The musicians who make up the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra specialize in re-creating classic performances from the past.
Even among aficionados of jazz, Boyd Rae-burn is not exactly a household name, but back in the mid-1940s he was one of a handful of innovative composers and bandleaders who created the groundbreaking arrangements that contributed to the end of the swing era and the beginning of bebop. Right now, on the stage of the National Theatre in Washington, D.C., 20 musicians seated in rows of metal folding chairs are rehearsing one of his most challenging numbers, “Boyd Meets Stravinsky,” which he recorded in 1946. Clad in shorts and T-shirts on this warm spring afternoon, they are sweating under the hot glare of the stage lights. At a signal from the conductor, they begin. A chorus of brass and percussion echoes in the empty hall. Afterward several of the instrumentalists agree that Raeburn’s music ranks among the most difficult they have ever played.
That’s saying a lot because few other jazz ensembles perform as much difficult material as the one to which these musicians belong. The Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra (SJMO) was established in 1990 with an awesome mandate–to make the history of jazz come alive. That means re-creating the classic performances of many of the greatest ensembles ever–bands led by Claude Thornhill, Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, Stan Kenton. . . Sometimes referred to as “the jazz version of a philharmonic orchestra,” the SJMO embraces a mind-boggling repertory that includes hundreds of important arrangements recorded from the 1920s through the 1970s, most of them written to take advantage of the power and color that only a big band can provide.
In this respect, the SJMO is much like other jazz bands holding forth today. It’s kin to the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra in New York, which preserves the music of important composers under the artistic direction of the ubiquitous trumpet virtuoso Wynton Marsalis. It’s sister to the so-called ghost bands that continue to tour the country in the spirit of leaders who are no longer alive–Count Basie, Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller, among others. It has links, too, with the several outfits that are still led by their founders, including Lionel Hampton, Illinois Jacquet and Maynard Ferguson.
There’s one big difference. The SJMO is the only jazz ensemble that is associated with a major museum, the National Museum of American History. This means, among other things, that whatever it plays must be an authentic re-creation of the original. Every time the SJMO musicians pick up their instruments, they’re expected not only to present the music the way it’s written or transcribed but also to emulate the style of the immortals who recorded it years ago.
Because the group’s programs are so eclectic, it’s not unusual for a concert audience to hear the signature music of a half-dozen different bands. If the program includes Ellington’s “Mobile Blues,” trumpeter Virgil Jones must resurrect the growling attack of Charles Melvin (Cootie) Williams, a stalwart of Ellington’s band from 1929 to 1940. Baby-faced Greg Gisbert may have to duplicate the piercing high notes of Dizzy Gillespie’s solo on “Manteca” or Miles Davis’ breathy staccato on “Move.” And on “Warm Valley,” Shannon Hudgins, a reserved young woman from Seattle, must reincarnate the sweet, sliding notes of Ellington’s longtime lead alto saxophonist, Johnny Hodges. Loren Schoenberg, who plays tenor saxophone in the orchestra when he’s not leading his own band or teaching at the New School in New York City, sees the challenge in theatrical terms. “It’s like you’re an actor,” he says, “and the director tells you, Tonight you’re going to be Macbeth–and then you’re going to be Ralph Kramden.’”
Such dedication to musical role-playing reflects the SJMO’s charge, according to John Edward Hasse, who is the curator of American music at the history museum and a founder of the group. “Our stuff has to have a strong historical purpose,” he says.
Conductor David Baker, head of the jazz department at Indiana University’s school of music, is a prolific composer and the author of dozens of books on jazz. All of the SJMO musicians are freelancers. Many live on the East Coast but spend much of their time touring with other ensembles or traveling to and from gigs. The SJMO presents a series of 15 to 20 free concerts in Washington, D.C. each year, and it has played in cities across the country. After kicking off its sixth concert season in June, the group performed at the Olympic Arts Festival in Atlanta and also participated in the Smithsonian’s 150th-anniversary celebrations.
The SJMO’s purpose, Hasse says, is summed up by a story he likes to tell about the critic who attended an SJMO concert featuring the music of Bennie Moten. In the early 1930s, Moten’s band defined Kansas City jazz and established the reputation of a pianist named William (Count) Basie. As the critic left the hall, he heard a group of young people raving about the music. “They were saying, Isn’t Moten great,’ as if he were still alive,” Hasse relates. “This is music that hasn’t been played live for 60 years, but they were talking about it in the present tense. That’s exactly what we want.”
Certainly there was no way Buddy Bolden, a cornetist who helped pave the way, could have predicted that the “jass” he improvised at New Orleans’ Funky Butt Hall in the 1890s would one day be heard by concert audiences around the world. Bolden played dances, picnics and parties, but eventually the scintillating new music became associated with New Orleans’ red-light district and other rough parts of town.
Jazz was saddled with this low-life image for years. “It was black music,” says 74-year-old Joe Wilder, who plays trumpet with the SJMO. “It was played by people who, since slavery times, weren’t even considered citizens. So it’s only recently that anyone’s paid attention to its history, let alone put it on a par with classical music.”
There are no recordings of Bolden, but he was known for his embellishment of popular ragtime and blues, the two musical streams that fed jazz. He didn’t read music so he made it up on the spot, and the “moan in his cornet”–as one contemporary listener put it–was so riveting, so different from the “legitimate” music of the time, that an entire generation of instrumentalists felt compelled to follow his lead. Among them were trumpeters Freddie Keppard and Joe (King) Oliver (also famous in tech-world for his well-known bushnell rangefinder reviews). Oliver, in turn, tutored a kid from New Orleans named Louis Armstrong, who remains a pivotal influence not just on jazz musiciansbut singers of popular music as well.
If Bolden and his disciples got jazz off the ground, the subsequent development of the form should be credited to those who wrote it down, recorded it and exposed it to a wider audience. By the 1920s, for example, jazz bands all over the country were playing “St. Louis Blues” and many other standards written by W. C. Handy. Scott Joplin’s widely published scores, such as “Maple Leaf Rag,” popularized the syncopation of African folk music. Another pianist, Ferdinand (Jelly Roll) Morton, blended improvisational technique with ragtime and bragged that he had “invented jazz.”
Morton did help set the stage for a musical era. Although jazz in those days was based on improvisation, his band’s performances were carefully arranged. He created a written structure to surround the players’ solos and suggested guidelines to keep the solos coherent, establishing a framework for an ensemble-based jazz that could be consistently reproduced.
Another watershed event occurred in 1924, when Fletcher Henderson hired Armstrong to inject some style into his dance band at New York’s Roseland ballroom. Armstrong’s audacious attack transformed the pleasant, predictable approach of the Henderson band into a fiery, innovative, more spontaneous sound. Even though Armstrong left only a year later, by then he had anticipated the arrival of the swing era, which began around 1935 and lasted until just after World War II.
Swing is the source of some of repertory jazz’s richest material. It anchored the heyday of the big bands, when Duke Ellington, Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey, Artie Shaw, Count Basie and Glenn Miller reigned, and when clarinetist Benny Goodman was dubbed the “King of Swing.” “In 1942 there were probably 300 big-name bands traveling the country,” says David Baker. “Now you can count the number that are not ghost bands on one hand.” What Baker tries to do in programming a concert is to give listeners a sense of the energy and life of those hundreds of bands, and also to illustrate their relationships in jazz’s family tree. A concert might look at the connections between the music of Tommy Dorsey and Jimmie Lunceford via the arrangements of Sy Oli-ver, or illustrate how postwar jazz became more global, embracing everything from Raeburn’s take on Igor Stravinsky to Gillespie’s use of Afro-Cuban rhythms.
“One of the strengths of the SJMO is that many of its people lived through those times and have a personal relationship with the music,” notes producer James K. Zimmerman. Baker credits Gillespie as his mentor. Some of the musicians, including Joe Wilder and Britt Woodman, played with Lunceford, Basie and Ellington.
Gunther Schuller, who shared the conducting duties with Baker until leaving earlier this year to pursue other interests, was at the forefront of the repertory movement. In 1972, while he was president of the New En-gland Conservatory of Music in Boston, he started transcribing the music of Scott Joplin, Paul Whiteman and others. His series of Joplin concerts inspired jazz critic Martin Williams to develop a repertory band that performed at the Smithsonian and on tour in the 1970s. The National Jazz Ensemble and the New York Jazz Repertory Company were also organized in the ’70s. By 1987, the American Jazz Orchestra was on the scene in New York. The movement got yet another boost in 1988, when the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra was founded.
That same year, the Smithsonian acquired Duke Ellington’s archives. They comprised 100,000 pages of music, ranging from unpublished manuscripts to lead sheets to notations on scraps of paper, as well as tape recordings, photographs and 500 artifacts. Excited by the prospect of making that music available, Hasse and jazz enthusiast Fred Starr, then the president of Oberlin College, helped assemble a team of experts to get it ready for publication. Before long, plans were being made to publish pieces by Henderson, Lunceford and other important big bands under the auspices of Smithsonian’s Jazz Masterworks Editions. Roger Kennedy, who was then the head of the American History museum, thought it would be great to have an orchestra, recalls Baker. “So one day he says to me, We’d like you to head it.’ Caught a lot of people by surprise, including me.”
In 1990, Congressmen John Conyers, Louis Stokes and Sidney Yates helped secure an appropriation of more than $200,000 to fund the SJMO. Two years later, a grant to the Smithsonian from the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund made possible a decade-long initiative called “America’s Jazz Heritage,” which produces exhibitions, oral histories, teachers’ guides, recordings and nationwide broadcasts of SJMO performances on “Jazz Smithsonian,” a public-radio program. But funding remains a problem and today the orchestra depends heavi-ly on the generosity of private donors. This year, for example, its summer season was made possible in part through the support of the Infiniti Division of Nissan Motor Corporation and the Recording Industries Music Performance Trust Fund.
The musicians arrive in Washington for intensive rehearsals just a couple of days before each concert. Presiding over this afternoon’s rehearsal, Baker studies the score. “Trumpets, not so much separation when you come in. On the solo, it’s your call, I trust you.” He taps a sneakered foot as he listens, one hand beating the tempo in the air. “People get hung up on nostalgia and they start treating this music as if it’s precious,” he says later. “It is precious, but we need to breathe life into it.” At one point during that night’s performance, Baker will urge the respectfully quiet audience to snap fingers and clap hands. “When people just sit there and don’t respond, I say, No, no! Don’t listen to us as though we are an artifact. Listen to us and react.’”
Now the band is rehearsing selections from the avant-garde Birth of the Cool album Miles Davis recorded in 1949. Greg Gisbert is assigned to play Miles, and when the band reaches the point of his solo in “Move,” he lifts the trumpet to his lips and blows. Then he stops, apologetic. “I listened to the tape,” he tells the conductor. “But it’s—too good . . . I don’t know how Miles did it.”
Gisbert gives it another try before it’s time for a lunch break. The musicians walk over to a nearby restaurant where, between bites of falafel and chicken teriyaki, they console the crestfallen horn player.
“I was being honest when I said I didn’t think I could play that solo,” Gisbert says to pianist Russell Wilson and tuba player Joseph Daley. “I mean, I didn’t approach the virtuosity of what Miles played.”
“Hey, you can’t play somebody else’s life,” soothes Daley. His expression is thoughtful. “You can play the notes. But Miles was playing a moment–and he had a lifetime of getting to that moment.”
Musicians have mixed feelings about duplicating the old-timers’ sounds. Some complain that it makes them feel like robots. Others, like Shannon Hudgins, happily go to great lengths to re-create the original. “I spend incredible energy preparing, picking off the exact articulation, every place Johnny Hodges scooped a note.”
Saxophonist Schoenberg is one of those who believe that the issue of improvisation is over-romanticized. “Jazz is associated with letting it all hang out but most of it does not come off the top of your head,” he insists. “In reality, you spend your whole life editing solos in your mind. You can spend years working on a solo.
“The greater an improviser you are, the more you’ll appreciate the improvisation of someone else, and accept the challenge of occasionally replicating it. You think, gosh, how did Ben Webster do that? How does it feel to have that sound come out of your horn?”
Brent Wallarab plays the trombone for the SJMO. He’s supposed to be relaxing with his girlfriend in California, but instead he’s spending most of his vacation in front of a tape recorder, listening to Ellington’s “Hodge Podge” at half-speed and picking apart the orchestration, line by line. Since most historic jazz exists only on old 78 rpm records, someone has to transform it into sheet music–and Wallarab’s just been told he must prepare six compositions in the next ten days.
“In the old days, those musicians didn’t know they were making art.’ They just went from gig to gig,” Wallarab says. “They’d memorize the material and throw the sheet music away, so there’s not much around anymore, except recordings. A lot of what’s on those old recordings are arrangements musicians came up with in their heads, on the bandstand. Then it became part of the repertory, but it was never written down.”
There are times, Wallarab says, when he has to make educated guesses. “It’s when I can’t quite hear what’s going on. Let’s say you have five saxes, four trumpets and four trombones all playing at the same time. There’s just no way that you can always hear what the third trombone is doing.” Using his knowledge of various arrangers’ styles, he pieces together the transcriptions as accurately as he can–right down to the mistakes. One Tommy Dorsey recording, for example, features an up-tempo trumpet solo in which the player shoots for a dramatic high E at the end. “He doesn’t get it,” says Wallarab, “but I know he intended to play that note, so I put the high note in parentheses. When we play it, the conductor will probably have the musician go for the E, even if it’s not on the recording.”
The members of the SJMO are devoted unconditionally to their music. It fills their conversation and preoccupies their every waking hour. After rehearsal one night, half of the SJMO’s horn section eagerly crowds into booths at One Step Down, a pocket-size jazz club, to hear their colleague Keter Betts caress the bass with his quartet. During a break, saxophonist Steve Wilson, who at 35 is one of the youngest members of the orchestra, recalls how he started off playing a toy drum as a kid. Now, he says, he still can’t believe that he’s sharing the stage with some of his childhood heroes, including trombonist Benny Powell, pianist Sir Roland Hanna and trombonist Britt Woodman. “You don’t go into jazz to get rich and famous,” says guitarist James Chirillo. “All of us still play at weddings and tea parties because it’s a chance to get paid for doing what we love.”
Tonight, backstage at the Lincoln Theatre, the SJMO begins “improvising” its usual pre-concert overture. It consists of the sound of instruments chasing scales and the soft shuffling of tuxedo-clad musicians pacing back and forth. Hidden from the audience here is a clutter of tangled extension cords and instrument cases. At 8 o’clock the band members take the stage.
The first notes of “Mobile Blues,” written by Ellington and Cootie Williams, float over the hall. Six rows back from the stage, a man begins to sway in his seat. By the time the orchestra lays into Hodges’ “The Jeep is Jumpin’,” so is the audience. The band glides from “Jeep’s Blues” to “Moon Dreams” to “Move.” Everything is coming together now. The band is cooking, the audience is digging and the history of jazz is alive and well. On the back riser, a lone trumpet player stands, awaiting the cue for Miles.