Winnipeg's Jazz Magazine


March/April 2012: Dee Daniels

Village Vanguard: A Band of Brothers

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The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra’s legacy dates back to the mid-1960s, when it was first created as the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra. Trumpeter Jones was an alumnus of the Count Basie Orchestra, and this new unit allowed him to expand upon the legacies of Basie and Duke Ellington, and to showcase his formidable gifts as a composer and arranger. In 1966, the group began its long tenure as the Monday night house band at Manhattan’s mythic jazz shrine, The Village Vanguard, where it quickly became a major local institution. (It was hearing this band at the Vanguard during that period that inspired a young Canadian trombonist named Rob McConnell to form his own iconic big band, the Boss Brass).

When Thad Jones moved to Copenhagen in 1978, the band carried on under the leadership of its influential drummer, Mel Lewis. Upon Lewis’ death in 1990, they became the VJO, continuing to record, tour, and maintain the Monday night tradition, now in its fifth decade!

Throughout its history and many incarnations, the VJO has been a multicultural, inter-generational microcosm of the New York jazz community, and a laboratory for some of its finest writers and soloists, a diverse list that, over the years, has included Bob Brookmeyer, Jon Faddis, Joe Lovano, Sir Roland Hanna, Steve Coleman, Kenny Werner, Jim McNeely, Snooky Young, Kenny Garrett, Richard Davis, Chris Potter, Pepper Adams, Jimmy Knepper, Frank Foster, Gary Smulyan, George Mraz, Rich Perry, and Ralph LaLama.

Two stalwarts of the VJO, alto saxophonist/artistic director Dick Oatts and drummer John Riley, will join the Winnipeg Jazz Orchestra for two very special performances on Sunday, March 18, as part of the WJO’s 2011-12 season.

Iowa native Oatts has been one of the most visible saxophonists in New York for many years, known for his collaborations with pianist Gary Dial and crossover/fusion group Flim and the BB’s, among many others. He first joined the Vanguard band in 1977, when Jones and Lewis were still at the helm. As WJO Artistic Director Richard Gillis says, “Saxophonists today all know Dick Oatts. He is the quintessential lead alto player.”

Riley is much sought after for his versatility and swing. He is also highly regarded as a teacher. A former student of the legendary Joe Morello, he is on the faculty at the Manhattan School of Music and is the author of several popular drum method books, including The Art of Bop Drumming.  “When you talk about contemporary big band drummers,” says Gillis, “he would have to be right up there at the top of the list.”

Gillis initially approached Oatts and Riley individually as potential guest artists; they insisted, however, on coming together—a great plus for Winnipeg jazz fans!  The band will perform repertoire from the Vanguard book, presumably including material from the band’s brilliant composer-in-residence, Jim McNeely.

So come, settle in, and allow yourself to be transported to that legendary basement club on 7th Avenue South…


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