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Jimmy Heath Brings History to Life

Saxophonist and composer Jimmy Heath conducts the Juilliard Jazz Orchestra on January 20.

 (Photo by Steve Mundinger)

“I actually took a couple of music lessons from Gil Fuller,” says alto saxophonist-composer Jimmy Heath, reminiscing about the famed orchestrator who is one of the subjects of The Bebop Arrangers: Tadd Dameron, Gil Fuller, and Chico O’Farrill, the Juilliard Jazz Orchestra’s January 20 concert. Heath, 89, who will be the 17-piece orchestra’s guest conductor for the evening, is remembering the heady days when he was just an ambitious saxist in the reed section of the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band before becoming a celebrated composer-arranger in his own right. “It was 1949,” he says. “And I think I’d been researching the Schillinger System [a mid-century compositional notation system], which Gil was using. Quite a few musicians who had compositional aspirations were [doing the same] at that time. As a player, I felt the orchestrations that Gil was writing for the Gillespie band were exciting. It probably goes without saying that Dizzy did, too.”

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The concert is part of Juilliard Jazz’s yearlong focus on arranging, a skill of utmost importance even though it happens behind the scenes, at the midway point between the composer/composition and musician/performer. The show follows Juilliard recitals devoted to the earliest New Orleans incarnations of jazz and the driving, riff-based sophistication of the Count Basie Orchestra. “One of the reasons we’re highlighting arranging this year is that we’re strengthening our curriculum’s commitment at the undergraduate level to jazz-arranging courses,” says Aaron Flagg (BM ’92, MM ’93, trumpet), the chair and associate director of Juilliard Jazz. Along with Wynton Marsalis (’81, trumpet), the director of the program, Flagg felt “it would be good to acknowledge the importance of jazz arrangers throughout the ages. Just as classical people such as, say, Ravel and Rimsky-Korsakov are thought of as very dramatic orchestrators, individuals who could take a piano piece and bring colors and life to it, in similar ways a jazz arranger can take a composition—sometimes his own, but often another’s—and really dress it up. Not only do they make the pieces great vehicles for improvisation, they can also be responsible for establishing the identities of specific bands and eras.”

From a historical perspective, the period covered in the concert is particularly interesting. The 1940s were a time when jazz entered its period of modernism. The music was being streamlined, made fleet and lean by beboppers like Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, and Bud Powell, all of whom were beginning to break with the large ensemble ethos of the commercially prosperous Swing Era and operate in smaller groups. The big challenge for Tadd Dameron and Gil Fuller was to turn music that had been forged by combos in upper Manhattan haunts like Minton’s Playhouse and Monroe’s Uptown House into sounds fit for orchestras. “Tadd and Gil had a little competition for who’d come up with the best charts for Dizzy’s band,” Heath remembers. “If I had to characterize it I’d say that Tadd, who was a pianist and more the composer, had more of a romantic disposition, which I think is why so many of his actual compositions as well as his arrangements became standards. [At Juilliard] we’re doing ‘Good Bait’ and ‘Our Delight.’ Tadd was the heart, whereas Gil was more the head. He really knew how to make the entire band sing on the twisty, more complex pieces. It was dynamic.”

The addition of arrangements by Cuban-bred composer- trumpeter Chico O’Farrill adds another element that became an obsession for Gillespie, and by extension, the entire jazz world. Jazzers as far as back Jelly Roll Morton had cited the idiom’s debt to the “Spanish tinge,” but it was the relationships that Gillespie formed with musicians like O’Farrill and Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo (the co-writer with Gillespie and Fuller of the iconic piece “Manteca”) that gave weight to the synthesis. Bebop suddenly had a percolating twin called “Cubop.” One of the tunes on the bill, O’Farrill’s “Undercurrent Blues,” is indicative of how widespread the movement became. Instead of a be- or Cu-bopper, the piece is now more associated with Swing Era-titan Benny Goodman, audible proof that the next wave was taking over. It had become an imperative for Goodman, then middle-aged, to seek out the most formidable youthful arrangers in jazz.

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