NASHVILLE JAZZ ORCHESTRA (Pictured above, in concert at B.B. King's in Nashville, with guest vocalist, Annie Sellick)
A Conversation with Jim Williamson, Founder and Director of the Nashville Jazz Orchestra
By Courtenay Shipley
I had the pleasure of interviewing Jim Williamson of the Nashville Jazz Orchestra and a fixture of Nashville this week. We talked about the upcoming concert with Kirk Whalum at Blair School of Music on the 17th and about the NJO's mission for bringing more big band music to the community.
Jim, what's not in your formal bio? Give us a snapshot of you and how you found your way to jazz.
Well, my dad was a band director and I played the trumpet from as far back as I remember �� I loved the sound so much I would sneak off to play the horn as a child. So when I had a chance to ask my parents for a record, my first one was Miles Davis' 'Round About Midnight.
I grew up in Harriman, TN and went to UT but there was no jazz department at that time. There was The Jazz Giants, teachers and professional in the area, which I played in, but no formalized jazz education. I went into the Air force for awhile and played in a jazz band there. After I came back, I got a job playing with the Knoxville Symphony and finished undergrad studying legit trumpet. I didn't really play any jazz during that time in part because my teacher discouraged it. On into graduate school (also at UT), while I was working on my recital, I thought it might be nice to put some jazz tunes on the program. Luckily my teacher allowed me to do it.
And now we call you responsible for a fantastic group �� the Nashville Jazz Orchestra. Tell our readers about the group just in case they weren't able to catch you at BB Kings a few years back or at any of the numerous concerts you've put on around town.
The Nashville Jazz Orchestra's mission statement is to preserve, advance, and promote big band jazz appreciation to our children and our communities through live performance, workshops, and quality recordings .
In the last 12 months, we've worked to preserve it by putting on the Frank Sinatra Tribute concert at Blair and Ray Charles Tribute at the Franklin Jazz Festival. Coming up, we'll be playing with the Nashville Chamber Orchestra at the Schermerhorn on March 24th. We'll be performing Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. The original score was written for the Paul Whiteman Orchestra which was basically a big band with a string section.
As far as advancing and promoting big band, we've put together the Jazz Writers Night which is full of new compositions and arrangements by area composers. April 6, 2007 is next one! We've had Randy Brecker in, and now Kirk in November, and then we've also got Donald Brown coming up on Dec 14 th at Blair with the Blair Big Band as well on that concert.
Do you think that in general people have lost sight of the importance of big band or maybe aren't as familiar with it? What do you think caused that and why is it important to preserve and continue this genre of jazz?
I think lots of jazz people aren't sure about the importance because it doesn't have as much room for spontaneity in it as a small ensemble does. But the way it sprang up with Duke Ellington, and Chick Webb… it just had a great sound and took things in a different direction. Instead of a symphony orchestra, horns have a chance to swing their tails off and make a powerful idiom. I guess the recession in the 70's could be labelled as what polished off the reign of the big band. That was probably the low point for big band. Trying to take 16 people on the road was way more expensive than 3 synthesizers and a drum set, especially when you start to think about transportation and gas costs. I'd say it dwindled year by year as the expense was greater. The big band sound has experienced resurgence within the last few years.
Just inserting my thoughts, this once wartime pastime that was coupled with the emergence of swing dancing is a very vital and important part of America's history and we're fortunate to call it our own and be able to have it grow with our musical culture. Do you think that the audience of today is frightened off by new compositions, especially in light of the nostalgia that goes along with big band?
That brings up a good point...The early 30's (still in depression) saw record companies, music unions, concert venues, etc.go belly-up. However dance halls, such as the Savoy flourished and the big band sound inspired new dances like the Lindy Hop. Of course the later emergence of R & B took dancing away from that type of band and coupled with financial burden of booking 17 musicians was the real beginning of the end. People have a tendency to be reminiscent in their music listening. Familiarity is comfortable. But it's the new compositions that breathe life into all of them. And it's the new ones that lend credibility to the old ones, whether it's substantiating something the older one has said, or just that new harmonies pay homage to old harmonies.
All that said about our mission statement, when it comes down to it, we're a repertory orchestra. So we might get a club gig where we play the swinging-est stuff we have, but we'll play arrangements by Kirk or play the Randy Brecker book, etc, to keep things new. We're looking to maybe do a Maynard tribute. We're going to feature Steve Patrick on the In the Mood from the Doc Severinson's Tonight Show version.
Sounds like just the right amount of nostalgic listening opportunities with the change to grow as an audience member too. What do you think about Nashville and jazz? Anything in particular on your wish list?
We've got plenty of great players! The town is full of great jazz players but without an outlet really. The club scene here… There was a period of time where JC's in Green Hills owned by John Cicatelli (now The Box Seat) had six nights a week of jazz AND it was successful. It was a hang for everybody �� jazz audiences, musicians, and people who just wanted to hear jazz on occasion. The club was given over to jazz. On most days there would be a duo or piano playing during dinner and then an act like The Jazz Machine, Rush Hour, the Bebop Co-op. Thursday, Friday, Saturday, would be Moe Denham, Beegie Adair, Jeff Kirk, and others. Unfortunately the building changed ownership and that was a sad day. But it proved that the jazz club could do well here in a country town as long as there is dedication to it. It can't be a jazz couple of nights a week and the rest is country and it needs to be a decent sized room with an intimate feel. If there's anything that I really wish we had was a club and create a home for jazz players and aficionados.
Jim thanks for your thoughts and your time.
We know about Benny Goodman, we know about Duke Ellington, but there's a new group breathing life into big band in this town. Check out the Nashville Jazz Orchestra's website at www.nashvillejazzorchestra.org where you'll find listings of their upcoming concerts, recordings, and biographies of the members. The NJO (practically a who's who of musicians in Nashville) is made up of Jim Williamson, George Tidwell, Mike Casteel, Steve Patrick, Barry Green, Chris Dunn, Roy Agee, Prentiss Hobbs, Cole Burgess, Matt Davich, Denis Solee, Doug Moffet, Robby Shankle, Steve Kummer, Todd Parks, Bob Mater, and Annie Sellick. Something you also may not know is their relationship with the Blair School of Music at Vanderbilt University. In the fall of 2005, they took up residency there and have provided the students with valuable access to clinics, sectionals, and performances. Don't miss their show at Blair's Ingram Hall on November 17th with Kirk Whalum.