The Vanguard Orchestra Speaks Out

By Lionelle Hamanaka

Some musicians have spent their entire adult lives in the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra. Below are some of their reflections from the bandstand. We will meet more members in the November edition of the Village View.

The first performances of the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra in 1966 were wildly successful. Max Gordon told Mel Lewis, “We’ll keep it going until it tapers off.” In 57 years, the name changed to the Mel Lewis Orchestra and, after his passing, to the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra. During those years, owner Max Gordon passed away, his wife, Lorraine took over and now Deborah Gordon has upheld her parents’ legacy. The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra is still wildly successful, a brilliant example of one of the leading artistic forces of our time, jazz.

Douglas Purviance: Bass Trombonist, Producer, and MC

Photo credit: Roy Lewis.

In 1978 Thad Jones said, “Doug, I’d like you to join the band.” Doug recalls, “It was one of the most exciting moments of my professional career…Everybody wanted to play with the Vanguard Orchestra. I’m still with the band (because) it’s always exciting.”

Thad left the band at the end of that tour, so when they re-grouped back in NY, there were two bass trombones (Doug and Earl McIntyre). Then Mel asked Bob Brookmeyer to write arrangements. 

As MC, Doug wants to make people feel comfortable. As a producer, “one of my inspirations was Quincy Jones. We commissioned new charts. Thomas Bellino, of Planet Arts, helped and they contributed funds to form a non-profit organization (16 as One, Music). 

Doug started producing because, “I thought if I were in charge, I would do it this way. I had other projects…like managing the sound track for Dizzy Gillespie’s movie in Portugal, Winter in Lisbon.” He also worked with Slide Hampton, Dizzy Gillespie. . . and had a thriving studio career. “I travelled all over the world, I stayed in fancy hotels, met kings and heads of state…and people fawn over you. Yeah, we’re spoiled. But we worked our asses off to get there. You gotta play it right…in front of everybody.

“Playing in the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra is very special because you’re in the middle of some of the most sophisticated harmonically developed music. . . it is an honor and blessing. I can feel the warmth and the feeling it gives the audience…I don’t want that to be lost. That’s why I put all my efforts to keep the tradition going. We’re going to have to turn it over in the not-too-distant future. We want to hand it over to fantastic musicians who know where we came from.” 

John Riley: Drummer 

Photo credit: Kengo Osaka.

A band member since 1992 from Scotch Plains, New Jersey, John inherited a toy drum set his younger brother threw away. As a teen he played with rock bands and listened to jazz. He was in Woody Herman’s Band and freelanced as well. 

John saw Mel Lewis at the Vanguard and described him as “the ultimate team player, strong but…selfless, supporting…and making people sound good.” He began subbing for Mel who also referred him to other bands. 

John described his own style as “a supportive member…whose primary responsibilities are to unify and inspire the other musicians, anticipate needs of the music, one second before it needs assistance; to set tempo and dynamic level, and to find the right sonic environment to support unique soloists.”

He explained that each section head ensures the overall sound…each person has a unique way of playing. When a musician plays a solo, for that moment, the soloist is the leader. “Thad created unique environments for personalities in the band,” said John. “Today we continue to honor his work — the core, the foundation, the joyousness in his compositions. The music is…still captivating…even after all these years. The idea is for the team as a whole to exceed expectations. It has to be effortless, like speaking. We’re often adding new material.” 

John Riley tours about 100 days a year. On Monday nights you can find him at the Vanguard home base. He teaches at the Manhattan School of Music, has written books on drumming and has been on over 100 records, with many stars. 

CD: “OverTime: Music of Bob Brookmeyer,” by Planet Arts Recording. 

Adam Birnbaum: PIANO

Photo credit: John Rogers.

“To follow in the footsteps of Hank Jones, Sir Roland Hanna, Kenny Werner, Jim McNeely and so many others and inherit this piano chair is definitely a dream come true,” said Adam. “I am so grateful and inspired to be a part of this incredible legacy.

“Playing in the VJO requires me to both be a great sight-reader and…incredibly flexible and open-minded. We play a wide range of music from swinging shuffles to odd-meter modern jazz. I am faced with the challenge of supporting an incredible array of soloists–each with their own unique voice. It’s one of the most challenging gigs I’ve ever done and …the most rewarding. I am frankly frightened to dare submit my own big-band arrangements. However, I would love to someday write music for the VJO when I feel I am ready to contribute something worthy.” 

Adam Birnbaum’s newest recording is: “Preludes,” arrangements of J.S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier for Trio. (release date 10-13-23)