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The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra: 'Thad Jones Legacy'


A.B. SPELLMAN, National Endowment for the Arts: The sound of the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, and the CD that it's from is Thad Jones Legacy. It's on the New World Records label. Murray Horwitz, you've selected a recent recording for our NPR Basic Jazz Record Library, this week.

MURRAY HORWITZ, American Film Institute: Yes, A.B., this is a very recent recording of music that's about, oh, 20 to 30 years old. Thad Jones was one of the founders, along with Mel Lewis, of the band that installed itself at the Village Vanguard, the most famous basement in New York City, in 1966.

They started out for a three-week engagement — actually three Monday nights — and they've been playing there virtually every Monday night. Even after Thad Jones and Mel Lewis both passed away, the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra took that name and they've been going strong ever since.


SPELLMAN: Tell me something about this collaborating. How did it come to be, this Thad Jones/Mel Lewis union?

HORWITZ: I think what happened A.B, was that in the mid-'60s, there were just some wonderful jazz musicians working in New York City but a lot of what they were playing were what you would call "studio gigs." They were playing in The Tonight Show band. They were playing on commercials. They were playing TV show themes.

And Thad and Mel, who were two of those leading musicians. Thad had been in the Count Basie Orchestra, the great Count Basie Orchestra of the '50s. Mel Lewis had played with Stan Keaton. He played with Gerry Mulligan, and he had done a lot of work on the west coast, especially. And the two men decided to round up some of their friends and start playing big band jazz, because Thad Jones was one of the best living arrangers of jazz, and he needed a kind of a big canvas on which to work out his musical ideas.


SPELLMAN: The arrangements are very impressive to me, because I've always thought a great deal of sound that Thad Jones was able to pull from the orchestra, sometimes sounding much larger than it was, even though it was a big band. Sometimes getting colors out the groupings within the ensemble that were just beautiful and unusual.

HORWITZ: Colors and textures. He's able to shift the ensemble around a lot. Sometimes he'd have flute doubling a muted trumpet. Sometimes he'd have just one instrument playing over a bass line. Sometimes it would be a piano trio and then sometimes great massed choirs of brass.


HORWITZ: Thad Jones was really a wonderful jazz writer and probably very underrated nowadays. What's great about this CD is that it gives you the most complete array of his music that you can get on one disc, and there are some really romping-n-stomping flag-wavers and there are some gorgeous little ballads.


SPELLMAN: We've been listening to and talking about The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra playing the music of Thad Jones and others on a record called Thad Jones Legacy. It's on the New World Record label, and you can get information about this and other NPR Basic Jazz Record Library selections at our Web site. For NPR Jazz, I'm A.B. Spellman.

HORWITZ: And I'm Murray Horwitz.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

A. B. Spellman
Murray Horwitz