The Newly Minted Jazz Orchestra of Philadelphia

Victor L. Schermer By

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The newly minted Jazz Orchestra of Philadelphia is an exciting, ambitious project co-founded by renowned trumpeter and Temple University educator Terell Stafford and intrepid jazz supporter Deena Adler, Odean Pope's manager. The Orchestra has already made waves in the Philly jazz community through its two performances in the Courtyard of City Hall, symbolizing its close connection to the city. On January 7, 2014, a gala inaugural celebration concert will be held at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts Verizon Hall, featuring the 17-piece band with Stafford at the helm, hosted by Bill Cosby and with guest appearances by Philadelphia-bred jazz greats Jimmy Heath, Kenny Barron, Randy Brecker, Odean Pope, Larry McKenna, Bootsie Barnes, Tony Williams and also Wynton Marsalis to add his support.

The Jazz Orchestra of Philadelphia features music performed, composed, and arranged by Philly's rich heritage of musicians, past and present. To all accounts, it is taking the city by storm. All About Jazz readers should know more about this stellar Orchestra. We interviewed Stafford and Adler to get some of the details in depth. In addition, Stafford filled us in on his own experiences as a jazz musician that led to the new venture.

The Initial Idea for the Jazz Orchestra of Philadelphia

AAJ: How did each of you get the first inkling of a jazz orchestra of Philadelphia? How did the concept come to each of you, and what led you to talk to one another about it?

DA: A parallel line of thinking occurred with us simultaneously. From my end, I'd been very involved with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra for several years, and also am friend and manager of the great saxophonist Odean Pope, who has given me a real education about the legacy of jazz in Philadelphia. One day I was thumbing through a magazine, and I saw an ad for the Cleveland Jazz Orchestra, and I had a "Eureka!" moment. I thought, "Cleveland? What about Philadelphia? Why doesn't Philadelphia have a jazz orchestra?"

I thought to myself, Philadelphia has such a rich jazz legacy. And Terell Stafford immediately came to my mind as the leader, especially since he is right here at Temple University. This would be perfect! I had already talked informally to the people at Lincoln Center about how Terell should be leading a jazz orchestra. So I passed the idea on to Gary Steuer's wife Sophie [Gary Steuer was serving as head of the Mayor's Office of Cultural Affairs—Eds], and she suggested I talk to Gary, and he said, "This is a good idea. Come on down and let's talk about it." So Gary and I met, and I told him that Terell should definitely be the artistic director. And then I called Terell, and he was right on board. He can best tell you the reasons for that.

TS: It's a story that has a long history behind it. To begin with, some years ago, Wynton Marsalis asked me to join Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra as a regular player, but I couldn't commit to it. I had just gotten my gig at Temple, and I wanted to devote myself to building up the jazz program there.

The "back story" here is that I'd been part of Bill Cosby's show "You Bet Your Life." The way I got that gig was when I was working in DC, and the trumpeter I performed with just happened to be the great Johnny Coles, who is from Philadelphia. So I'm standing on stage with this living legend, and I said to him, "It's a pleasure to work with you. Is there any way I can come see you when we get back to Philadelphia?" He said, "Absolutely!" So I hung out with him, and he told me Mr. Cosby was auditioning musicians for his game show and was looking for a trumpet player. Coles said, "I'd audition, but my eyesight isn't what it used to be, so why don't you do it?" So he took me to the audition, and Tim Warfield and Shirley Scott were there, and they asked me to read a part. They liked what they heard, and they hired me, and I worked on Cosby's show for about three years, right here in Philadelphia at the WHYY studios. Cosby, Johnny Coles, Tim, and Shirley were all big reasons I centered my career in Philadelphia. So that's how I began to establish jazz roots in this city.

Bill Cosby had a big influence on me. Every week, I'd come in and, and since he had a PhD in Education we'd talk about teaching, and then one day, he said, "I think you should teach." And I said, "I don't wanna teach. I just wanna play." He came back with, "If you teach, it'll make you a better player." And after that, he'd make numerous references to me teaching. And then one time he asked me, "How do you like playing on this show?" And I said, "I love it." And he said, "If you love playing on this show, why don't you consider teaching?" I took that as an ultimatum! So I started to teach at Cheney University, and then when a teaching position became open at Temple, Shirley Scott asked me to apply. And Kim Berry, at Temple's radio station WRTI-FM, also suggested it. So when Wynton asked me to be in the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, while flattered, I turned him down for a regular gig because my life and career were centered at Temple and in Philadelphia.

Given that my career is now focused around Temple and Philly, here's how the idea for a Philadelphia based jazz orchestra came up for me. I do some work on the road, and at one point I played with the Columbus, Ohio, Jazz Orchestra with Byron Stripling. That was about five or six years ago, and that's when it first crossed my mind to start an orchestra in Philadelphia, but I hesitated, thinking it would take so much work and require such a large staff, so the idea slipped my mind. Then two years ago, I was at the Pittsburgh Jazz Festival, and I jammed with some of the local musicians there. And one of them happened to mention, "Tomorrow, we're playin' in the Pittsburgh Jazz Orchestra," and that's when I first said out loud, "Philadelphia should have a jazz orchestra!" And they agreed, "Yes, they should! If Sean Jones can do it here, you can do it in Philly!" So, I got home from Pittsburgh, was excited about the idea of a jazz orchestra, and, two days later, Deena called me with the same idea!

AAJ: You both had the same thought at the same time. And you both discovered that many cities do have a jazz orchestra "in residence."

DA: And I'd gotten to know the musicians and the staff of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, and had traveled with them. The first time was when I was with them in New Orleans after Katrina, when Wynton premiered "Congo Square." So I got a taste of the music, the life, and the finances of a jazz orchestra that should prove useful for the one in Philly.

The Musical and Educational Mission of the Jazz Orchestra of Philadelphia

AAJ: So the orchestra was conceived on the day you spoke to one another about it. And now it's a reality. What do you see as your mission and goals for the newly minted Jazz Orchestra of Philadelphia?

TS: First of all, we want to bring everyone's attention to the Philadelphia jazz scene. There's a rich musical culture in Philadelphia. Many great musicians past and present have been here and made so many contributions to jazz and other musical genres. And some of them, though certainly not all, have been unfortunately overlooked. So the purpose of the orchestra is to play music from the great musicians from the city, their tunes, their arrangements, and bring to light and everyone's attention what great music comes out of Philadelphia then and now.

AAJ: Who are some of the great big band arrangers from Philly that you're thinking about?

TS: Odean Pope is a great arranger. Jimmy Heath is a great arranger. Lee Morgan was a terrific arranger. Dizzy Gillespie had some affiliations with Philadelphia. Benny Golson, like Dizzy, is of course a great composer and arranger. Larry McKenna is a great arranger. Larry's library of big band arrangements is huge.

My concepts for a Philly-based jazz orchestra require some background information. I had been classically trained, and it was only after I met the great organist Shirley Scott, that I learned a lot about jazz here in Philadelphia. When I came to Philly, I was just getting my feet wet in jazz. So when I took on the jazz band at Temple's Music Department, I called David Baker at the University of Indiana for tips. He told me to talk to Frank Foster, at that time the leader of the Basie Band. So I started talking to band leaders. Then, lo and behold, about a week later, I got a position in the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band! And who was in that band but Jimmy Heath! So I went up to him and said, "Help me!" And Frank Wess was there, and they were all teaching me about big bands. And then back in Philadelphia, I ran into Larry McKenna, and he offered me his big band charts, and I started to do them with the Temple band. And we'd perform them at various festivals, and everyone asked me who wrote them, and it's McKenna. He writes great, great charts. And there are other guys here who are doing great arrangements. For example, there's Norman David. He's already done some for our new Jazz Orchestra of Philadelphia.

AAJ: So Philadelphia has some highly gifted big band arrangers, both past and present. That would be a natural resource for the Jazz Orchestra.

TS: There are lots of great arrangers and players here. Some of them are faculty at both the University of the Arts and Temple. So that's the musical mission—to present the Philadelphia jazz heritage—but equally important is the educational mission. The only way we can perpetuate jazz and the Phildelphia legacy is to educate young people about it. We need to find ways to bring them into the orchestra's concerts, the rehearsals, the master classes. And then eventually, we'll have people write commissioned projects based on different themes. Recently, at Temple, we commissioned work based on the music of Thad Jones. In fact, at one time, The Thad Jones Orchestra was the mentoring orchestra for Temple University. So now, the Jazz Orchestra of Philadelphia can be the mentoring orchestra. And we can commission works that would be performed by JOP and by the students as well at side-by-side rehearsals.

AAJ: So you'll get the students to interact with the experienced masters.

TS: We'd supplement the Temple Prep Program and the Kimmel Center Prep Program in terms of the big band component. In fact, we originally intended to name our group "The Philadelphia Jazz Orchestra" until we found out there's a youth group by that name in New Jersey, and the directors teach in Princeton High School. So we could work with them as well. We want to pull in as many youth as we can. And I've been conducting the All City High School Band for the past eight years. So we could have the members of Orchestra come to the rehearsals of the All City band and coach them. So that's how we will keep this music alive going forward.
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