Thad Jones's 90th
Moments after I’d posted this morning’s blog touting Chick Webb as the Battle of the Bands champ at the Savoy Ballroom, I spotted some great footage of the Thad Jones-Mel Orchestra under a banner reading, you guessed it, “Battle of the Bands.” The year is 1969, and the venue is European. The tune is “Groove Merchant” by Jerome Richardson, who plays the soprano saxophone lead in a reed section that includes Joe Henderson, Jerry Dodgian, Eddie Daniels, and Pepper Adams. Sir Roland Hanna establishes the groove with an opening piano solo, and bassist Richard Davis plays a solo that mirrors the whisper-to-shout dynamics of the orchestra itself. The brass section includes Snooky Young, Richard Williams, Danny Moore, and Al Porcino on trumpets, and Jimmy Knepper, Ashley Fannell, Eddie Bert, and Cliff Heather on trombones. That’s Thad Jones conducting and Mel Lewis on drums.
Today is Thad’s 90th birthday anniversary. Whether listeners know it or not, Jones played one of the most frequently heard and memorable trumpet solos of all time on Count Basie’s recording of “April in Paris.” Thad’s “Pop Goes the Weasel” lick is as memorable as Basie’s “One more once; One more time” teasers, and the trumpeter repeated the lick on his own recording of the Vernon Duke standard a year after he’d made it with Basie in 1955.
(The Magnificent Thad Jones in 1956; photo by Francis Wolff)
Thad is the middle brother of the illustrious Jones family of Pontiac, Michigan; Hank was born in 1917; Elvin in 1927. He was a mainstay of the Detroit scene in the ‘40’s and early ‘50’s, and among his numerous compositions is “Salute to the Blue Bird,” named for one of the Motor City’s most hallowed jazz establishments. Joining Basie’s New Testament band in 1954 brought him to New York, and while it was Thad’s arranging and composing skills that were most heavily utilized by Basie, his fresh sound and inventiveness as a trumpet soloist got plenty of exposure on small combo recordings with Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, Coleman Hawkins, and Ben Webster. Mingus produced his debut recording for Debut Records, where he hailed Thad as “The greatest trumpeter that I’ve heard in this life.”
Jones left Basie in the early Sixties, and my 1966 he’d put together the rehearsal band that coalesced into the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra when it began its weekly run of Monday nights at the Village Vanguard. Thad conducted the band for a dozen years before moving to Copenhagen in 1978, and upon Basie’s death in 1984, he returned to lead the Count Basie Orchestra for a brief period before moving back to Denmark in 1986, the year of his death.
We’ll hear Thad with Basie, Mel, Mingus, and Monk in tonight’s Jazz a la Mode, as well as his great Blue Note sessions featuring Motor City soul mates Barry Harris, Bill Mitchell, Tommy Flanagan, and Curtis Fuller.