Coming of age in the 1970s, the American jazz great Vince Mendoza considered the Sound of Philadelphia — the lush soul style pioneered at Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff’s Philadelphia International Records — an integral part of the soundtrack of his life.
Invited to write a new piece for the Temple University Studio Orchestra, the Grammy-winning composer/arranger immediately flashed back to the Philly Sound.
As he thought about the great music that has come out of the city, he realized the City of Brotherly Love has played host to countless musical innovations over the decades. That revelation led to “Constant Renaissance,” a piece that pays homage to three great jazz artists who once called Philly home: Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday, and John Coltrane.
“Thinking about the jazz musicians that passed through Philadelphia before the phrase ‘The Sound of Philadelphia’ was crafted in the ’70s got me focused on that other sound of Philadelphia,” Mendoza says. “Philly was at the forefront of the development of contemporary jazz sounds, not to mention integrated jazz clubs and the cultural celebration of that music.
“The city is constantly reinventing new forms of expression,” he says, "and I think that is extraordinary.”
All three artists honored in Mendoza’s piece made profound musical discoveries in Philadelphia that proved transformative to their sounds — and therefore to the evolution of jazz itself.
Billie Holiday was born in the city and returned often throughout her life. The piece’s second movement aims to capture the haunting beauty of her melancholy voice.
Dizzy Gillespie was a brash 18-year-old when he arrived and took up residence at the Downbeat Club on Ludlow, where he formed the ideas that became bebop.
After leaving the Miles Davis Quintet in 1956, John Coltrane returned to his Strawberry Mansion home, where he kicked heroin and underwent the spiritual awakening that resulted in his most innovative music.
The Temple Studio Orchestra, which will premiere the piece on Sunday as part of a program of student performances at the Kimmel Center, combines the top orchestra and jazz band students from the university’s Boyer College of Music and Dance.
Breaking down the walls between jazz band and symphony orchestra has been a key mission for Terell Stafford, a classically trained jazz trumpeter who leads both disciplines at Temple as director of jazz studies and chair of instrumental studies.
“It’s been a dream of mine to merge these groups together,” Stafford says. “It’s incredible to see the students from the two disciplines come together so that everybody just plays music. That’s what it’s all about.”
Mendoza, who will conduct the Kimmel premiere, is an ideal choice to compose for such a blended orchestra.
From 2005 to 2013, he was chief conductor of the Metropole Orkest, a hybrid ensemble in the Netherlands combining jazz big band and symphony orchestra. He’s now based in Los Angeles. His arrangements and compositions have earned him six Grammy Awards and dozens of nominations.
In addition to conducting the Studio Orchestra, Mendoza is working with the students throughout the week leading up to the world-premiere performance.
“It’s an invaluable experience for our students to rehearse, perform, and record new works,” says Robert T. Stroker, dean and vice provost for the arts at Temple. “Having a composer of Vince Mendoza’s reputation and stature on campus for a week gives our music students a unique opportunity to learn from one of the best composers in the field.”
“Constant Renaissance” will also shine the spotlight on two key members of Temple’s faculty: Stafford and saxophonist Dick Oatts, both of whom will be featured in the performance.
Mendoza wrote the piece with those two stellar instrumentalists in mind, considering their artistry and educational efforts central to continuing the city’s legacy of artistic reinvention.
“Terell and Dick are prime examples of what’s happening there in Philly,” Mendoza says. “They both have extraordinary individual voices and incredible technique, and they’ve worked with so many different musicians. Jazz is a very social music, and we feed off of each other’s energy and creativity. They’re the perfect people to play on a piece like this.”
Stafford is looking forward to digging into Mendoza’s music, which he says is as daunting and exciting for him as it undoubtedly is for his students.
“The group is challenged in every movement,” he says. “He’s the kind of writer that makes us pay close attention to detail. There’s so much texture and richness to his writing, and he’s a master of orchestration. Working with an artist of Vince’s caliber brings the program together and really makes it grow.”
Vince Mendoza’s new piece will be played by the Temple University Studio Orchestra as part of a Temple student program 8 p.m. Sunday, March 24, at the Kimmel Center, 300 S. Broad St.
The Temple University Symphony Orchestra and Choirs will perform other works, including Jennifer Higdon’s "The Singing Rooms” and Leonard Bernstein’s overture to West Side Story.