Here at J.W. Pepper, we’re always looking for stories about sheet music—and this one is particularly special!
In 2022, musician, composer, and arranger Bob Curnow celebrated his 80th birthday and dedicated a “legacy of music” by donating his entire catalog of sheet music to his alma mater, the Wells School of Music at West Chester University in West Chester, Pennsylvania. The university’s jazz ensembles, including the Criterions (a group Bob led during his time at West Chester, which is approaching its 100th anniversary!) will make good use of the music, as will many other students. We recommend that you watch the in-depth celebration video from the Wells School of Music, which includes a wonderful interview with Bob Curnow and Director of Jazz Studies Jonathan Ragonese.
About Bob Curnow
Bob Curnow is the founder and owner of big band jazz publisher Sierra Music Publications, which is now in its 47th year of publishing. Many of Sierra’s highly sought-after arrangements and original works are longstanding members of J.W. Pepper’s Editors’ Choice collection.
Bob is also an amazing trombonist who spent years with the legendary Stan Kenton Orchestra. He served as a record producer and Artists and Repertoire Director for Kenton’s Creative World Records and directed the McDonald’s All-American High School Band—which has produced an incredible number of renowned jazz musicians!
Notably, in 1999 Bob was inducted into the Hall of Fame of the International Association of Jazz Education, where he also served as a past president. Bob has made a major impact on the world of jazz education, and his generous gift will serve West Chester’s music students for years to come.
Highlights from Bob and Jonathan’s Interview
Jonathan Ragonese: Tell me about how and why you started Sierra Music.
Bob Curnow: In the late 1960s, we were living in Cleveland, and I was teaching at Case Western Reserve University. Somewhere along the line, about three or four years in, the Stan Kenton band came to town. I hadn’t seen Stan in several years, so we talked, and we had them come out to our home in Cleveland Heights for an after-gig party.
So, Stan and I hooked up, and he asked if I would be interested in moving to California to help develop a new record company called Creative World Records. Darlene and I said, “Sure! Let’s go for it!” and we moved to California in 1972.
I was very good friends with Phil Herring, a bass trombone player who was starting Creative World Music Publications. We helped each other in our different business ventures—because neither of us knew what we were doing! It was good to have a friend to help.
I was doing so much writing for Stan at the time, and I was involved with the publications end in a fairly minor way. When I left that business and went back to teaching, I realized that I had had four years of this intense on-the-job business training that I didn’t want to go to waste. I also knew that Stan’s music was no longer available because it had been shuffled over to another company.
So, I started Sierra Music with a couple of my original pieces: Writer’s Cramp, which I wrote for the band here at West Chester, and a ballad that I had written. We started with that and 500 bucks, and I never looked back!
As we began to establish a presence, teachers would come to me with requests: “Bob, I need a third trombone part for Hank’s Opener,” for example. I couldn’t always get them what they needed right away, but I worked to correct that, starting by making an agreement with my dear friend and Stan’s widow, Audrey Coke. Once she gave permission, we could start publishing all the full band music, and Sierra Music grew from there.
Having grown up in a period of time when you were just desperate for music to play and there was very little available, I knew that that need was still there. I thought that, maybe, I could help.
JR: I was struck by the detail and preciseness with which you cared for the materials of your life and career. Was that something that came naturally to you, or did you did you think about that when you were doing it—in terms of preserving the photographs, news clippings, and so on?
BC: I think that started with my parents: just that habit of keeping track of things. I don’t know that I was ever as good at it as I wish I had been. There are many things that I wish I still had. I think that, if I had been as good at preserving materials as I wish I had been, there probably would have been 80 boxes!
JR: I’m also interested in how you got involved in music education during your professional career.
BC: I came down here to this school with some reluctance because I wanted to be a player. I had had the chance to tour with the Buddy Morrow band when I was in high school, but of course my parents said, “No way, you’re going to college.” So, after graduating, I got the chance to go on the road for a year, which was what I really wanted to do.
I came back here to the Villanova Jazz Festival the year after that to collect my goods—the things I had won, including a trombone and my library of Kenton LPs. The leader of one of the bands that was playing at the festival that year, which would have been early 1964, introduced himself as George West and told me that he was leaving his graduate assistantship at Michigan State. He made me an offer: would you be interested in taking it and going to grad school?
Well, I hadn’t thought about that at all. We had just gotten married, and things were up in the air. Moving to Michigan would let me be close to my family, since my dad had taken a job as a banker in Flint.
Long story short, after I finished my graduate work, the first job that came down the line was teaching! That’s how I started teaching, in 1967.
JR: Then, you had a long period of time where you weren’t teaching before you started getting involved with young people again.
BC: Yeah, I didn’t teach for four years when I was working for Stan in California. Then, I went back to teaching at Cal State LA. We decided to leave Los Angeles and move to the Northwest to raise our children, and I had some opportunities there. I had just begun working with the McDonald’s All-American High School Jazz Band at that time. We could sit here and talk about that for five hours! There are so many amazing players that came through that band. So, there I was, teaching that. I started with the band in 1980, and it blossomed into an amazing experience.
JR: You did that for how many years?
BC: For eight years—and then they decided to cut back and put all their money into Double Dutch jump roping!
The Impact of the Curnows’ Gift
“My understanding is that the Curnows’ gift includes about 3,000 charts in total,” said Dr. Christopher Hanning, Dean of the Percussion Faculty at the Wells School of Music.
“To have that wealth of musical information at our fingertips has been amazing. As a percussion teacher, I had my students pull 60 charts out with the professional recordings, and I use those as big band training materials. By having this repertoire, they’re able to access great charts, listen to pro drummers play, and develop their big band skills. It’s monumental for us that they are able to look through the library and learn about the great arrangers in the collection.”
Hanning went on to explain that Bob’s willingness to spend time with West Chester students and act as a mentor is an additional gift that goes beyond his large donation of sheet music. Within the past several months, students have had the chance to meet him, learn from him, and current members of the Criterions have even played under his baton—inspiring experiences for students and faculty alike.
“I grew up listening to the Kenton band,” Hanning said. “I had no idea that I would land here and get to meet somebody who was in the Kenton band! One of the drummers who inspired me at a young age, Peter Erskine, was part of that band. Meeting Bob and having him involved in the education of our students, it feels like everything’s come full circle.”
Jonathan Ragonese emphasized how unique and extraordinary it is for West Chester to own Sierra Music’s entire catalog.
“Bob made it one of his life’s missions to collect the music that should be available to bands, written by the real composers and arrangers,” said Ragonese. “To have easy access to all that music is one of the greatest educational tools I can imagine.”
The intention behind the gift is not for this music to sit in an archive; rather, students and teachers should be actively playing and studying each of the scores.
“I want the gift that Bob gave us to actually further that passion that he has for it,” Ragonese continued. “I really want to make sure people are aware that these charts are here and that they can utilize them.”
J.W. Pepper would like to thank West Chester University, the Wells School of Music, Dr. Christopher Hanning, and Jonathan Ragonese for helping us to share this story.
We’d also like to extend a very special “thank you” to Bob Curnow for all of his contributions to jazz and jazz education! J.W. Pepper is committed to helping educators everywhere instill a love of music in each new generation of students, and Bob’s gift to the Wells School of Music will have a major impact on music education for years to come.