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.

Ralph Lalama: Tenor Saxophone
Before he became a member in 1983, Ralph subbed for the Thad Jones/Mel Orchestra. When Mel asked him to be a regular in the band, he had already committed to go with Buddy Rich for three months. Mel said, “It’s your gig when you get back” but Buddy had a heart attack so Ralph started three weeks later.
“The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra is historic, with great composers and arrangers, including Thad, Bob Brookmeyer, and Jimmy McNeely. That’s challenging music and there’s a different kind of vibe because we know each other so well,” said Ralph. “We’re like a family. A rarity. It’s so much fun. It’s great playing with such great sax players. The dynamics help with playing a better sax blend. It will give you ideas for improvisation. Listening to other saxophone players brings your level up.”
Ralph met Thad when he was going to Youngstown State University. The school hired Jones to do the last senior concert and clinic. The music department asked Ralph to pick Thad up at his hotel and drive him back and forth to the clinic. Thad, the “Beethoven of Jazz,” encouraged Ralph to move to New York and offered him a gig when he arrived.
His grandfather, an alto saxophonist and clarinetist, gave Ralph his first clarinet at nine. His style? “My father was a drummer,” he said. “I respect the beat. I think rhythmically –what makes it funkier? I use the question-and-answer format. My wife, Nicole, is a singer and we work together in Westchester and Connecticut where we have a following.”
“It’s still fun. You play with great musicians and they keep you on your toes. Like brothers. When Joe Lovano was in the band, he was always screaming at us. Sometimes students come from SUNY Purchase, there’s a legacy.”
“I wanted to come to New York to get better. I want to be different and I grew by playing lot. I’m not a clone but a disciple and whatever else happened, happened.”
CD: “Momentum” Criss Cross with Kenny Barron.

Scott grew up in Denver and started playing in the community stage band while he was in the fourth grade. He studied at the University of Indiana where David Baker set up the jazz studies program. He moved from Cincinnati to New York in 1990, did jam sessions, and got into wedding bands. Scott came to see the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, but not often, because it was “expensive.”
He explained that the leader of trumpet section leads the whole band in terms of phrasing. “We’re all listening to the lead trumpet player, everyone following his interpretation, stylistically, even the sonic timbre, to blend…to get a good sound,” he said. “The members of the VJO are great players. Anytime you’re in a steady band, playing the same solos for the arrangement, you figure out something new.”
Yet, there’s a challenge to keep innovating. “Playing every week is a luxury because the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra is like a big family,” Scott added. “Maybe there’s a little competition, sometimes rivalry, but it’s mostly copasetic. It comes out of bebop tradition but with a modern approach. It’s similar to Thad Jones, with a lot of traditional language that’s open to anything.”
He teaches at the Manhattan School of Music. “Students have to have a lot of patience learning the instrument, scales and patterns that will lead to creativity in the long run. It’s hard work. I tell students to treat the trumpet like an athletic event. Listen a lot, listen to great recordings, learn them by heart, learn every aspect to be a creative improviser.”
Scott’s ambition is to “keep playing good.”
CD: Fresh Sounds-And Them -Adam Kolker sax

RICH PERRY: Tenor Saxophone
From Cleveland, Ohio, Rich became intrigued by jazz after listening to his high school band director’s records. He joined the Glenn Miller Band when he was 20. He met the bassist Rufus Reid at a jazz camp. When he moved to N.Y., Reid invited him to audition for Mel and Thad.
Here’s what Rich has to say on the VJO. “In section parts or ensemble, your sound should meld into the lead alto player. Everyone is pretty good in the band. You can put aside any personal differences and play great music. Once a week I’m playing at a great club and you never know who’s going to be in the audience, so you play at a high level. During the week, I can’t get away from the instrument. It’s led to many opportunities.”
“I’ve worked a lot on sound. It’s one of the most important things. You want a sound that doesn’t sound like anybody else. I’m always trying to explore, to do stuff with a beginning, middle and end—and tell a story.”
Rich has recorded 25 CDs. “Harold Danko and me, in the early 90s…started a small group, made some demo tapes, and ended up recording in 1993. A path evolved and I am still learning constantly. So, I have no expectations or goals except to keep going; and stay in good enough shape. I have a gym trainer three times a week. I’m very fortunate to play music with great people. I’m teaching a lot at William Paterson and NYU. There’s plenty of people that are still in high school and college who are going to be great players.”
CD: Progression on Steeplechase