Big Bands Said To Be Not Dead

Big Bands Said To Be Not Dead

by Mike Zwerin

copyright © 2004 Mike Zwerin

Vienne, France — When 21 teenage music students from the Ukranian mining town of Krivoj Rog perform Cannonball Adderley's R&B hit "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy," which was written by the Austrian Joe Zawinul, in France, it can be said that jazz is world music — and that big bands are not dead.

In the 1960s, when four rock musicians were able to play much louder and make a lot more money than 21 jazz musicians, there was a joke that big bands were really still alive, it was only the work that was dead. The Ukranian students finished their afternoon set at the Jazz In Vienne festival with "In The Mood," which brought to mind the late trombonist Jimmy Knepper's reflection that it was too bad that Glenn Miller's music hadn't died instead of Glenn Miller. Organizations that have continued to carry the names of deceased leaders — Miller, Woody Herman, Duke Ellington, Gil Evans, Count Basie — are known as "ghost bands."

Officially sanctioned ghost bands tend to play their namesake's least interesting repertoire by concentrating on the big hits of yore. They can be too good for their own good — too precise, technocratic, with not enough heart, not open to risk. Repertory formations such as Wynton Marsalis's Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra directed by David Baker in Washington are, as it were, serial ghost bands.

Despite all the bankruptcy, death and haunting, against all odds, it is a tribute to the vitality of the big band tradition that young musicians still go out of their way to play in them. The Charles Mingus Big Band concentrates on the disorder of creativity, rather than, or as well as, preserving the original work — adding vitality and imagination to familiar material without disfiguration. The Mingus Band is one of the few testimonial formations in which the improvising soloists are as interesting as the section work.

Back To Basie and the Vintage Orchestra, one in London and the other in Paris, preserve their dead leaders's music although not officially certified by the respective estates. The former — the name is a takeoff on John Major's election slogan "back to basics" — celebrated Count Basie's 100th birthday year with a concert at Queen Elisabeth Hall on the Fourth of July — another illustration of jazz as world music. The pleasure of hearing well-honed sections of eight brass and five saxophones accompanied by a good rhythm section keeping alive what was, after all, the orchestral sound of the 20th century should not be taken for granted.

Until the Vintage Orchestra recorded their album "Thad" (Nocturne) in Paris last year, the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra had spawned no ghosts. They had cast deep shadows, perhaps, but no phantoms. Lewis was the thinking-man's big band drummer, and trumpeter Jones was an extraordinarily inventive arranger and composer and a charismatic front man. Formed in the mid-1960s to allow frustrated virtuosos to escape the ennui of the recording studios, they performed on Monday nights at the tiny Village Vanguard for peanuts. The Vintage Orchestra's young French men and women (Sophie Alour on tenor saxophone) continue Thad and Mel's glorious tradition of unpaid rehearsals. Often, they are even unpaid when they perform, which is rarely. They interpret such fine and tricky Jones compositions as "Little Pixie" and "Tip Toe" as though they own them.

The most worldly big band of them all was based in Cologne, Germany, and co-led by the prototype American jazzman in Paris Kenny Clarke and the Belgian pianist and arranger Francy Boland. The LPs "All Smiles" and "More Smiles" originally recorded for the German label MPS in the late 1960s have been released for the first time on CD by Verve/Europe. The sidemen, all either European or Americans living in Europe, included Johnny Griffin, Sahib Shihab, and the English legend Ronnie Scott on saxophones, the Yugoslav Dusko Goykovich on trumpet, the Swedish trombonist Ake Persson, Swiss-resident Jimmy Woode on bass and Clarke on drums. Along with Jones/Lewis — Basie and Ellington, remember, were still in the flesh then — the Clarke/Boland band kept the fluttering flame burning despite rock's dominance in the '60s and '70s. (There is no Clarke/Boland ghost band.)

Since then, arrangers and composers who want to hear their music properly-played enough to suffer the organizational hassles and financial risk involved include Bob Brookmeyer, Maria Schneider, Dave Holland, George Gruntz, and the impressive John Clayton/Jeff Hamilton band from Los Angeles, which also performed at Jazz in Vienne. The Austrian Vienna Art Orchestra, and Willem Breuker and Misha Mengelberg's Instant Composers Pool in the Netherlands have added theatricality and classical elements.

Today's big bands can be frighteningly good. Frightening, that is, for them. Because the work, if no longer dead, is barely twitching.


C o m m e n t s

Big Bands 1 of 7
David W. August 10, 04

"Since then, arrangers and composers who want to hear their music properly-played enough to suffer the organizational hassles and financial risk involved include Bob Brookmeyer, Maria Schneider, Dave Holland, George Gruntz, and the impressive John Clayton/Jeff Hamilton band from Los Angeles, which also performed at Jazz in Vienne. The Austrian Vienna Art Orchestra, and Willem Breuker and Misha Mengelberg's Instant Composers Pool in the Netherlands have added theatricality and classical elements..."

I'd add Toshiko to that list.

[<<] [<]