Back in the D and the swing of things

Alum gets back to hometown for special NYE show, plays local club.

Notre Dame alum Walt Szymanski (’72) made his annual trek north during the Christmas holiday season from his current home in Ecuador to his original hometown to play with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra at its special New Year’s Eve concert at Orchestra Hall. 

According to Szymanski, he loves getting back to Detroit, seeing family and friends again and playing with the DSO.

“The DSO gig helps to finance my trip north, but the show really is great fun for me,” he said last Sunday at local jazz/blues club Blue Goose Inn, where sat in with swing band PlanetDNonet at a special holiday celebration. Szymanski actually wrote the arrangements for most of the tunes the band played that day.

Currently a full-time resident of Ecuador, Szymanski says he’s “living and enjoying life on the center of the planet where it is 72-80° every day and 55-60° at night, all year long.”

He has served as a professor of jazz studies at the University de San Francisco de Quito/IMC in Quito, Ecuador, and has a number of private music students. He also is writing and composing music for a varied clientele worldwide.

Szymanski came to national prominence in the late 1970s and early 1980s after the late legendary jazz drummer JC Heard became so inspired by Szymanski’s arranging ability that he hand picked him as music director for his newly formed Duke Ellington Repertory Orchestra, the JC Heard Orchestra. 

The orchestra quickly grew to 13 pieces for which Szymanski wrote all of the arrangements. His apprenticeship with Heard found him sharing the stage with one of his greatest idols, Dizzy Gillespie. In addition to Diz, Szymanski performed in small combo situations with Oscar Peterson, Ray Brown, Milt Hinton, George Shearing, Buddy Tate, Nat Pierce, Buddy DeFranco, Slim Galliard and Joe Bushkin. 

Also prolific as a composer (formal studies with Stanley Hollingsworth), Szymanski served as composer in residence for the Detroit Dance Collective, the Acoustic Arts Ensemble and the Detroit Concert Choir. Additionally, he has served as Instructor of Jazz Trumpet, Arranging and Composition Studies at Oakland University (Rochester, MI) 1985-92, as well as the Center for Creative Studies (Detroit, MI) 1988-90. 

His numerous artistic awards include 1972 Best Trumpet (State of Michigan Phi Mu Alpha), 1976-77 Arranger and Soloist awards (NAJE, IAJE), 1989-92 Best Trumpet and Best Composer awards (Metro-Times Annual Music Awards), and 1993 Jazz Hall of Fame (Metro-Times Annual Music Awards). 

(Video below is from Szymanski's performance at the Blue Goose Inn on Dec. 27. Szymanski also is a noted jazz vocalist.)

Szymanski’s true love of straight ahead jazz inspired him to form and co-lead the hard bop group, the Motor City Jazz Quintet in 1982, The group featured the talents of Paul Keller (bass), Scott Petersen (sax), Phil Kelly (piano) and Jon Knust (drums). The MCJQ performed at numerous clubs and concert venues, and also was a perennial favorite at the Detroit/Montreux Jazz Festival. For 10 years, from 1982 to 1992, the quintet performed original compositions and arrangements, always to packed houses and rave reviews. 

The DSO show tonight will feature many classics with Music Director Leonard Slatkin; and timeless R&B soul hits from Principal Pops Conductor Jeff Tyzik and American Idol finalist Michael Lynche. It also will be televised on Detroit Public TV Channel 56 beginning at 10 p.m.

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About Notre Dame Preparatory School and Marist Academy

Notre Dame Preparatory School and Marist Academy is a private, Catholic, independent, coeducational day school located in Oakland County. The school's upper division enrolls students in grades nine through twelve and has been named one of the nation's best 50 Catholic high schools (Acton Institute) four times since 2005. Notre Dame's middle and lower divisions enroll students in jr. kindergarten through grade eight. All three divisions are International Baccalaureate "World Schools." The Marist Fathers and Brothers sponsor NDPMA's Catholic identity and manages its educational program. Notre Dame is accredited by the Independent Schools Association of the Central States and the North Central Association Commission on Accreditation and School Improvement. For more on Notre Dame Preparatory School and Marist Academy, visit the school's home page at