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Jazz Orchestras

Nick Catalano By

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This excerpt appears in New York Nights: Performing, Producing and Writing in Gotham (IUniverse, 2008).

In addition to the productions of the dance band shows, being a Performing Arts producer meant that I had the opportunity to present artists from every genre imaginable. I steadfastly tried to adhere to some sense of objectivity listening carefully to comments and requests from students, faculty and patrons from the outside communities. Often, imaginative ideas arose out of discussions with these groups of all the music genres; however, one wound up pleasing everyone and coincidentally gave me a large measure of satisfaction.

In 1976, the winner of the academy award for best picture was "Rocky." In addition to being the overwhelming sentimental choice, it had been a well-directed, well-acted film. The music score by Bill Conti not only won awards but seemed to resound throughout America that year. I was doing some musical producing in Philadelphia that year so I began hearing the "Theme from Rocky" in my sleep; as the setting for the film, and the focus of the bi-centennial the city in the center of the world's public eye. I went to the Robin Hood Dell concert center to see the Maynard Ferguson band which was enjoying a rare moment for a jazz orchestra—they had the hit record of "Rocky" and their fees had suddenly increased. This had occurred during a period when Maynard had his usual extraordinary sidemen and recorded some notable jazz albums. The "Rocky" album had then become icing on the cake. At the Philly concert, the band was really roaring and the huge crowd went wild. I called Richie Barz in New York and he told me he had a great date on the routing book and would give me first dibs on it. Naturally, I grabbed it.

Born in Quebec Canada in 1928, Maynard had the usual credentials of a child prodigy. He played with the Jimmy Dorsey orchestra as a youngster, then moved on to Boyd Raeburn's band (not very successful commercially but memorable for its jazz innovations). From there Maynard had moved on to the Charlie Barnet band where he'd played alongside Doc Severinsen finally attaining international prominence with Stan Kenton. Early on, Maynard's trademark was his incredible range. No one before him had ever played consistently well in upper ranges that could only be heard by animals. And he could do it night after night.

At my 1976 concert, the band featured immortal sidemen such as Bobby Militello, Mike Migliore and a baritone saxophonist from Aukland New Zealand—Bruce Johnston.

Maynard had employed Denis DiBlasio, Jaki Byard, Alan Broadbent and a host of other great players who had gone on to achieve stardom. He had uncanny ability to uncover sidemen who were primed for greatness and playing alongside Maynard seemed to bring out the best in everyone. People of all ages went wild at my show. The exciting sound of Maynard's brassy band electrified patrons who had previously shunned jazz. Later, Maynard recorded a jazz arrangement of "McArthur Park"- and another one of the popular Beatles tune "Hey, Jude." Maynard's arrangers could preserve the pop identity of a song but still give it an authentic jazz feel. I booked Maynard several times during those years and sold out every concert.

No jazz orchestra of the swing era had sacrificed more for his art than Stan Kenton. Founded in the midst of the dance band craze, the band had signaled loud and clear—"no dancing here." Stan had very clear ideas on what he wanted his band to accomplish. The challenge was to integrate the new harmonic development in both jazz and classical music against the best traditions of ancient polyrhythm.

Employing writers such as Johnny Richards, Bill Russo and Bill Holman who were far in front of the mainstream, Stan had set the bar for success very high. But from the start on Balboa Island in California, the sound of the band appealed to enough people so that the payroll could be met. And some of the charts attained fair grades on the Billboard charts such as "Across the alley from the Alamo," and "Artistry in Rhythm." Kenton also employed some excellent singers (de rigueur in those early days) like Anita O'Day and June Christy so that the appeal of the music could be extended. Throughout the 50's and sixties, truly outstanding musicians filled the chairs in the Kenton band. The names read like a who's who: Mel Lewis, Milt Bernhart, Kai Winding, the Condoli brothers, Maynard Ferguson, Vido Musso, Lennie Niehaus and many others.

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