music (2006-50)

Yule Jazz

Knoxville Jazz Orchestra belts out some holiday cheer

by Kevin Crowe

“Everyone seemed to enjoy it,” says Vance Thompson, trumpeter and director of the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra. “So, I booked a gig.” It all seemed simple enough.

That was back in 1999, and when the KJO first took the stage, the crowd was stunned. It was like living one of our grandparents’ memories, having a group of musicians playing arrangements that are throwbacks to the days of Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman, when sweet- and swing-styles were all the rage. They were good, too. Really good, belting out fat brass sheets of sound, playing the traditional arrangements we’ve heard hundreds of times as well as the more modern stuff that can, from time to time, mess with our heads.

“Just through word of mouth we got a pretty good crowd,” Thompson recalls. “They were enthusiastic, I think, because that was the first time anything like that had happened there…. Just from that, I decided to keep pursuing it.”

Now, seven years later, KJO is still going strong with most of its original members. There’s Don Hugh, who was a principal trombone player with the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra for over 20 years and Tom Lundberg, who teaches trombone and euphonium at East Tennessee State University. Bill Scarlett has taught the sax for over 40 years as Professor Emeritus at UT. Tom Johnson teaches sax at Pellissippi State. Bill Swann’s piano chops have helped him land a position at Maryville College. Rusty Holloway, in addition to teaching at UT, has toured with Dizzy Gillespie and Sarah Vaughan, among others. Keith Brown, who handles percussion, comes from a gene pool that always produces jazz superstars. The list goes on, always packed with the best Knoxville has to offer.

“The core players are still there,” Thompson says. “Some of the younger guys who started in ’99 have kind of moved on, as young people do. Those have been replaced with other young guys. We also have a rotation of two or three of the best students over at UT.”

Maybe it was a logistical nightmare, when the KJO took their 16-piece band across the pond for a two-week tour of Europe in 2001. Maybe it was a beautiful accident when Hank Jones, a bop pianist who has played with just about every big-name jazzman from Ella Fitzgerald to John Coltrane, performed with the orchestra at the age of 85. Maybe their first album, The Music of Donald Brown , turned out better than the orchestra expected.

“I was surprised,” Thompson admits. “When we first started recording them—I got a student over at UT to do the recordings—how well he was able to capture the sound of the band.”

And, maybe it was a surprise when, three years ago, KJO played a Christmas concert to a packed house at the Bijou. Then, after moving the second Christmastime concert to the Tennessee Theatre last year, no one was surprised.

This year, once again at the Tennessee Theatre, organist Dan Trudell, who played with the orchestra in ’01 and ’04, will join the KJO.

“When he’s playing,” Thompson says of Trudell’s style, “he’s straight out of Jimmy Smith. Funky, kind of soulful. Organ soul-jazz.”

There will be a performance of “Sleigh Ride” that was once arranged for the Glenn Miller band. They also play “Joy to the World” as a Count Basie-type arrangement, more swing than you’d expect from a Christmas tune. You’ll hear them conjure the spirit of Duke Ellington, perhaps Stan Kenton, too. “And we do some things that I’ve written for the band that are a little more modern-sounding,” Thompson adds. “We’ve got enough original material now to do a Christmas album. But I’m just not ready to dive into that, yet. We already have the stuff, arrangements that are original to us.”

But it’s all about keeping it fresh with these guys, especially when they juxtapose their sounds, running funk beats behind their Christmastime cheer.

“We do a wide range of stuff,” Thompson explains. “We just finished this record with Donald Brown. His music, most of it is extremely modern, and it’s all original to our group. At the other end of the spectrum, we’ve done Duke Ellington tribute concerts, where we do all of Duke’s arrangements from the 1930s to the ’50s.

“I think, as musicians, our job is to help people forget about everything else and have a good time. It’s therapeutic in that way. Jazz music and great jazz musicians have the ability to use sound to evoke a whole range of human emotions. I think that’s the mark of a great artist, regardless of genre…. Like Miles [Davis], he had that special mood he could create, just put you in a zone where you really forget about everything else.”

Who: Knoxville Jazz Orchestra