When I convened the first rehearsal of the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra in August of 1999, I had no way of knowing the extent to which this experience would shape the next two decades of my life. I had just moved back to Knoxville after four years in Chicago, and my immediate goal was to create an outlet for my newfound love of writing for big band. I envisioned periodic rehearsals to read new arrangements and perhaps a few gigs at local night clubs. Beyond that, there was no plan. It would just be fun to get together with some of the region’s best players and make music for a couple of hours.
On that first night, the band read all four of the arrangements that I had written to date, plus music by Thad Jones, Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn and perhaps a few others. By the time the rehearsal was within aa month we’d played our first public concert. By December, we had established a regular performance schedule at a local restaurant and started to attract a small following.
We may have continued in this fashion for a while before slowly fizzling out the way that so many similar projects to, but two important early milestones intervened and gave the band a clear sense of purpose. In September of 1999, Keith Brown asked me to write big band arrangements on six Donald Brown composition for the UT student big band’s Spring concert. Although we could not perform those arrangements publicly before the UT debut, the KJO became the laboratory for these new arrangements, allowing me to instantly hear what I had written, and simultaneously creating the beginning of a unique library of music.
The second milestone occurred in January of 2000. The band was wrapping up a rehearsal of the new arrangements when trombonist Don Hough, one of the band’s elder statesmen asked if he could have everyone’s attention. He walked to the front of the band and said, “Ive been in Knoxville for a long time and we’ve never and anything like this before. This band is special and should be treated as such. I propose that we figure out a way to get to Europe next summer to play some festivals.” The response was unanimous. Of course we’d like to go to Europe to perform!
In the months that followed, we hired a travel agent and began making plans for our trip abroad. We recorded the new arrangements, self-released our first CD (The Music of Donald Brown, 2000) and used the recording to secure performance slots for July of 2001 at Jazz a Vienne, the Montreux Jazz Festival and Festival International de Jazz in Ezcaray, Spain. We played as many local and regional gigs as we could, pooling all of the money together toward our common goal. The money that could not be raised through playing gigs was paid from our own pockets.
By the time we returned from our trip, the band was completely transformed. We had found not only a cohesive sound, but also a common purpose. Everyone in the group had a sense of ownership. While the Europe trip was important for galvanizing the band, it was not a sustainable business model. To survive and thrive, we needed to build a local audience to enable us to play regularly in appropriate listening venues. We applied for non-profit status with the mission of promoting jazz in our region, and in early 2002 began presenting concerts featuring notable guest artists alongside the band. By 2006, we’d gained enough traction to begin booking an entire series of events. As of the writing of these notes, our organization presents more than fifty events per year, from free outdoor summer concerts, to ticketed events at venues both large and small.
The music on this disc represents the entire journey. “Back Down In Lu Easy Anna” dates back to the original batch of arrangements, while “The Road Less Traveled” was written this year specifically for this recording. “Woody’n You” was created for a 2003 performance with saxophonist James Moody. We performed with Mulgrew Miller that same year and arranged the chart on “Grew’s Tune” as a result. “The Tennessee Waltz” and “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” were done for a concert we called, “Country and Bluegrass Meet the Big Baand” in 2019. “Ask Me Now”, “Rhythm-A-Ning” and “Monk’s Mood” came from a 2012 Thelonious Monk tribute concert featuring pianist Eric Reed and “At Last” was commissioned by Doc Severinsen at the end of a hour tour that we played with him in 2015. In 2018, we performed with guitarist Bill Frisell, leading to the orchestration of his beautiful take on “What The World Needs Now”. And a 2019 performance with Jazzmela Horn spawned the chart on Jimmy Rowle’s’ haunting ballad “The Peacocks”.
The guest soloists each have unique connections to the journey as well. Eric Reed, Michael Dease, Carmen Bradford, and Gregory Tardy have each performed with the band on one or more occasions over the years. They made stunning contributions and we are grateful for their willingness to participate with us in this effort.
Thomas Heflin was a student at UT when the band was formed. He quickly earned a spot in the trumpet section and although he has since relocated around the country several times, he has continued to perform with the band whenever his schedule allows. Guitarist Mike Seal was also a student at UTK when the band was formed. Although he had never performed with the group before this recording, I had worked with him on various projects over the years and knew that he would add the perfect touch to “Tennessee Waltz”, “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” and “What The World Needs Now”.
Saxophonist Greg Tardy was brought in from NYC to guest on our “Blues Man From Memphis” recording in 2004. He mentioned in a passing that Knoxville was a beautiful place and that he could see himself living here. This started a conversation that led to him being hired as Assistant Professor of Saxophone at The University Of Tennessee in 2010. He has been a regular member of the KJO ever since and has been a huge shot in the arm for our band and our town.
Of course, none of this would have been possible without the selfless dedication of the gentlemen in the orchestra. They have gone above and beyond, year after year, honing their craft and giving of their time and energy. Maintaining a high level of musical skill in a town like Knoxville requires a very special sort of dedication, since the scene is not large enough for musicians to support themselves by performing alone. The band is as good as it is because these men have continued to choose the road less traveled. They have ultimately created something that is much larger than the sum of its parts, and I could not be more proud to call them all friends. This past twenty years have flown by. Here’s to twenty more! - Vance Thompson (Leader/Director of the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra)