The great Canadian trombonist, arranger, composer, educator, Terry Promane sent me an email this morning which mentioned the terrific book, “50 Years at the Village Vanguard”. I’ve read it and re-read many parts of it since it came out, as it references some of the most enjoyable,artful,and instructive (and SWINGING) music of my lifetime.
When the “Presenting Thad Jones/Mel Lewis and the Jazz Orchestra” (1966) came out on vinyl I was in my first year of university music studies. One of my mentors at the time heard the album and referred to Thad’s writing as “warmed-over Basie” (yikes!) and s/he was dead wrong and recanted shortly thereafter. As noted in the book, none of those involved foresaw a 50 year-long weekly gig at the Village Vanguard nor the tremendously influential writing and playing it produced.
I caught myself wondering a moment ago if 50 years from now (it won’t matter to poor old dead me), the Village Vanguard will still be standing. If there will be a Monday night big band. And if the music of Thad, Bob, Jim and others will still be performed regularly. There will be new writers by then and new sounds….but the music this band has made and is making right now has an eternal quality to my ear. Is that because I’m just feeling nostalgic? Of course I am, and that has to be part of it, but I find nothing trivial here. No ‘hit parade’ transience.
In the 20th and 21st century we (I realize that word begs discussion) continue to revere – and rightly so – music created in Vienna, for the most part, by a host of composers. Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, Brahms, Mahler, and so on. Great art. Period. Our lives are enriched and anchored by the music they created. Earth is a better place to be because of it.
Like Vienna in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, New York has been unusually important in music’s history. While reading Jan Swafford’s wonderful biography of Beethoven, I was struck by the similarity of musicians’ lives in the Vienna of the late 1700s-early 1800s and that of those writing and performing music in the New York City of today and many past decades. Beethoven was one of 300 A-list pianists then in Vienna, a city that had, purportedly, 6000 piano students. Work was hard to come by and there were simply too many musicians living there for the amount of employment opportunities available. Beethoven was at the top of his profession as a performer and was becoming more and more well known as a composer. An aside: at one point in his life he played solo piano in cafes to make ends meet. Can you imagine having a few beers or an espresso while some guy named Beethoven played in the background? Did people talk while he was playing? Or did they just do that during the bass solos? (I know…tired old joke…with more than a ring of truth.)
One attempts a fool’s errand in forecasting that any particular jazz composer or another will be recognized and remembered far into the future. Although, I suspect that the music of Duke Ellington isn’t going to fade anytime soon. But it seems that SO many composers in the jazz sphere cite Thad Jones and Bob Brookmeyer and, more recently, Jim McNeely as important influences. I find their music spellbinding and am moved, amazed and feel my spirit lifted whenever I hear it.
I recently interviewed the great bassist, composer, arranger, John Clayton for a blog (posted Feb 1, 2018 on the International Society of Jazz Arrangers and Composers website. I asked him if Thad Jones had been an influence (I already knew what his answer would be) and he said, “HUGE”. (my caps). There isn’t time or room to list all of the writers I know who have found Duke, Thad, Bob, Jim to name four that come immediately to mind, profoundly influential. How did I not include Gil Evans? And of course there is Marty Paitch, Gerry Mulligan, and so on. List making is always a failed enterprise.
But back to my musing about the Mel Lewis/Thad Jones orchestra (now the Village Vanguard Jazz Orchestra) and its past importance and potential impact on future audiences and musicians. There was a time when no one knew how long the music of Igor Stravinsky, Gustav Mahler or Bela Bartok would be remembered. As years go by we gain clarity about which work can be considered a masterpiece and the ‘importance’ of one musician or another. After 50 years, I think I’m ready to make a guess that the music coming out of the Vanguard on Monday nights will have far reaching impact.
Get the book. You’ll love it.