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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.

AAJ: So you got interested in big band arranging early on in high school. Where did you go from there?

RL: I went to the Eastman School of Music where I first got some formal training in arranging and composing. One of my mentors there was Rayburn Wright, and another was the terrific arranger Manny Albam, who had arranged for Kenton and did a lauded arrangement of Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story among many other great accomplishments. I got a lot of inspiration from him, and occasionally we'd go fishing together, which was great fun. My favorite record by Manny is called The Soul of the City (Solid State, 1966), with J.J. Johnson, Phil Woods, Hank Jones, and other top players. It could easily be added to my desert island list!

Big Bands of the Jazz Age and Swing Era

AAJ: Now let's get down to the big bands, how they sound, how they arrange their music, how they evolved over time. Historically, we have to go back to the swing bands and even before, the 1920s. As jazz came into prominence, big bands were a very important part of its popularity. They set the stage for all the bands that came afterwards. So, for you, which of those bands were the most important and influential in shaping the music?

RL: There were so many bands then, because it was the pop music of the day. I think in the end, history will bear out that there were a smaller number that were highly influential. The first one to come to my mind is the Fletcher Henderson band and the influence of Don Redman, who was one of his key writers [Throughout the interview, the term "writer" refers to a composer and/or arranger -eds.]. Don Redman was for Fletcher Henderson as Billy Strayhorn was for Duke Ellington. And of course when you talk about big band influence, you have to include Ellington, who, with Strayhorn, brought in so many new ideas.

Prior to Duke, most of the big band era writers, and even some of the great arrangers like Glenn Miller himself -who was a terrific arranger, or Mary Lou Williams who was a wonderful writer. All these arrangers of that time were working with what I would call "choirs," of like instruments: the trombones and trumpets playing separately or together as a brass section, and the saxophones in another discrete section. The arrangers would not mix, say, saxophones and brass together unless the full band was playing together at once , written in the score as " tutti."

But until Duke came along, keeping like instruments together was the norm. Even early on with pieces like "Mood Indigo" he suddenly develops what we now call cross-choir or mixed choir writing. In "Mood Indigo" for example, he combines a clarinet in the low register below the trombone and a muted trombone at the top of its range along with a trumpet, using instruments from different families in this mixed choir. That technique, along with his use of brass mutes, was a true revelation and really changed the way people thought about writing for big band. And in later years, Ellington's mixed choir writing probably had a strong influence on Gil Evans. Evans became the modern master of combining instruments in unusual ways and putting them in particular registers to produce a very different sound.

If you look at the Basie band, another extremely influential ensemble, they especially re-defined the roles of the rhythm section instruments. Much of their music, at least in the early days, was built on riffs. They used head arrangements of blues tunes that were turned into full charts as well as charts based on the "I Got Rhythm" chord changes and other standards of that time period.

AAJ: Mixed choir writing gives the music a wholly different presence which distinguished Ellington from all the other bands. Did the classical music of the time influence him in that respect?

RL: Quite likely. We know that he had such an interest. But I think that his experimentation and the fact that he had such great musicians at his disposal were crucial. When he was at the Cotton Club, he frequently wrote music on short deadlines to adjust to changes in the floor shows. And in some cases, he was looking for exotic sounds which also led him to explore the use of mutes. He was particularly interested in using different kinds of mutes for brass instruments, as were Gil Evans and Maria Schneider years later.

AAJ: The word "exotic" really hits the mark for many of his arrangements. I'd like to get back for a moment to the swing bands in general. World War II saw the immense popularity of bands like Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, and the Dorsey Brothers. What characterized those bands that made them so popular?

RL: Because they were so closely associated with entertainment, specifically dancing, they reached a lot of ears, and I think that alone made the big bands popular. Widespread live and recorded radio airplay also helped. They also added singers, which made them hugely popular. Many people who never played an instrument could relate to the singers. Some jazz vocalists like Ella Fitzgerald eventually led their own big bands. Billie Holiday was introduced to wide audiences by Benny Goodman.

AAJ: What you're saying is that the popularity of these bands had a transformative impact on jazz, including many vocalists who got their start in them.

RL: Yes, and it also elevated the importance of the writers/arrangers. It was the writers who gave each band its own identity. They gave each band a signature sound, its own personality. And the writers also had to think of ways to do that in a brief 78 rpm recording that lasted about three minutes.

AAJ: And I think the transition to LPs in the late 1940s made it possible for people like Gil Evans to expand into new directions.

RL: Exactly. This is why it's amazing that Ellington was exploring multi-movement suites like "Black, Brown, and Beige" long before LPs. His longer suites required that record companies issue them on several discs or sides just like they had already done with recorded classical music, Duke refused to have his writing limited by the shortcomings of recordings.

AAJ: Ellington must have had great courage in taking a chance on all these breakthrough ideas.

RL: He had incredible courage. He was going against the grain. He paved the way for the big bands to move ahead with new ideas. He and Strayhorn, along with their collaborations with the individual musicians, created innovative music. And that idea of collaboration between writers and players had a big impact later.

AAJ: The word "swing" brings up the importance of rhythm in the evolution of these bands. With time, the rhythm seems to get more fluid, more suitable for dancing and also for improvising.

RL: Absolutely. It was a gradual process, and the Basie band in particular made the rhythm more modern. The rhythm section of Papa Jo Jones, Freddie Green, Walter Page, and Basie himself made significant changes.

AAJ: Speaking of the Basie band, I'm thinking of the territory bands with Hot Lips Page, Benny Carter, and the others who traveled around the midwest and southwest primarily catering to African American audiences. They weren't as famous as say, Benny Goodman, but they were very impactful, including on Basie.

RL: That's right. The territory bands earned that name because they limited their travel to a specific region of the country. I'm thinking of the Blue Devils and so on. They were very important from the standpoint of giving players who might not otherwise have had an opportunity to be exposed and to give them work, and get on recordings, which helped advanced their careers. Mary Lou Williams, Walter Page, Lester Young, and a host of musicians started out in the territories. Charlie Parker first came to New York with a territory band, the Jay McShann band. They still played danceable music.

AAJ: And the Kansas City sound came from there. Like Papa Jo Jones' use of the ride cymbal instead of the bass drum to lay down the beat.

Modernizing the Big Band: Bebop, Hard Bop, and Cool

RL: The use of the ride cymbal changed the whole way we think about swing. And then of course, bebop came along, which changed everything! Bebop influenced some of the bands, but not all of them. For example, Benny Goodman hired some bebop players and writers and made some effort to embrace that new style. But I think the newer big bands like Woody Herman were probably more open to bebop. Ellington for the most part ignored it. "Cottontail" may be the only thing in Ellington's repertoire that incorporated bebop-like lines and as I recall a sax soli somewhat in that style [the word "soli" refers to a "solo" played by a whole section in unison or harmony-eds].

But the younger bands that emerged during the latter part of the swing era reflected bebop. Some of the bands were taken over by new leaders. The Earl Hines band, for example, was eventually taken over by Billy Eckstine, who totally embraced the new music. He hired Dexter Gordon, Charlie Parker, Gene Ammons, and a lot of boppers who ended up in that band. But because they played bebop, which was less dance-oriented than swing, bands like Eckstine's were less popular. Of course Dizzy Gillespie, one of the pioneers of this new style formed his own bebop big band that also showed Afro-Cuban influences.

Then there were more obscure bands that emerged towards the end of the swing era, like Claude Thornhill. Bop had emerged by that time, and Thornhill hired writers like Gil Evans and Gerry Mulligan to do his arrangements. Evans wrote arrangements based on Charlie Parker tunes. But these more progressive bands lacked popularity. After World War II, many of the big bands folded, with the exception of a few that were able to succeed, like Stan Kenton, later Maynard Ferguson, Woody Herman, and Buddy Rich. They were able to sustain themselves in a way that didn't require them to play dance music all the time.

AAJ: They were big hits at concert halls, emerging jazz festivals, and on the college circuit.

RL: Yes. And, surprisingly, they would occasionally do a dance gig. After Maynard left Kenton's band, he put out a record with his own new big band called Maynard Ferguson Plays Jazz for Dancing (Roulette, 1959). It featured great arrangements of standards by Slide Hampton and others.

AAJ: Economics have had a profound influence on jazz throughout its existence, which is a largely untold story. Charlie Parker played at dance halls in Detroit. Bebop and swing weren't so differentiated at that time.

RL: In the 1970s, I remember driving from Oneonta, NY to Binghamton to hear the Ellington band. It turned out to be a dance gig. They just played dance music. They had to do it to keep the payroll, to keep the band employed. My friend and I were disappointed to say the least!

AAJ: As we're talking about the transition from swing to bebop, one of the forces in that direction was Tadd Dameron, who, in addition to his memorable tunes. did a lot of arranging, rehearsing, and conducting at that time. He shaped the sound of mid-to large-ensemble recordings. Many musicians and critics consider him an unsung hero. What are your thoughts about him?

RL: He was of course a great composer of tunes that became jazz standards. He was an adequate pianist on many gigs, but not a standout. But you're right. Harmonically, he was very sophisticated for the time, When I was teaching at the University of Northern Iowa, in their chart library I stumbled on the original pencil score of Dameron's big band arrangement for a Sonny Stitt recording of "On a Misty Night" (Sonny Stitt and the Top Brass (Atlantic, 1963). I think they had it because Stitt was a guest artist at a jazz festival there, and Stitt must have donated it or left it there absent mindedly.

AAJ: Paul Combs' definitive biography (Dameronia, University of Michigan Press, 2012) has many such stories of Dameron writing arrangements that blew people's minds. So now we're getting into a period of bebop and hard bop that changed the whole face of jazz, not to mention the big bands. Give us a rundown on a few selected big bands that played a significant role in all these changes.

Stan Kenton, Gil Evans, Thad Jones/Mel Lewis and the New Sounds

RL: There are so many that we could look at. Certainly Stan Kenton provided a home for some of the great players of that era of the 1960s. Actually Kenton was not the primary writer/arranger. To get that Kenton sound, he used guys like Pete Rugolo and Johnny Richards. Bob Graettinger did a lot of writing for Kenton, for example on City of Glass (Capitol, 1961). There were writers like Shorty Rogers, Neal Hefti, Bill Russo all doing arrangements for Kenton.

Kenton of course, was famous for his big brass sound. He added mellophoniums, a hybrid piston valve brass instrument [not to be confused with the mellophone -eds.] that sounds something like a French horn. Kenton added four of these mellophoniums to the typical four or five trumpets and trombones. And sometimes he'd use tuba or two bass trombones. He created a very powerful sounding band. It covered the whole spectrum of registers, from screaming high trumpet players like Maynard Ferguson to double bass trombones and/or tuba.

Kenton also had an ensemble he supported that many people don't know about. To me as a writer, it's a very important group. It was called the Los Angeles Neophonic Orchestra. It capitalized on woodwind players from the Hollywood film studios who played everything: saxophone, clarinet, flute, bassoon, and oboe. They made only one recording that I'm aware of, but it's very exploratory (Stan Kenton Conducts the Los Angeles Neophonic Orchestra, Capitol, 1965). They don't worry if it swings or not, but there's always an element of jazz anyhow. The great film composer John Williams has a piece called "Prelude and Fugue" on that album. I guess I was drawn to that album because of my training in classical music and jazz.

These influences become increasingly important during that period. Dizzy Gillespie used Lalo Schifrin, who later enjoyed a significant career in film and television as pianist and writer during that time. He was from Argentina, so we begin to see the elements of Latin American, Caribbean and African music, along with classical music and music from films all being drawn into the mix. Johnny Richards did a suite for Stan Kenton and went to South America and the Caribbean to study their music. He came up with a powerful piece called Cuban Fire (Capitol, 1956). And around that time, Schiffrin is writing a great piece called Gillespiana (Dizzy Gillespie: Gillespiana and Carnegie Hall Concert (Verve, 1993, recorded 1960). Again, that reflected Latin American music from Schiffin's pen.

Around the same time, Gil Evans starts collaborating with Miles Davis, producing Sketches of Spain (Columbia, 1960) based on compositions of the Spanish composer Joaquin Rodrigo. Gil challenged our ears by introducing a new level of dissonance in ways people hadn't heard before. He would take a simple harmony and throw a dissonant note into it. And then he would orchestrate that sound by building on the Ellington tradition of cross-choir writing. For example, he would combine a flutes with muted brass instruments. It was the perfect soundscape for Miles Davis to work with. Evans' orchestrations, the ways he combined instruments to achieve new a different sounds, matched that of Davis' sound perfectly,

AAJ: And Miles often bent the notes to create dissonant tones as well.

RL: Exactly. And, in addition to all these new influences and sounds, jazz composers began to deal with form, something that up until this time they had not much dealt with in terms of experimentation. Most of the arrangements had been patterned after Broadway show tunes, using the song form AABA or a variation of that. So we have the theme repeated once, then the bridge, then another recap of the theme. And the blues form was an even simpler 12-bar theme. Or sometimes they would use the European rondo form, or what became known as our march, with maybe a third melody and even a change of key. But guys like Bob Graettinger and George Russell, another very important writer from the same time period of the 1960s, were beginning to go beyond the traditional forms, even to the extent of creating pieces that were "through composed," where you come up with a theme, and that melody begins organically to develop into a new melody and maybe yet another, and we might never hear a return to the original theme in its entirety. The music just keeps evolving, moving forward without the more typical repetition or recapitulation of what came before. The creative process continues throughout the piece.

AAJ: So in the midst of all these creative innovations around the 1960s, there appears the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra which later became the Village Vanguard Monday Night Orchestra, which continues to this day.

RL: Exactly. Their initial recording called Opening Night (Alan Grant Presents, 1966) came right in the middle of that decade.

AAJ: That band has persisted over the decades because of the great musicians who come on board, and also because of their highly charged and beautiful arrangements.

RL: It was a great outlet for Thad Jones, who contributed most of the compositions and arrangements. And then Bob Brookmeyer started writing for the band as well. And between the two of them, they bring further innovations into the music. You'll recall that Thad Jones comes out of the Basie band and tradition, but his new concepts were almost too modern for the Basie band, so he formed the Vanguard band. And then some of the band members themselves started writing, like flautist/saxophonist Jerry Dodgion.

I've neglected to mention some other influences that were important in the 1960s. How could I forget Oliver Nelson and Charles Mingus? But getting back to the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis band, until Thad Jones left for Europe, he had written many great pieces like "All My Yesterdays," "Big Dipper," "Three and One," and "Once Around," one of my favorites, as it is uniquely, for the time, a modal piece for big band, taking ideas from Coltrane's "Impressions." Trane was playing around with modal ideas, and he apparently had an impact on everyone, even the big band writers.

One of the many innovations of Thad Jones that has some bearing on the future was his use of soprano saxophone as the lead voice instead of alto sax. He also developed away to voice chords that added more dissonance.

After Thad left, there was a period when Mel ran the group for quite a few years. That's when we see the influences of other writers. Mike Crotty did the some of the band's arrangements on a record called Soft Lights and Hot Music (Musicmasters, 1992) along with arrangements by pianist Kenny Werner, saxophonist Ted Nash, and Jim McNeely, who wrote a piece called "Off the Cuff" for the recording.

Eventually, Mel passed away, and the band became a co-op. So people like McNeely contributed not only through his writing but also in leadership.

Another writer who emerged at this time from the West Coast and who influenced the big band sound was pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi. She and her husband Lew Tabackin co-lead a band that introduced a lot of woodwind doubling to the saxophone section. Her music often featured elaborate woodwind solis featuring flutes and clarinets. Her charts were very complex, challenging for the musicians, and like Thad Jones, she went far beyond the earlier Basie approach to writing by using extended chords featuring five or more different notes. And, like Ellington, Akiyoshi was known to be inspired by the individual talents and personal styles of the players in her band. The Akiyoshi-Tabackin Jazz Orchestra recorded a number of important recordings for the RCA and other labels. Road Time (RCA Victor, 1976) comes to mind as an important one as were those that reflected her Japanese roots.

Eclectic Influences

AAJ: As all this is taking place, in the '60s-'70s, new genres are gaining prominence, such as the avant-garde, world music, and jazz fusion. The doors opened wide to all kinds of new influences. What started to happen in the big band world at that point?

RL: During that time in the 1970s, we had Woody, Maynard, Kenton, and Buddy Rich big bands still struggling to stay alive. Among the things that brought new life to them were some new young writers, some who were trained in the Thad Jones style. Woody's band, for example, was brought back to life in later years by John Fedchock who wrote for the band after he joined it as lead trombonist. Guys did fresh arrangements of jazz and pop tunes of the day, just as had happened during the swing era. Herbie Hancock's "Chameleon" was a big hit for Maynard Ferguson's band as was Jimmy Webb's song "MacArthur Park." Woody Herman featured an arrangement of Chick Corea's "Spain," as well as Weather Report's "Birdland" and a Stevie Wonder tune here and there. Thad Jones even created some arrangements of Stevie Wonder tunes that appeared on the Philadelphia International Records label and featured Wonder's "Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing," "Livin' For the City," and a Gamble and Huff pop tune "For the Love of Money."

The more avant-garde influenced writers, like Carla Bley and Anthony Braxton, were influenced by the Art Ensemble of Chicago and to some degree by Ornette Coleman. To me, one of the all time great albums was one by Anthony Braxton called Creative Orchestra Music 1976 (Arista, 1976). So I think in the 1970s the big bands were still here, but they needed to be resuscitated by the writers, again pointing to their importance for large ensemble development and sustainability. And they were influenced by Herbie, Chick, Ornette Coleman, Coltrane and many others. The big bands always to some degree reflect what's going on in the small group world.

AAJ: And perhaps we should also mention Sun Ra and Muhal Richard Abrams and their big band writing as having an impact. As we move forward in time, there's a line of development which I would like to explore: from Gil Evans and Bob Brookmeyer to our current big band leader of great prominence, Maria Schneider, who studied with both of them. Let's explore that connection a bit.

From Gil Evans and Bob Brookmeyer to Now: Maria Schneider and Her Contemporaries

RL: Early on in Maria's career, she was a copyist and assistant to Gil Evans in his later years. She also worked extensively with Bob Brookmeyer. By the way, she was recently inducted as a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts, which is a testament to the significant influence she's had on the modern jazz orchestra. Her music brings with it so much of the past, but pushes it in new directions. For example, you'll never hear the saxophone section play a saxophone soli. The saxophonists spend most of time playing flutes and clarinets giving her music a more orchestral flavor. You'll rarely hear bebop influences in her music, except through soloists' improvisations perhaps.

Her music is melodic and sometimes more through composed, and it is both lyrical and edgy. In the past, it's been influenced by Spanish and Latin American music. She really has capitalized on Ellington's and Gil Evans' notions of cross-choir writing. To me her music is very emotional and conjures up visual images. Much like Ellington and Evans, she has a brilliant knack for being open to her musicians' individuality and strengths and allowing that to influence or even inspire her work. She still has people in her band who have been with her from the very beginning, like pianist Frank Kimbrough. She also utilizes some interesting instruments. She's used wordless vocals much like the great Canadian composer/trumpeter Kenny Wheeler did. She also uses an accordion, which is such an interesting sound! In my opinion she's built on what Gil Evans and Brookmeyer did, bringing a fresh new sound to the large jazz ensemble. In her hands the big band has become very orchestral.

Bob Brookmeyer, in addition to influencing Maria, produced work in the last decade of his life with a European based band (The New Art Ensemble) that I think is also extremely important and influential. Artistshare is releasing a new book in July by Dave Rivello, one of Brookmeyer's former students and now a professor at Eastman. It doesn't analyze Brookmeyer's scores as much as it is about his teaching method. It's about how Bob thought about the music and presented those ideas, based on a first hand perspective. Another composer who has a very original and modern approach is Darcy James Argue, whose work is included in my book, Jazz Scores and Analysis. He also studied with Brookmeyer at the New England Conservatory. And Jim McNeely studied with him as well.

The Book: Jazz Scores and Analysis

AAJ: What led you to put out a book analyzing big band scores?

RL: In the past, my teacher Ray Wright had put together a fantastic book called Inside the Score (Kendor Music, Inc., 2000). He studied three scores each by Thad Jones, Bob Brookmeyer, and Sammy Nestico (who had composed for Basie and many others). That book first came out in 1981. I started thinking how much has happened in jazz composing and arranging since then, so I decided to do a follow-up using a somewhat similar approach with more recent writers who had an influence on me as well as many others. The composers I studied and interviewed for the book were Jim McNeely, Bob Mintzer, John Fedchock, Darcy James Argue, Vince Mendoza, and John Hollenbeck. I felt that their work was having a major impact on modern music. I called it Volume 1 which suggests that I may have a follow-up volume which I'm looking into now.

I thought of including Bob Brookmeyer in Volume I, at least in terms of his later work, which is quite a bit different from what he was writing for the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra and the Gerry Mulligan Concert Big Band. Brookmeyer was based in Europe for many years, where he was kept in employment by the European radio orchestras, like many other American writers. Hollenbeck worked in Berlin and McNeely is still working in Germany and Denmark. Mintzer is working in Germany, and Mendoza has been working with the Metropole Orchestra in the Netherlands for almost a decade and works frequently with the West German Radio Orchestra.

AAJ: Jazz Scores and Analysis is a major work that has very sophisticated insights into the actual scores as well as interviews with the composers. Its full thrust is better left for another occasion, but could you give us a glimpse of how it helps to understand big band sounds and scores in the current era?

RL: It was fascinating for me to look at these scores from the standpoint of harmonic and melodic content; how they develop their ideas over the course of a piece; how they introduced and framed the solo improvisations; and what kinds of embellishments and backgrounds they created to compliment the soloist. I was also interested in how they voiced the harmonies, assigning notes of the chord to specific instruments and how they derived harmony. Each chapter of the book concerns a specific writer and includes a full score with analytical annotations. The chapters conclude with an interview where I focus on their training and influences and their creative process, how they handle challenges, as well as their methodologies.

A common thread among these writers is how they work to break through some of the older traditions, for example, thinking more melodically rather than about traditional chord structures. How do the melodies themselves inspire the harmonies? In fact, in many cases I couldn't use traditional chord symbols to represent their harmony. Their harmonies are often inspired by the melodies themselves, rather than the melodies being forced to adhere to a chord progression, so they're much less bound to the big band traditions that earlier writers conformed to.

AAJ: It sounds roughly like the change from impressionist painting to cubism. With cubism the objects themselves could be altered in all sorts of ways.

RL: Precisely. They build on the tradition. John Fedchock, for example, takes the Thad Jones tradition to a new level. John still uses chord progressions, especially for the soloists to blow on. In general, I was really pleased that the musicians I asked all agreed to participate and were more than willing to share their ideas with others.

AAJ: A wonderful thing about the interviews is that they show in depth how the score is influenced by the personal and musical struggles of the writers. McNeely in particular talks about how his writing reflects his personal life, even his unconscious mind. At times, he almost psychoanalyzes himself!

RL: The music and the person's life experiences are closely intertwined.

AAJ: Charlie Parker said, "If you haven't been through it, it won't come out of your horn." Big band composing and arranging seems to be increasingly reflecting that idea. Certainly, Maria Schneider's work has a deep personal current running through it. It's almost autobiographical.

RL: Absolutely, and for me, it's as if Maria writes like a dancer. If you watch her conducting, she's choreographing the piece as it develops in time. She doesn't just beat time, she conducts the music as it evolves, painting a picture. And all the senses come into play, not just the ear.

Closing Thoughts

AAJ: I can't thank you enough for sharing so many wonderful ideas. Now, as we wrap up, perhaps you could offer a few reflections about big band music right now and what's on the horizon?

RL: Not to end the interview on a negative note, I have to say that now the biggest challenge to advancing this particular part of the jazz continuum is the daunting economic situation of maintaining a big band, keeping the art form working and vibrant. Europe is doing a lot more than the U.S. in keeping big band music alive instead of it becoming a museum piece. Jazz musicians and writers are very resourceful, and I have to believe they'll continue to find a way.

The music itself will I think continue to be influenced by classical music. The avant-garde and free music will continue to exert an influence on big band writing. And world music will also have a greater impact. Also, I think other art forms will play a role, especially through collaborations between musicians, visual artists, dancers, the cinema, and so forth. I think innovations in big band music may come about through those collaborative efforts. I also think that composers will continue to grapple with that old problem dating back to Jelly Roll Morton, that is, where and how does the improviser fit in a jazz composition for large ensemble? Small group jazz is an art for the player but big band music is more of a vehicle for the writer, but without the players we are nothing.

AAJ: One very special example of integrating the art forms is Daniel Schnyder's Yardbird Suite, an opera that integrates large ensemble music, including improvising, with a libretto, dramatic acting, and visual stage effects. And films, in which background music has always played a key role, are becoming more ingenious in their use of music, not to mention everything else, in creating an effect. Daniel Pritzger's recent film, Bolden, about the first New Orleans jazz trumpeter, is a kaleidoscopic concatenation of Jazz Age music contributed by Wynton Marsalis, with post-modern visual effects.

RL: Jeff Beale, who studied with my teacher Ray Wright, started out playing trumpet and writing arrangements for big bands. He's huge now in scoring for TV and film.

AAJ: To summarize, big band creativity and writing have always been remarkable, and future developments are very promising. But more and more the finances are difficult. Yet, thanks largely to European audiences, there's a thriving big band culture today.

RL: European audiences seem to be more curious and open-minded than we Americans are. It's a cultural difference. For many years, the radio orchestras throughout Europe were government funded and the bands got so well-established that they've been able to keep the funding coming through other sources. But, money aside, big bands have always been an important aspect of jazz around the world and will continue to be.

Top Photo: Alto saxophonist Dick Oatts solos with the Village Vanguard Orchestra, 2012; John Rogers/NPR.
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