When the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra kicked off Baruch College’s Twelfth Annual Milt Hinton Jazz Perspectives Concert Series at Mason Hall in New York last Thursday, it was not only the crispness and ingenuity of Thad Jones’s charts that made his classic “Mean What You Say” sound brand-new. The score is one of several by the late, legendary composer, arranger, and cornetist that have recently been restored as part of the VJO’s Thad Jones Legacy Project.
Jones founded the orchestra with drummer Mel Lewis in 1966, and for the last thirty-seven years the seventeen-member group has been keeping his music alive through performances every Monday night at the Village Vanguard. VJO Director and lead trombonist John Mosca knew that much more of Jones’s work wasn’t being performed because the scores were lost or erroneous and resolved to bring this neglected music to the public.
VJO Project Director Tom Bellino introduced Mosca to Richard Kessler, executive director of the American Music Center, and in 2001 the two organizations launched the Thad Jones Legacy Project, an ambitious effort to preserve, present, and explore the repertoire of Thad Jones. With funding from the National Endowment for the Arts and The Recording Academy, the orchestra has begun the first stage of the project—the restoration and reconstruction of eleven of Jones’s unpublished compositions and arrangements for big band, which have been unavailable for performance or study for more than twenty years and exist only in the form of recordings. The scores must be painstakingly transcribed from the recordings (some of which are unreleased private tapes), then checked and double-checked by the musicians for accuracy.
In addition, the orchestra has enlisted copyists to proofread error-ridden published scores against Jones’s originals so that the players will have durable, accurate charts. The VJO is establishing an archive at William Paterson University, where the historic original scores will be preserved in a temperature-controlled environment. They are also making arrangements with renowned jazz organist Rhoda Scott to retrieve a cache of Jones’s scores from her Paris home. The project will be documented through catalogs, guidebooks, a website, and the recording of material that has fallen out of print or has never been recorded.
The first of the restored scores—”Mean What You Say” and Jones’s arrangement of Stevie Wonder’s “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing”—were unveiled in August at the Vanguard. The orchestra kicked off its set Thursday with the former and closed with “The Little Pixie,” one of the scores that has been restored by correcting the published version against the original. Before the group launched into that tune, Mosca held up a yellowed, Scotch-taped original score and quipped that it was in better condition than many others in need of restoration.
In keeping with the VJO’s mission to balance tradition and innovation, the set also featured two recently commissioned pieces—Jim McNeely’s “Don’t Even Ask” and Slide Hampton’s “Past, Present, And Future,” along with McNeely’s “Extra Credit” and “A Simple Wish” by the late Julie Cavadini. The concert series, organized by the Milt Hinton Jazz Perspectives Committee and sponsored by the Baruch College Performing Arts Center and the Baruch College Fund, will continue with the “Sax in the City” quartet on December 4, 2003.
Mosca and the Orchestra consider the Thad Jones Legacy Project among their most important work in terms of jazz history. Making this treasure trove of lost music once again available to musicians, listeners, and scholars is difficult, costly, and time-consuming, but well worth it—as Mosca says, “like seeing an old friend after twenty years.”