Mad About Thad...Thad Jones and Ralph Lalama


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Ralph [Lalama] is one of the top saxophonists in the world and an excellent educator, a staple on the New York jazz scene as well as an internationally renowned performer.
Jazz is a story of continuity, that of one generation passing on its knowledge to the next. Like the “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon," one can trace the lineage of one great player to another, whether through direct artistic influence or simple opportunities for exposure. Some great musicians take it upon themselves to actively mentor other young players so as to preserve and extend the future of the music. There are well-publicized examples, like that of Art Blakey and his Jazz Messengers. But many others have thus far escaped notice, and one of those is that of Thad Jones and Ralph Lalama, the latter of whom is seeking to repay that debt and do the same in return of other young musicians...

Most people in the jazz world are familiar with both men. Thad Jones is a legend, a distinctive voice on the trumpet and one of the most influential composers and arrangers since Duke Ellington. He was also a member of one of jazz's most famous families (he was the brother of Hank and Elvin Jones). Probably his most well-known achievement was the big band he founded with drummer Mel Lewis in the 1960s. The Thad Jones- Mel Lewis Orchestra as it was known played weekly at the Village Vanguard and became sort of the “Saturday Night Live" of jazz--a ground-breaking artistic endeavor that helped spawn the careers of countless great jazz players. Though the founders have since passed, the group lives on as the Village Vanguard Orchestra, selling out every Monday night, winning Grammies, and continuing to play Jones' charts (among others) for aficionados and tourists alike. Ralph Lalama currently holds the second tenor chair, as he has done for over 25 years...

Ralph is one of the top saxophonists in the world and an excellent educator, a staple on the New York jazz scene as well as an internationally renowned performer. I met Ralph this year as a student of his at NYU's jazz program. One of the things that impressed me with him, aside from his obvious technical prowess and distinctive sound, was the breadth of his knowledge of this music's history. I don't mean from a “timeline" perspective either-- it's more that he has studied and thought about the styles and approaches of so many great jazz players that each lesson is like a (colorful) history lesson.

But there was a time when Ralph was a young unknown saxophonist with no contacts whatsoever on the New York jazz scene. In 1975, he was just a senior at Youngstown State University in Ohio playing in his final school band concert. The college brought in one Thad Jones as the featured guest artist, and Ralph got to play in front of him. More importantly, Ralph got to hang out with him a little bit, driving him to and from the performance. Jones gave the younger musician encouragement and told him that if he wanted to really pursue jazz, he should move to New York City and throw himself into the most intense scene in the world...

Shortly after graduating, Ralph took Jones' advice and headed to New York. He called Jones upon arriving, and in October of 1975 Jones gave Ralph his first New York gig--3 nights playing with Jones' quintet. Getting to play with one of his heroes was more than just a thrill for Ralph: “I learned more on that gig than anywhere else."

By his own admission, when he first moved to New York, Ralph was far from the polished force on the sax that he is today. Jones' early guidance and support made a huge impact on Ralph, who says simply, “he was my mentor."

Ralph soon began touring with Woody Herman and Buddy Rich, but continued to receive calls from Jones to sub in on tenor for the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra. Ralph joined the band for good soon after Jones moved to Europe to finish his career and to live out the rest of his life. So the first follow-up to this story took place about a decade after Ralph moved to New York. The now Mel Lewis Orchestra went on a European tour and had a mini-reunion with Thad Jones. After Jones heard Ralph play again, he went up and put his arm around him and said, “Sounds great, you booger!" (a Jonesian term of endearment) Ralph knew then that he had truly arrived...

The second follow-up to this story is unfolding now. Ralph is seeking to honor Jones' memory and music--as well as increase recognition of Jones' role in jazz history--by producing a large concert for the public that will feature Thad's music in a combo setting. He's calling it “Mad About Thad." I'm constantly on the lookout for fascinating jazz projects and I was extremely intrigued by the conversation I had with Ralph about this one. Most tributes to Thad Jones focus on his big band work, but Ralph's project is unique in that it is designed for a small combo--much like that first quintet gig Ralph played with Thad 35 years ago.

There's more to this than mere sentimentality, however. For Ralph, jazz improvisation ultimately boils down to melody (that's one of the reasons we hit it off so well in my lessons with him--we're both “melodicists" :-)) And Ralph wants people to hear Thad's melodies in a very pure fashion, without the sound of the big band distracting them from the essence: the songs themselves and their harmonic movement.

As Ralph explained to me, Thad was both “ahead of his time and in his time." Jones melodies utilized the concept of the upper extensions of the chords not just as accompaniment but as an integral part of the melody. While other jazz composers at the time were working with similar concepts, Jones “really explored and put his personal stamp on it...to the point where it just really flows."

But there is still more to this project than the intricate beauty of Jones' melodies. Ralph wants to show his audience the kind of person that Thad Jones was, how a few words from him could alter the life of a young musician because of Jones' obvious sincerity in everything he said and did. Ralph recalled one of his first impressions of Jones upon picking him up in Youngstown. They drove by a playground with a bunch of kids playing and Jones laughed with obvious delight and exclaimed “look at all those little boogers." Ralph feels that Jones' love for children reflects in his music (for example, some of his most famous compositions are “A Child is Born", “Kids are Pretty People", and “Little Rascal on a Rock"), so Ralph wants the audience to leave with a “nice, happy feeling of childish delight" in addition to a better understanding of Jones' melodies and harmonies. A tall order, perhaps, but Ralph is the perfect combination of artistry, knowledge and charisma to pull it off...

Is Thad Jones under-appreciated? “Maybe," says Ralph, “but only because nobody knows about him." Lest you think that Ralph is channeling the great Yogi Berra, he elaborated on this: “People who know Thad's music love it-- his charts have changed the lives of band directors all over the country. But the general public isn't aware of what he's about. The same goes for Thad as a player...I hope to change that a little with this concert."

As for when this concert will take place, that's still in the works-- the truth is that putting together a jazz program, especially one with such a non-typical twist, is a pretty thankless task. So I'll put my two cents out there and ask anyone reading this to please pass along any ideas you have for potential funders/interested parties, etc...or send Ralph an email directly at [email protected] Maybe we can make the web work for jazz yet :-)

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This story appears courtesy of From Riches to Ragtime: Peter Cobb.
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