Upon meeting him, some might think Brent Edstrom is the definition of a quiet, reserved man. As soon as he sits down at a piano, that impression changes. Edstrom is an accomplished and talented composer, arranger, transcriber and a masterful pianist. He is also an associate professor of music and a private instructor of jazz piano and music composition. Students and colleagues will also tell you that he’s one of the most humble men they’ve ever met.
As a musician
After seeing Edstrom play, most people would assume he’s been playing piano since he was born, but his musical career started on a very different path.
“I was around six years old, and for some reason I was enamored with the sound of a banjo,” Edstrom said. “Around that period of time my dad took me to see a famous banjo player named Eddie Peabody in Everett, Wash., and that was one of those life-changing events.”
Edstrom began playing banjo when he was seven, continuing on that instrument until beginning classical piano lessons in sixth or seventh grade. Switching made sense, since piano was a more practical instrument.
“At the time, it just made sense to round out my education by taking piano and I grew to love it as well,” Edstrom said.
Edstrom did not get into jazz until high school.
“Jazz pianist Oscar Peterson was the person who really got me into jazz and music in a very serious way,” Edstrom said.
Listening to Peterson for the first time, Edstrom was astounded by his technique and style. The bebop jazz pianist inspired him to pursue music as a career, he says.
Today, Edstrom’s career involves many areas of music. He has arranged and composed many pieces, including a project with fellow professor Dr. Dan Keberle for an American Idol show with the Dallas Symphony in 2009.
Many groups, including Orchestra Seattle and the Whitworth Symphony Orchestra, have performed his compositions.
As a performer Edstrom has played with many talented musicians, including trumpeters Clark Terry and Jon Faddis and bassist John Clayton. He is also an author and lecturer.
But of all the things he’s done, Edstrom considers the two biggest accomplishments to be his transcription books of the music of Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson, because of the challenges they presented.
His website, www.brentedstrom.com, has information about his trio, the Brent Edstrom Trio, his books, and audio from his concerto.
Perhaps the most astounding thing about Edstrom’s career is the fact that few ever hear about it. At least, not from him.
“He’s very humble, extremely talented and smart, yet he never talks about himself,” said Joan Lack, program director and tour coordinator for the Whitworth music department.
As a teacher
Edstrom doesn’t know exactly when he started teaching, he says.
“I think I eased into it,” he said.
He’s been a professor at Whitworth since 1995, but his teaching career began long before that. Teaching private lessons has always been part of his life, and the evolution from private lessons to classroom teaching came naturally.
“Even though I’m a tenured professor I don’t really consider myself a teacher,” Edstrom said. “I consider myself a musician and I try to share that with my students.”
Sophomore music composition major Nick Kmet takes classes and private composition lessons from Edstrom. Kmet enjoys Edstrom’s teaching style because he’s good at providing examples of every concept he’s teaching.
“If you don’t understand something, he will help you to understand in as many ways as possible,” Kmet said.
Loree Swegle, program assistant for the music department, said she’s only seen Edstrom teach in passing, but can hear his classes from her office.
“I hear lots of laughter,” Swegle said. “The students are very engaged.”
As a friend
Lack and Swegle often experience a side of Edstrom that others may not immediately see.
“He’s a jokester,” Lack said. “He always has a good joke or a funny story.”
He’s also a prankster. Less than a month after Swegle started working at Whitworth, Edstrom called her and disguised his voice. He then asked her about an obscure instrument, and she had no idea what to do.
Beyond the jokes and pranks, Edstrom has a reputation as one of the nicest people around. Swegle described him as one of those people she is always happy to see.
“He’s hysterical,” Swegle said. “He’s always smiling and he’s always kind.”
Sophomore Brad Vander Linden said his favorite thing about Edstrom is his demeanor.
“He’s such a down-to-earth person and a friendly guy to walk up to and start a conversation with,” Vander Linden said.
Above all, Edstrom’s goal is to create, share and enjoy music. Performing will always come with challenges, no matter how many people he’s performing for, but he says the rewards far outweigh the difficulties.
“You have to put all the focus on being in that moment, and when that all clicks, that’s the best,” he said.
Story by Chelsea Kwast
Photo by Becca Eng