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Sons of Miles
JOHN LEWIS: A Big Gig
by Mike Zwerin
11 March 1999


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 somes 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.)


John Lewis


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 remastered, 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 controdiction 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?


Photo: John Lewis
Credit: Christian Rose

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