My introduction to live jazz big band playing was hearing the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra at the Village Vanguard in 1971. The experience hearing that band with its magnificent saxophone section was life changing. Sitting in front of Jerry Dodgion, Ed Xiques, Eddie Daniels, Billy Harper, and Pepper Adams with Thad leading the band and Mel playing drums was one of the greatest experiences I’ve had in music. I continued to follow the band throughout the years and observed how things changed and yet remained the same—new repertoire written by composers other than Thad; new personnel; and new band titles. However, what has remained the same is the high level of ensemble playing and soloing. The current saxophone section of Dick Oatts, Billy Drewes, Ralph Lalama, Rich Perry and Gary Smulyan have been together for 28 years as of 2019 (certainly a record for a sax section) and still sound as fresh and passionate when playing the music as they did when they first joined the band. In this interview, the camaraderie, admiration and respect they have for one another is palpable. They talk candidly about their love affair with Thad’s music, Mel’s drumming, as well as the joy of playing as a cohesive unit within the greatest big band in the world. One of the must-see attractions when visiting New York City is going to the Village Vanguard on a Monday night to hear The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra play some of the finest big band music ever composed. Don’t miss it! Please check out more information about these artists and the band at:
*During the discussion, I mentioned many famous lead alto saxophonists but neglected to reference the most famous and influential of them all—Johnny Hodges. Hodges is the quintessential alto saxophonist and in a league of his own.
About the Artists: The five current members of the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra saxophone section are well-known soloists on their own within the jazz community.
Dick Oatts has been a member of the VJO for 41 years, its lead alto saxophonist for the past 40 years, and is the band’s Artistic Director. A leader on over 15 albums for multiple record labels and recorded on 100s more as a sideman, Dick is one of the most in-demand musicians in the industry, having recorded and/or played with artists such as Bob Brookmeyer, Red Rodney, Eddie Gomez, Joe Lovano, Jerry Bergonzi, Jon Faddis, etc. He has been a featured soloist with the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band, the WDR Big Band, the Stockholm Jazz Orchestra, the Danish Radio Big Band, and many more. He is a professor at Temple University.
Billy Drewes was a frequent sub with the band in the 1980s until he became a regular member in 1991. He has been a sideman with artists such as Paul Motian, Joe Lovano, Bill Frisell, Lionel Hampton, Eddie Palmieri, Herbie Hancock, etc., and can be heard on over 150 CDs. Billy has also been involved with Brazilian and Indian Music having performed and recorded for dance troupes such as the Nikolais Dance Company and the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater. Billy is currently on the faculty of The Steinhardt School at NYU.
Rich Perry joined the band originally on the 2nd tenor chair from 1977-1980 and then later rejoined as its first tenor player in 1991. Rich had recorded 23 albums as a leader and been a featured soloist on over 73 other albums. He has also played with a Who’s Who in the jazz world including Lee Konitz, Rufus Reid, Fred Hersch, Billy Hart, George Mraz, among others. Rich is on the faculties of William Patterson College and NYU.
Tenor saxophonist Ralph Lalama has been with the band since 1983. A former member of the Woody Herman and Buddy Rich bands, he has recorded 9 CDs as a leader and can be heard on over 60 others as a featured sideman and soloist. Also a member of the Joe Lovano Nonet, Ralph is a multiple Grammy Award winner and one of the most requested sidemen in NYC. He is on the music faculties of NYU and SUNY Purchase.
I met Gary Smulyan in 1978 at a big band rehearsal on Long Island, the night before he was to join the Woody Herman band as their new baritone saxophonist. Gary was playing lead alto that evening and was one of the most impressive lead alto players and soloists I had ever heard. I couldn’t understand why he would want to abandon the alto for an instrument that he had never played before! All these many years later, I get it. Gary joined the band in 1980 and has continued to awe musicians and critics alike with his mastery of the baritone. A multiple winner of every major poll on the baritone sax, Gary has played and/or recorded with the likes of Freddie Hubbard, Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz, Phil Woods, Joe Lovano, Dave Holland, etc. He has 10 CDs as a leader and been on numerous recordings as a featured soloist. Gary teaches at Rutgers University.