The Newly Minted Jazz Orchestra of Philadelphia

Victor L. Schermer By

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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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