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The Newly Minted Jazz Orchestra of Philadelphia

Victor L. Schermer By

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AAJ: Billy Cosby has always been supportive of Philly musicians, some of whom he grew up with, like Bootsie. And of course, he's always had musical aspirations himself.

TS: Here's another story about Mr. Cosby that relates to his generosity. Clark Terry and I have always been close, and one time I had to pick him up and drive him to Temple for a concert. We were sitting in the dressing room, and he has diabetes and he said, "I need my insulin shot now. And you have to do the injection." And I'm afraid of needles, and my hands were shaking. I was a wreck, and I had to go out and do a concert! Just then, someone tapped me on the shoulder and said, "Who is the emcee for this concert?" I didn't know who it was and didn't turn around. I just said, "I am." And he said, "You're fired!" I turned around and it was Mr. Cosby! [Laughter.] So he emceed the concert, and then he came up to me and asked, "Who plays lead alto in this group?" So I pointed to the saxophonist, a kid, and Cosby took him outside and gave him an alto sax that belonged to Jackie McLean!

DA: He also gave Walter Blanding his first saxophone. Someone had told Mr. Cosby that the young Blanding couldn't afford a saxophone, so he bought one for him.

Honoring the Musical Diversity of Philadelphia

AAJ: Let's get back to the Jazz Orchestra of Philadelphia. Philly has one of the most diverse jazz scenes in the country and the world. I almost just then said "Arkestra" instead of orchestra, of course thinking of the legendary Sun Ra Arkestra, which has been based in Philly for a few decades. We have everything from them to Larry McKenna to Odean Pope, Jimmy Heath, Dave Liebman, Bobby Zankel—so many different styles and genres. How will the Jazz Orchestra of Philadelphia honor the musical diversity in this city?

DA: And let's not forget McCoy Tyner's enormous impact. Also, someone we rarely hear about is Hassan Ibn Ali. He lived in North Philly and made only one recording with Max Roach and died young. Odean used to go over after school and play with him every day. Even in his short life, Ali influenced so many different Philadelphia musicians, including McCoy!

TS: I'm glad you mentioned McCoy, since he himself has a fantastic big band. I played with McCoy for three or four years. And I hope to involve him in some way with the new orchestra. Yes, one of our missions is to reflect and honor and build upon the diverse styles and musicians who have come through Philadelphia. And if you look at our personnel, you'll see that diversity. Someone said about our gala event, "If you get all those folks on stage, what's left for the orchestra to do? But even though there will be so much happening, the gala concert will be just a taste, the tip of the iceberg. For example, I would love to do a whole concert just on Kenny Barron. He combines the Philly influence with Thelonious Monk's and has generated something unique out of that mix. One thing we'll be doing is inviting people to write original compositions for the band, and those compositions will reflect and pay tribute to these diverse influences.

Wynton Marsalis suggested to me that we set a beginning goal of four concerts a year. We're looking at the Kimmel Center, Longwood Gardens, The Painted Bride, the Berks Jazz Festival in Reading as venues. And then, in addition to those concerts, we'll have various educational activities, listening parties, and so on. Our goal for this year is to raise enough funds to do four concerts, and each year do more concerts.

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