History-making music group for UMM - morris mn

History-making music group for UMM - morris mn
The UMM men's chorus opened the Minnesota Day program at the 1962 Seattle World's Fair (Century 21 Exposition).

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

A night at Prom Center with Thad Jones/Mel Lewis

I wasn't sure what to expect when going to St. Paul to hear the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis jazz orchestra in the mid-1970s. I feel fortunate to have had the experience.
This band didn't have the fame of some of the other touring big bands. Very often these bands would come to the St. Paul Prom Center (or Ballroom). Remember the old Lakeside Ballroom in Glenwood? The Prom had the same atmosphere but was much bigger. From the street it didn't look imposing or special. We saw that word "Prom" on a small sign and instantly got energized. All of the "name" big bands played there.
We don't generally associate big bands with the '70s of course. We associate disco. True, big bands were long past their heyday of the 1940s, that meteoric time when Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman entertained young adults. Big bands never vanished of course. How could such an appealing and exciting art form lose its following? We simply saw change.
The '60s were the low point. Let's face it, it was an anomalous decade.
In about 1970, trumpeter Maynard Ferguson caused a phenomenon among high school and college jazz musicians. He came out with the first of his "M.F. Horn" albums. Drummer Buddy Rich caused the same kind of excited following with his band. Yours truly and friends from Morris saw both these bands at the Prom Center.
Old Stan Kenton was in the mix, attracting concert-goers who had seen those other bands. Count Basie stayed true to his art all through the years. I heard the Basie band in St. Cloud. Woody Herman kept the faith and did so practically to his dying day, always embracing his art even though it was known he kept touring because he owed people money! We heard Woody and his group at the Prom. We ran right past him as we followed the ritual of trying to save the best seats - Woody had his clarinet out and was tooting some warm-up notes.
How we loved the Prom Center!
Finally I became aware of the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis jazz orchestra (or big band). I had a music instructor at St. Cloud State who was acquainted with a band member: Cecil Bridgewater. My teacher told me to relay a "hello" if I got a chance. I did get a chance. Back then - more innocent days? - it was common for musicians in those bands to mix with audience members during breaks. Concerts might have three full sets separated by breaks. The star might sign autographs in a side room. Today I'm sure the sense of formality would be greater. It's the way our society has gone.
Those concerts of yore were long evenings rich in musical fulfillment and sheer excitement. We were all younger!
The Thad Jones/Mel Lewis band was a total artistic flower. It did not have the steady sheer intensity of the other prominent big bands. It could surely be intense when it decided to. It had the kind of big band trumpeters who, figuratively speaking, could drive a nail into a wall. It chose not to give the audience a steady diet of this. We heard wondrous improvisation. The piano player became an audience favorite on the night I took in the band. It was an acoustic, not electric piano.
"Potpourri" was the name of the album the band was promoting at the time. We saw the leading duo on the cover, a black man and white man. I remember Jones, the African-American, coming onstage at the Prom as the musicians assembled, swinging his right arm in a circle as if he was warming up to pitch a baseball game! He played trumpet. He was a masterful arranger and consummate artist, and BTW came from the same family as Hank Jones and Elvin Jones. Jazz royalty to be sure. Lewis was the drummer.
This was a most distinctive band as it created new styles, succeeding in an era where big bands weren't particularly in fashion, and remaining integrated during racially tense periods.
The climate for big bands got so bad, Maynard Ferguson left the country. Maynard even hosted his own TV show in England. Del Sarlette of Morris has some precious video of those programs. England's tax structure ensured that the venerable trumpeter wouldn't stay there permanently. So Maynard made his triumphant return in the early '70s, buoyed by albums that used British studio talent. Let's consider him part of the "British invasion," sort of. Seriously, England had superior recording studio quality at that time, an often overlooked factor in appreciating that "invasion." What was the problem here? Distraction caused by the Viet Nam war, mainly. Young men worried about the draft. How ridiculous and tragic.
Planting seeds in NYC in the '60s
The Thad and Mel band was able to establish itself during that low point for their musical genre, the 1960s, helped by the fact they did this in New York City. Jim Carlson would chuckle at the following bit of background: "The orchestra started out as a group of all-star studio musicians getting together for midnight practice sessions at any place within walking distance from 'Jim and Andy's,' a bar frequented by New York musicians."
I remember when Jim and guest clinician Ed Shaughnessy posed for a photo I took at Jim's home after a UMM Jazz Festival concert. There was a beer can on the table and I suggested to just leave it there. Today I think there's more of an over-arching taboo with alcohol products. Oh, but not back then, when jazz musicians were associated with mind-altering substances.
If Jim had stayed here, would we still have a Jazz Fest at UMM with such phenomenal status? Well, I guess everything has its heyday, just like my father's men's chorus in the 1960s.
Coming out of nowhere? Jazz education
I don't think UMM or any other institution predicted big band jazz programs in the '60s. At the start it was called "stage band," as Sarlette readily recalls, because the word "jazz" seemed a little edgy. Conjure up those alcohol refreshments. Finally "jazz" seeped into the mainstream. Colleges all formed jazz bands whose members were absolutely mesmerized by the likes of Maynard, Buddy, Stan, and even Thad and Mel. (The young men wore corduroy pants, as pointed out by a critic who seemed to be sneering a little.)
The Thad and Mel band debuted at the Village Vanguard in New York City in 1966. Their originality and virtuoso skills immediately made impact. They blended big band swing, bebop and hard bop. The sound was powerful, fast, intellectual and fun to listen to. It was more restrained, requiring an adjustment for many of the corduroy-wearing (young) peers of mine. (Corduroy pants were considered a way around schools' dress code of the time. Silly.)
Jones already had a resume of writing for the Basie orchestra. He played flugelhorn as much as trumpet. Flugelhorn was Chuck Mangione's instrument, remember? Mangione got big (for a while) because radio deejays were tired of the Bee Gees.
Mel Lewis as drummer incorporated the loose, open approach of small group playing - an innovation. His cymbal work added a layer of texture. The Thad and Mel band developed a reputation of being the most influential big band since the swing era.
Since the mid-1980s, the band has been re-named the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, continuing its tradition as the Village Vanguard's house band.
The principals speak, rejoice in music
Interviewed in 1969, Jones exuded humility along with an unbridled love for his art form: "Well, there really is no particular significance attached to the band, other than the fact that we just want to play good music for people, and play it as well as we know how. We want to present our music to the people, and we hope they enjoy it as much as we enjoy playing it for them."
Lewis said "above all, we want to play, for the rest of our lives actually. It's something you never want to stop doing." Lewis continued: "We like to feel that this band represents musical maturity. Each man knows what's happening - he's paid his dues, he's learned, and he's reached a certain point."
And Jones said: "Knowledge by itself is a beautiful thing, but there has to be that additional factor of accumulation. The knowledge that you have means nothing unless you can constantly add to it."
The band performed for 12 years in its original incarnation. Of note: They toured the Soviet Union in 1972 at the height of the Cold War! They won a 1978 Grammy for the album "Live in Munich." They added a Grammy in 2009 for the album "Monday Night Live at the Village Vanguard."
Thad and Mel have both left us. Thad went to that big ballroom in the sky in 1986. Lewis made his way there in 1990. Their legacy thrives. Click on the link below to get a nice sampling of what the band was all about, from YouTube:
Here's a toast to big band jazz, to Thad and Mel RIP, and to that night at the St. Paul Prom Center where musical artistry of the highest order was presented. Memories don't get any better. My favorite chart on the "Potpourri" album was "For the Love of Money." Let's put art ahead of money.
Addendum: Cecil Bridgewater, friend of my trumpet-playing instructor Al Moore of St. Cloud, was with Thad and Mel from 1970 to 1976. He also played with Dizzy Gillespie.
I got to hear Dizzy Gillespie in the '70s at St. Cloud, on a night when he didn't want to expend any physical energy at all, it seemed. He had no range on the trumpet that night. St. Cloud didn't rate for a top-notch effort, evidently. Dizzy had a playing style with the puffed-out cheeks that probably took a toll on him, and forced him to pace himself. In an indelicate way I might say Dizzy's concert was a ripoff.
I'm pleased to hear that Cecil is alive today, age 73, an adjunct faculty at the Manhattan School of Music, the Julliard School and other institutions. He has been a great supporter of the Jazz Foundation of America in their mission to save the homes and the lives of America's elderly jazz and blues musicians including those who survived Hurricane Katrina. Cecil is an Urbana IL native.
I liked Mr. Moore but I regret taking any formal music studies after the age of 17. I knew all I would ever need to know about music when I was 17. No one needed to tell me how to use my diaphragm.
Bravo for big band jazz! It will never die (to quote a rock n' roll anthem).
- Brian Williams - morris mn Minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

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