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USC Thornton Jazz Orchestra Relives Big Band Era

USC Thornton Jazz Orchestra Relives Big Band Era
Bob Mintzer, director of the USC Thornton Jazz Orchestra, leads the band at the Monterey Jazz Festival with soloist Erik Hughes, left.

In late September, the USC Thornton Jazz Orchestra (TJO) traveled north to play the famed Monterey Jazz Festival, the annual Central California event that debuted in 1958.

For TJO director Bob Mintzer, holder of the Bowen H. “Buzz” McCoy and Barbara M. McCoy Endowed Chair in Jazz at USC Thornton, performing at the festival was a great experience for the musicians. So was the drive to get there.

“The bus ride was as close as these students are going to get to reliving the style of the big bands when I was a kid and lucky enough to play in Buddy Rich’s Big Band,” Mintzer said. “That’s what we did. We got on a bus for a long time and went and played somewhere for a short time.”

Led by saxophonist Mintzer, an arranger of more than 200 big band works and member of the Grammy Award-winning jazz group Yellowjackets, the TJO has had a recent run of success.

The orchestra claimed its Sunday afternoon time slot on a main stage in Monterey after being chosen as the top college big band at last year’s Monterey Jazz Next Generation Festival. In addition, the TJO was one of two winners in the large jazz ensemble category at last year’s DownBeat Student Music Awards, an annual competition honoring the country’s best young musicians.

“I am so proud of the students in the USC Thornton Jazz Orchestra and their director Bob Mintzer,” said USC Thornton dean Robert A. Cutietta. “Bob has brought so much excitement to the ensemble, and it began with the gift from Buzz and Barb McCoy to create the endowed chair. This enabled us to bring Bob onto the faculty. The results speak for themselves.”

Mintzer, who brings years of experience to the TJO, played in many famous big bands, including three led by Rich, Thad Jones and Mel Lewis, and Gil Evans.

“I learned something from each one,” Mintzer said. “Buddy was a certain kind of band director. I learned what to do, as well as what not to do, from him. The Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Big Band was another style of leading. Thad Jones was a dynamic leader, and his body language drew this music out of the band in a very unusual way. It was very inspiring.

“I played with Gil Evans, and that was another thing. He took a much more passive role. He just stayed out of the way and let the music unfold. I learned something from that as well.”

One of the many lessons Mintzer teaches is to involve everyone in the music, and he encourages students to write for the band.

The performance at the Monterey festival featured works by USC Thornton students Jacob Mann and Greg Johnson. The TJO performed Mann’s arrangement of Clifford Brown’s “Joy Spring” and an original composition by Johnson.

“To be on the bill with Herbie Hancock and Sonny Rollins is pretty cool,” Mann said. “If you had told me a year ago that we would be in Monterey, let alone that we’d be playing a composition of mine, I would have said, ‘No chance.’ ”

“You know, it’s big fun,” Mintzer said. “It’s great fun. Big bands are the symphony orchestra of jazz music, so it’s an opportunity for a lot of people to get together and play, and there’s still plenty to do in terms of writing and creating a setting in which to play jazz.”

On Nov. 21, the TJO will perform at the Catalina Jazz Club with collegiate big bands from California State University, Northridge, and California State University, Long Beach.

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