Sunday, March 5, 2017

50 Years at the Vanguard, Part 1









© Gary Carner. Copyright Protected. All rights reserved.

Fifty days is a long time to keep a jazz gig. How about fifty years? The amazing big band that performs every Monday night at the Village Vanguard has been at it for half a century. It's the longest gig in jazz history. 

It all began on February 7, 1966. That's when Thad Jones brought a group of New York musicians to the Vanguard for their first public gig. They were rehearsing his music since the previous Thanksgiving weekend. 

Monday nights at the Vanguard were dark. In fact, back then, little jazz took place in New York on Monday night. The owner of the Vanguard, Max Gordon, figured why not? The music is great, the musicians first class. Let's give it a shot and see what happens.

Word spread quickly about the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra. Musicians were lining up in the rain to catch it. Thad's band quickly became a sensation. His arrangements were fresh and exciting. The band was soulful and swung hard. The section playing and soloists were superb. The rhythm section unsurpassed. And Thad's conducting style? The consummate leader: Caring, passionate, egalitarian, and original. Among the musicians--on the bandstand and in the audience--there was so much admiration for Jones' music, his playing, and his incredibly high level of energy and creativity. The band was inspired by Thad's spontaneous rearranging of his charts. The audience was on the edge of their seat watching the theatrics unfold. Thad was the ultimate improviser--as a soloist, conductor and arranger. There was so much love in that room on Monday nights.

Thad's amazing legacy, and the devotion to what Thad and Mel wrought, shows no sign of ceasing. It's sustained weekly by longtime Jones/Lewis trombonist John Mosca and longtime lead alto player Dick Oatts. Considering this amazing history, and the extraordinary roster of musicians that have been part of it, is there anything more worthy to commemorate in a book? That's what Dave Lisik and Eric Allen have done with 50 Years at the Village Vanguard: Thad Jones, Mel Lewis and the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra.

The project almost didn't happen. Unable to connect with trombonist John Mosca (after several attempts to discuss their book idea with him), the authors agreed to try him one last time while both were in New York or they would shelve the project. Mosca, a busy freelancer, was able to meet with the authors on their very last day in New York. Lisik and Allen needed Mosca's approval and participation to have access to the band's music, archives, copyrights, and the many musicians they would need to interview. Beginning with that successful meeting with Mosca, the authors embarked on an extremely busy year to organize this beautiful picture book and band history.

I first learned about the project from baritone saxophonist Frank Basile. He gave my contact info to Eric Allen because of the large amount of Pepper Adams materials I have in my Archive that he felt could enhance the book. After a few emails, Allen and I had a long phone conversation. I found him to be an exceptionally nice person, someone I'd be happy to help. Over the course of many months last year, I did whatever I could to assist the project. I bought an Epson scanner and spent time being patiently tutored by Allen on how to use it. (A great instrumental music teacher, I figured.) I went through all my Adams materials to find relevant documents, such as band itineraries and photographs. We exchanged many emails, discussing the veracity of certain photos and their origins, and many other things regarding Thad/Mel and Pepper Adams. Quite simply, the authors' labor of love was mine too. After all, Pepper Adams spent twelve years in that band, almost a third of his life as a professional musician. 

About the devotion and love that has motivated everyone involved, John Mosca and Dick Oatts summarized it in their forewords to 50 Years. "The secret is out," wrote Mosca. We're not in it for the money." "Every Monday night," wrote Oatts, "each member of the band sets aside everything else and comes to the Village Vanguard to serve the music we love and respect. In spite of the lack of financial reward and the occasional artistic disagreement, it is an unconditional love. Individual agendas are left out of the mix in order to maintain the tradition and preserve the integrity of what Thad Jones and Mel Lewis started in 1966."

In next week's post, I will review the contents of this important book.

To witness Thad Jones' original and passionate conducting style, see https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=wCnWKm5uYhs 

For a great piece about Thad Jones career, see 

This from Eric Allen: "Since we are self-publishing the book, would you please mention our website as the only place it can be purchased?": ThadMelVJOBook.com