Sunday, May 7, 2017

50 Years at the Village Vanguard, Part 2






© Gary Carner. Copyright Protected. All rights reserved.

On March 6 I began writing about 50 Years at the Village Vanguard, Dave Lisik and Eric Allen's extraordinary contribution to jazz literature. My tour of Utah intervened. As I told Eric Allen a few weeks ago, I needed cover to take the time to give the book the attention it deserves. On my Utah trip and soon thereafter, I wrote most of four blog posts to do just that. Now, finally, is my chance to discuss the guts of this amazing book.

The book's cover gives a sense of what's to follow. It features a patchwork of more than 100 photos,  mostly of musicians that performed with the orchestra.

Apart from front and end matter, the book is organized into fourteen chapters, summarized as follows:

1: A History of the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra
2. A History of the Mel Lewis Orchestra (after Thad left)
3. A History of the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra (after Mel's death)
4. Thad Jones' Life and Influence
5. Mel Lewis's Life and Influence
6. Portrait of Bob Brookmeyer
7. Portrait of Jim McNeely
8. Life on the Road (what traveling with a big band is like)
9. The Small Group Within (how the band functioned as a small group)
10. Compositional Legacy
11. The 50th Anniversary Celebration (February, 2016)
12. A Brief History of Max Gordon and the Village Vanguard
13. Discography (with solos identified!)
14. Biographies of current VJO members

Although I've read and enjoyed the entire book, and now have renewed appreciation for the contributions of Jim McNeely, Bob Brookmeyer and other musicians that contributed after Adams left the band in mid 1977, I will focus here mostly on what is germane to Pepper Adams' experience. The first three chapters are compelling, well-written histories of the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra and the two successor orchestras that Mel Lewis ran until his death in 1990 and that the trio of Dick Oatts, John Mosca and Douglas Purviance run to this day. It includes a lot of fascinating interview material with band members and it describes the impact on the band of Jones' and Lewis' death. Additionally, there are discussions of the loss of other members, such a bassist Dennis Irwin.

Wanting to know who did what on the book, on Apr 20, 2017 I wrote Allen this email:

I'm two chapters away from finishing the book. It's really a terrific contribution to jazz literature! I congratulate you and Dave for persevering. The division of labor: Please refresh my memory. Was Dave the lead writer, in charge of the text, while your main role was in organizing the pictorial aspect of the book?
Gary Carner

Eric's response:

Gary: Thanks for the compliments! Dave and I co-wrote the entire book, sharing and editing documents online. We both conducted interviews. I took the lead on taking photographs and obtaining vintage photographs and other archival materials, but that’s only because I’m in the US and Dave is in New Zealand.

Best,
Eric

It's exciting for me to learn new things about Thad/Mel as it relates to Pepper Adams. As I've been studying Adams and his role in the band for over thirty years, to learn anything new is thrilling. I learned (or relearned?) that Mel Lewis met both Thad Jones and Pepper Adams for the first time at Detroit's legendary after-hours jam session at the West End Hotel. Only a few hours beforehand, Thad and Mel had met for the first time at a "Battle of the Bands" gig for both Basie and Kenton at the Graystone Ballroom. 

Although the authors weren't precisely sure when this took place, I needed to know for my Pepper biography! I turned to jazz research maestro Mike Fitzgerald. He was able to pin down the actual date of the first meeting of Pepper and Mel Lewis through this newspaper ad:




Accordingly, here's the new 1955 entry in my Pepper Adams Chronology:

Aug 30: Detroit: At the early morning jam session at the West End Hotel, Pepper Adams meets Mel Lewis for the first time. Lewis and Thad Jones, too, had first met a few hours earlier at the Graystone Ballroom "Battle of the Bands" between Count Basie and Stan Kenton. (See http://theconcertdatabase.com/sites/theconcertdatabase.com/files/1955-08-29graystone.jpg.)

What else did I learn? For one thing, that Carol Sloane was one of the very first vocalists with Thad/Mel. Info about her allowed me to further refine the date of Sloane's gig with them.

I learned that Alan Grant took Thad/Mel practice tapes done at A&R Studios so he could play excerpts on his WABC radio program and thereby promote the band for their upcoming opening engagement at the Village Vanguard. Whether any collectors recorded these things off the air, and whether the tapes still exist in the Mel Lewis or Alan Grant Archives is unknown.

I didn't know that Thad/Mel got a 10-record deal with Solid State (a brand new subsidiary of United Artists), beginning so soon after their opening at the Vanguard. What were the ten recordings? It's a trick question because in 1969 United Artists (Solid State's parent) merged with Liberty Records (Blue Note's parent). As the authors point out, "Executives felt that one jazz label under the United Artists umbrella was enough and Solid State was soon absorbed by Blue Note Records. This reorganization voided the remainder of the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra's contract with Solid State (p. 17)."

Ultimately, six Solid State dated were released, though the band did record one date, Consummation, for Blue Note after the contract was null and void.

1. Presenting Thad Jones/Mel Lewis and the Jazz Orchestra 
2. Presenting Joe Williams and Thad Jones/Mel Lewis and the Jazz Orchestra 
3. Live at the Village Vanguard
4. The Big Band Sound of Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Featuring Miss Ruth Brown 
5. Monday Night
6. Central Park North

There are many things in the book that tickled me. About Pepper Adams' solos on "Once Around," "Balanced Scales = Justice," and "Three and One," Down Beat reviewer Don DeMichael wrote (p. 17), "His work, as always, churns with heated intensity."

Eddie Daniels, about that first reed section, said about Pepper, "Nobody had a voice like Pepper's. He was the only one who could ever play the baritone like that. Pepper was great as a person. He was very warm and friendly. I loved watching him with his eyebrows shooting up when he played a high note."

As for some of the Pepper photos in the book, there's a great shot on page 9 of the band that shows Pepper's Princeton haircut, a wonderful shot of Pepper and Thad in Denmark (p. 16), and a shot of Pepper playing clarinet in 1972 (p. 27). It wasn't long after that date that his clarinet was stolen and he never played clarinet again.

The authors have done an extraordinary job of pulling together from disparate sources important anecdotes about Thad/Mel that contextualize the band. I especially love Jerry Dodgion's comment about A&R engineer Phil Ramone (p 13):

"I must have known hundreds of engineers over the last fifty years but he had something special. We used to rehearse at A&R Studios on 48th Street with Thad and Mel and it turned out to be one of the places we started recording. At the first session, Thad was rehearsing the band and Phil was in the control room. Then Phil came out into the room and said, 'I know how we're hearing it in the control room. Play something for me out here in the studio.' He was the only engineer who did this. . . He would take the time to get the sound he was hearing from the band in the studio identical to what he was getting in the booth. That set Phil Ramone apart from all the other engineers." 

As many of you know, I've done five recordings of Pepper's music. Perhaps technology has changed some but I haven't seen that practice among engineers either.

I love the pictorial range of the book, with all sorts of different documents, such as a page of 45s that the band released, Down Beat Readers Poll results, ads, record reviews, etc. The authors really strived for breadth, to break up what is the general monotony seen in many picture books. In their pictorial of 45 rpm singles released by Thad/Mel, I learned of three new ones: "A' That's Freedom," "Don't Git Sassy" and "Night Time is the Right Time." From David Demsey I learned that "Night Time's" flip side is "Evil Man Blues," not included in the book due to space limitations. Yet another update to my Pepper discography!

While the book was being readied for publication, I was happy to send the authors numerous photos and documents from my archive, all noted by "Courtesy of the Estate of Pepper Adams." Particularly iconic is the shot of Pepper soloing on p. 22 with Thad looking on in the shadows.

I learned for the first time about Pepper Adams' farewell party. That led me to email Allen, Ed Xiques and Dick Oatts about its whereabouts. I assume it took place after their final gig of the 1977 tour, Restaurant Victoria, in Stockholm. Allen wrote me that he learned about it in Will Campbell's Ph.D. dissertation of Dick Oatts. I've written Will for more info and Oatts, who thinks it took place just prior to their flight back to the US. He's been asking around for confirmation.

I like this quote from the book's Introduction (viii): 

"Despite being one of the music's best writers and improvisers, Thad Jones demonstrated great humility and selflessness. Thad was a people person. His insight and genuine interest in his musicians drew their love, loyalty and admiration, and made him one of the most effective bandleaders in jazz history. He encouraged his musicians to write and, rather than using the band to showcase himself exclusively, routinely gave his soloing opportunities to other musicians instead."

This, the authors point out, was the antithesis of the situation for both Thad and Mel in the Gerry Mulligan Concert Jazz Band in 1963. The authors point out that "Mulligan's tendency to keep solo space scarce" was a frustration for them as well as the others in the band.

The highlight of the book is Chapter Four, "Thad." Rightfully so, I think, because Thad Jones--his playing, his writing, his conducting, his personality, his spirit-- is central to the band's essence even to this day. Go to the Vanguard on a Monday night and you will always hear Thad's music. 

Apart from Charles Mingus' famous letter to Down Beat gushing about Thad's genius (and about his brother Elvin, too), there are several wonderful quotes from band members that stand out amidst the discussion of Thad's career and his great contribution to jazz. Here's lead trombonist John Mosca's take on Thad's big band arrangements:

"The rhythmic content of his writing is unique and very sophisticated, just as it was in his playing. It all works together and it's hard to isolate one thing. It's melodic, and, at the same time, so dense harmonically. And it all happens in this matrix of great swing and rhythm. He also writes a lot of 'drum work' for the horns; so much of what we play is like drum fills."

"Sanctified" is the way trombonist Benny Powell once described Thad's music and the utter joy it conveys. Pianist and arranger Jim McNeely said (p. 90), "Thad's music has a sense of joy and a sense of swing first of all. . . There was a built-in swing in his writing that, to me, was just overpowering and incredible." As others have recognized, and as I can attest to, Thad's music makes you want to dance. Just listen to "Low Down" and tell me you're not moved.

Then there's Thad Jones' shout choruses, those amazing moments for full ensemble that he writes to conclude his works, such as his utterly brilliant and utterly overwhelming conclusion to "My Centennial" (begin at the 9 minute mark). Says McNeely (p. 92), "The shout choruses get applause from the audience the same way a soloist gets applause. It's remarkable. I've never heard that with anyone else's music. It's because they swing so hard." Baritone saxophonist Gary Smulyan said playing them (p. 92), even after many times over the years, still "make the hair on the back of your neck stand up. . . It's indescribable if you've never had a chance to sit in the middle of all that sound." 

The authors give a wonderful sense of what it was like to play Thad's music, with Thad leading the band, and why it was such an amazing experience for the audience. As trumpeter Marvin Stamm said, "Watching Thad lead the band, whether you were playing or in the audience, was just amazing! It was like watching a sculptor; he would mold the music with his hands. Watching him conduct was as much fun as playing the music. He was such as presence--something quite special." 

Says Dick Oatts (p. 92), "There was something magical when he was leading the band. The music was in front of us but anything could change at any moment. . . When he would count off the band, he was as much an improviser as when he was playing. . . . What he had on the page was just an example. He would take it each night and make it something different." Said bassist Rufus Reid about Thad, "He was very dynamic--an imposing figure in front of the band and visually very exciting. The band would roar and his hands would reach to the heavens."

As the authors point out, Thad Jones' magical alchemy--as a soloist, as a composer and conductor, as a leader and inspirational figure, and as a spirit--moved everyone in the band. Says saxophonist Jerry Dodgion (p. 92), "I know that I played over my head for him more than I did with anybody else."

The story (p. 96) told by Dick Oatts about how Thad Jones inspired the band to play an incredible set after a ten-hour exhausting bus ride by getting everyone in the band to first scat to a blues in F is magical. (Gosh, to hear Pepper scat would be incredible, wouldn't it?) The authors really capture Thad's true essence as a leader.

Trumpeter Scott Wendholt's anecdote about Thad inspiring Jerry Dodgion to write arrangements is yet another aspect of Thad's influence:

"When he told Jerry Dodgion, "I want you to write for the band," and Jerry said, 'Oh, but I don't write,' Thad responded with, 'No, I don't accept that. I want you to write for the band.' With anybody else, it would have been easy for Jerry to stick with, 'I don't do that.' But when someone like Thad, with that kind of presence, said it . . . I believe what he was saying was, 'I see something in you that I want to investigate. I want you to write, so I'm not taking no for an answer.'

Jerry Dodgion would go on to write several arrangements for the orchestra, some that the band would record.

The story of how Thad Jones got trombonist Quentin "Butter" Jackson back into playing again after his stroke is just one more amazing example of Thad's profundity as an inspirational figure. As Jerry Dodgion said to the Village Vanguard audience in 2016 during its 50th Anniversary celebration (p. 96), "Thad could get people to do things that they didn't think they could do. He was a giving person, he was a good person and I never saw ego involved in anything he did." 

Thad's willingness to not solo that much, and offer solo space to those in his band, was another way he gave selflessly to his band and drove loyalty. As a soloist, Thad Jones is still vastly undervalued. Pepper Adams told me Thad was his favorite trumpet player because he surprised him the most. Mingus said Thad was the greatest in history, at least up until that point in time. Miles Davis famously said, "I'd rather hear Thad miss a note than Freddie Hubbard hit twelve." Mel Lewis told me in 1988 that Pepper and Thad were the greatest soloists in the band. Said Marvin Stamm (p. 98), "Everyone waited for Thad to pick up his horn, because when he did, he humbled everyone in the room. It wasn't like he was trying to do this; he was just so musically creative that hearing him create these solos made your jaw drop in amazement."

Yet, for some reason Thad wasn't as sure about his trumpet playing as were his peers. The extraordinary story the authors capture of Jerry Dodgion speaking with Thad Jones after a lackluster performance in San Jose (p. 98) is fascinating in this regard:

"Thad came by my room and he said, 'Dodge, we didn't sound so good tonight.' I said, 'Yeah, I know. And I know why, too.' He said, 'Do ya? Tell me.' I said, 'You hardly played any solos tonight. You don't think that's important, but it's very important. You don't see this but I see it and I hear it. When you play, everyone in the band listens. After you play, we sound better.' He said, 'No, that's not possible. .'
Ask anybody who played in the band. When we sounded good, it was because Thad played. Thad was the true improviser in the band. He had the magic and we were his followers. It was unbelievable that he didn't realize he was so good."

Scott Wendholt's story of Jerry Dodgion in tears talking to him on a plane ride about how important Thad Jones was to him is another beautiful moment in this chapter. It puts into perspective the "almost mystical regard," as Wendhold put it, that musicians have for Jones. 

One of the wonderful things about this book, especially in this chapter, is that it conveys Thad Jones' greatness and, in retrospect, how greatly overlooked Thad's profound contribution to jazz has been in the history of this great music. As I've found with Pepper Adams, sometimes one's legacy is so profound that it takes several generations to catch up to it. Thankfully, with this book, Thad Jones scholarship is just beginning to emerge. I hope one day it fills a bookshelf! Lisik and Allen deserve much credit for bringing Thad Jones' amazing legacy to life and elevating it to the exalted place where it belongs.

Just as Thad Jones is underrated as a soloist, so too has Mel Lewis been underrated as a drummer. With Chris Smith's book, The View From the Back of the Band: The Life and Music of Mel Lewis, that status is also beginning to change. The portrait of Mel Lewis in Chapter 5 gives a real sense of his stature. Did you know that Count Basie offered Lewis a gig in 1948, when Mel was nineteen? Because the band was touring the Deep South, Mel was advised not to take the trip. Did you know that Lewis turned down a gig with Basie two years later because he was getting paid more playing with Tex Beneke? Did you know that Duke Ellington tried to hire Lewis in 1960 to temporarily replace Sam Woodyard? Lewis declined because he was already committted to Mulligan's Concert Jazz Band. How about Ellington hiring Mel Lewis permanently in 1963? He was to begin with a State Department tour of Africa that was cancelled due to the assassination of John F. Kennedy.


I spent a very memorable day with Mel Lewis in 1988. I took him out for an al fresco lunch on Broadway near his house on a beautiful, crisp, sunny day. I found him to be forthcoming, gracious and a wonderful raconteur. Although we met to discuss Pepper Adams, his observations ranged all over the place. I plan to blog about that experience, sharing with you his many insights. At one point, in the living room of his West End Avenue apartment, Mel told me, after eating more than a pint of Ben and Jerry's ice cream, "I know I'm one of the best guys out there. There's me, Art and Max." It seemed a little brash at the time, yet no argument from me, now that I'm fully aware of his playing.

I didn't get it the first time I saw Mel Lewis, when he played a quartet gig at the 1369 Club in Cambridge MA in the mid 1980s. It was Joe Lovano's gig, way before he was famous. Just Lovano and the Mel Lewis Orchestra rhythm section (Werner, Irwin and Lewis.) Mel's playing was so subtle and understated. It was something I didn't quite get at the time: A guy so acclaimed yet his playing is so subtle. As Gary Smulyan said in the book about Mel, "The only thing that would move were his arms. There was no excess motion in his playing" (109). That was part of it that fooled me.

I can tell you that Pepper Adams loved Mel's playing. Who else did? Thad, many members of the big band, and countless others. Why? Because he was selfless and supported the soloists and the band, a quality Pepper Adams really prized. I like Jim McNeeley's comment about Mel: "Mel played with a full  sound and with energy, but I could always hear myself well, which often wasn't the case when I played with other drumers. And Mel was always a master of doing so little with the band and playing the perfect fill or set up. He was the Count Basie of the drums. He always knew how to do the most simple thing that was the perfect set up for what was going to happen" (p 113). Marvin Stamm's quote about Mel's playing is on target too: "He was not playing the drums so much as he was playing the music" (p. 109). All this is something that took me years of listening to Thad/Mel recordings and audience recordings to fully appreciate.

Perhaps Ed Neumeister put it best: "It was really kind of like riding on a magic carpet. You could say he was handing the figures to us on a silver platter. Never overplaying and just laying down the foundation of a groove and setting up what the big band needs without any flash whatsoever. It was really an amazing experience. I didn't truly realize how great he was until he was gone and there was that vacuum there."  

One of his great attributes was his ability to set up figures and always indicate where in the arrangement the band was at the time. I was struck by the comment in the book that Mel would read a chart once, then have it. The charts Thad/Mel, etc played were extremely complex, yet he knew all the parts and how to accentuate each one and set up figures for the band. Ed Neumeister said, "Mel was a great reader but he rarely read. He would normally only read something the first time through" (p. 109)." That possibly suggests a photographic memory. 

I'm pleased that the authors have a chapter dedicated to Thad and Mel's small group concept. It shows that they fully understand how the band was conceptualized. Pianist Kenny Werner's quote about the band's uniqueness as a small group vehicle really puts this in perspective. While he echoes others, who say that the ability for musicians to stretch out in Thad/Mel was totally unique, Werner goes further: "It didn't happen before Thad and Mel and it really didn't happen after Mel. So you'd have to say that type of small group play is unique to this particular band" (p. 198). 

Also in this chapter, Gary Smulyan describes how satisfying the Thad/Mel book is for baritone saxophone, unlike most bands, where "the tenor players play, the alto players play, and, once in awhile, the baritone player gets thrown a bone":

"There's a lot of opportunity to play in this band. Thad framed a lot of his arrangements around Pepper's sound and Pepper's concept of harmony. As a baritone player, I feel very fortunate to be able to play this music because we do get a chance to stretch out and there are a lot of tunes written that feature the baritone. In that sense, it's an unusual situation."

In Chapter 12, musicians and fans remark about how unchanged the Village Vanguard is, how as a jazz shrine it evokes in its sameness the essence and aura it had when Rollins, Coltrane, Bill Evans and so many others recorded there. That's true. I feel the same when I go there. At the risk of quibbling, though, there are two things I would point out that have changed. One is trivial, actually. There used to be a kitchen. You used to be able to order hamburgers. If I recall, Elton was the guy in charge. That was phased out I believe in the 1970s or 80s. I don't care that much about it. I don't go to the Vanguard to eat! 

The thing that is a change that I don't like is amplification. In a small room with great acoustics, why amplfy a big band? Perhaps it's necessary for a small group but a big band doesn't make sense. Some of my greatest moments as a listener was sitting on the banquet next to the pole where Pepper Adams sat all those years. Whether it was for the VJO or a small group, I was three feet from the band. Now, due to the volume level, I sit in back. The banquet now, with amplification, would cause hearing loss.

Ch. 12 also reminds me that there's no photo on the Vanguard walls of Pepper Adams. I wrote to Dick Oatts about it. He pointed out that, while Pepper is certainly worthy, there are hundreds of musicians that don't have framed photographs at the Vanguard. Moreover, it's not something he can suggest. It's decided on by management. Better for me to focus my energies on a more worthwhile pursuit, like the Pepper biography.

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

My advice?: BUY IT!