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The Thad Wilson Jazz Orchestra’s 25th-anniversary celebration, happening Tuesdays in January at Blues Alley, is really about the longevity of a vision. The orchestra that’s inhabited those 25 years has actually been a string of orchestras varying in size, shape, venue, repertoire, and even name. But Thad Wilson has led them all. There were plenty of hiatuses in between, too. But still, Wilson, the group’s trumpeter and namesake, and the large-ensemble sound in his head have endured for a quarter century.
“It’s a labor of love, man,” Wilson tells City Paper. Though the band held residencies around town for many years, both Wilson and his preferred players got too busy to maintain them. “Trying to play somewhere every week? No, bro. I try to get cats that are really professionals in the music, which means that a lot of the time, cats are working. But we’ve always kept an iron in the fire with the jazz orchestra. And we’ve got a great following.”
Of that there can be no doubt. Blues Alley was packed to the rafters when TWJO opened their January residency on Jan. 10. The excited and wildly appreciative crowd overlooked technical difficulties—Allyn Johnson’s piano was overmic-ed; Wilson’s voice undermic-ed—and simply rejoiced. The band gave them much to rejoice about. Their opener, a brass-forward arrangement of “The Moontrane,” was electric, with hair-raising solo work by Wilson, Johnson (the band’s music director, who arranged the tune), and drummer Nasar Abadey. There was also a rollicking version of baritone saxophonist Jason Marshall’s “Ms. Garvey, Ms. Garvey,” featuring Marshall as well as bass trombonist Rick Parker and trumpeters Joe Brotherton and Donvonte McCoy; and a lush, romantic “The Lamp Is Low” that Wilson announced he would “attempt to sing, and I hope everyone will bear with me.” (He’s used that same modest segue for years; as always, his voice was that of a nonprofessional but better than amateur, with a silky veneer and a surprisingly solid grip of complicated changes.)
A superb trumpeter, Wilson has reduced his playing time in TWJO due to conducting and audience-courting responsibilities. When he gets a horn spotlight, it’s a barn burner. On Jan. 10, it came at the top of the set in a punchy, four-alarm solo whose exultant forward charge was punctuated by pauses to let the orchestra catch up. Wilson later grabbed a flügelhorn, but, at least in the first set, used it for ensemble passages. (Ah, but to hear him work his magic on that instrument’s beautiful dark tone.)
The billing for that first concert was a TWJO reunion, and much of the lineup—Johnson, Abadey, Marshall (who joined the band when he was still in high school), alto saxophonist Antonio Parker, and trombonist Reginald Cyntje—were part of the upstart young band of mostly 20-somethings that Wilson put together shortly after moving to the District in 1997. In January 1998, the orchestra made its debut at One Step Down, where it remained in Monday night residency until the Foggy Bottom club closed in 2000. (That first version of the band also made an album, Work in Progress, in 1999.)
A few years later, a new incarnation, billed as the Ugetzu Big Band, reclaimed Monday nights, this time at U Street NW’s Bohemian Caverns. That band ended in late 2009 when disagreements led to their fracture. (Their former members would soon become the core of the Bohemian Caverns Jazz Orchestra, which carried on the Monday night residency until the club’s 2016 closure).
Wilson reorganized his band yet again in the 2010s, this time as the Twins Jazz Orchestra—the house band for another U Street NW club, where they played first weekly, then monthly, until the pandemic forced Twins’ closure in 2020. This time, the iteration included Cyntje from the One Step days; Caverns holdovers Brotherton and McCoy, and young blood tenor saxophonist Elijah Easton (whom Wilson called “our young lion” at the Blues Alley celebration), who became a star soloist. Brotherton, McCoy, and Easton were all in the band at Blues Alley, representing a cross section of TWJO iterations.
Not so much a reunion, then, but an agglomeration of D.C. jazz history. Each of the aforementioned players (except Marshall, who is tearing it up in New York City) is today a pillar of the local jazz scene, a ready example of Wilson’s point about wanting pros in his ranks.
Of course, it also explains how those players are too busy to be a consistent working band. To cap off their 25th anniversary celebrations, TWJO will fill out Blues Alley’s remaining Tuesday nights in January, before making another anniversary appearance at February’s Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival in Rockville. After that, they go their separate ways until the next project comes along.
“I try to make the band orbit around each next project, so I can get the most mileage out of the experience, rather than ‘Hey, what’s the next gig?’” Wilson says. “But after Mid-Atlantic, we’re cool. We’ll evaluate what we wanna do and where we wanna go next, and then we’ll make our way out again.”
The first piece of writing I did on D.C. jazz for City Paper was marking the TWJO’s 10th anniversary. It’s fitting—and poignant, from my perspective—that I should inaugurate this column with another Wilsonian milestone. A city that’s still reemerging from its pandemic trauma deserves to have some insights into the jazz community that has been so important to the District for so long—and to know that these musicians are out there doing great things and needing your ears. Look for new dispatches from the field every month.
Thad Wilson Jazz Orchestra play at Blues Alley Jan. 24 and 31 at 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. bluesalley.com. $37.
The Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival runs Feb. 17 to 19 at the Rockville Hilton. midatlanticjazzfestival.org. $5–$1,495.