I love living in California, really I do. But there are moments when I truly wish I could beam myself to New York City just for an evening or three. I would dearly loved to have been at The Village Vanguard every night last week — a whole week of the band now known at the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra is a a rarity. Ever since 1965 this band — then known as The Thad Jones – Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra — has held forth on Monday nights, missing only a few here and there when the band was on tour.
My personal memories of the band don’t go back quite that far; I became acquainted with the band about five years in. I loved to descend those steep stairs into the smoky basement club. It was always crowded, the band barely fit on the tiny stage, and the music filled the room so, that you thought it would bust through the walls and spill up into the street. I remember the plaintive sounds of Bob Brookmeyer’s arrangement of Willow Weep for Me, and a tune called Pensive Miss that, being a brooding teenager, I felt was written just for me. I listened to old timers Cliff Heather and Butterball Jackson mix it up with a young woman named Janice Robinson in trombone section. The saxes I recall included Jerry Dodgion, Pepper Adams, Billy Harper and Jimmy Heath, with Thad Jones standing just inches in front of them waving his arms like no conductor I had ever seen before. He played the band as if it were as much an extension of his being as was his own flugelhorn. The high note of the trumpets was the band’s youngest member, a kid named Jon Faddis on whom I had a tremendous crush, and there was a girl singer, just starting out, who sang two songs each set. Thad knew this young lady was destined for success…and he was right about Dee Dee Bridgewater.
My favorite male singer has always been Joe Williams. I never got to hear him sing live with the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra, but one of my favorite recordings from the days of yore was an early morning session they did with Joe in 1966. When I say early morning, I don’t mean the wee small hours — which might have been preferable as the band had been playing the night before until one or two o’clock in the morning. With a recording session just a few hours off, most of them didn’t bother to go home. They just hung out, had few drinks, ate some breakfast and showed up at the studio ready to play some more. Presenting Joe Williams & Thad Jones/Mel Lewis was originally recorded live in the studio to a 4-track machine for Solid State records; Blue Note Records reissued it on CD in 1994. Reviewer Scott Yanow wrote,
“Many of the selections (half of which have been in the singer’s repertoire ever since) are given definitive treatment on this set (particularly a humorous “Evil Man Blues,” “Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good to You,” and “Smack Dab in the Middle”), and Williams scats at his best on “It Don’t Mean a Thing.” Get this one.”
If Dee Dee had recorded with the band, I would send you right out to get that one too; alas, not. But if you are not yet acquainted with this lady’s talents, you should check her out. Try Keeping Tradition, an album full of mostly standards recorded in 1992, or Live at Yoshi’s which was recorded in 1998 though not released until 2000.
And don’t forget the band! The tradition lives on, so if you’re ever in New York on a Monday night, give yourself a present and catch the band at The Village Vanguard.