For over 50 years now the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra has been a fixture every Monday night at the prestigious Village Vanguard club in New York City.
Over the years the orchestra has included a number of jazz luminaries, but it began with two in particular back in late 1965.
In 1965 trumpeter Thad Jones, who a couple of years prior left the Count Basie Orchestra, connected with Mel Lewis, the Los Angeles based drummer from Stan Kenton’s band and collectively formed the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra. Amassing an arsenal of the top session players in New York, the Orchestra hit the stage for the first time at the Village Vanguard on February 7, 1966.
Here’s the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra with members Snooky Young, Randy Brecker, Bob Brookmeyer, Pepper Adams and Richard Davis from 50 years ago on Ralph Gleason’s program, Jazz Casual.
In 1978, Jones uprooted himself and left New York and the orchestra for Denmark to lead the Danish Radio Big Band. The following year, the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis combination won the Grammy Award for Best Jazz Instrumental Performance, Big Band for their 1976 recording Live In Munich.
In Thad’s absence the orchestra continued on of course and with Mel at the helm the band was rechristened Mel Lewis and The Jazz Orchestra. Here they are in 1980, with a young Joe Lovano, blowin’ the roof off the place!
Mel Lewis and The Jazz Orchestra continued to thrill audiences at the Vanguard until the mid 1980s when Mel’s health forced him in to retirement. That’s when the third incarnation of the orchestra began and ever since it’s been known as the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra.
The VJO also won a Grammy in 2009 for it’s Monday Night Live At The Village Vanguard, which featured long-time orchestra reedsman Dick Oatts and current Director John Mosca, who’s also the orchestra member with the highest seniority having been with the band since 1975.
Over its more than 50 years, many stellar musicians have been part of the VJO evolution including Jon Faddis, Earl Gardner, Tom Harrell, Luis Bonilla, Steve Coleman, Kenny Garrett, Joe Farrell, Joe Henderson, Hank Jones, Jim McNeely, George Mraz, Marc Johnson, Danny Gottlieb and John Riley among many others.
Thad and Mel are no longer with us but their music and Thad’s charts keep on pleasing crowds every Monday night in the basement at the Vanguard.