The Very Thought of 50-Plus Years of Jazz: The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra

VJO DIck Oatts 1

The full and engaging sound of an iconic musical skyscraper like the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra (once the Thad Jones & Mel Lewis Orchestra) is alive and well, winning new fans to the genre while reminding audiences everywhere how timelessly hip this music is.

In its 2014 CD titled “OverTime: The Music of Bob Brookmeyer,” the track “Nasty Dance” pops out with funk, mood-changing counterpoint and heavy play with syncopation. “Suite for Three [Part 2]” breathes with tenderness. These and the other songs salute Mr. Brookmeyer in a respectful and passionate way. And so it is with a myriad other recordings these musicians have put their mouthpieces to over the years, bringing out the passion of the music and showing us the reasons for its endurance.

2020 sees the VJO celebrating its 54th year with performances including a tour in Japan and shows at several U.S. universities.

The VJO’s artistic director Dick Oatts, who wields the sax like the leader he is, said timing is everything, both in jazz and in opportunities of a lifetime. His entry ticket was punched back in 1977 and he’s been with the orchestra ever since. Oatts is also a Professor of Music at the Boyer College of Music and Dance with Temple University.

Tons of history surrounds the VJO. When did you first have the idea you wanted to be a part of it?

I had wanted to become a member of a band like the Thad Jones & Mel Lewis Orchestra since I began playing the saxophone and especially after I heard a live concert featuring Duke Ellington and Count Basie in 1961 in Des Moines, Iowa.

Fortunately, I was in the right place at the right time on June 7, 1977. I was offered an opportunity to play with Thad & Mel’s band at the Village Vanguard on my first night in New York City. It was a real “Cinderella” story.

How have you developed as a musician (player, composer) from before you started with VJO, to today?

I started the saxophone at age seven and studied under my father (Jack) who was a professional saxophonist and jazz educator in Iowa during the early 1950s. He was my only formal sax teacher and my first inspiration. He gave me the right information early on and I excelled during my formative years. After attending Drake University for about a year, I decided to just play for a living in Minneapolis /St. Paul. I spent four to five years learning how to make a living doing nothing else but playing. I did all sorts of gigs to gather experience which gave me a real head start. There were so many good players in that area who were extremely helpful and supportive during those early years. Of course, in jazz, the education never stops and I really had some great opportunities upon arriving in NYC and continuing to this day.

What are the challenges in leading a large ensemble? What are the rewards?

A large ensemble usually contains numerous musicians coming from different levels of experience and it’s not about leading as much as it is about listening and delegating responsibilities by recognizing who and where the strength has to go. All 16 members of the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra put the music first and that’s been the glue for the past 53 years. We all sacrifice because we pay back to the music that has made us all better players. So, the true leader of the VJO is the great music written by great composers and arrangers. We pay homage to the music. It’s like we’re in church. The reward is playing the music well with great musicians feeling the same as you do.

How has big band changed as a genre over the years? How does one write fresh music that honors the spirit of the VJO’s beginnings and founders?

The big band scene has changed because it takes a lot of money and sacrifice to take a band out on the road. I grew up when there was still a big band scene with Ellington, Basie, Kenton, Rich, Herman, Maynard, etc. and the dance music was still using big bands. Now it’s performed more in universities and other educational or corporate arenas. There was a ton of professional rehearsal bands where musicians could meet and learn from one another. The students now have the internet which has everything for listening to but not much as far as experiencing the playing of the music. 

Why did you choose the sax to be your primary instrument? Do you have a favorite child among alto, soprano or flute?

My father played alto and was totally into Johnny Hodges and that’s why I chose alto.

I started on soprano until I proved I was ready for the alto. I also play flutes, clarinets and a little piano. Had I not chosen to play them, it would have limited the amount of experience and work I would be offered.

Talk about the most memorable performance you have been involved in with the VJO.

My first European summer tour with the Thad Jones and Mel Lewis Orchestra was in 1977. It was a dream come true to be in Europe for the first time with one of the best big bands in the world.

Best story about having a guest performer play with the group?

Miles Davis loved coming down to the Village Vanguard when Thad and Mel had the band. One time he showed up to hang out when it was the Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra and he liked our lead trumpet player, Earl Gardner. Earl invited him up to try out the entire trumpet section’s trumpets and mouthpieces. We played a blues called “2nd Race” by Thad Jones. Miles must have played for 45 minutes just trying out different set-ups. Clark Terry and Bob Brookmeyer were also incredible. 

Favorite jazz festival ever?

Newport Jazz Festival in 1977.

In “OverTime – Bob Brookmeyer” how do you think you achieved your goals in presenting this music and celebrating Mr. Brookmeyer?

The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra achieved yet another level thanks to the music of Bob Brookmeyer. 

After Thad left the band in 1979, Brookmeyer became our chief writer and artistic director. His music brought a new and challenging direction to big band jazz, and when we recorded “OverTime” Brookmeyer took us to a higher level than we thought possible in the music and concept of it.  

What do you love most about the Village Vanguard? How have audiences changed through the years?

I loved Max, Lorraine, and now Deborah Gordon for their belief in the band and our music. They and all the wonderful people who have worked at the Village Vanguard have been tremendously supportive and dedicated to jazz.

The Village Vanguard is all about lending integrity and respect to jazz musicians. The crowds were amazing when Thad Jones was in front of the band. Enthusiasm dropped a little during Mel Lewis’s era, but thanks to fans worldwide, it has again built up in recent years.

We now play two sets on Monday nights which are usually sold out.

What’s coming up?

We are currently working on two new projects. One of all new originals by our esteemed composer-in-residence Jim McNeely. Our second anticipated project will be a recording of great Thad Jones music that is relatively unknown.

We have a few dates in the winter/spring of 2020 and a week at the Village Vanguard to celebrate our 54th year at the club, and a Japan tour (June 8 – 16) in June as well as performances at a couple more universities like Vanderbilt (Oct.1) and Elmhurst 2021, with more to come.

Other comments?

The musical concept of Thad Jones / Mel Lewis, Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra, and now the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, has always been like a small group with a lot of horns. It was the best of Basie – Ellington – Lunceford and the best of Kenton – Herman – Sauter-Finnigan.

It was revolutionary in the 1960s by combining different races, musical backgrounds, genders, religions and especially great compositions that continue to bring equally great musicians together every Monday night since February of 1966. The music comes first. 

For more information, visit

Photos courtesy of and with permission of the VJO/Dick Oatts.
(c) Debbie Burke 2019

COATNEY 6x9 front cover FINAL

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