Authors Spotlight Vanguard Jazz Orchestra


Eric Allen and Dave Lisik chronicle the history of the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra in their new book.

(Photo: Courtesy SkyDeck Music)

Over the phone from his Chicago home, saxophonist-arranger Eric Allen related a recent discussion with New Zealand-based Dave Lisik, with whom he co-authored the self-published tome 50 Years At The Village Vanguard: Thad Jones, Mel Lewis and the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra (SkyDeck Music). “I was joking that we probably didn’t need to spend so much time editing the text,” Allen said. “Most people are saying they’re just flipping through the photos and checking out all the archival stuff.”

In truth, this erudite work—for which Allen and Lisik supplemented extensive archival research by conducting 43 of the 51 transcribed interviews with participants and close observers—blends the graphic extravagance of a sumptuous coffee-table book with the textual rigor of a catalogue raisonné in tracing the musical path of New York’s nonpareil Vanguard Jazz Orchestra and the milieu in which it flourished.

The back-story dates to the middle of 2015, when Allen mentioned to Lisik his desire to acknowledge VJO’s half-century anniversary by assembling a “commemorative website” with a complete discography and detailed personnel information. “Dave thought people would be interested in photos, programs and scores, so he suggested that we do a whole book,” Allen said.

Allen was busy finishing a book of transcriptions and analyses of eight different recorded improvisations on “Body And Soul” for Jamey Aebersold Jazz, and he found the prospective time commitment daunting. Lisik persisted. Allen relented. In October 2015 they emailed the proposition to VJO lead alto saxophonist Dick Oatts and trombonist-artistic director John Mosca. Neither responded initially.

Anticipating a trip to New York in early December, the partners tried again, and were rewarded. They talked it over at Mosca’s apartment, with VJO business director and bass trombonist Douglas Purviance calling in on speaker phone.

“They liked the idea, and off we went,” Allen said. “From there, we started the preliminary research, sketching out the chapters and the angles we wanted to take.” Allen started the heavy lifting by conducting several interviews during VJO’s 50th anniversary week at the Village Vanguard in February 2016. From then through November, “It was non-stop with phone interviews and getting permissions from instrument companies, publishers, record labels, photographers—a full-time job,” Allen said.

Allen and Lisik wrote and edited the text together, sharing files online from their respective homes. They interfaced with Las Vegas-based book designer Ryan Olbrysh, who constructed a chronological pictorial narrative of well-restored portraits, group shots, action shots, posters, flyers, reviews, sheet music and scores. The result is a lushly illustrated 325-page book (available exclusively at

It’s well worth the reader’s time to attend closely to the forensically detailed chapters, written in clear prose, that describe the origin of the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra, and the distinguished careers and vivid personalities of its co-founders. There are thorough portraits of trombonist-composer Bob Brookmeyer, whose adventurous charts augmented and expanded the band’s sonic identity after Jones left without warning in 1978, and of pianist-composer Jim McNeely, the band’s animating force during the ’90s and ’00s, who received Grammy nominations for the all-McNeely VJO albums Lickety Split and Up From The Skies.

There are tales of the road, vignettes of the individualists who constitute (and who have constituted) the VJO and a well-wrought depiction of the Vanguard and its founder, Max Gordon, who, in February 1966, offered Jones and Lewis two consecutive Mondays. By last year’s 50th anniversary, the run had spanned 2,609 nights.

“As Dick Oatts told us, the VJO has a history of great players, but it was always a writer’s band, and Thad, Brookmeyer and McNeely—who are each unique but also complement each other—are clearly associated with its three main eras,” Lisik emailed. “The thing that held it all together was the Village Vanguard supporting the Monday night gig for so long. Take away any of these factors and the narrative is less compelling. This band is truly one of a kind.”

For more information on 50 Years At The Village Vanguard, or to order a copy, visit DB

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