A high school guitarist with aspirations of becoming a big band jazz composer could be forgiven for daydreaming in English class. But for Lower Merion junior Leo Steinriede, it turned out that his musical career benefited from paying attention — at least to a topic as potentially yawn-inducing as rhetorical analysis.
The 17-year-old Steinriede was recently announced as the winner of this year’s Essentially Ellington Dr. J. Douglas White Student Composition and Arranging Contest for his original composition “The Rhetorical Situation.” The prestigious award comes with a $1,000 cash prize, as well as a trip to New York City in May during the Essentially Ellington Festival, an annual competition for high school big bands. While there, his piece will be performed and recorded by virtuoso trumpeter and composer Wynton Marsalis and his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.
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“My dream job is to write music for Jazz at Lincoln Center,” Steinriede said. “I’m really excited to hear my music played by some of my heroes.”
For months, he had struggled to compose a piece worthy of submission, frustrated by the challenge of penning music in his own voice that harked decades back to the spirit of the festival’s namesake, iconic bandleader Duke Ellington. He found a solution in a class discussion of rhetoric.
“The rhetorical situation is how an author communicates their purpose to an audience,” he explained. “While I was writing this piece, I was thinking a lot about whether people create because they want to appeal to a certain audience, or because they want to make great art. I realized that I had to write music to please myself, and that’s how I would connect with other people.”
Once that inspiration took hold, the 3 1/2-minute big band chart came together in less than two months of focused writing.
The composition and arranging contest “recognizes an uncommon level of sophistication in younger people," Marsalis said. "It’s hard to write big band arrangements when you’re in high school. With this award, we want to encourage them to reach for their highest aspirations.”
Announced as the winner on Feb. 12, Steinriede’s piece was among 26 submissions critiqued by veteran Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra saxophonist and arranger Ted Nash, who will meet with the young composer for a private lesson during his visit to the city. “The Rhetorical Situation” is “a little quirky, but it’s got a lot of character," Nash said. "I felt like what ended up on the page came from an assimilation of all of Leo’s knowledge and experience, even as a youngster. Listening, you get a little insight into the soul of a person. So while Leo is young and he’s got a lot to learn, I hear so much potential.”
Growing up in Bala Cynwyd, Steinriede was surrounded by music. His mother, Cecile, had sung in choirs when she was younger, and his father, Kent, was a casual player of trumpet and guitar. “We listened to so many different kinds of music around the house when I was little,” their son recalled. From “the blues, B.B. King and Buddy Guy, to the Ventures and surf music or Ravel’s Bolero.
“For me, there was never any question that I was going to become a musician.”
Steinriede initially picked up the guitar under the influence of Led Zeppelin and other classic rockers (and to avoid piano lessons). Jazz became his primary focus when he began classes at the Philadelphia Clef Club of Jazz and Performing Arts, where his instructors include saxophonist Bobby Zankel and trumpeter Marcell Bellinger. He also studies with vibraphonist Tony Miceli at Settlement Music School.
Through the Clef Club, he also connected with pianist/composer Joseph Block, who as a student at Germantown Friends School won the Composition and Arranging Contest in 2016.
“I’m amazed by Leo’s work ethic,” said Block, who has been mentoring Steinriede over the past year and a half and encouraged him to enter the Ellington competition. Block now lives in New York, studies at Juilliard, and continues to contribute arrangements to the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.
“One of the most important factors in the competition is your attention to Duke Ellington’s writing,” he said. “Leo and I worked on that together: how to keep the tradition while still operating in the contemporary artistic realm. He produced something that really captured himself and Duke, and some other influences.”
After graduating next year, Steinriede hopes to follow Block to Juilliard. Meanwhile, he’s researching the roots of Philly jazz for a new project he hopes to premiere this summer with a specially assembled big band.