Vanguard Jazz Orchestra: A Band in the Vanguard
Before cornetist, flugelhornist, composer and arranger Jones and drummer Lewis brought their big band into the Vanguard, it and most other jazz clubs were either dark or offered alternative, non-jazz entertainment on the off-night (usually Monday). Since then, the off-night big band has become a fixture on the jazz club scene, not only in the Big Apple but also all over the world. That development, along with the exponential growth of high school and college big bands, has insured the vitality of big band jazz in an age when professional full-time big bands are practically nonexistent.
"In 1976 we did our longest tour," remembers trombonist John Mosca. "14 weeks in Europe. Now it's a major task to get out for a few days or tour for a week, as we did twice in December [to Japan and Taiwan]. We're really blessed to have this weekly gig at the Vanguard, but it's really not enough; I've noticed when we go out that after three or four nights the band gets to a different, higher level but we wouldn't be close to that without that steady Monday at the Vanguard."
Since 1995 the band has been an entity of Sixteen as One Music Inc., a not-for-profit corporation and is run as a cooperative, with Mosca as Director; lead alto saxophonist Dick Oatts, Artistic Director; bass trombonist Douglas Purviance, Orchestra Manager; pianist Jim McNeely, Composer-in-Residence; Thomas Bellino, Project Director and Jerry Van Campen, Production Manager. Bellino created the Planet Arts label in 1997 to document the VJO in recordings and since 1995 the band has garnered nine Grammy nominations and two awards. Bellino helped raise money to produce two CDs for the VJO on the New World label in 1995 and 1997, but then, he says, "After being turned down by a few companies, big and small, I had the bright idea of starting a record company that would be artist-driven. Fully expecting the VJO to say no thanks they said great! Let's do it. So Planet Arts started with Can I Persuade You and continues through Monday Night Live. Douglas and I do this together and the band is a working partner."
Mosca, Purviance and McNeely were all members of the band when Jones was still leading it in the mid '70s; he left abruptly in 1979 to direct the Danish Radio Jazz Orchestra in Copenhagen. It was the first of two major shocks the band would weatherthe second being Lewis' death in 1990. Because of their tenure, Purviance feels the "legacy has been handed down to us, this generation of players. We were there with Thad and Mel and the transition to Mel and we had to carry the load ourselves after Mel. So there's a lot of love there that is unsurpassed. We do what we do for the love of the band, to keep the genre going. Without that love the big bands would be gone."
A big part of that legacy is Thad Jones' music and the standards he set as a leader.
"One of the amazing things about the band was Thad's ability to raise the level of the music by just being in front of the band," remembers trumpeter Jon Faddis, who became the band's youngest member, at 18, when he joined in 1971. "In that he was a big influence on me when I became a leader. Sometimes it was just the look in his eye, a look of approval or a look of disapproval. He'd get your attention and make you feel good about how you were doing. And for me, Thad's music was it as far as big bands were concerned. I really enjoyed his music; he had a totally different way of writing, even creating new song forms and his voicings were gorgeous."
Faddis also praises Lewis. "Mel was a great big band drummer, but not in an overpowering way. His drumming was very subtle; he didn't do Broadway fills, just added what was needed, maybe just a hi-hat accent. And he taught me the importance of the first trumpet hooking up with the drummer and how that relationship really guides the band."
Jones' music still anchors the band, but after he left other arrangers also made significant contributions to the band's book. Baritone saxophonist Gary Smulyan joined in 1980 and says he's "remained a member so long because I still consider it a privilege and an honor to play the music of Thad Jones, Bob Brookmeyer, Jim McNeely and all the other wonderful musicians who have written for the band over its long history."
"The writing is what really creates our sound," explains Mosca. "Our book is singular, probably the best book of big band charts since Duke Ellington. Our three main guys [Jones, Brookmeyer, McNeely] are so unique and so good. But our sound still goes back to Count Basie in how the band moves and how we play the beat."
Composer-arranger Bob Brookmeyer, who played valve trombone in the first band, was brought back by Lewis after Jones left to direct the band and contribute new arrangements to the book. He only directed until 1982, but his relationship with the band has been ongoing.
"We're continuing to commission new stuff from him," says Purviance, "and our next CD will be all new Brookmeyer music. He's already given us three new things and they are absolutely gorgeous and the musicians love it. It's going to be a monumental album from one of the great musicians of the genre."
One of the keys to the VJO's artistic success and individual sound, according to McNeely, who was in the piano chair from 1977 to 1984 and returned in 1996, is that the main writers for the band, from Jones on, "all knew the band inside and out and could write music tailor-made for the band. Even though the band has changed completely since 1966 the oldest tenured members were there with Thad and Mel and help keep certain things about the time feel and other aspects of the music going in the band's lineage. Kept it going but made it our own thing, because one of the main goals of the band is to avoid becoming a museum piece. It's a living organism that, on the one hand, respects the old repertoire but, on the other hand, develops new projects and keeps the music new and fresh.
"Thad's writing was a reflection of the era he formed the band, the post-bop era just as Dizzy's big band was an arranged reflection of the bebop era and the Fletcher Henderson big band was a written reflection of Louis Armstrong's playing. The first thing about Thad's music was his harmonic language; it had a density and spiciness to it, especially coming out of the Basie tradition. That's why Count advised Thad to start his own band. But while he had these sharp angles in the reed and brass sections and really advanced harmonies, at the same time he never lost sight of the groove. The music swung so hard not only because of the way it was played but also due to the rhythmic factor in the writing. Like Ellington and Strayhorn, Thad knew that people can tolerate dissonance in harmony and a lot of tension as long as the music keeps their feet tapping."
During his first tenure as the VJO's pianist, McNeely feels he enjoyed the best of two worlds, playing Jones' classic, groundbreaking arrangements and Brookmeyer's new contributions to the book. "Brookmeyer wrote some things specifically for me," he recalls, "and they were a nice departure from the usual big band piano scene where you get to play two choruses to introduce a blues. His charts were wide open, the band would play a chord and lay out and I could play whatever I wanted, completely solo."
Today, McNeely's writing for the band, with its thick harmonies, dense rhythms and stacked melodies, continues to expand the parameters of conventionalreeds, brass and rhythmbig band writing, just as Jones and Brookmeyer had.
The key to arranging for the band, says McNeely, "is to keep one foot in the tradition and heritage of Thad and Mel but take it in new directions. The goal is to write so that the band sounds good, but not regurgitate another guy. You have to respect what the musicians do well while also trying to challenge them. And musicians like to be challenged; they don't like to play the same thing over and over again. And they rise to the challenge. That's the way we all grow."
"Now that Jim's back in the band," Oatts said in 1996, "he brings a whole new feeling to his own music. He brings it alive when he plays, brings out the rhythmic dimension, sets down how it goes for all of us."
"One of the reasons I love this band," says Purviance, "is that as good as it gets, we're always searching, we take risks. For instance, we never do a set show [playing the same tunes in the same order], we do different sets all the time. We never know what we're going to play up until a few minutes before. When we were getting ready to record our last album [the Grammy-winning Monday Night Live at the Village Vanguard], we were going to record the last two days of the week, so common sense said we should play the tunes we were going to record for the first five days. But by the third day we didn't want to play them again and again, because as good as the music is it can get a little complacent and stagnant if you keep playing the same show.
"In Japan in December we were doing four nights, two sets a night and a stipulation of the presenters was that we not repeat any tunes, even in encores. We played all different sets, over 50 tunes. But our book has a lot more; the highest numbered chart is over 300, although there are some gaps, not many, in the sequence. We try to play them all at one time or another."
And they have an open-ended Monday night at the Village Vanguard to do just that.
Selected Discography: Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra, The Complete Solid State Recordings (Solid State-Mosaic, 1966-70)
Mel Lewis Orchestra, 20 Years at the Village Vanguard (Atlantic, 1985)
Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, Lickety Split: The Music of Jim McNeely (New World, 1997)
Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, Thad Jones Legacy (New World, 1999)
Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, Can I Persuade You? (Planet Arts, 2002)
Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, Monday Night Live at the Village Vanguard (Planet Arts, 2008)