Jim McNeely: On the Up and Up

Joao Moreira dos Santos By

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To play or write this music well, it takes work - a lot of work. I'm amazed at how many young folks don't get this!
Jim McNeelyIf you own some of the best records of the Stan Getz quartet or you dig the great jazz orchestras, then there is a good chance that you have heard—or better still—felt Jim McNeely's touch before. Either way, if you want to learn more about some of the jazz giants that McNeely has backed on piano, including Getz, Chet Baker, Ted Curson, Thad Jones, Mel Lewis and Joe Henderson, as well as the jazz composing and arranging process, then you have certainly hit the right button to get to the right page.

Involved in writing and arranging for quite a few big band projects since the 1990s, McNeely was recently appointed artist-in-residence with the Hessian Radio Big Band in Frankfurt, Germany, following intensive collaborations with the Danish Radio Jazz Orchestra, the Metropole Orchestra (Netherlands), the West German Radio (WDR) Big Band and the Stockholm Jazz Orchestra. This year (2008) he will also be working with the Orquestra de Jazz de Matosinhos, from Portugal.

The one million dollar question seems to be: why is he working mainly with European bands?

Chapter Index

  1. In the Beginning
  2. Playing with Ted and Chet
  3. The Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Big Band
  4. From Stan Getz and Phil Woods to Bobby Watson
  5. Trio Music
  6. Composing, Arranging and the Return of the Big Band

In the Beginning

All About Jazz: What got you interested in jazz?

Jim McNeely: I had taken piano lessons since I was seven, and when I was ten I started studying with a teacher who taught theory as well as piano skills. His name was Bruno Michelotti and, while he wasn't a jazz musician, he taught me how to read a lead sheet and play very simple left hand accompaniment to melodies. I didn't know about jazz, but the groundwork had been laid.

I remember seeing Duke Ellington's Orchestra on television, and being so impressed by the whole presentation: the mysterious music, the pride evident in the faces and attitudes of the musicians, and Duke himself—the epitome of coolness.

I went to a Catholic high school near Chicago—Notre Dame High School for Boys—because they had a big band directed by Rev. George Wiskirchen. When I started to play in the "B" Dance Band, I realized that in jazz you could improvise. That really excited me.

AAJ: Did you ever think that one day you were going to be a jazz musician and get to play with such jazz masters as Thad Jones, Mel Lewis, Stan Getz and Joe Henderson or write for the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band?

Jim McNeelyJM: Not when I was in my teens. I was pretty much a nerdy kid from the North Side of Chicago who loved John Coltrane and Miles Davis, and tried to play that kind of music, but didn't think I'd do it as a profession.

It was during my college years at the University of Illinois, that I began to get the idea that I could function in the New York City jazz world, as a pianist. I wasn't sure whom I would play with, but I knew that I wanted to go to New York.

AAJ: Did you ever regret having become a jazz musician? What was the thrill behind it?

JM: I have never, ever regretted it. I am, in fact, proud to have become a professional jazz musician. And very grateful to the many musicians who helped me, and had it a lot tougher than I ever did.

My career has had its highs and lows, but I've never regretted my choice. One of the thrills in jazz happens when I'm playing, and everything is just "happening." I'm not quite sure what will happen next, but it's sure exciting to experience it as it happens! A different kind of thrill occurs when I finally get a chance to play with—or write for—someone I've admired for a long time. Like the first time I played with Thad, or with Elvin Jones; or wrote for Dave Liebman.

AAJ: Do you miss those days playing with Ted Curson, the Mel Lewis Orchestra and then Stan Getz?

JM: I enjoyed those days, and learned a lot from all of those musicians. But I can't really say that I miss them, in the sense of wanting to go back. They were good times, and I have since moved on into other good times.

AAJ: Is there anything from the spirit of those years that you feel is missing in jazz nowadays?

JM: It's hard for me to be objective about that: I was young back then and am older now. But in New York in the late '70s and early '80s there were more small clubs with jam sessions—Folk City, Barbara's. There seemed to be more places to sit in, to hear and to get to know other musicians. Bradley's was happening; so was Boomer's, the Surf Maid, the Village Door. I met a lot of musicians in those clubs, mostly at some time after 2 am. More musicians could afford to live in Manhattan, it was easier to get together and play during the day.

Jim McNeely

Of course, I was single back then, living in a broom closet on Greenwich Street. Nowadays if I'm not playing a gig I try to be in bed at midnight or one, at my house in New Jersey. So maybe I'm part of the problem...

And two big differences between then and now: we played sets, not shows. And very few of us had representation.

AAJ: What about the new generations of jazz musicians. Who do you admire as soloists or arranger/composers?

JM: I certainly don't get a chance to hear everyone, so I'm no expert. But, off the top of my head, I'm impressed by Chris Potter, Dafnis Prieto, Brad Mehldau, Dave Douglas, Brian Blade, Steve Wilson, John Hollenbeck, and many others whom I'll remember at 4 o'clock tomorrow morning.

As for composer/arrangers, Maria Schneider is great. I also really admire Sherisse Rogers, Darcy J. Argue, Vince Mendoza, Florian Ross, Ted Nash, and Joseph Phillips Jr. There are many others and I'm sorry I can't mention them all.


Playing with Ted and Chet

AAJ: Well, if you agree, let's now go back in time. Between 1976 and 1978 you played with Ted Curson. How were you selected and what was it like working with him?

JM: In 1976 I was working in a sextet led by a trombonist named Jerry Tilitz. He had booked a weekend at a club on The Bowery called The Tin Palace. At the same time, Ted was supposed to start a series of weekends at The Five Spot, but they closed down at the last minute. Gary Giddins was helping book Ted, and he arranged for Ted to go into The Tin Palace and share the bill with whomever else was playing there.

So Ted heard me with Jerry's group, and he hired me for his band. I worked with him for about three years, playing in the US and Europe. I also made my first New York record with him.

Ted had a really interesting group of eclectic musicians, all quite different from each other. When I joined the band it had Chris Woods on alto, Nick Brignola on baritone sax, David Friesen on bass, and Steve McCall on drums. It was amazing that Ted could get all of us to play his kind of post-Mingus, "Lee Morgan meets Cecil Taylor," "organized slop" (Ted's term). But it was fun.

Jim McNeely

Ted was always pulling out the bass and drums during people's solos, to see how they'd respond. Later versions of the band included Adam Nussbaum on drums, Howard Johnson on low stuff, Ron Steen on drums, and Mike Richmond on bass. It was loose, sometimes verging on chaotic, but there was never a dull moment.

AAJ:You also played with Chet Baker around this time. Was he easy to get along with musically given all his problems with drugs?

JM: I played with Chet for six months in 1978, just before I joined Thad and Mel. Chet was actually in quite good shape at the time, and playing very strong. A few years later I did a tour in Europe with Chet and Stan Getz. Chet was back into his old routines a little. But musically there was never a problem.

AAJ: What memories do you have of him?

JM: My biggest memory of Chet is that he had incredible ears. We were playing some difficult music—George Shearing's "Conception," and some Richie Beirach tunes, full of chromatic harmony. I never heard Chet struggle with this music. He wove beautiful, inventive melodic lines through the changes. And he had little, if any, formal knowledge of theory.

Chet was also very quiet. I had the impression that the two things he most loved in life were playing music and getting high.


The Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Big Band

AAJ: Then came a stint with the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra from 1978 to 1984. What memories do you have from this historical partnership?

JM: My first memory is actually from 1967, the first time I heard the band on the radio in Chicago. It was Holmes "Daddy-O" Daylie's afternoon show on WAAF. I turned on the radio and heard a very modern quartet playing—saxophone and rhythm section. I wasn't sure who it was, then suddenly BAM! A big band came roaring in. A little bomb went off inside me, and I thought, "Who the hell is that?" After the tune was over Daddy-O came on and said it was the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra. I'd read about them in Down Beat, and was excited to find out that they'd finally recorded.

When I moved to New York in 1975, one of the first things I did was to go down to the Village Vanguard to hear the band. It was the best place to be on Mondays, at least for me. Thad was my idol as far as big band writers went, and the band just played so well. Over the next couple of years I got to know a number of players in the band, including Harold Danko, the pianist. He heard me play, and sent me as a piano sub a couple of times.

Jim McNeely

It was a thrill just to be on the stage with the band. Mel was so easy to play with; I could hear every note I played. Thad wasn't there the first time I subbed, but was there the second time. If he liked what you did, he'd laugh—Thad had one of the world's greatest laughs, and it helped relax me. He and Mel seemed to like what I did. When Harold decided to leave the band in '78 Mel called me to join. I did a few Mondays at the Vanguard, a gig up in Rochester, and then a twelve-week tour of Europe. It was a very taxing tour—sometimes playing two concerts a day, and I think we had 28 nights in a row of gigs without a day off. But it was great to play with Mel, and to comp for Thad, and play all of the wonderful music, night after night.

The tour took a bad turn toward the end though. Thad got kicked in the chops one night in Belgrade, and couldn't play the rest of the tour. He ended up quitting the band with about ten days to go. He'd signed a contract to lead the Danish Radio Big Band, and wanted to settle in Europe. By 1978 Thad and Mel had evolved into a band of younger guys, and the band had just signed a contract with Willard Alexander's office, meaning they'd probably be traveling more.

I had the feeling that Thad's heart wasn't into it any more; he was looking for a change, and wanted to travel less. Anyway, the biggest problem was that he never told Mel about this, and their parting was not happy. They were really like a married couple: Mel the chatty wife, Thad the quiet husband who goes out for a newspaper one night and doesn't come back. And given the young age of most of the band (Dick Oatts, Rich Perry, John Mosca, Steve Coleman, Douglas Purviance, Earl Gardner, myself), Ira Gitler summed it up perfectly: Thad and Mel got a divorce, and Mel got custody of the kids.

On one hand I felt bad that Thad left. On the other hand, Mel asked Bob Brookmeyer to come in as musical director of Mel Lewis and the Jazz Orchestra. Being on the cusp, I was able to experience Thad for a short time, then get to know Bob, who is the other main influence on my big band writing. So it turned out okay.

Jim McNeely AAJ:I think I am correct in assuming that most jazz fans really got to hear you through your participation in the Stan Getz quartet,1981-1985. How important for you was this association?

JM: I think it was very important, both for visibility and for music. Stan had one of the biggest audiences in jazz; he'd been a star since his Woody Herman days, and he was one of the few jazz artists to have had a bona fide hit record. Hard-core jazz fans may have known about me from Thad and Mel, or Ted, or my own small group albums. But Stan gave everyone in his group exposure to a much wider audience. While some of those listeners didn't really care who was in the rhythm section, there were many others who certainly did.

Musically, too, the group always operated at a very high level. When I joined the band Marc Johnson played bass, and Victor Lewis played drums. I was very proud of that rhythm section. The records Stan had made in the early '70s with Chick [Corea] had made a great impact on me, and it felt good to be in the lineage of pianists that included Chick, Albert Dailey, Joanne Brackeen, and Andy Laverne.


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