Big Swing Central: Big Bands in the Big Apple

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Mingus Big Band
By John Abbott
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Maria Schneider
By David Korchin

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Every seat in the Village Vanguard is full when the rhythm section kicks off the first set. The rest of the band is still settling in. One of the alto saxophonists fiddles with his ligature while two seats away a tenor player looks for the music. A couple of the trombonists share a joke, and in the back row the trumpet players sit too quietly, like they just woke up and aren’t quite sure what time it is or what city they’re in. It’s easy to think that it might be an off night.

But the air goes electric when the brass and reeds hit their first notes together. It’s something you just don’t get from recordings—the power, the sound of 16 instruments blending in the air around you. As the soloists stand up to shout like revivalists, the audience begins to cheer and soon the musicians are calling out to one another, too, grunting their approval and nodding their heads in affirmation. The energy builds for over an hour, climaxing on the delirious mad dash “fingers.” The band members stand for a jubilant round of applause and come off stage like conquering heroes, beaming and upbeat.

The heyday of big bands may be long gone, but going out to watch a thundering herd of world-class jazz musicians remains one of the great joys of life in New York City. Creative big bands continue to carve out their own sounds and audiences with a handful of regular gigs around the city, despite the headaches of dealing with so many musicians’ schedules and the difficulty of making any money.

“It’s the simple fact that there are a lot of musicians here and jazz musicians like to keep doing what they do, staying active even if they have to support themselves playing other music,” says the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra’s director, John Mosca. “It’s not a big money endeavor,” he adds, given the reality of dividing a paycheck 16 ways. “It’s a chance to work things out and experiment and do new music.”

The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra (VJO) is celebrating 40 years of Monday nights this year. They are perhaps the strongest contemporary link to the great bands of the past, and yet they have continued to evolve, reflecting a by-musicians-for-musicians interest in new sounds and pure jazz that has kept them relevant for four decades.

“It’s something that was set up by Thad [Jones],” says Mosca, referring to the group’s cofounder. “He was unique among writer-leaders in that he always encouraged all the guys in the band who wrote to submit stuff.” Mosca and the rest are clearly excited about the recent release Up From the Skies (Planet Arts), the VJO’s second CD of music by pianist Jim McNeely (the first won a Grammy), which also features a title track by Jimi Hendrix and jazz writing and arranging at its most sophisticated.

The VJO had the good luck to set up in one of the longest-running nightclubs in the city. A home base and regular gigs—especially weekly residencies—are the most essential ingredients that New York can provide for a band’s survival. Those two things make it possible for a big band to learn to play as a group, attract notice from critics and other musicians, develop new material and build an audience.

Fez was home of the Mingus Big Band (MBB) since 1991, but the club closed last year. But the group easily transitioned to Tuesday nights at Iridium. Like the Vanguard Orchestra, the MBB has an enormous legacy to draw from in Charles Mingus and his catalog of some 300 compositions. Sue Mingus, Charles’ widow, formed the band (and the other Mingus groups Dynasty and Orchestra) to keep alive the music and reputation of her late husband. She has had remarkable success, too. “The biggest change in perceptions since Charles died is the understanding of his importance as a composer,” she says. “Mingus was thought of more as a personality onstage and a virtuoso bass player.”

The Mingus groups are popular enough that at times there are two bands on the road and one in town, a level of activity that, according to Sue Mingus, is possible only because of “the astonishing number of great musicians that are here in the city at any one time.” It is also the musicians who are writing most of the arrangements these days, living with the music and keeping it fresh for themselves and new generations of Mingus fans. Last year’s CD I Am Three (Sunnyside Records) features all three Mingus groups.

Also in midtown on Tuesdays, David Berger and his Sultans of Swing let fly at Birdland. Berger was the conductor of the Lincoln Center Orchestra from 1988 to 1994, and originally formed this band to play the arrangements he created for choreographer Donald Byrd’s adaptation of Duke Ellington’s Harlem Nutcracker (Such Sweet Thunder). A steady gig playing for dancers at Swing 46 in the ’90s was the break the band needed to become something more. “That really helped us,” says Berger, “for me to write a book [of tunes] and for us to develop in terms of ensemble, to become a real band and not just a bunch of guys that get together and play some charts.”

That sense of a group sound is something that all the bandleaders stress as one of the real payoffs of a working band. “Every beat we play together,” Berger says. “Our conception of time is one conception of time.” The Sultans’ sound is based in the classics—Ellington, Basie, Lunceford—and the band’s weekly program, Ellington and More, allows it to show its range, mixing standards and originals as heard on the group’s most recent CD, Hindustan (Such Sweet Thunder).

A spot in the high-end jazz clubs can help ensure a regular audience of jazz lovers and tourists, but other bands have made their way in less likely locations with less likely audiences, suggesting new potential for large jazz ensembles in the 21st century.

At 33, pianist Jason Lindner is a few years younger than some of the charts the Vanguard Orchestra plays, yet he has been leading a big band for 11 years and has just finished his second CD with the group, Live at the Jazz Gallery. Lindner built a reputation in the scruffy student-and-musician club Small’s playing original music that is not much concerned with the big-band tradition. “I never wanted to play standards,” Lindner says. “The whole concept of my group is featuring new music.” The group’s first CD notably included a rap about Mary Lou Williams. Yet Lindner is no iconoclast. His nuanced arrangements combine jazz with influences from Latin America, Africa and the Middle East as well as hip-hop and other urban music that he heard growing up in New York. Now based at the dumpster-decorated lounge Fat Cat, Lindner seems proud that he has won an audience that is not a typical jazz crowd. “So many people that came to Small’s told me, ‘Wow, this is the first jazz group I’ve ever heard.’ That’s kind of cool. That’s exciting, that’s really a live, living thing.”

Trumpeter and bandleader Steven Bernstein agrees: “My whole audience—young people, basically—never hear this kind of music, and they’re just blown away. Because there’s a feeling when all those horns hit that beautiful chord. It’s a thing of beauty, man.” Bernstein, best known for his noisy party band Sex Mob, leads one of the most bewitchingly contemporary groups in New York, the nine-piece Millennial Territory Orchestra (MTO), which has finally released its first CD, MTO, Vol. 1 (Sunnyside Records). Beginning with a residency at Tonic five years ago, MTO seems to have managed the impossible task of making 1920s and ’30s big-band charts cool again, giving the group a gritty intensity that somehow segues seamlessly into rocked-up versions of James Bond themes as well as pop and soul covers with a free-jazz edge. The result is a musical gumbo that reduces all of American popular music—from Storyville to the Fillmore West and beyond—to a simmering, steamy essence.

In a very different way, Maria Schneider is also redefining orchestral jazz for the new millennium. Though she studied with famed arranger Bob Brookmeyer and worked with the Vanguard Orchestra early in her career, she says, “I try my hardest not to make it sound like a big band.” She uses woodwind doubles and unusual arranging techniques to create new sounds for her through-composed pieces that are “in a way closer to classical music except that [they] couldn’t possibly be played just by classical musicians.”

Schneider built her reputation as a bandleader with a weekly spot at Visiones from 1993 to ’98, though she now spends much of her time touring with her own group and working with orchestras around the world. She won a Grammy for her 2004 CD, Concert in the Garden (ArtistShare), and has proven that it is still possible to have a major career writing for, and leading, big bands.

Of course, the elephant in the room in any discussion of New York big bands is the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (JLCO) with Wynton Marsalis. The group’s state-of-the-art facility in the Time Warner building, collaborations with countless jazz legends, not-for-profit status and high media profile put it in a separate category from most bands. And yet Marsalis wants to make clear that JLCO isn’t living on Easy Street: “We’re always trying to raise money—we’re not here on vacation. It takes a lot of effort and energy to maintain that building, to keep the doors open.”

As part of its mission to keep the music of the past alive, the JLCO has performed everything from Paul Whiteman to John Coltrane. “I think we have an eclectic sound,” says Marsalis. “We play a wide range of music. It’s kind of like a modern American sound that incorporates all of the music that came before it.” The orchestra is also constantly pushing itself, debuting ambitious compositions such as Congo Square, Marsalis’ recent collaboration with Ghanaian percussionist Yacub Addy and his ensemble Odadaa! Big bands are at the heart of the Jazz at Lincoln Center vision, whether it is the JLCO, the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra under the direction of Arturo O’Farrill, educational programs such as Essentially Ellington or visiting performers.

In addition to all the big bands that regularly play around town, dozens of groups perform and record as schedules permit. Recently Charles Tolliver’s powerhouse big band made a big impression on a new generation of musicians and listeners. Satoko Fujii leads edgy ensembles in both New York and Tokyo. Dave Holland, John Hollenbeck, Oliver Lake, Mike Longo and Bob Mintzer are all based in New York City, and new projects emerge constantly, fueled by little more than a bandleader’s artistic ambition.

“If you write jazz, a big band is what you want to do,” says David Berger. “A small group is about the soloists, but the big band is about the arranger. You hear these things in your head and you put all these dots on a piece of paper and it takes you a long time and then you put it in front of 15 guys and they interpret it and they make it greater than you could ever imagine.”

The payoff for the sidemen, says Lindner, is that “people want to play. Everyone wants to learn and play and absorb. I think just being a part of a working band is an exciting thing.”

It is possible to compare New York today unfavorably to decades past when jazz giants loomed everywhere: As Steven Bernstein’s mentor, the late trumpeter Jimmy Maxwell, told him, “Not only was there a big band in every hotel, there was a jazz trio playing in the Chinese restaurants.” Nonetheless, new and exciting music continues to pour out of the city. New York City will always be the big-band capital of the world for the simple reason that this is where the musicians are.

“I wouldn’t say that the state [of big bands in New York] is good because it’s so hard to make a living,” Bernstein says. “But I will say that people will continue to do this even if it’s proven impossible.”

Originally published in September 2006

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