Golden anniversaries in jazz are a rare thing. Jazz clubs vanish long before they reach the fifty-year mark, which makes the presence of Wally’s, now in its 75th year, simply extraordinary. The road is no easier for working groups, and Boston is blessed with two fifty-year ensembles: the Fringe, and Mark Harvey’s Aardvark Jazz Orchestra. The AJO is celebrating with its fiftieth annual Christmas concert on December 10, 2022.
Reaching fifty puts Aardvark in select company. Lionel Hampton lead a big band from 1940 to 1991. The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra started in 1966, and still plays at the club every Monday night. The Duke Ellington Orchestra ran from 1923 until Duke’s death in 1974, and then continued under Duke’s son Mercer until his death in 1996. Now there’s Aardvark.
Aardvark is defined by its eclectic, adventurous music, but also by its social consciousness and community involvement. While their book includes politically charged commentary like “Waltz of the Oligarchs” and “Big Oil Tango,” their Christmas fare focuses on the more uplifting message of peace and good will.
An Idea Humbly Born
Mark Harvey recently talked about the origins of the concert, back in the early 1970s. “My parents lived in Binghamton, New York, and I was going there to visit for Christmas. I was in New York City, so I had to catch a bus up to Binghamton. I was sitting in the waiting room at the Port Authority bus station, suffering through that piped-in commercial Christmas music, and I said to myself, ‘Surely someone can do better than this.’ And that got me started.” The Aardvark Jazz Orchestra staged it first Christmas concert in 1973.
These concerts are always a musical mix of the old, the new, and the reimagined. Eclecticism is part of the point. The programs are highly original and sometimes surprising. One might hear Appalachian folk tunes, Charles Ives, 300-year-old French hymns, brass chorales, Duke Ellington, traditional English carols, African-American spirituals, and Harvey’s own compositions. You just won’t hear these tunes while waiting at Port Authority.
At this time of year, the idea of gifts are never far from Harvey’s mind. Aardvark gives the music to all of us, but they give a more material gift, too. This is in fact a benefit concert, with the proceeds donated to a group providing direct assistance to people in need. This, too, is a tradition that goes back to 1973. Concerts have supported community groups including the Pine Street Inn, the Shattuck Shelter, and two organizations founded by the late Kip Tiernan, Rosie’s Place and the Poor People’s United Fund.
Concerts of Christmas Past
Harvey recalled a few past concerts and some of the music Aardvark will reprise this year. He started back in the AJO’s early days. “We played “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence” at the first concert in 1973. It’s a somber 17th-century French hymn that I first encountered while singing in church services. I had fun reimagining it in our arrangement, alternating between 4/4 and 7/4 time. It’s one of my favorite pieces, and the band likes to play it.”
The 1997 concert ranks among the most memorable. “We were invited to do the 25th concert at Old South Church. The minister there, Rick Chrisman, was a friend, and he liked jazz. I wrote a ‘Christmas cantata’ for the occasion, Bethlehem Counterpoint, and dedicated it to Rosie’s Place and its founder, Kip Tiernan.” Regarding the work’s title, he added, “In a world beset by conflict, the counterpoint is people like Kip, whose battle for peace and justice continues to send a message of hope.”
“Then we invited Sheila Jordan as our special guest, and she sang carols, and I wrote a part in the Bethlehem Counterpoint for her. So with the new work, and Sheila singing, I remember the 25th concert as a real highlight.”
A second concert staple emerged from that 1997 concert, “Benedictus.” “I wrote a six-part mass for strings and woodwinds in spring 1973. We did the “Gloria” in the first concert that year, then the whole mass for the tenth concert in 1982. For the 25th, I recast the “Benedictus” as an afro-jazz piece to give it a more energy, and we still play it that way. It’s become an audience favorite.”
The 2004 concert was another milestone. “That was the year of “No Walls,” which we dedicated to Doctors Without Borders. What they do, going anywhere to bring help wherever it’s needed, stimulated my thinking. And I was thinking about Duke Ellington, and his idea about moving beyond categories, beyond walls. I tried to write music without walls, that would morph between segments without firm breaks. So while one part is ending, the next part is already beginning. We close many of our concerts now with the finale to “No Walls,” an anthem of hope, and it’s another audience favorite.”
The Spirit of Duke Ellington
Harvey began exploring the works of Duke Ellington in depth about thirty years ago, and he’s included Duke’s music in many of the Christmas programs since. The Sacred Concerts especially lend themselves to the spirit of the season. “You can pick compositions from Duke’s songbook—“Heaven,” “Almighty God Has Those Angels,” “The Shepherd Who Watches Over the Night Flock,” “Three Black Kings”—and you have a whole Nativity tableau: the guiding star, the angels, the shepherds, the Magi. I doubt Ellington ever saw it that way, but I was struck by the connection.”
The exploration of Ellingtonia reached a peak in 2013 for the 41st concert, when Aardvark played the complete Nutcracker Suite for the first time. It’s a difficult score, and the band relished the challenge of playing it.
There is more to this Boston jazz story than marking the 50th anniversary of the Christmas concert, and the shadow of Duke Ellington crosses it. In an orchestra, its members’ experience matters. We know the impact that Carney, Hodges, Procope, Brown and other long-haul members had on the Ellington sound. Similarly, Aardvark is an orchestra with experience. By the fifth Christmas concert, current members Peter Bloom and Arni Cheatham had joined. By the tenth, Bob Pilkington, Jeff Marsanskis, and Harry Wellott were part of Aardvark. By year twenty, Phil Scarff, K.C. Dunbar, Jeanne Snodgrass, Jay Keyser, and Rick Nelson were on board. Bill Lowe joined in time for the 25th. That’s staying power that more than meets the Ellington standard. History is less about numbers than it is about people, and it is the presence of these people that really make the occasion historic.
But that’s not all of it, either. Jay Keyser said earlier this year that “We aren’t just a collection of players, we see ourselves as a family.” And the head of the family says the concert is Aardvark’s holiday gift to all of us.
If this is so, then thanks, Aardvarks. It’s just what I always wanted!
This post as first published had the wrong year for the “No Walls” concert. I’ve corrected it to read 2004.
The details: The Aardvark Jazz Orchestra presents its 50th Christmas Concert on December 10, 2022 at the Church of the Covenant, 67 Newbury Street in Boston. Tickets are $20 at the door, with all proceeds to benefit the Poor People’s United Fund.
To the music. Here’s something to send you dashing through the snow, if we had some. it’s “The Prophet,” a part of the Bethlehem Counterpoint, recorded at the 25th concert in 1997. Alas, no video available, but I improvised. Sheila Jordan, Phil Scarff, and Rick Nelson are more fun than riding in a one-horse open sleigh!