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Thad Jones Centennial

Thad Jones Centennial

Courtesy George Kemper


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Not only was Thad a prominent Basie solo voice, few realize that he also wrote nearly 25 arrangements for the band.
On March 28, 2023, the great arranger, bandleader, cornetist, and composer Thad Jones (1923-1986) would have turned 100 years old. As influential as he was during his lifetime, that influence has grown even more pervasive since his death.

Thad was a Detroit native, a member of one of the "royal families" of jazz: His brothers were pianist Hank Jones, giant of the jazz scene as well as of the New York City recording studios; and drummer Elvin Jones, best known for his membership in the John Coltrane Quartet, but whose music was so much broader than that. After earlier territory band gigs, Thad subbed for Clark Terry with Count Basie's small group in 1950—which led, four years later, to Basie hiring him for a tenure with the legendary "New Testament" big band. Not only was Thad a prominent Basie solo voice, few realize that he also wrote nearly 25 arrangements for the band, including four that appear on the iconic Basie Chairman of the Board recording (Roulette: 1959).

In 1965, two years after his departure from Basie, Jones reunited with Stan Kenton drummer Mel Lewis, whom he had met earlier at a Basie/Kenton "battle of the bands." The two thought that they might form a band—a historic idea, not only musically but also racially. At that time, African-American and white musicians knew and respected each other and jammed together informally, but except for a few rare cases, record companies did not believe that the American public was "ready" for racially mixed bands. Despite this, Thad and Mel formed a truly interracial big band, with some of Thad's former Basie compatriots like Snooky Young and Quentin Jackson (who was also with Ellington), and some of Mel's former fellow Kentonites such as baritonist Pepper Adams. Village Vanguard club owner Max Gordon gave them "a few Monday nights" beginning on February 7, 1966—and, unexpectedly, the lines into the club went around the corner. The string of Monday nights continues to this day, and the Thad Jones—Mel Lewis big band, now known as the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, is in its 57th year. No known engagement has lasted longer, in any musical style.

At the height of that Vanguard gig and the popularity of the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra, Jones made another historic commitment. Then living in Teaneck, NJ, he accepted a full-time, tenured faculty position at New Jersey's William Paterson College (now University, as of 2000). This marked the first time anywhere that a jazz musician of this caliber became a full-time member of any faculty as part of a jazz studies program.

Thad's appointment at William Paterson in 1973 by Dr. Martin Krivin coincided with the first year of an actual jazz degree program there—one of only five in the nation at that time. Dr. Krivin (who died at age 81 in 2011) was truly the "inventor" of the Jazz Studies Program on the campus, also the founder of the school's historic Jazz Room concert series, now the longest-running campus-based jazz concert series in the nation.

As a faculty member, Jones directed the student big band and taught a number of different classes. He also brought in a number of his band members as faculty and guest performers, further building the historic link between the "real world" of jazz and the world of academe. The band members were: Mel Lewis, (pianists) Harold Danko and Roland Hanna, and, later, (bassist) Rufus Reid, (pianist) Jim McNeely, (baritone saxophonist) Gary Smulyan, (drummer) John Riley, and (tenor saxophonist) Joe Lovano. Saxophonist Bobby Keller was also on the faculty, often handling rehearsal duties while Jones was away on tour. That campus/band bond between William Paterson University and the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra is still strong, with current faculty (tenor saxophonist) Rich Perry, (trumpeter) Cecil Bridgewater, and former band member (trombonist) John Mosca.

Also, during this time, the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Quartet/Quintet was an ensemble-in-residence at William Paterson. It periodically appeared at the then new Jazz Room Series, and also could be heard in what would today be called pop-up concerts—in front of the student union, the library, and other locations on campus. That group included Thad, Mel, Danko, and bassist Reid, sometimes along with saxophonist Jerry Dodgion or other band members.

When Jones departed the U.S. to live in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 1978, he left the band, and his William Paterson teaching post. Dr. Krivin was as surprised as anyone, but he had seen Rufus Reid's teaching style during the Thad-Mel Quartet's campus workshops. When he first asked Rufus if he would be willing to come on as jazz director, Reid's reply was a flat no: "I didn't come to New York to be a teacher, I came to be a bassist." Krivin responded by asking Reid if he might be able to finish out that week of Thad's unexpected departure. That first week of Reid's teaching turned into the rest of the semester, which eventually turned into 20 years as the Director of Jazz Studies. Dr. Krivin could be very persuasive. The two worked together to put the Jazz Program on the map, nationally and internationally.

A more recent legacy of Thad Jones on the William Paterson campus is the creation of the Thad Jones Archive, part of the Living Jazz Archives. These also include personal collections from the legendary Clark Terry (the Living Jazz Archives' founder), pianists James Williams and Harold Mabern, saxophonists Michael Brecker and Lee Konitz, and the collections of Jim McNeely, Don Sebesky, and Albert Regni. These include thousands of pages of personal music and practice notes, instruments, mouthpieces, letters, awards, photos, thousands of one-of-a-kind gig tapes, and other memorabilia.

The Thad Jones Archive contains over 100 of Thad's original handwritten scores, and hundreds of original ink parts, including all that were on the bandstand that first night in 1966. The archive also contains many hours of live recordings of the band on tour, photos, tour programs, and more. I have become an inspired "Thad detective," helping to find lost music around the world, and to work with Thad's publisher, Kendor Music, to correct discrepancies between the published and recorded versions of his music. Later this year, I will work with publisher eJazzLines to publish a book, 85 Thad Jones Small Group Compositions, including the "parents" of some of Thad's most well-known big band arrangements such as "Three and One," "Little Pixie," "Kids Are Pretty People," and "Tip Toe," all of which began their lives as small-group pieces. All book royalties will go to the Thad Jones Archive.

On the night of what would have been Thad's 100th birthday, March 28, 2023, Dizzy's Club at Jazz at Lincoln Center has invited William Paterson students and faculty to present "THAD AT 100," featuring the WP Jazz Orchestra performing Thad's big band compositions in the first set, and two of WP's 24 quintets and sextets performing his small group music in the second set. That concert will be re-staged at William Paterson University in the Jazz Room concert series on Sunday, April 2 at 4:00 PM.

The strength and longevity of Professor Thad Jones' legacy at William Paterson University is palpable; the Living Jazz Archives are truly that: Thad's music lives on in the students' deep study and regular performances of it. This is perhaps best expressed by a slogan that William Paterson jazz students came up with, "THAD LIVES HERE."


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