The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra is the current title for a band that began life as the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra in 1966 and has performed continuously ever since. The story is familiar but bears repeating that in 1966 cornetist, composer, arranger, Thad Jones and drummer Mel Lewis founded a band in New York. Having settled in New York after leaving their respective touring jobs with Basie and Kenton, Thad and Mel along with many of their colleagues needed an outlet for their creative energies and relief from the tedium of the studio work. With a handful of arrangements they approached legendary club owner Max Gordon and were booked at the Village Vanguard for 3 Mondays in February. Critical acclaim, awards and international success followed but in 1979, tired of frequent traveling and the economic uncertainty that even great jazz musicians endure in America, Thad left the band to accept leadership of the Danish Radio Orchestra in Copenhagen. Mel decided to continue the band now billed as Mel Lewis and the Jazz Orchestra and enlisted the talents of his old friend and former band member Bob Brookmeyer who, miraculously was just returning to active playing and composing in New York. The band not only survived but with Brookmeyer’s writing continued the innovation and influence that Thad and Mel had began. Bob moved on to other projects and ultimately also settled in Europe, the new material coming from within the band now. In 1990 the band would endure a terrible blow when Mel Lewis died after a 5 year battle with cancer. For the members, all of whom had been there 5 years and several over 10, losing Mel was a deep family tragedy, for great bands invariably become families. They are also teams; and in this spirit decided to continue the band as a cooperative effort. ( When asked who was “fronting” the band one of the veterans was heard snapping “...the music”.)
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