The former warplane designer now records music on his own label.
The former warplane designer now records music on his own label. (Thomas E. Ricks - Twp)
Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Pierre Sprey has hardly led a typical Washington life: 20 years in high-tech defense work, then another 20 producing recordings of avant-garde jazz and other music.

Born in Nice, France, and raised in New York, Sprey as a young man knew Paul D. Wolfowitz, whose mathematician father, then teaching at Cornell University, was the best teacher Sprey recalls ever having. Brought to the Pentagon in 1966 as one of Robert S. McNamara's "wiz kids," Sprey became heavily involved in the design of two key Air Force warplanes -- the F-16 fighter and the A-10 ground attack jet.

He left the Pentagon in 1986, he said, because "it became increasingly obvious that the atmosphere at the Pentagon was such that it would be impossible to build another honest aircraft." Based in an old mansion in Upper Marlboro, he pursued his true passion: recording music. He began by making a record with his friend Shirley Horn, a jazz pianist and singer whose once-promising career had stalled. He moved on to other jazz, some blues, then gospel, classical and flamenco music, on his own label, Mapleshade. Now 68 years old with a mane of snow-white hair, he presides over a business that sells the music he records as well as high-end stereo components.

His approach to recording music, he said in a recent interview, "oddly was like the A-10." Dubbed the "Warthog," that warplane is notable because it is so ungainly but does its job so well. It is enormously difficult to shoot down, and is devastating against tanks and other armored vehicles. With recording music, as with warplanes, Sprey focused on the end product. "The whole essence of this is to judge everything by outcomes," he explained.

A surprise success for him was the ARC Choir, whose version of "Walk With Me" was sampled by hip-hop superstar Kanye West for his megahit tune "Jesus Walks." Sprey said he earned enough royalties from the West song "to support 30 of my money-losing jazz albums."

Coming full circle, he said he is appalled by the war in Iraq that Wolfowitz, as deputy secretary of defense, helped initiate. "It is an enormously unjust war, not fought for any of the reasons put forth," he said. "Very simply, I don't think we should be going to war for oil companies."

-- Thomas E. Ricks

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