Renowned musician, composer and longtime College of the Canyons jazz professor Stewart Roussin Fischer — affectionately known to family, friends, colleagues and students as “Dirk” — died Monday, Feb. 25, in Santa Clarita. He was 88.
Fischer began his teaching career at COC in 1977 at a time when most academic institutions had yet to fully incorporate jazz studies programs into their curriculum.
In fact, it was Fischer’s venture back into student life in the mid-‘70s, while looking for fellow musicians to play alongside, that eventually led to his chance encounter with former COC music instructor RK Downs.
A few short years later Fischer would be named the college’s first instructor of jazz studies and director of the college’s jazz band.
Before retiring in 2005, Fischer dedicated his 28 years at the college to building COC’s music department, while working to establish several of the college’s most endeared and longstanding musical traditions, including jazz band performances at the college’s annual commencement ceremony.
“Dirk was equally devoted to music and teaching. He was uniquely gifted in both areas, and we were blessed that he shared those gifts so freely with us at College of the Canyons for nearly three decades,” COC Chancellor Dr. Dianne Van Hook said. “I will miss him greatly. And I will certainly remember him fondly at commencement when I hear the band playing.”
Aside from his time spent mentoring the award-winning COC Jazz Ensemble and lab jazz combo bands, Fischer also worked extensively with other professional orchestras and student musical groups. During his illustrious career Fischer’s compositions and arrangements were performed by jazz ensembles in high schools, colleges and professional bands and orchestras throughout the United States, Netherlands, Nova Scotia and Japan.
“His work supplying music for various bands and ensembles, publishing new jazz tunes and donating many of his pieces to the COC jazz library continued right up until he died,” said KC Manji, who succeeded Fischer as the college’s musical director in 2005. “He possessed a wealth of jazz history and knowledge from his many years having not just studied this musical form, but from having lived it.”
Indeed, Fischer’s work with the COC music department and its students never slowed, with his compositions and original arrangements featured at nearly all of the college’s annual holiday, spring and pops jazz concerts, as well as the campus’ RK Downs Jazz Festival.
In the spring of 2011, Fischer debuted his arrangement of the operetta “The Three Piggy Opera,” which was staged at COC and included a mixture of children, student and professional musicians performing a selection of classical music themes arranged in non-traditional jazz styles.
Fischer also maintained a presence in the classroom after his retirement, making guest appearances at classes, practice sessions and performances each semester — even posting his personal e-mail address on the music department’s web site for students interested in contacting him directly.
“We were really so fortunate that Dirk continued to lend his time and talents to our students,” added Manji. “I’m so very grateful for that.”
In 2010, Fischer had the opportunity to catch up with one of his most successful former students, when Big Bad Voodoo Daddy lead trumpeter Glen Marhevka was in town to play a show at the Santa Clarita Performing Arts Center.
“He was patient and so smart. He was amazing… he is one of the most talented arrangers I’ve ever met,” Marhevka said at the time, reflecting about his years learning under Fischer. “He gave me passion for music and is a big reason I am here today. COC was a huge learning phase in my life, and I owe a lot to Dirk and the college.”
In addition to mentoring scores of student musicians to professional success, Fischer also produced countless original compositions and musical arrangements. Two of his most recent works will be featured at the upcoming COC spring jazz concert on Friday, March 22.
The COC music department is also in the process of planning a musical tribute to Dirk Fischer, as part of the college’s annual POPS! concert on Friday, May 3.
Following his passing, family members confirmed that Fischer had been battling colon cancer in the months preceding his death. Funeral arrangements are pending.