It’s the middle of the night in the early 1940s. A teenage French horn player can’t get to sleep. The muffled sound of piano playing seeps through the wall from a Cleveland theater door. At 5:00 a.m. the piano finally stops. This repeats every night for a week.
The late-night piano player is Duke Ellington, by then already a pioneer of original jazz compositions (“Mood Indigo,” “It Don’t Mean a Thing,” “Sophisticated Lady,” “Solitude,” “In a Sentimental Mood,” “Caravan,” “I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart,” “Prelude to a Kiss,” “I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good,” “Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me”). Ellington went on to chronicle the African American experience through music, be awarded 15 honorary doctorate degrees, and receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Richard Nixon.
The sleepless horn player is Gunther Schuller, employed as principal soloist by the Cincinnati Symphony. Schuller, who would later get a job offer from Ellington, went on to play on Miles Davis’ Birth of the Cool, teach at the Manhattan School of Music and Yale University, and establish the first degree-granting jazz program in the world as president of the New England Conservatory. Schuller also gained acclaim and admiration for his tireless efforts toward the preservation and performance of Ellington’s music as jazz repertory. The rise of dozens of jazz repertory big bands and orchestras around the United States, including the Puget Sound’s own Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra, can be directly attributed to Ellington’s formidable legacy and Schuller’s tireless work.
Schuller remembers, “He would just sit at the piano all night in his stocking cap and robe and just sort of play and improvise, play anything. Ruminating, I call it, at the piano. And every once in a while when I would hear the piano stop, I knew that he had just heard something that he liked and wrote it down.”
During those late nights, Ellington was exploring unusual harmonies. “Every musician since bebop from the mid-forties just does that in their sleep. But what is important to remember is that when Ellington was doing this, it was at least fifteen years ahead of everybody else,” explains Schuller in an interview from Peter Lavezzoli’s book The King of All, Sir Duke: Ellington and the Artistic Revolution.
Ellington died in May of 1974. By then, most of the longtime members of the Ellington Orchestra were also gone or in poor health. Duke’s son Mercer continued to lead the ensemble with new, younger musicians.
Janna Tull Steed points out in Duke Ellington: A Spiritual Biography, “Ellington did not settle on a definitive version of a composition which can be replicated by others now. He reworked old material, expanding, reinterpreting, combining it with other treatments. At the piano he could alter a piece’s mood and tempo simply by the introduction he might play on a given night. In the recording studio, orchestrations were worked out on the spot, and Ellington’s interaction with his sidemen produced effects that cannot be translated into musical notation. He continually interpreted and reinterpreted his own work, which is part of the secret of its enduring appeal.”
Mercer, a trumpet player and band manager, now in charge of music that had been revised, improvised, and mutated by individual performers and specific performances over decades, leading musicians unfamiliar with this musical transformation over time, needed a written set of parts. He hired trumpeter David Berger to transcribe some of the ensemble’s library from recordings.
Six months after Duke Ellington’s funeral, Schuller published “The Case for Ellington’s Music as Living Repertory” in High Fidelity magazine. “With all respect of Duke’s feelings, one must say that once a composer creates a work it cannot remain the exclusive property of its creator or the person(s) for whom it was created. It belongs, in the broadest (non-copyright) sense, to the world. One simply comes back to the point that pieces as original, as perfect, as imaginative, as beautiful as Ellington’s best cannot just be buried in the past. They must survive; they must be heard.”
A big obstacle faced by the first jazz repertory ensembles was the lack of written music and a dearth of apprenticeships that had thrived when many U.S. cities supported vibrant jazz scenes. Because the emphasis of working musicians was on performance, not preservation, scores and parts rarely survived the death of the composer and their working ensembles.
But recordings captured definitive versions of songs, allowing musicians with keen ears to grab grooves from vinyl records and more recently, borrow bits from rapidly growing, increasingly complete digital archives.
Back in 1974, Schuller imagined the experience of hearing a repertory ensemble. “In truth, Ellington’s compositions are, as compositions, so durable that they can be played by others sensitively re-creating the original notes, pitches, rhythms, timbres, etc. But what is most astonishing is that they can, in performances by fine musicians with fine ears, not only re-create the original, but bring to it an excitement and drive that has its own validity, even though it may not be precisely the excitement that Ellington and his men got.”
Schuller was not alone in advocating for jazz repertory ensembles. A few years before Ellington’s death, the director of the Smithsonian Institution’s Performing Arts Division, Martin Williams, articulated a vision for embracing jazz through residencies by major composers and artists, repertory ensembles, and publishing new and transcribed scores. Williams urged Lincoln and Kennedy Centers to begin to include jazz programming.
In 1973, two jazz repertory groups were born. Bassist Chuck Israels started the National Jazz Ensemble (NJE) and producer George Wein launched the New York Jazz Repertory Company (NYJRC).
The NJE had a stable set of musicians and singular artistic direction. Berger was hired to transcribe classic works and the band also played original compositions by Israels, Berger, Bob Brookmeyer, Herb Pomeroy, Tom Pierson and Bob James.
In contrast, the NYJRC had four musical directors and the performers were chosen from a roster of top artists depending upon the particular music of a given program. The inaugural season spanned 15 concerts at Carnegie Hall.
Both groups survived seven years but financial and artistic challenges took their toll. Neither group was backed by an established musical institution. A detailed history of these and later bands can be found in Making the Scene: Contemporary New York City Big Band Jazz by Alex Stewart.
In 1985, writer Gary Giddins established the American Jazz Orchestra (AJO) with pianist John Lewis (and later Schuller) to present “a stable of big band music that keeps its eye on the future while celebrating its past.” Giddins wanted the ensemble to be affiliated with an institution and receive organizational support similar to a symphony orchestra. The AJO found a home at New York’s Cooper Union.
A grant from the Irene Diamond Fund established the band’s library. Mark Lopeman transcribed 100 big band arrangements chosen by conductor Loren Shoenberg and writer Dan Morgenstern. Schuller and Lewis emphasized recreation of the original music in performance, including note-for-note imitations of improvised solos on AJO’s second album, Ellington Masterpieces. A lack of fund raising expertise at the board and administrative level led to the band’s demise in 1992.
In attendance at AJO concerts were trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and writer Stanley Crouch. They appreciated some things, disliked others. Their critique prompted them to establish their own orchestra. In 1987, Lincoln Center began a Classical Jazz series with Marsalis and Crouch making the artistic decisions. Berger was hired to conduct a band playing rare Ellington music that included Ellington Orchestra alumni. One distinction from the AJO was that performers were free to use or ignore previous versions of recorded improvised music. In 1991, the institution formed a jazz department that eventually became Jazz at Lincoln Center, anchored by the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra (LCJO).
Down the coast in D.C., Congress appropriated $242,000 in 1991 to create the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra (SJMO), which continues to perform today. Led by educators Schuller and David Baker and based at the National Museum of American History, this ensemble transcribes classics, rearranges existing material, and commissions new work.
In 1992, 12 years after the NYJRC played its last note, Wein launched the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band with artistic direction by trumpeter Jon Faddis. This ensemble commissioned new works and arrangements of classics associated with original Carnegie Hall performances. Until the band’s dissolution in 2002, it played regularly at Carnegie Hall, and toured through connections to Wein’s jazz festival productions.
Way out west, saxophonist Michael Brockman began teaching at the University of Washington in Seattle in 1987. He had just arrived from the New England Conservatory after completing a Masters of Music. During Brockman’s schooling back East, Schuller was no longer the Conservatory’s president, but was still active on campus.
Like many of Brockman’s school jazz ensembles, early, rare, and out-of-print jazz music could only be played if someone transcribed it from a recording. Record companies at the time were issuing complete collections of artists and ensembles. Eager students snatched up the previously rare music and wrote out scores and parts to build their libraries. Brockman’s graduate school ensemble did a concert of music transcribed from Thelonious Monk, Anthony Braxton, and Ellington. “Gunther Schuller is why I’m into this,” says Brockman.
Two years after Brockman came to Seattle, the Interfaith Council of Washington at University Christian Church wanted to present music from Ellington’s 1965, 1968, and 1973 Sacred Concerts. All that could be found of written music were a smattering of disorganized parts for a few pieces and no conductor scores to fill in the blanks. To present the concert, Seattle musicians had to improvise the missing parts. The short program had to be filled with music unrelated to the original Ellington work. Some of the musicians crafting a concert out of sketches that year were saxophonists Brockman, Don Lanphere and Bill Ramsay, trumpeters Floyd Standifer and Ed Lee, trombonists Bill Anthony and David Bentley, pianist Marc Seales, and drummer Clarence Acox.
For the next five years, most of these core musicians reconvened every December to present Ellington’s sacred music. Brockman rewrote a complete set of parts and transcribed Ellington’s seven-movement “Freedom Suite.” Each year he added a transcription from the 45 original pieces of the Sacred Concerts. In 1995, the Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra (SRJO) was established with Brockman and Acox as co-directors. A year later, Earshot Jazz obtained a set of scores for SRJO from Berger.
Since their founding, SRJO has expanded beyond Ellington and performed tributes to jazz pioneers Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Benny Carter, Ray Charles, Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Goodman, Woody Herman, Quincy Jones, Stan Kenton, Charles Mingus, Thelonius Monk, Gerry Mulligan, Frank Sinatra, and Billy Strayhorn.
At this year’s Earshot Jazz Festival, the Kirkland Performance Center was sold out for the November 6 concert by SRJO. All 402 pairs of audience ears, several microphones, and video camera lenses were plugged into the energy coming from 17 instrumentalists and 2 singers swinging through songs originally played by the Count Basie Orchestra and sung by Ol’ Blue Eyes, Frank Sinatra, at Las Vegas’ Sands Hotel in 1966. The SRJO performers owned the grooves like the original musicians did 45 years ago, but they were making their own personal statement through the music today.
The SRJO repertoire encompasses classic songs by stalwarts like Count Basie and Duke Ellington to large scale works like Ellington’s “Sacred Concerts,” “Freedom Suite,” and “Far East Suite,” Benny Carter’s “Kansas City Suite,” and even Igor Stravinsky’s “Ebony Concerto.” SRJO commissioned and premiered “Concerto for Jazz Orchestra,” written by Dave Brubeck alum, local clarinetist Bill Smith, and “The Endless Search,” penned by Philadelphia saxophonist Jimmy Heath.
Photo of Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra by Daniel Sheehan
Programs have been devoted to groundbreaking recordings like Miles Davis’ Birth of the Cool, Ray Charles’ Genius + Soul = Jazz and Oliver Nelson’s Blues and the Abstract Truth. SRJO even turned to local jazz disc jockeys and KPLU listeners for program ideas. Movies, the Harlem Renaissance, and music for dancing have all shaped concert events in previous years.
SRJO has featured National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters as guest soloists – saxophonists Frank Foster, Benny Golson, Jimmy Heath, James Moody and Frank Wess, trumpeters Clark Terry and Gerald Wilson, trombonist Slide Hampton and pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi.
Local artists are given the SRJO spotlight, too – clarinetist Bill Smith, pianist Jovino Santos Neto, bassist Buddy Catlett, and singers Ernestine Anderson, James Caddell, Dee Daniels, Bernie Jacobs, Gretta Matassa and Danny Quintero.
SRJO documented their growing success on three recordings, SRJO Live (2002), Sacred Music of Duke Ellington (2006) and The Endless Search (2010). All of the CDs feature live recordings by Seattle jazz archivist Jim Wilke.
The current performers in SRJO are 17 of Seattle’s most proficient artists – trumpeters Cesar Amaral, Thomas Marriott, Andy Omdahl and Jay Thomas, trombonists Bill Anthony, David Bentley, Scott Brown, Dan Marcus and Nathan Vetter, saxophonists Michael Brockman, Travis Ranney, Bill Ramsay, Tobi Stone and Mark Taylor, pianist Randy Halberstadt, bassist Phil Sparks, and drummer Clarence Acox. In former seasons, the band included Seattle’s elder statesmen who are no longer with us – saxophonists Hadley Caliman and Don Lanphere, trumpeters Ed Lee and Floyd Standifer.
SRJO built an audience that trusts the quality and diversity of programming so concerts sell out in advance. Individual performers and the ensemble as a whole generate interest so that audiences grow for all future projects – whether it’s the next SRJO season or one of the band members’ small ensemble gigs at a club.
Although SRJO is not affiliated with an arts institution, it regularly performs at the Benaroya Nordstom Recital Hall and the Kirkland Performance Center. SRJO is a non-profit 501(c)3 corporation, maintains a board of 19 directors, lists more than 150 individual sponsors and receives support from city, county, and state government along with five private foundations. All of this is managed by co-directors Acox and Brockman, concurrent with their positions as educators at Garfield and UW respectively. SRJO employs a part-time financial controller/bookkeeper and a ticketing manager.
Education is a strong part of the SRJO mission. Since 2000, SRJO has presented free or low ticket price concerts to reach students and children. These educationally focused Jazz4Kids concerts are now underwritten by Seattle’s Child magazine, PONCHO and Kennelly Keys. Additionally, the SRJO Jazz Scholars program provides instruments and lessons. Most recently, the Clowes Foundation and City of Seattle are funding a project at Denny Middle School to match five SRJO artists with individual instruction for 20 students and group instruction for 40 more.
Upcoming performances by SRJO include the “23rd Annual Duke Ellington Sacred Music Concert” on December 26, Benny Carter’s “Peaceful Warrior – A Tribute to Martin Luther King” in March, “North by Northwest: Music of Seattle Jazz Composers” in April and “Jazz of the Harlem Renaissance II: All-Acoustic Jazz” in June. Tickets are available at www.srjo.org. Unplug your ear buds and experience live performances of great jazz music by our city’s talented artists.