His peers considered Kerry Strayer a musician’s musician. His instrument of choice was the baritone saxophone, but he was also a talented composer, a precise arranger and organized bandleader.
Strayer, 56, died Thursday night after battling prostate cancer for two years.
“He was a 360-degree musician,” said trumpeter Randy Brecker, who performed on the highly regarded CD “Jeru Blue,” Strayer’s 1998 tribute to sax man Gerry Mulligan.
Strayer was born in Fairbury, a small town in southeast Nebraska, and attended Doane College in nearby Crete. He earned a bachelor of arts degree.
In 1982, Strayer moved to Kansas City to study saxophone at the Unversity of Missouri-Kansas City conservatory. He graduated in 1985 with a master of music degree in saxophone performance. He toured briefly with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra in the late 1980s, but Strayer remained based in Kansas City and established a career as a concert performer, recording artist, composer and teacher.
Strayer was an original member of the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra, a big band founded in 2003. In 2010 he became the group’s artistic director and conductor. Strayer also served as music director for the annual Country Club Plaza lighting ceremony and performed often with the Kansas City Symphony Pops series.
“He’s a great musician and he knew how to put things together,” said Karrin Allyson, a Kansas City vocalist now in New York. “He knew how to put bands together and make arrangements. All the musicians I knew loved him. There was never any drama. He was a professional.”
Strayer performed in a variety of formats. In addition to the big band, he led a seven-piece group and sometimes performed in trio settings. He played in clubs and concert halls and frequently at society gigs. He was known for his low-key personality and his light touch as a bandleader. According to singer David Basse, Strayer could easily work with musicians who were considered “difficult.”
“There were people in the music community and sometimes it seemed like nobody could get along with them,” Basse said. “Kerry was always right there. He had a really good, easy-going attitude. Especially in jazz, if you lead or direct a big band or write arrangements for a big band, to get 18 people to follow you in that way, that’s a real testament to a guy’s personality.… He didn’t let anything get in the way of the music. It was always about the music.”
Even so, he was considered an artist with his own aesthetic standards.
“Both as a player and as a writer, he had his own voice, particularly as a writer,” Brecker said. “I could attest to the fact that everything fit correctly. The charts were so well-written, so well-voiced, that they almost played themselves.”
Basse said Strayer could also arrange in various jazz styles.
“Just about anything you could come up with, he could do it,” Basse said. “He was a music-business entrepreneur.… He had it all in his book and if he didn’t have it in his book, he’d write it for you. That volume of music will live on in his honor. There’s got to be hundreds of songs in his book.… He was just a phenomenal cat to work with and he will sorely be missed in the jazz community. There’s nobody who can take the place of anybody like that.”
Survivors include his wife, Gailyn, his mother and two brothers.
A memorial service and celebration of life will be at 1 p.m. Aug. 6 at John Knox Presbyterian Kirk, 11430 Wornall Road. A visitation will follow.