Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The American Jazz Orchestra: A Gift from Gary, John and Roberta

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“In 1985, when jazz critic Gary Giddins was told by producer Roberta Swann that she was thinking of putting together a modern classical ensemble, he suggested that she help create a jazz repertory orchestra instead. With John Lewis as the musical director, the American Jazz Orchestra had their debut concert in 1986, playing works associated with Duke Ellington, Jimmie Lunceford, Fletcher Henderson, Count Basie, and Dizzy Gillespie. Two recordings resulted (tributes to Ellington and Lunceford), which often found the all-star players re-creating recorded solos. But when funding eventually ran out in the early '90s, the American Jazz Orchestra slipped away into history.”
~ Scott Yanow, Rovi

Gary Giddins is always doing nice things for Jazz.

His engrossing and entertaining book Visions of Jazz: The First Century was the subject of an earlier feature on these pages which you can locate by going here.

I also compiled an earlier profile on John Lewis, the conductor of the American Jazz Orchestra who, for many years, was also the musical director and pianist with the Modern Jazz Quartet. You can locate the previously posted essay on John via this link. [Unfortunately, two of the videos in the original piece on John had to be removed because of copyright "third-party matches."]

Lastly, Roberta Swann of the Cooper Union in New York City should be accorded major kudos and expressions of gratitude by Jazz fans for all she did to assist and support the American Jazz Orchestra during its all-too-brief existence.

Gary Giddins does nice things for JazzProfiles, too, like allowing me permission to reprint the following insert notes to the CD, The American Jazz Orchestra: Ellington Masterpieces [East-West 7 91423-2], which is currently available as an Mp3 download from Amazon [along with orchestra’s later recording of the music of Jimmy Lunceford].

© -  Gary Giddins, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“From its inception, The American Jazz Orchestra was devoted to the music of Duke Ellington. It could hardly be otherwise. No American composer has left a greater, more diverse body of work, or set higher standards for its continued performance. The challenge Ellington put to posterity is twofold. There is, first of all, the astonishing size of his catalogue, which includes popular and art songs, suites, tone poems, a ballet and an opera, stage and Him scores, and concertos and sym­phonic expansions, in addition to the thousands of short instrumental that are the cornerstone of his art. Second, there is the medium through which that catalogue is best known: Ellington's own recordings, surely the finest recorded documentation of a living composer's art since Edison patented the phono­graph. From 1924 until 1974, Ellington used the recording studio with prophetic and unrivaled mastery. His records became his scores.

During the half-century that Ellington managed to sustain his own orchestra-serving, in a sense, as his own patron—there was little need for other orchestras to perform his music, even though Ellington himself performed only a fraction of it in his grueling regimen of one-nighters. Indeed, it would have been a kind of plagiarism for another bandleader to appropriate Duke's music (though every bandleader was profoundly influenced by it). With Ellington's passing, however, and the passing of other great composers and arrangers of his genera­tion, a space opened in the life of American music. The works conceived for that uniquely American ensemble, the big band (woodwinds, brasses, and rhythm), cried out to be heard. The American Jazz Orchestra was conceived to help answer that need.

Some say that no orchestra can compete with Ellington's, that his records obviate the need for new interpretations. As in most musical matters, Ellington anticipated the nay savers. The variety of his numerous versions of the same pieces undermine the whole notion of a definitive performance. Interpretation is a relatively new idea in jazz, though it provided the sustenance for European classical music. Perhaps if Beethoven had recorded his sonatas and sympho­nies, subsequent generations would have been more circumspect in their inter­pretations of his scores. But it seems doubtful—after all, Rachmaninoff, Strauss, Stravinsky, Gershwin, and Copland are a few of the contemporary composers who did record their own works, with no diminution of interest from other conductors. Every year an increasing number of Ellington scores are prepared and published, proving that as brilliant as the Ellington Orchestra was, his music has a life beyond it. At the last of the sessions at which the American Jazz Orchestra recorded Ellington Masterpieces, the issue was re­solved for one skeptic. A TV producer who had expressed doubt about the value of recording Ellington stopped by to listen. After hearing a couple of takes, he half-rose from his seat and said, "My God, this proves the music's all there in the score!" Nesuhi Ertegun turned to him and said, "Of course, that's the whole point."

John Lewis grew up with the Ellington Orchestra (he was even present at the dance at which Ellington orchestrated Chloe), and has immersed himself in its music. Last year, he arranged several Ellington masterpieces for The Modern Jazz Quartet's For Ellington (East-West 90926). The inaugural concert by The American Jazz Orchestra, at the Great Hall of Cooper Union in 1986, included his performances of Cotton Tail, Concerto For Cootie, and Jack The Bear, plus Maurice Peress conducting "Harlem". At the AJO's Ellington program on March 3, 1988, at which Peress conducted the first performance of "Black, Brown & Beige" to incorporate Ellington's final emendations, John Lewis pre­pared nine of the shorter works, as well as Ellington's concert expansion of "Mood Indigo". Writing in The New York Times, John S. Wilson noted that The American Jazz Orchestra "has become a cohesive unit that expresses a strong personality even when it is working within the established outlines of Ellington's three-minute recorded arrangements." The idea for this album was born that evening. The following November, the AJO played these 15 selections for three nights at the Blue Note. When the AJO went into the studio a few days later, Lewis and the band were ready.

With the exception of Rockin' In Rhythm, introduced in 1930, all of the selections on Ellington Masterpieces come from those years which are often cited as the grandest in Ellington's career, 1940-1943. It's impossible to gauge precisely why a particular period finds an artist in a seeming state of grace. But in this instance some clues must be taken into account. The early 1940s were transitional for jazz: swing was on the wain and bebop was around the corner. Ellington had just signed a new recording contract which guaranteed him artis­tic freedom. For 15 years, he had been honing and perfecting his gifts, making of jazz (a word for which he had little use) a special world of sui generis melo­dies, voicings, and structural designs. Most of his musicians had been with him for a decade or more, and the new recruits were to inspire him to new heights. In Billy Strayhorn, his deputy composer, arranger, lyricist, and pianist, he found a collaborator who would eventually become his alter ego. In the revolu­tionary young bassist Jimmy Blanton, he found a virtuoso with supple time and a distinct soloist's voice. In Ben Webster, the magisterial tenor saxophonist who had played with the band briefly in 1935, he added one of the most original talents of the era. And in Ray Nance, the spry cornetist, violinist, and singer who replaced Cootie Williams in 1940, he found an irrepressible stylist who became a particular favorite with audiences. The stage was set, and during the next few years, culminating with the presentation of "Black, Brown & Beige", Ellington recorded a string of imperishable masterpieces.

In the wonderfully symmetrical Sepia Panorama, the reeds come roaring in for the initial theme (a blues), parting for the two-measure breaks played by John Goldsby, a young bassist with a particular feeling for Blanton's style. The second theme is an exchange between Eddie Bert and John Eckert, and the third finds Danny Bank emerging from the ensemble. At the center is Loren Schoenberg, a saxophonist known for his proclivities toward Lester Young, who in this context brings to life Ben Webster's more rugged approach. An issue confronting every jazz repertory performance is what to do with the original solos. Lewis opts, for the most part, to retain those solos when they have become as well-known as the written passages. Ellington himself had some relevant words about improvisation: "The word 'improvisation' has great limi­tations, because when musicians are given solo responsibility they already have a suggestion of a melody written for them, and so before they begin they al­ready know more or less what they are going to play. Anyone who plays any­thing worth hearing knows what he's going to play, no matter whether he prepares a day ahead or a beat ahead. It has to be with intent."

Billy Strayhorn's Johnny Come Lately features Jimmy Knepper, one of the great postwar trombone stylists; another great trombonist, Benny Powell, a 12-year veteran of The Count Basie Orchestra, is heard playing the muted passages. Note the rhythmic meshing of the rhythm section especially toward the end; Howard Collins is one of the last masters of the nearly-forgotten art of rhythm guitar. On All Too Soon, a celebrated vehicle for Johnny Hodges and Ben Webster, we hear one of the last major figures to join the Ellington band: Norris Turney was entrusted with the awesome responsibility of taking Hodges's place. Later, Ellington encouraged him to write for the band and to introduce a new voice to its palette, the flute. Knepper and Schoenberg are also heard, as is Dick Katz, who has an uncanny flair for those skittery arpeggios that were Ellington trademarks. Katz also comes to the fore on Ko-Ko, the ingenious blues that originated as an epi­sode in Ellington's unfinished opera, "Boola". The open trombone part is played by Knepper, the muted one by Bert.

Chloe is one of the cleverest examples of the way Ellington could adapt an inferior pop tune and make it sound like an exotic original. The solo­ists are Knepper, Bill Easley (a gifted tenor saxophonist who is emerging as one of the finest clarinetists of his generation), Bert, Goldsby, Eckert and Schoenberg. Eckert is one of the most admired of the younger trumpet players in New York; during a take of Chloe, Nesuhi Ertegun remarked, "To me, he's a revelation."

Ellington wrote a long series of portraits, from "Black Beauty" (Florence Mills) in 1928, to "Three Black Kings" (Martin Luther King) in 1974, and none is more charming or evocative than Bojangles, a homage to the sublime dancer, Bill Robinson. You can almost see him tapping down a stairway, Shirley Temple in tow, during the trio episode—which, incidentally, is played by trumpet (Eckert), trombone (Bert), and clarinet (Easley). John Lewis took over the piano chair; Schoenberg and Easley are also featured.

Cotton Tail, a striking variation on the standard "I Got Rhythm" chord sequence, boasts not only a classic Ben Webster tenor solo, but an equally famous Webster-composed chorus for the reeds. One night, between sets at the Blue Note, Schoenberg said with some astonishment, "You know, I feel just as creative playing Ben's solo on Cotton Tail as when I'm improvising." He sounds it. Bank and Katz are also heard, and don't miss the Banknote at the end. Nothing distinguished Ellington's sound more than his use of Harry Carney's baritone sax as a leading voice in the reed section. Bank is the AJO's bedrock.

Lewis considers Sidewalks Of New York one of Ellington's unsung masterworks, and is surprised that it wasn't heard more, especially in the town it celebrates. An inspired transformation of an old ditty, it is a swinging, surpris­ing arrangement that puts the spotlight on Easley, Katz, Knepper, Schoenberg, Turney, and Bank. That elephant cry of a trombone figure in the closing en­semble is by Benny Powell. Billy Strayhorn's Take The "A" Train, a perfect example of reeds and brasses set in precision responses, was almost immedi­ately promoted to become the band's theme. No jazz solo is better known (or more often performed) than the one Ray Nance played on it. When Nance left the band, Cootie Williams (who had returned) inherited his "improvisation", and played it verbatim night after night for 10 years. Eckert's perfor­mance is remarkable: he's playing Nance's conception, but the interpretation is entirely his own.

Jack The Bear, another Ellington benchmark, was the first piece conceived as a vehicle to introduce the unique talent of Blanton, and is no less admired for the ensemble melodies that replicate bass lines and the crescendos played by the brasses. In addition to Goldsby, the featured players are Katz, Easley, Virgil Jones, Bank, and Powell. Main Stem, yet another great Ellington blues, has all the rowdy charm of the Broadways it celebrates. The soloists are Turney, Eckert, Jones, Easley, Bert, Schoenberg, and Knepper.

One of the most widely-noted performances of the first AJO concert was Virgil Jones's reading of Concerto For Cootie. He has played it several times since, making it more and more an extension of his style and sound. Although the melody was later turned into the popular song "Do Nothin' Till You Hear From Me", it originated in a setting that extended phrases beyond standard eight-bar constructions, and meshed trumpet and ensemble in true concerto form.

Knepper, Easley, and Jones are heard in episodes of Conga Brava, but the key role is played by Schoenberg, in a vivid retelling of the Webster solo. The piece was inspired by a dance craze (conga lines were once as ubiquitous as parties) that seems especially trite when considered beside this remarkable and rather complicated composition. Mel Lewis, perhaps the finest big band drummer in the world, and certainly a savior of band music in New York (his own orchestra recently celebrated its 23rd anniversary of Monday nights at the Village Vanguard), defines the pulse.

When John Lewis played the piano part on Rockin’ In Rhythm in concert, Jim Miller of Newsweek wrote, "Lewis remained faithful to the composer's idiom while improvising in his own style: earthy yet elegant, bluesy, debonair, as graceful as Astaire. Nearly 60 years old, Rockin' In Rhythm suddenly felt brand new." The other soloists are Powell and Easley; Bank plays the ensemble clarinet part and Bob Millikin, who shares with Marvin Stamm lead trumpet responsibilities, plays the high note climax.


Mike Zwerin, the late columnist about all-things-Jazz, in his Son of Miles series for, wrote an article entitled John Lewis: A Big Gig that offered this overview of the American Jazz Orchestra.

© -  Mike Zwerin, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Fletcher Henderson, Jimmy Lunceford, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Claude Thornhill and the others developed the sound and popularized it before it disappeared into the mists of the past described as the "big band era."

Like horse-drawn carts and the 78
RPM, big bands tend to be remembered as nostalgia. They are coming back, it is true, but just on Monday or Thursday nights or like that in tiny clubs where they outnumber the guests. That ain't exactly the idea.

In these days of instant communication, people want to know, "What have you done for me lately?" Like last night. It's getting so we're nostalgic for breakfast. Monday night won't do.

As part of this small but sparse renewal, the American Jazz Orchestra was organized by a Village Voice critic, Gary Giddins, and Roberta Swann of Cooper Union; with the composer-pianist John Lewis, creator of the Modern Jazz Quartet, as musical director.

"Though the
United States is a nation rich in symphony orchestras, chamber groups and opera companies," Giddins stated, "it has never produced an enduring ensemble that could present the masterworks of its indigenous classical music." "Enduring" meaning six nights for a one week gig. We are satisfied with so little.

Lewis and Giddins both sounded weary some summers ago, discussing the matter. Maybe it was a two-month heat wave. Somebody forgot to turn the oven off that summer, and the sense of purpose and humor has been hard to nourish. "It's a lot of work, all unpaid. At least as far as I'm concerned," said Lewis. Giddins picked up the motif: "This is the hardest thing I've ever done in my life. I'm not getting paid for it and I hate it."

My goodness! In context, however, both complained on the reverse side of the coin of love. "An incredibly rich and varied repertoire has been created," Giddins also said: "Big band jazz is uniquely American. We are trying to preserve it like a symphony orchestras tried to preserve 19th century European music. Of course there is one big difference - the big bands are already preserved on record. But in order to appreciate the real spirit of this music, it has to be heard live. This is jazz music, the sound of now. And if we want to preserve the tradition among the musicians, they must be given the opportunity to perform it for an audience." (Every day after breakfast at least.)

Lewis added: "There is no replacement for live performance. The effect on the emotions of the public is entirely different. No Matter how well it is re-mastered, recorded music remains, in a sense, dead. It doesn't move. The purpose of this orchestra is to preserve the golden age of large ensemble jazz and have younger generations of musicians and listeners make it their own."

Clearly improvisation is dead when it is preserved on record. A contradiction of terms. "Recorded jazz" is an oxymoron. Something that should be of the moment is frozen in time.

The American Jazz Orchestra presented concerts of the music of Lunceford, Woody Herman and Ellington. The concerts included some of the best instrumentalists in
New York: the trombonists Jimmy Knepper and Eddie Bert, the trumpeters Jon Faddis and Marvin Stamm, the saxophonists Norris Turney and John Purcell and the drummer Mel Lewis.

Each concert was preceded by a week of paid rehearsals - one of the conditions under which Lewis agreed to be musical director. Each involved scraping together numerous donations from $5 to $5,000 and, although Cooper Union donated their "Great Hall" as the orchestra's home, it was never an easy scrape.

After the American Jazz Orchestra became an established name with good reviews, a press kit and a board of directors that includes Bill Cosby and the former
New York governor, Hugh Carey, who is chairman, Giddins tried to raise an annual budget from corporate sources to turn the orchestra into an ongoing repertory group like subsidized symphony orchestras. He said "I'm going after a Lee Iaccoca who loves jazz.

"I spent my entire life avoiding these kind of people," he admitted. A quite reasonable duck: "Money people are so patronizing about jazz. If they support classical music, they get what they consider status for their money. Their wives have a chance to wear their expensive jewelry at Carnegie Hall. If they give money to rock, at least their kids can wear Aerosmith T-shirts. But jazz is a bastard art. They don't see it as improving either their social standing or their business, and the t-shirts suck. So the basic task is to upgrade people's perception of jazz."

Which recalls a Lenny Bruce routine. Informed that he had been booked into a bar called "Ann's 440," he objected because it was a well-known homosexual hangout. He wanted no part of it.

"No no," the owner replied: "We want you to change all that."

"Gee!" exclaimed Bruce: "That's a big gig."

A big gig indeed. John Lewis has been working to improve the image of jazz for 50 years, since he played the piano with the Miles Davis "Birth of the Cool" band in 1949. There are those who chuckle at the members of his Modern Jazz Quartet for their three-piece pinstripe suits and solemn stage demeanor. They have been called "pretentious." But perhaps better than any other group, the Modern Jazz Quartet has managed to maintain the spirit, drive and risk-taking that is essential to jazz in an atmosphere of grand standing and status.

"I want to bring big band jazz to the concert hall, where it belongs," Lewis said, while sipping
Champagne between two grand pianos and a harpsichord in his spacious East End Avenue living room: "But not just any concert hall. The use of the hall is not the same as for other repertoire. The audience is different too. You have more young people, a greater generational mix. The size, the atmosphere, the acoustics must be suitable."

He considers Cooper Union's 900-seat Great Hall to be perfect: "We started by putting a microphone in front of every instrument in the 'normal' way. We thought we had to 'adjust' for the hall's acoustics. But it didn't work. We didn't know how to fix it. Then I remembered once hearing every note Duke Ellington's basist Jimmy Blanton played when he stood in front of the band without any amplification.

"Another thing - the most famous use of the Great Hall was when Abraham Lincoln opened his presidential campaign with a speech in it. He had no microphone. Anyway, we could no longer afford all of that sound equipment with the mixing table and the engineer. So we moved the bass out in front of the orchestra and forgot all the microphones. And everything cleared up. The musicians began to make their own balance instead of relying on technicians.

"Musicians today are becoming more flexible. We have no trouble finding people who are capable of adapting to the different styles of the tradition even though many of the younger generation have never been exposed to the original. And, too, some of the scores and parts have been lost, we have tried to transcribe inner voicings from recordings."

"The time is right for a reawakening to the excitement of our vernacular classics," Giddins concluded. "The American Jazz Orchestra can spearhead that revival and guarantee the survival of our musical heritage into the next century."

This was all some years ago. Anyone hear about the American Jazz Orchestra recently?”

Due to copyright restrictions from WMG, I was unable to use a track from the American Jazz Orchestra’s Ellington Masterpieces for the audio portion of the following video tribute to the AJO.  Instead, I’ve substituted the Ellington Orchestra’s 1943 rendition of Conga Brava.

My thanks to Gary Giddins, John Lewis, Roberta Swann and Cooper Union, Nesuhi Ertegun, the wonderful musicians who performed with the orchestra and all those associated with it for the gift of the American Jazz Orchestra.  Talk about a labor of love!