Once a year, Christmas comes. Ditto with the Super Bowl and your birthday.
In this special category also belongs the Queens Jazz Orchestra, the star group formed by NEA jazz master Jimmy Heath 11 years ago who live – like a musical ephemeral – for only one sold-out night a year at Flushing Town Hall. .
Calling the 17-piece group an “orchestra” is a bit chi-chi. Basically, Heath’s creation is a big band, the kind recognizable by anyone who’s ever seen Count Basie or Duke Ellington.
The economics of the music business destroyed the sound of the big band two generations ago. Not a news flash. But the QJO is not a nostalgia group.
Of course, he carries the aura of musical history – if only because Heath, at 92, is a bouncy encyclopedia of jazz from the beginnings of bebop until now.
The band does not play Ellington’s music. He’s playing stuff that Heath wrote for Ellington.
A saxophonist trained in Dizzy Gillespie’s band who performed with Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderly and Chet Baker, Heath has assembled a 21st century jazz group. The stuff he plays, he wrote or arranged, any time from last week to 40 years ago.
“We don’t do the same things over and over again,” Heath told The Chronicle last week. “New ways, new materials always. “
Although Heath helped found the jazz studies program at Queens College in the 90s, the QJO is as far removed from a student group as it gets.
The orchestra’s de facto concertmeister is saxophonist Antonio Hart (who has performed with Dee Dee Bridgewater, Roy Hargrove and Dave Holland).
The brass section includes trumpeters Freddie Hendrix (Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Alicia Keys) and Frank Greene (Clark Terry, David Letterman’s television group).
Saxophonists are Bobby LaVell (Grover Washington Jr.) and John Smulian (Ray Charles, BB King and Diana Ross). Trombonist John Mosca has performed with the Metropolitan Opera, Sarah Vaughan and Stan Getz.
You got the idea.
Band members have other better paying jobs elsewhere. The annual QJO date represents something of an appearance of command for this group of elite level players. The lineup has remained relatively unchanged over the years.
They come because they want to sit at a bandstand with Heath and other accomplished musicians like them.
As Hart says, “Whenever Master Health asks me to be there, I’m there. “
Because players only play together for one night, rehearsals are limited to the afternoon before the show, behind closed doors at Flushing Town Hall. An afternoon is apparently all they need.
“We’re looking at what’s on the page,” Heath said. “No improvisation. Everyone tries it on, we just say, “Save it for tonight.” “
In the past few years, Heath has done music programs for Sonny Rollins and Gillespie.
This year’s theme is somewhat vague: “It Ain’t Over Yet”, the title of a previously unreleased Heath album.
“What does that mean? I’m 92. That’s what it means,” he said.
In short, he has not yet decided what the group will play next Friday. Heath, who raised his family in the historic Dorie Miller Co-op apartments in Corona just off Northern Boulevard, now spends most of the year outside of Atlanta, living with his daughter.
But next week, he’ll be staying in the three-bedroom apartment he still owns in the complex, which in 1953 was the first integrated racial co-op in New York City.
“Adam Clayton Powell built it because Fred Trump wouldn’t let black people stay in his apartments,” Heath grumbled.
The Queens part of the band’s name concerns Heath’s connection to Queens College, where Heath taught saxophone for 10 years, and in 2000 Hart took over from him.
Heath said he was grateful the school encouraged him to tour while he taught there. Then he discovered that wherever he performed, especially on his overseas tours, several students applied to jazz school the following year.
“Damn if they weren’t using me for recruiting as much as a teacher,” he said.
Queens Jazz Orchestra
When: Fri, June 21, 8 p.m.
Where: Flushing Town Hall, 137-35 Northern Blvd.
Tickets: $ 42; $ 20 students; free teens.