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50 years on, a Monday night tradition keeps the Village Vanguard swinging

At the world famous Village Vanguard jazz club in New York City, Monday nights have meant big band music for 50 years, stretching back to the days of Thad Jones and Mel Lewis. For the jazz impresarios there today, playing in the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra is more than just a gig -- it’s being part of a tradition. Jeffrey Brown reports.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And, finally, it’s Monday night, and for 50 years that’s meant big band music at a world-famous jazz club in New York.

    Jeffrey Brown has the story.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The song is called “Mean What You Say. And, says trombonist Douglas Purviance, it’s a veritable lesson in big band music.

  • DOUGLAS PURVIANCE, Manager, Village Vanguard Jazz Orchestra:

    It starts out, it just a rhythm section, and then it adds and adds and adds until it’s really coming at you.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    It’s a sound that, every Monday night, comes at audiences at the famous Village Vanguard jazz club. In a dark basement space in Lower Manhattan, the Vanguard is a jazz mecca.

    All the greats have played here, and some of the most renowned live recordings have been made here. The club was founded in 1935 by Max Gordon, and 81 years later, it’s still a family affair, run now by his daughter Deborah Gordon, and still not your average small business.

  • DEBORAH GORDON, Village Vanguard:

    I was looking for just a recent payroll sheet or something, and accidentally put my hand on one from 1962 with John Coltrane’s signature on the bottom.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Really?

  • DEBORAH GORDON:

    Things like that are part of the fabric of the place.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    But you realize how unusual that is, right? I mean, not many places…

  • DEBORAH GORDON:

    I do. I’m not going to tell you where it is.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The Vanguard recently celebrated an important part of its history: a 50-years-and-counting residency that blows the lid off the place every Monday night.

    It began in 1966 as the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra. Jones was a trumpeter and composer who’d played with Count Basie, Lewis a veteran drummer. Big bands weren’t then in vogue. The economics were too difficult, for one thing.

    But the two gathered some of New York’s best studio and session musicians for what many thought would be a one-time gig, held on a night that jazz clubs are usually closed.

  • JIMMY OWENS, Trumpet Player, Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra:

    I took the taxicab here, and when I got to 11th Street, I saw all of these people lined up outside of the Vanguard. I mean, I know we’re playing here tonight, but I have never seen a crowd like that.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Trumpet player Jimmy Owens and trombonist Garnett Brown were part of the original group, which is credited with recreating the big band sound.

    The thing that made this band really different at this day in age was the fact that Thad’s writing, he wasn’t writing big band music, per se, compositions. He was like writing small group compositions, only for the big band.

  • GARNETT BROWN, Trombone Player, Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra:

    They had those times when the band as one unit would just knock everybody out because everybody was so in synch. And then Thad would rely on the solos and knowing exactly what to do in order to make the soloists rise higher in his emotion and playing.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    “All My Yesterdays,” a newly-released recording of the band’s debut sessions, captures the original sound and excitement.

  • ZEV FELDMAN, Resonance Records:

    This is one of great traditions in jazz music.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Zev Feldman is with Resonance Records.

  • ZEV FELDMAN:

    When I’m listening to this music, I hear a fresh energy amongst the musicians on the stage. You hear the energy within the applause of that room. We built a time machine that can take you back to what it was like on that opening night.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Most amazing of all perhaps, the band and its Monday night tradition have continued. It’s been called the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra since the death of Mel Lewis in 1990.

    The 17 musicians, crowded on the Vanguard’s small stage, make their livings from teaching, playing in Broadway shows and other work. Monday nights are different.

    Because this isn’t a living for anybody, right?

  • JOHN MOSCA, Director, Village Vanguard Jazz Orchestra:

    Depends on how you live. No.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    These days, trombonists John Mosca and Douglas Purviance serve, respectively, as the band’s director and manager.

  • DOUGLAS PURVIANCE:

    This whole phenomenon is about the music. And it’s about, you know, the quality of the arrangements and the compositions. So, Thad Jones is the core of what we do.

    And we have always tried to add other composers and arrangers on that level, which is not an easy thing to do.

  • JOHN MOSCA:

    We feel about our book the way classical musicians would feel about the repertoire of Haydn and Mozart and Beethoven. You can never really master it. It just — it demands everything you have.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    So it’s possible to keep going?

  • JOHN MOSCA:

    Yes. People are always going to want to do this. And this music is a great teacher.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    From the Village Vanguard, make that live from the Village Vanguard, I’m Jeffrey Brown for the “PBS NewsHour.”

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