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The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra keeps an essential American sound alive
Big band, big dreams
A trial run gave way to a decades-long Monday night residency. For more photos, click gallery, above.

The most influential big band in contemporary jazz is bringing a bit of Greenwich Village to Madison, just days before it celebrates an anniversary.

As great art often does, the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra began in disappointment, when jazz giant Count Basie commissioned Thad Jones, his band's cornetist, to write a full album's worth of material in 1965. Basie rejected the seven compositions Jones presented, saying they didn't sound like his band and might be too hard for his musicians to play.

So Jones - whose "Pop Goes the Weasel" riff on Basie's 1955 recording of "April in Paris" is enshrined in the Grammy Hall of Fame - teamed up with the equally innovative drummer Mel Lewis, formerly with pianist Stan Kenton. Their idea was for a rehearsal band to perform Jones' music, a way for sidemen playing recording dates, Broadway shows and in TV orchestras to keep their jazz chops fresh.

Then someone suggested to Max Gordon, owner of the Village Vanguard nightclub, that he book the band on a Monday night, when the celebrated cellar was normally dark. Gordon agreed to a trial run of three successive Monday nights, and the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra debuted to rave reviews on Feb. 7, 1966.

More than 2,000 Monday performances and a few name changes later, the group still has its weekly residency, plus numerous Grammy awards and nominations. It also has an active touring schedule, which brings the 16 musicians to the Wisconsin Union Theater on Saturday, Feb. 4, as part of the Isthmus Jazz Series.

"It was huge news that there was this new band led by Thad Jones with Mel Lewis on drums and all these great players," recalls trombonist John Mosca, now Vanguard Jazz Orchestra director. "There were lines to the end of the block, and I was on that line for many occasions."

Among those great players was bassist Richard Davis, now professor of bass and jazz history at the University of Wisconsin. Then one of the most prominent sidemen on the New York scene, with credits ranging from Miles Davis to Barbra Streisand to world-class orchestras, Davis was happy to have been recruited by Jones.

"When you get a call from Thad Jones, you just go," says Davis. "I wanted to be a part of that great and innovative music. I realized this would be something special as soon as I got the call."

Davis left the band shortly after its 1972 tour of the Soviet Union, coming to Madison in 1977. "I can't say anything but the best things for that experience," he says of his time in the orchestra. "It was really something to get those kinds of musicians together."

Mosca, who joined the band in 1975, hopes to have Davis sit in for a number in Madison, and he's bringing some of the old charts just in case. "Thad wrote a lot of things in that period that the bass player had to have very serious chops to play," says Mosca. "And Richard, of course, had that fantastic technique and sound."

Other charter members were equally renowned. Snooky Young had been lead trumpet for Basie and others, and spent 30 years in the Tonight Show orchestra. Saxophonist Jerome Richardson made his professional debut at 14 with Lionel Hampton and would appear on over 4,000 records. Pianist Sir Roland Hanna, knighted by the government of Liberia in 1970, had already played with Benny Goodman and Charles Mingus when he took over for Jones' brother Hank early in the band's tenure.

Baritone saxophonist and clarinetist Park "Pepper" Adams, who got Down Beat magazine's New Star nod in 1957, the year after Jones did, played alongside John Coltrane, Kenton and others. Bob Brookmeyer, formerly with saxophonists Stan Getz and Gerry Mulligan, brought unique stylings with his valve trombone.

As a composer and arranger, Jones combined the driving swing from the Basie band with the denser, intricate harmonies of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, composing long lines that were essentially arranged solos with their own internal countermelodies. His 1972 composition "A Child Is Born" is a jazz standard. Jones once remarked, not entirely in jest, that it should be played at all births.

Unfortunately, Jones was lax in archiving his creations. He frequently gave away original scores, often failing to keep a copy. "Some things were lost," Mosca acknowledges, but a recent program of actively seeking restoration is bearing fruit.

"Forever Lasting," the title track of the orchestra's 2011 release, was lost for over 30 years. Then, in Sweden a few years ago, the band's grant writer Tom Bellino received a copy of the score that Jones gave away on a 1970s State Department tour.

"Thad would do that," says Bellino in a telephone interview. "If somebody had a big band and asked for a chart, he often would just give it to the guy."

It was worth the wait. Forever Lasting: Live in Tokyo features a standout flugelhorn solo by Scott Wendholt on the title track and some fluid trombone from Mosca on "Fingers." Ralph Lalama, who celebrates 30 years with the band next year, swings in a tenor saxophone battle with Walt Weiskopf's staccato melodies on "You Tell Me."

In January 1979, with neither notice nor explanation, Jones moved to Copenhagen, where he composed and arranged for the Danish Radio Orchestra. The abrupt and unexpected move - pianist/composer Jim McNeely compared Jones to a husband who "went out for the paper and never came back" - did not sit well with the band, especially Lewis.

"Thad and Mel got a divorce," one observer quipped, "and Mel got the kids" - restyled as Mel Lewis and the Jazz Orchestra. After something of a reconciliation with Lewis in 1985, Jones died in 1986.

Jones left shortly after the band won the Grammy for Best Jazz Instrumental Performance, Big Band for the album Live in Munich, and right before a Feb. 19 engagement at Madison Area Technical College during the brutal winter of 1979. (An April 1978 date at Bunky's had gone off without a hitch.) At the time, Jones' absence was explained publicly as the result of a recent car accident.

It was just then that trombonist Brookmeyer returned to New York after a lost decade drinking and doing session work in L.A. From 1980 to 1995, he was the band's composer-in-residence, turning out a series of splendid works. His elegiac 1994 "Celebration," a half-hour-long work in four movements, is one of the very few fully successful large-scale jazz compositions.

As Brookmeyer was leaving, bass trombonist and orchestra manager Douglas Purviance had the idea to make the band a nonprofit cooperative. "After Mel had passed in 1990, the band was really in limbo for a while," Bellino recalls. Purviance thought that if the band became a nonprofit, it could access grants and other funding sources.

Purviance was right, and the new entity, Sixteen as One Music Inc., raised the money needed to record and release Lickety Split: The Music of Jim McNeely (1997), the band's first release as the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra. The Grammy-nominated album, which showcased saxophonist Billy Drewes and trombonist Ed Neumeister, integrated classical allusions à la Gil Evans with the powerful beat of the bebop big bands.

After a 1999 album devoted to the Thad Jones Legacy, the band readied another album of all-new material, Can I Persuade You. Bellino raised the needed funds from his usual sources - including the Aaron Copland Fund for Music, New York State Council for the Arts, National Endowment for the Arts - but the record company, New World, was "going through a transition" and wasn't available.

"We were struggling to find another record company, because big-band music really doesn't sell that well, even though this is one of the most important big bands in the world," says Bellino. "So I had this bright idea to start a record company. And they all said, 'Oh, yeah, what a great idea.'"

They called the label Planet Arts, and it started strong, with a 2003 Grammy nomination for its first release. The band's next Planet Arts release, 2004's The Way: Music of Slide Hampton, brought home the golden gramophone for Best Large Jazz Ensemble album. After two nominations for another album of McNeely compositions, Up From the Skies, the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra again took honors as Best Large Jazz Ensemble for 2008's Monday Night Live at the Village Vanguard.

That's Michael Weiss, McNeely's steady stand-in on tour dates, leading the rhythm section in the nimble, finger-popping "Mean What You Say" to open the set. Lalama blows some soulful gospel on Jones' "Mornin' Reverend." And the howls and growls from Scott Wendholt on trumpet and Luis Bonilla on trombone bring a timeless tone to Brookmeyer's arrangement of "St. Louis Blues."

Asked what he had to learn to function as a record company executive, Bellino just laughs. "Oh, man," he sighs. "You have to learn every aspect of what's going on. Fortunately, I didn't make any huge mistakes that cost a lot of money."

The wise heads of jazz are taking notice of the label. A 2007 release by saxophonist Jimmy Heath earned a rave - both for the music and Planet Arts - from the estimable critic Nat Hentoff. Next up: an album featuring all-new material from Brookmeyer, who Bellino said was "composing up until the last minute" before his death two months ago.

Several Vanguard Jazz Orchestra members have side efforts on the Planet Arts label, including Bonilla's Twilight. Bridging the Gap, from the quintet led by trumpeter Terell Stafford and saxophonist Dick Oatts, spent 10 weeks on the Jazzweek charts. Planet Arts and the orchestra also have active educational activities, which is why the orchestra is conducting a clinic with the concert opener the UW Jazz Orchestra on the afternoon of the show.

The continuing stability of the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra is pretty impressive. Five of the 16 current members go all the way back to the original Thad Jones/Mel Lewis band, and the average tenure for the five woodwinds is 30 years.

Not that longevity breeds lethargy. "It's not something you can really rest with, because the music keeps changing" as new pieces are brought in, says director Mosca.

Still, he adds, "We can take a lot for granted that other bands have to really work for. Everyone knows what's supposed to happen at various points. It's a happy thing that we've been together for such a long time."

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