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Knoxville Jazz Orchestra

When trumpeter, arranger and composer Vance Thompson called the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra’s first rehearsal in August of 1999, he had no way of knowing the extent to which this experience would shape the next two decades of his life. Thompson had just returned home to East Tennessee after a four year stint in Chicago, and was anxious to find a way to continue writing for and playing in a pro-caliber big band. Bands of this type had been plentiful in Chicago, but there was no such outlet in Knoxville at the time.

“When I looked around and thought about the players that were in the area, I realized we had enough guys to have a high quality band,” said Thompson. “I started making calls to see who was interested, and everyone on my A-list said yes.”

By the end of the group’s first rehearsal, it was clear that the band had potential. A weekly rehearsal schedule was established, and soon they were playing in public and attracting attention.

The band quickly became a laboratory for Thompson’s writing. Keith Brown, who doubled as the KJO’s drummer and the director of the University of Tennessee’s jazz big band, commissioned Thompson to write arrangements of six Donald Brown compositions. Those charts became fodder for the band’s first recording (The Music of Donald Brown) in 2000, and the recording was used to secure 2001 performance slots at the Montreux Jazz Festival, Jazz a Vienne and the Ezcarary Jazz Festival in Spain.

The trip to Europe was a success and the experience imbued everyone in the band with a sense of ownership. It was a not, however, a sustainable business model. Traveling with a seventeen-piece band was impractical for a variety of reasons and focusing entirely on original repertoire would not allow the band to perform often enough locally to gain much traction.

In early 2002, the group’s focus shifted toward growing an audience for jazz in East Tennessee. The band formed a non-profit organization to support them financially and expanded their activities. They began inviting acclaimed musicians to Knoxville to perform with the band to maximize the buzz surrounding each event. They started a youth orchestra for high school students to encourage interest in younger musicians and their families. They sponsored public jam sessions and began several small group concert series to diversify the types of music available to local audiences and to create additional performing opportunities for regional musicians.

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Reviews of the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra’s Blues Man from Memphis release:

"This Orchestra of Knoxville, TN has transformed its city into a new jazz mecca." - Vibrations.com Paris, France

"Four stars. Listeners who enjoy modern big bands will find much to savor during these flawless performances." - Scott Yanow, All Music Guide

"The KJO, a local ensemble with world-class talent, performs with ardor and finesse, whether live or in studio. A splendid session from stem to stern." - Jack Bowers, All About Jazz

"The music is fresh and contemporary, with deep-seated roots. The arrangements, mostly by Vance Thompson, are full-blooded but never overpowering

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Concert Schedule

Album Discography

Recordings: As Leader | As Sideperson

The Road Less Traveled

Blue Canoe Records
2019

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Blues Man from...

Blue Canoe Records
2007

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The Road Less Traveled

From: The Road Less Traveled
By Knoxville Jazz Orchestra

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