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Queens Chronicle

One night only, a jazz band named for Queens

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Posted: Thursday, June 13, 2019 10:30 am

Once a year Christmas comes. Same with the Super Bowl and your birthday.

Also in that special category belongs the Queens Jazz Orchestra, the all-star band put together by NEA Jazz Master Jimmy Heath 11 years ago that lives — like a musical mayfly — for just one, sold-out night a year at Flushing Town Hall.

Calling the 17-piece group an “orchestra” is a bit chi-chi. At bottom, Heath’s creation is a big band, the kind that is recognizable by anyone who has ever seen Count Basie or Duke Ellington.

The economics of the music business destroyed the big band sound two generations ago. Not a news flash. But the QJO is not some nostalgia band.

Of course, it carries the aura of musical history — if only because Heath, at age 92, is a bouncing encyclopedia of jazz from the beginnings of bebop until now.

The band does not play music by Ellington. It plays stuff Heath wrote for Ellington.

A saxophonist trained in Dizzy Gillespie’s band who has played with Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderly and Chet Baker, Heath has put together a 21st-century jazz band. The stuff it plays he either wrote or arranged, anytime from last week to 40 years ago.

“We do not do the same stuff over and over again,” Heath told the Chronicle last week. “New ways, new material always.”

Though Heath helped found the jazz studies program at Queens College in the ’90s, the QJO is as far from a student band as you can get.

The orchestra’s de facto concertmeister is saxophonist Antonio Hart (who has played with Dee Dee Bridgewater, Roy Hargrove and Dave Holland).

The horn section includes trumpeters Freddie Hendrix (Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Alicia Keys) and Frank Greene (Clark Terry, David Letterman’s TV band).

The saxophonists are Bobby LaVell (Grover Washington Jr.) and John Smulian (Ray Charles, B.B. King and Diana Ross). The trombonist John Mosca played with the Metropolitan Opera, Sarah Vaughan and Stan Getz.

You get the idea.

The members of the band have other, better-paying jobs elsewhere. The annual QJO date represents something of a command appearance for this group of elite-level players. The lineup has been relatively unchanged over the years.

They come because they want to sit on a bandstand together with Heath and other musicians as accomplished as they are.

As Hart says, “Whenever Master Health asks me to be there, I’m there.”

Because the players perform together just one night, rehearsal is limited to the afternoon before the show, behind closed doors at Flushing Town Hall. One afternoon apparently is all they need.

“We run down what’s on the page,” said Heath. “No improvisation. Anyone tries it, we just say: ‘Save it for tonight.’”

In years past, Heath has done programs of the music of Sonny Rollins and Gillespie.

This year’s theme is somewhat vague: “It Ain’t Over Yet,” the title of an as-yet unreleased Heath album.

“What’s it mean? I’m 92 years old. That’s what it means,” he said.

In short, he hasn’t decided just yet what the band 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 Atlanta, living with his daughter.

But next week he’ll stay in the three-bedroom apartment he still owns in the complex that, in 1953, was the first racially integrated co-op in New York.

“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 is about Heath’s connection to Queens College, where Heath taught saxophone for 10 years and, in 2000, Hart succeeded him.

Heath said he was grateful the school encouraged him to tour while he was teaching there. Then he discovered that wherever he played, especially when he toured overseas, several students applied to the jazz school the following year.

“Damn if they didn’t use me for recruitment 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.
(718) 463-7700,

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