Rick Lawn: The Evolution of Big Band Sounds in America

Victor L. Schermer By

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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.


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