The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra

By Lionelle Hamanaka


The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra’s Monday night gig is the longest steady gig in jazz history (1966 to 2023). That’s 57 years at the Village Vanguard, the oldest continuously operating jazz club in the world (established 1935).

But even a heat wave that melted asphalt couldn’t stop fans lining up around the block, who came from all over the world to hear the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra in person. Waiting on line for the second set, Gentry Gardner of Kansas City, Kansas, said, “The history of the music is kept alive by the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra in this iconic venue.”

Legend has it that Count Basie suggested Thad Jones (who’d already done 25 compositions and/or arrangements for Count Basie) form his own big band. Jones reached out to Mel Lewis, whom he’d met at a Battle of the Big Bands—Count Basie vs. Stan Kenton–and voila! Jones and Lewis, in tune with the 1960s, formed one of the first integrated orchestras, starting jam sessions with studio musicians in 1965 and getting ‘a few Monday nights’ from Max Gordon in 1966. Many jazz musicians were on the front lines of civil rights, integrating music venues, hotels and restaurants on the road.

Thad Jones was born in Pontiac, Michigan in 1923, and this year the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra is celebrating his 100th birthday. He was a trumpeter, flugelhorn and cornet player, (composer/arranger). Along with his brother Hank Jones, a great pianist and brother Elvin Jones, a brilliant drummer, they formed one of music royalty’s families of jazz. “Thad Jones had a huge personality, was an amazing dynamic conductor, (who) brought out incredible performances… A groundbreaking composer who took Count Basie’s style and modernized it… Douglas, Dick and I are a… connection to when Thad was leading the band. We … can help the band to continue that tradition,” said Rich Perry, of today’s Vanguard Jazz Orchestra.

Mel Lewis, the other leader of the original band, The Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra, hailed from Buffalo, New York. He was from Russian-Jewish roots and was a master of the cymbals. Drummer John Riley remembered his idol, “Mel was not a technical virtuoso, but a musical virtuoso and did not overplay to show off.” Perry recalled, “Mel was…a very nice guy, opinionated…very melodic. His time feel was amazing, smooth, enough pushing to propel, but very relaxed and his solos were musical.”

In tune with the birthday celebration, the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra played Lowdown, a Jones original commissioned by Count Basie. It’s a swing tune in classic song structure (A-A-B-A rhythm changes) where soloists can substitute harmonies. Jones used slang to create a groovy tune people can relate to. Jazz musicians say what they mean in solos and trumpeter Scott Wendholt sailed from the lowest to the highest notes with rhythmic combinations and virtuosic ease, in a conversational solo that came to a spirited close.

Second Race refers to the fact that Jones liked to play the horses. It’s a blues tune played up tempo, with the horns capturing the accented propulsion of a race, building the tension as the race sped to the finish line! After trumpet and tenor saxophone solos, the horn sections added dynamic drive to a climactic ending—a toggle finish restating the theme.

My Centennial was written by Jones for a celebration of the 200th birthday of the United States in 1976. Played at light speed with a Latin feel, this song is one of the most beautiful ever written, on a level that classical geniuses like Beethoven attain. After the rhythm section played the introduction, Riley’s drum solo, in an intricate web of subtle rhythms, used the various drums to create a delicate balance weaving a tapestry. A spirited solo followed by baritone saxophonist and scholar Frank Basile, and the golden tones of the trumpet section brought the masterpiece to a close.

One of the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra’s historic contributions to jazz was developing leading jazz composers like Jim McNeely (Chicago b. 1949-), and that night they played his up tempo Off the Cuff. McNeely started as a pianist in 1978 and came back as Composer in Residence in 1996. Riley played an intricate drum background, as the rhythm section gave the soloist a background to shine against. Perry on tenor sax, played an intriguing, melodic solo with a unique sound and style, exploring the piece with motifs that built from short riffs to longer lines that stretched out, incorporating bop and modern music.

Next was First Love Song, a ballad by Bob Brookmeyer (KC, MO b. 1929 d. 2011), another eminent jazz composer, whose Romeo and Juliet-type song captured the breathless rapture of first love. His innovations include integrating classical techniques into jazz, like tone rows, atonality, polytonality, the chromatic (12 note scale with smallest pitch differences in western music) and tone clusters.

The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra ended its set with a jazz classic, Groove Merchant (by Jerome Richardson-multi-instrumentalist/composer from Oakland, b. 1920 d. 2000) released in 1968, from an album of pop songs in a jazz groove. Jones’ arrangements are famous for capturing the stylistic essence of each instrumental section. Groove Merchant is a spirited medium swing, a joyous number featuring first the sax section that wailed in triplet arabesques, segueing into arpeggiated riffs that ended with a trill. Bass trombonist Douglas Purviance played a short, dramatic solo, then the entire trombone section took turns soloing, then standing as one, they rose before the finale. At the bar, it was hard to restrain some audience members from dancing.

Over 57 years, there were several incarnations of the band. Thad Jones moved to Denmark in 1979 and it became the Mel Lewis Orchestra, then Lewis died in 1990. Mr. Purviance explained, “After Mel’s death…we became The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra. We wanted to be on the Vanguard of the music. And we didn’t want to be a ghost band (we commissioned new charts.) John Mosca became the leader. John was so dedicated to the band and music and (to) keeping the history going. There was so much on his shoulders, and my career was going very, very well and I got into a management position to help John. We carried the load until he left.”

Mr. Purviance produces and is also a suave MC, tossing off jokes that left the audience chuckling. He said, “You are the hippest people in the world…supporting live music from (one of the best) orchestras in the world, at the Village Vanguard.”

The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra won Grammys for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Albums in 1979 (for Live in Munich) and 2009 (Monday Night Live at the Village Vanguard, co-produced by Douglas Purviance). They also won 11 Best Big Band Readers and Critics Polls in Downbeat. The VJO, a hit for over half the lifetime of jazz, played around the world, and sowed seeds for the future of jazz. The lines down the block speak for themselves.

The longstanding members like Dick Oatts, Ralph Lalama, Billy Drewes, Rich Perry, Gary Smulyan, Scott Wendholt, John Riley and Douglas Purviance are influential teachers and have been on over 100 recordings each through networks built up over decades.

Regular Band Personnel: rhythm section: Adam Birnbaum, piano; David Wong, bass; John Riley, drums. Trumpets: Nick Marchione, Terrell Stafford, Scott Wendholt, John Chudoba. Saxophones: Dick Oatts, Billy Drewes, Rich Perry, Ralph Lalama, Gary Smulyan. Trombones: Dion Tucker, Douglas Purviance, Jason Jackson, Rob Edwards.