The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra opened its first set at the Village Vanguard on a recent Monday night with a familiar blend of purring saxophones and punchy brass, carving up “Big Dipper” just as it had in its first performance in the same room almost exactly 50 years ago.
That debut, on Feb. 7, 1966, initiated a residency with no close equivalent in jazz, and few parallels in any creative field. The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra has been a Monday-night fixture in the club ever since, carrying on the legacy of its founder, the trumpeter and composer Thad Jones, and his co-leader, the drummer Mel Lewis. Hearing the band in its natural habitat, on any given Monday, has long been an essential New York experience.
“I used to go down and hear that band, oh my gosh, almost every Monday night,” said the composer Maria Schneider, referring to her early days in New York, in the mid-’80s, before she formed her own orchestra. “Just to take in the exuberant sound of that music in that room.”
This week the Vanguard band celebrates its 50th anniversary with an extended engagement, Monday through Feb. 8. And the historical echoes in the club should ring even more clearly than usual, owing to the forthcoming release of “All My Yesterdays: The Debut 1966 Recordings at the Village Vanguard,” a revelatory two-disc set documenting the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra, as it was known for its first dozen years, at a moment of explosive arrival.
The album, out on Feb. 19, will be the first sanctioned release of this material, featuring revered figures like Bob Brookmeyer on valve trombone and Hank Jones, Thad’s older brother, on piano. An extensive booklet has interviews with all seven surviving musicians from the sessions, including the alto saxophonist Jerry Dodgion, the trumpeter Jimmy Owens and the bassist Richard Davis. The music sounds marvelous, supercharged with jocular flair and soulful fire.
It was recorded in the club to two-track tape by George Klabin, at the time a sophomore at Columbia University and head of the jazz department at WKCR-FM, the university station. Among the two evenings of material, one is from that opening night, Feb. 7. “I had listened to a lot of jazz,” said Mr. Klabin, who is releasing the album on his label, Resonance, “and I had never heard anything like this.”
Mr. Jones was far from a novice when he started the orchestra, initially as a rehearsal band of his peers, jazz musicians who were also first-call session players in New York. They convened after hours, to accommodate their schedule of Broadway, television and commercial work, playing charts that Mr. Jones had written for the Count Basie Orchestra. (Those charts, including “Big Dipper,” had been rejected by Basie as a poor fit for his more traditional band.)
“The grounding, of course, is in the Basie style,” said Darcy James Argue, whose contemporary big band, Secret Society, is recording its third album this week. “There’s a real swing feeling to that, but the harmonic vocabulary is completely modern. The level of sophistication and ingenuity of the reharmonization that he used is still a constant source of inspiration.”
The band also relied on the subtle, sensitive power of Mr. Lewis’s drumming. “The whole tradition, honestly, was built around how Mel played drums,” Ms. Schneider said. “He was so relaxed, and everything seemed so effortless. I remember thinking, ‘He looks like my dad in the fishing boat.’ It wasn’t that he played a lot of flash and fills; he was laying everything just in the right spot.”
Max Gordon, the owner of the Village Vanguard, hired the band for a few Mondays, a night when the club was usually dark. From the first night, which was enthusiastically reviewed in The New York Times, the band’s potential was blazingly clear. Soon the Monday big-band residency had become its own custom: Gil Evans held one for a while, as did Ms. Schneider. (The Mingus Big Band now appears on Mondays at the Jazz Standard.) Over the years, there have been stretches when Monday is the Vanguard’s most reliable night in terms of attendance.
Any institution learns to adapt, and the Vanguard band has survived not only an evolving roster — the saxophonist Joe Lovano is among its distinguished alumni — but also several changes in leadership. Mr. Jones decamped in the late ’70s, moving to Copenhagen to lead the Danish Radio Big Band. For roughly the next decade, it was the Mel Lewis Orchestra.
When Mr. Lewis died in 1990, it became the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, playing its trusted repertory as well as ambitious new works by Mr. Brookmeyer, Jim McNeely and others. In 2011, the death of Mr. Brookmeyer had another profound effect on the band, which released its most recent album, “Overtime: Music of Bob Brookmeyer” (Planet Arts), to worthy acclaim in 2014.
The trombonist John Mosca, who just celebrated his 40th anniversary with the band, is now its director. And the bass trombonist Douglas Purviance, whose tenure stretches back almost as long, is its manager. During a conversation between sets in the Vanguard office, they characterized their stewardship of the orchestra as a matter of respect for its founding fathers.
“I just remember the spirit of Thad,” Mr. Purviance said, “and you can hear it on the new record. I think we play the music very, very, very well. But the only thing that I really miss is that spirit that Thad Jones had in front of the band.”
“Those guys are irreplaceable,” Mr. Mosca said. “It took me years to learn not to look for Mel and to see how the music could progress with the new guys. And when Thad left, it was like ‘Oh my God, it’s the end of the world.’ But it wasn’t. That’s the great thing about this music. It doesn’t end.”
Mr. Purviance nodded. “Maybe you heard it here 10 years ago,” he said. “Maybe you heard it two years ago. It’s still worth coming down to hear how this music has survived — and has grown.”
Correction: January 31, 2016
An earlier version of the headline with this article misstated the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra’s history of weeklong engagements at the club. It has in fact had them before; this week’s will not be the first.
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