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Jazz Orchestras, A Great American Heritage

by Chuck Reider

The Louis Armstrong House Museum has acquired the only-known film footage of the great jazz musician in a recording studio. The 33-minute, 16mm film captures Armstrong recording his 1959 album "Satchmo Plays King Oliver." (April 20) AP

I have been fortunate to lead the Reno Jazz Orchestra since 2006, and over the years we have grown due to the support of our community. Thank you all! This month we will revisit the origins of the jazz orchestra, after which I will share three new RJO projects that honor the past and look to the future.

I always thought that a big band was primarily a swing-era dance band, and as bandleaders like Duke Ellington and Count Basie explored new sounds they moved from the dance hall to the concert hall and the jazz orchestra was born. It turns out jazz orchestras date back to the early jazz of the 1920s. Composer-bandleaders such as Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington and Paul Whiteman adopted the name "jazz orchestra."

As most of you know, jazz has its roots in New Orleans Dixieland. Dixieland features three horns in front, one playing the melody and the others playing individual lines of their own choice. Think of the song "When the Saints Go Marching In" — the trumpet playing the melody; the clarinet improvising behind the melody up above; a trombone adding accents and support to the melody below; the piano, bass (often a tuba) and drums providing the framework.

Many at the time felt that although jazz was a part of a growing dance craze, it was still rather crude and not to be taken as serious music. That changed during the 1920s with Paul Whiteman’s orchestra. Paul was a violist who began his career with the Denver Symphony Orchestra and then the San Francisco Symphony. After a stint in the Navy conducting a 40-piece navy band, he formed the Paul Whiteman Orchestra.

Dance bands of the day typically had six to 10 musicians; his jazz orchestra would be as large as 35. By 1922 he had 28 ensembles on the East Coast and was earning over $1 million a year! His 1924 concert at the Aeolian Hall, capped off by the performance of George Gershwin’s "Rhapsody in Blue," is considered the moment jazz evolved from folk music to an art form.

Duke Ellington said, "Paul Whiteman was known as the King of Jazz, and no one as yet has come near carrying that title with more certainty and dignity.” Whiteman felt that jazz could be improved with formal arrangements to replace the group improvisation of Dixieland. He was criticized at the time for trying to “make a lady out of jazz” but the stage had been set for generations of jazz orchestras.

Fletcher Henderson was another jazz orchestra trailblazer. He grew up in Georgia, where his mother taught him to play piano, and he became an accomplished pianist. However, he chose to study math and science at Atlanta University and moved to New York City to earn a master’s degree at Columbia University.

But because he was African-American, he was unable to find a job in chemistry. His music career began when his apartment roommate, a pianist, was too sick to perform with the Riverboat Orchestra, so Fletcher took his place for the night. This soon led to a full-time job with the orchestra and a job at Black Swan Records.

In 1922 he formed his own band that soon became known as the best African-American band in New York. Louis Armstrong joined his orchestra for a year in 1924, and Louis’ performances inspired him to develop richer orchestrations. He and his arranger Don Redman created the swing music “formula” and broke the orchestra into sections — saxophones, trombones, trumpets and rhythm — which became the standard for big bands and jazz orchestras. His orchestra started the careers of such greats as Roy Eldridge, Coleman Hawkins and Benny Carter. Though famous in Harlem, he could not financially keep his orchestra going and was forced to sell many of his great arrangements.

Many great bandleaders over the years have followed the lead of Whiteman and Henderson by bringing new ideas and styles to the concert hall. Duke Ellington introduced the sacred concerts in a church setting, as well as original suites such as "Such Sweet Thunder," a tribute to William Shakespeare. Count Basie elevated blues and infectious swing to new heights. Stan Kenton expanded the typical band to include mellophoniums, French horns and tubas, creating what was to be called “the wall of sound.” Woody Herman started his big band featuring the blues, and as jazz evolved his sound evolved with it, well beyond swing to be-bop in the 1950s and rock and fusion in the 1980s. The RJO stands on the shoulders of these giants.

As stated at the beginning, the RJO has been fortunate to receive such great community support over the years. Each year we have grown both our performance schedule and education programs. In that spirit we have identified three projects to work towards next year.

The first is an education program enhancement. We have been sharing the old Musicians’ Union building, now called the Good Luck Macbeth Theater, for two years. We use the hall, which has been transformed into a 100-seat theater for rehearsals, our jazz workshop and a few concerts during the year. I mentioned to one of our new board members that I have wished to provide jazz concerts to middle-school students, similar to the Reno Philharmonic program for elementary school students. As we stood in the hall discussing this, the board member asked, “Why not do the concerts here?” Well, of course! An elegant answer to what I though was a difficult question.

The second is a project I call RJO 2025. Since our first CD was called Reno Jazz Orchestra 2000, RJO 2025 is a look forward to what the future jazz orchestras might sound like. I have asked RJO trumpeter and recent UNR graduate Julien Knowles to direct the project artistically. Knowles is both a gifted soloist and composer-arranger, and is composing material specific to this project. We are planning three concerts, one on the roof of the Nevada Museum of Art, one as a part of the Reno Jazz Festival and one more with the venue to be determined. The project will conclude with a studio recording session to be released as a CD.

The third is an RJO documentary encapsulating our 22 years of existence by visiting our past, reflecting on the impact the RJO has had on our community, and discussing the next 20 years! We already have an interview of Kurt Elling, our Labor Day guest artist, discussing the future of jazz. This project is headed by Chris Casaceli, whom I featured in an earlier article. He is both a gift saxophonist/composer and videographer.

In my humble opinion, jazz is the greatest musical contribution America has given to the world. The RJO is committed to sharing that musical heritage and be a part of the future of jazz orchestras. We are also motivated to share our love and knowledge of jazz with the next generation.

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