By Steven Krolak
(NEW ALBANY, Ind.)—In the mid-1950s, Mildred Kemp discovered the trombone at Eastern High School in Louisville, Ky. Within a decade, the Prospect native was playing the instrument in the American Symphony Orchestra in New York City under famed conductor Leopold Stokowski, moonlighting in other orchestras and on Broadway, and giving lessons at the Henry Street Settlement on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, a renowned community center providing social services, health care and arts education for the poor.
Since 1996 she has brought her passion for the trombone to teaching and performance at IU Southeast, giving students and audiences the benefit of her long and storied career.
That career was recognized last month when Kemp received the Beacon Award at the 25th annual International Women’s Brass Conference (IWBC) at Rowan University in Glassboro, N.J.
The IWBC is an organization of musicians and others whose mission is to educate, develop, support, and promote women brass musicians while inspiring continued excellence and opportunities in the broader musical world.
According to the IWBC, the Beacon Award is given to women who have been beacons of light for those around them, both in the fields of performance and education. These women influence generations of musicians through their careers sharing the art of performance, and standing for the values of equity, perseverance, and excellence.
After graduating from the University of Louisville, Kemp joined the Louisville Orchestra in 1957, filling a seat as second trombone vacated by her teacher, Joseph Owens. There were few women in the orchestra, and even fewer in the brass section, a situation that she would encounter over and over again in her career. In 1962, answering the call to spread her wings, Kemp moved to New York City. She auditioned for Stokowski, who brought her into his new American Symphony Orchestra, a bold experiment that sought to make classical music more accessible to broader audiences by offering inexpensive concerts, a mix of well-known works and obscure discoveries and perhaps most importantly, hiring musicians from diverse genders, ethnicities and backgrounds.
At the time, Kemp was one of the very few female low brass performers on the East Coast. Later, when a friend finagled her a gig in a Broadway pit orchestra, she found herself a pioneer in an even more male-dominated arena. Unfazed, Kemp thrilled to the Broadway buzz. In 1972, she joined the legendary Goldman Band, a concert ensemble composed of professional wind musicians. After returning to Kentuckiana for personal reasons, she kept in touch with this repertoire as a member of the Commonwealth Brass Band, in addition to auxiliary work on trombone for the Louisville Orchestra and The Bach Society.
For all her love of performing trombone, Kemp’s true passion is teaching music. Back in the 70s, tired of the uncertainties of the freelance life, and with two young children by that time, she responded to an opening at Memorial High School in West New York, N.J.
“I found out what nobody could have told me: I was a teacher, and I loved it,” Kemp said.
Kemp stayed at Memorial as piano teacher and choral director for the next 22 years, an experience that gave her immense and enduring satisfaction. Throughout her career she continued to pass on her wisdom to students in public schools, conservatories and universities in New York, Wisconsin and Kentucky.
Trombone is not an easy instrument, and Kemp has reveled in guiding young people through its mysteries, from the correct lip-tongue-cheek-teeth position (embouchure) in the mouthpiece and the use of the wrist to make subtle movements of the slide to the mastery of legato through tongue control.
Kemp is keenly conscious of her debt to her own instructors—Cecil Karrick, the bandleader at Eastern who warmed up the brass section with Bach chorales to improve intonation, and Owens, the first trombone of the Louisville Orchestra who inspired her with his “golden sound”—as well as to colleagues, both men and women, who have helped to advance her technique and further her career. Among those is Jerry Amend, principal trumpet in the Louisville Orchestra and conductor of the Commonwealth Brass Band, who brought Kemp to this campus.
“When you’re a musician, it’s a very small world,” Kemp said.
Homepage photo: Mildred Kemp with the Beacon Award from the International Women’s Brass Conference.