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."
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.
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.)
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
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.
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
"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."
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," the owner replied: "We want you to change all that."
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.
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.
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."
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?