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Rick Lawn: The Evolution of Big Band Sounds in America

Rick Lawn: The Evolution of Big Band Sounds in America
Victor L. Schermer By

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From the latter part of the Jazz Age through the Swing Era, big bands dominated the jazz scene and a large part of the entertainment industry. After World War II, their fortunes declined, but their music soared to new heights, spurred on by innovative leaders, instrumentalists, and very importantly, the composers/arrangers who worked behind the scenes writing the large ensemble scores which required increasing ingenuity and resourcefulness. The back story of what made the big bands transform over time is largely theirs.

For nearly a century, big band sounds have thrilled audiences and played a key role in the evolution of the music. But many of us are not familiar with how these sounds evolved, incorporating new approaches as they came along. In this interview, we explore the changes in the sounds, from Fletcher Henderson and Duke Ellington through Count Basie, Stan Kenton, Gil Evans, and the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Monday Night Village Vanguard Jazz Orchestra to current innovative big bands such as those led by Maria Schneider, John Fedchock, and Vince Mendoza.

Through it all, the writers/arrangers have conceived the new forms, instrumentation, and signature sounds of these iconic big bands. Some of the writers have been leaders and band members, while others have worked behind the scenes. Here, realizing that jazz history is so dense that no one perspective can cover all bases, we take a bird's eye look at these innovators and the sounds that emerged not just from their horns but from their pens.

There are few who are as informed and experienced regarding this subject as Rick Lawn. He is a rare combination of a jazz instrumentalist and composer/arranger in addition to being a noted scholar/educator and historian. Lawn recently retired as Dean of the College of Performing Arts at The University of the Arts and is now Professor Emeritus there. Prior to moving to Philadelphia he was the Founding Director of Jazz Studies, Chair of the Department of Music, and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at The University of Texas in Austin. As a member of the Nova Saxophone Quartet he has recorded on the Musical Heritage Society, Crystal, and Equilibrium labels. He is also a composer and arranger and leads his own ensemble, Power of Ten.

Lawn is the author of the comprehensive historical survey of jazz, Experiencing Jazz , published by Routledge and used internationally in jazz education programs. Other books include The Jazz Ensemble Directors Manual (C.L. Barnhouse, 1976), Jazz Theory and Practice (J. Hellmer and R. Lawn, Revised Edition, Alfred Music, 1996), and the remarkable new masterwork Jazz Scores and Analysis, Vol. 1 (Sher Music, 2018), elucidating the mysteries of those marks and lines on big band scores known to musicians as "charts."

All About Jazz: For a warmup, what are the big band recordings that you would take to the infamous desert island?

Rick Lawn: That's a really challenging question. For me, it would depend on the day it's asked. I hope readers don't take it as an "all-time best" list; it's just what's coming up in my mind today. So here goes. I think I'd have to take Miles Davis/Gil Evans Sketches of Spain (Columbia, 1960). At least one Vince Mendoza album, either Epiphany (Zebra, 1999) or Jazzpana (ACT, 1992). I'd have to have one Maria Schneider album, and probably that would be Allegresse (AristShare, 2000). I would want a Thad Jones/Mel Lewis big band record, maybe even the first one that was reissued, called Opening Night (Alan Grant Presents, 2000; recorded 1966), And a Duke Ellington Suite, maybe the Far East Suite (Bluebird/RCA, 1966).

Coming Up and Smitten by Big Band Arrangements

AAJ: Those are intriguing selections. So, before we start exploring the big bands, let's get some information about you. How did you come up, and how did you become interested in big band composing and arranging?

RL: Musically, I started out as an alto saxophonist, and only later took up the clarinet, tenor, flute, and baritone sax. I grew up in Springfield, PA, in suburban Philadelphia. I had two great teachers. I studied in junior high school with a guy named Scott Reeves [not the trombonist by the same name -eds.], and a little later, in high school, with Luca Del Negro. Both of them were active, gigging musicians. Scott studied arranging in New York. This was in the 1960s, and there was a music tent nearby which brought in bands like Stan Kenton and Maynard Ferguson for concerts. Scott would load up a van and drive us students out to hear those great shows.

So by the time I got to high school, I was already serious about music, studying saxophone and clarinet privately with Joe Salatino and later Bob Finelli. I soon got interested in writing for the Springfield High School jazz band. I bought a kind of jazz arranging kit, published by Leeds I think. It had all kinds of information about arrangements, including examples. Crazily enough, I also tried my hand at arranging "The Old Castle" movement of Pictures at an Exhibition for our high school jazz band! Del Negro coached me a little on that. Once, I brought a jazz album for him to hear, because I felt that the most interesting parts of one of the tracks were missing from the chart our band had. It was piece called "Waltz of the Prophets," composed and arranged by Dee Barton (Stan Kenton: Adventures in Jazz, Capitol, 1968). Luca wore out the LP transcribing the missing parts. He had to buy me a new album! And we ended up playing it as it was recorded.

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