When trumpeter, arranger and composer Vance Thompson called the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra’s first rehearsal in August of 1999, he had no way of knowing the extent to which this experience would shape the next two decades of his life. Thompson had just returned home to East Tennessee after a four year stint in Chicago, and was anxious to find a way to continue writing for and playing in a pro-caliber big band. Bands of this type had been plentiful in Chicago, but there was no such outlet in Knoxville at the time.
“When I looked around and thought about the players that were in the area, I realized we had enough guys to have a high quality band,” said Thompson. “I started making calls to see who was interested, and everyone on my A-list said yes.”
By the end of the group’s first rehearsal, it was clear that the band had potential. A weekly rehearsal schedule was established, and soon they were playing in public and attracting attention.
The band quickly became a laboratory for Thompson’s writing. Keith Brown, who doubled as the KJO’s drummer and the director of the University of Tennessee’s jazz big band, commissioned Thompson to write arrangements of six Donald Brown compositions. Those charts became fodder for the band’s first recording (The Music of Donald Brown) in 2000, and the recording was used to secure 2001 performance slots at the Montreux Jazz Festival, Jazz a Vienne and the Ezcarary Jazz Festival in Spain.