oscars Trumpets: Rob Shear, Dan Fornero, Wayne Bergeron & Fred Irby, III

I was a member of the St. Louis Municipal Opera Orchestra (MUNY) from 1972-73 during my stay in St. Louis after college. I have performed TV specials, award shows and movies in NYC and Los Angeles. I have performed in the orchestra for the Academy Awards aka OSCARS in Los Angeles since 2015.

What has been your most memorable performing experience at the Kennedy Center? 

There are too many to cite just one. Performing for every Kennedy Center Honors Gala (1976 to present), The Sondheim Celebration in 2002, conducting the Howard University Jazz Ensemble (HUJE) in the 1992, 1996 & 2005 KC Honors Gala, conducting HUJE in a KC produced concert with pianist McCoy Tyner in 2010, performing the premiere performances of the musicals ANNIE and 42nd STREET and just recently performing with Wayne Shorter in the Eisenhower Theater for a Kennedy Center commissioned composition, “The Unfolding." I have performed and conducted in all seven theaters in the Kennedy Center!

What has been your most memorable performance outside the Kennedy Center?

Brass Section for the 2015 Oscars in Los Angeles, CA

My performances in Los Angeles for the Oscars, Daytime Emmys, Dancing with the Stars, America’s Got Talent, in NYC for the re-dedication of the Statue of Liberty, some local TV specials such as Christmas in Washington, The Gershwin Prize, the BET Walk of Fame, and performing at the National, Ford’s and Arena Stage theaters. I served as Music Director for the Washington Ballet in 2004 for a Jazz/Blues Project in the Eisenhower Theater  and for the 17th International Dance Festival in Havana, Cuba.

BTW: During my freshman year at Grambling State University, I performed in the halftime show with our Marching Band for the very FIRST SUPER BOWL in Los Angeles, CA.

1996 Daytime Emmy's trumpets: Rick Baptist, Harold Wheeler, Fred Irby, III & Warren Luenin

You teach at Howard University. Tell us about your experience as a professor at a major University in addition to being a professional performing musician.

I have been member of the Department of Music at Howard University since 1974 and it has been a very rewarding experience to serve as a professor and mentor. As Director of the Howard University Jazz Ensemble, we have given concerts in China, Japan (4 times), Romania, Senegal, West Africa, Venezuela, Haiti, Trinidad, Jamaica, Guatemala, Martinique and the U.S. Virgin Islands. We have 43 recordings to our credit in an annual series that began in 1976. The HUJE performed for the KC Honors in 1992 (Lionel Hampton), 1996 (Benny Carter) and 2005 (Tony Bennett). That was very exciting because I was required to attend all KC Honors production meetings and I got a chance to observe the decision making process of these major television producers. Over the years several of my students at Howard University have performed at KC for musicals and other concerts upon my recommendation. In 1996, I created the “Benny Golson Jazz Master Award” to honor the legacy of 1995 NEA Jazz Master Benny Golson, an alumnus of Howard University. You can see the list of these distinguished recipients by going to

The HUJE in Beijing, China, 1986

Side Note: In 1986 the Howard University Jazz Ensemble became the first jazz band to perform in the People’s Republic of China. One of our concerts in Beijing, China was held at the prestigious Central Conservatory of Music. One of the students at that time, violinist Xi Chen, that attended that concert is now a colleague of mine in the KCOHO. When she joined the KCOHO she introduced herself and related in detail about the concert. I was honored to have her as a colleague.  

What are some of your former students doing today?

The majority of my students have become educators and productive citizens around the  country.  Others have performed with Michael Jackson, Prince, Whitney Houston, Madonna, Lady Ga Ga,  Miles Davis, Wynton Marsalis, Dizzy Gillespie, Ornette Coleman, Count Basie Orchestra, Earth Wind and Fire, Kool and the Gang, Dr. Dre, Jessye Norman and the KCOHO.

One of my former students, Michael Bearden, served as Music Director for Michael Jackson, Madonna, Jennifer Lopez and Lady Ga Ga. He has also performed in the orchestra for the Oscars with me, served as Music Director for the 2016 Super Bowl, and was also Music Director for the 2016 Kennedy Center Spring Gala in a “Tribute to Marvin Gaye”.

Are there any compositions or recordings that you are proud of?

I am very proud of all the recordings (43!) of the Howard University Jazz Ensemble. We recorded COME SUNDAY “Tribute to Duke Ellington,” during his centennial in 1999. We also recorded a “Tribute to the Victims and Survivors of September 11” with commissioned compositions by Frederick Tillis and Yusef Lateef in 2002.

With the Baltimore Choral Arts Society, I recorded Dave Brubeck’s cantata “The Gates of Justice” (with the composer as the piano soloist) and “Christmas at America’s First Cathedral" (2010) recorded at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Baltimore, Maryland.

I also commissioned and premiered a composition by Ulysses S. Kay, TROMBA: Suite for B-flat Trumpet and Piano in 1984. Mr. Kay, an eminent African American composer, is the nephew of the great New Orleans jazz cornetist Joe ”King” Oliver. Mr. Oliver was the main mentor of the legendary Louis Armstrong. 

Finally, How many touring or locally produced musical productions have you performed with during your tenure at KC?

That is a hard question to answer, however, KCOHO Assistant Principal Trombone Doug Rosenthal gave me a list of all the musicals that have played at the Kennedy Center. Some did not use trumpets and I was not available for others. At the Kennedy Center I have performed in 106 musical productions and 18 at other theaters in the D.C. area for a total of 124. There could also be additional musicals that I just don’t remember playing!

Just for Fun: Fred with Samuel L. Jackson at the 2016 PBS special for the Library of Congress "Gershwin Prize," honoring Smokey Robinson.