The Columbus Jazz Orchestra's Greatest Concert

Peter Tonguette
Columbus Jazz Orchestra artistic director Byron Stripling at the Southern Theatre

Imagine a concert consisting entirely of music performed by jazz giants, where a single stage is shared by the likes of Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and Oscar Peterson. For fans of the form, it might seem like an impossible dream.

But in 1967, producer Norman Granz was responsible for just such a series of concerts, dubbing each “The Greatest Jazz Concert in the World.” A recording of the performances, which took place at Carnegie Hall in New York and venues in California, was released under that title in 1975.

Columbus Jazz Orchestra artistic director Byron Stripling praises the promotional instincts of Granz. By assembling some of the most famous jazz musicians and making it an extravaganza, Stripling says Granz piqued the interest of the public. Los Angeles drummer Jeff Hamilton, a collaborator of several of the musicians who participated, remembers Granz as a producer devoted to the art form. “His main purpose was to get the musicians out of the dark jazz club in the basement and onto the concert stage,” Hamilton says.

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For its season opener, the CJO will acknowledge that legacy with its own spin on the once-in-a-lifetime concerts, which will take place Oct. 17–20 in the Southern Theatre. Inspired by Granz’s bravado, Stripling adopted the attention-grabbing title of The Greatest Jazz Concert in the World for the orchestra’s homage.

“Let’s just say there’s a temptation as an artist to run away from what in marketing they call ‘puffery,’” Stripling says. “Sometimes you have to go for it.”

The artistic director, however, is adamant that he is not presenting an imitation of the original concerts. “I know in my gut and in my heart and in my soul that Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald and Oscar Peterson would go, ‘Please don’t copy what we did,’” Stripling says. “The essence of jazz is that you use your own individual voice.”

Some songs from the original set will be performed—including “Satin Doll” and “Take the ‘A’ Train”—but the concert should feel fresh. Although Duke and company will not be on hand, the orchestra will partner with its own “greatest” guest artists: Hamilton, bassist John Clayton and pianist Benny Green.

Stripling heard the trio perform together last year in Vail, Colorado. “I’m sitting next to the producer of that concert, and I’m saying, ‘There is no other music being played right now in the world that’s better than what we’re hearing,’” Stripling says.

In addition to their technical skill, the three players have a strong musical rapport—just like the greats featured in the original concerts. “All you had to do was call a tune, and they knew what key it was in, and they knew several different arrangements of it,” Hamilton says.

For his part, Stripling does not shrink from promising big things—even great things—for the upcoming concerts. “Certainly people will go, ‘Well, that’s not the greatest jazz concert in the world,’” he says. “But we have to get you there, and we have to give you an amazing concert that knocks your socks off.”


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