Submitted on Wednesday, 4/18/2012, at 4:20 PM

April 18, 2012

July 6, 1961: Jazz aficionados may recognize that date as the day the Count Basie and Duke Ellington orchestras met in New York to make the historic recording of First Time! The Count Meets the Duke. It was a rare joint recording involving two renowned musical entities and, to this day, remains one of just a few collaborative band albums ever produced.

On April 20 at 8 p.m., the Amherst College Jazz Ensemble will team up with Middlebury College’s Sound Investment Jazz Ensemble to celebrate the 1961 event in a concert at Buckley Recital Hall. Selections will include works from First Time, as well as pieces from each group’s repertoire.

The Amherst and Middlebury jazz groups perform during
their October 2011 concert in Vermont

It won’t be the, er, first time the Amherst and Middlebury ensembles have played together. The groups united for a gig at the Vermont college in October of last year, and they will reprise that collaboration on April 20. The hope is to capture Ellington and Basie’s spirit of making incredible, swinging music, said Bruce Diehl, director of the Jazz@Amherst program and senior lecturer in the music department.

“[Sound Investment Jazz Ensemble leader and Middlebury’s director of jazz activities] Dick Forman and I met at an event in 2007 and have shared a goal of uniting our students since that time,” he explained, adding that the October visit to Middlebury was very successful. “Our students had a jam session after a rehearsal and enjoyed performing in that college’s version of Buckley immensely.”

Diehl developed Jazz@Amherst to make jazz music a vital part of the Amherst campus, but it has become a strong presence in the Pioneer Valley and beyond. Like its Middlebury counterpart, the Amherst initiative features a vibrant big band and combo program, and augmenting those opportunities are chances to study privately and to take academic courses in theory/improvisation, history, electronic instruments and arranging/composition.

And this year, at least, Jazz@Amherst also offered the chance to play with another college jazz program. “Our students were incredibly energized by their time together, and we all learned a lot,” said Forman. “People still come up to me in the supermarket and rave about the performance.”

The Amherst concert will be slightly different from the Middlebury one in that it will feature more pieces wherein the groups play together, according to Forman. “We’ve expanded the program to include more collaborative work,” he said. As a result, “students at both schools are really looking forward to the chance to continue this exploration and to create an amazing jazz experience for Amherst.”

Like Diehl and Forman, Basie and Ellington, two of the most important figures in jazz, had great respect for each other, but had not found a way to “create a jazz experience” together before recording First Time. At Ellington’s invitation, Basie brought his band into Ellington’s home territory and recorded on Columbia, Ellington’s label.

When Basie was asked “Has the Duke always been your idol?,” the jazz great replied simply, “Why, of course.” Ellington was matter-of-fact in his praise as well: he said he considered Basie “the essence of the essence of the swing.” In setting up the session, Ellington explained, “I tried to establish a status of the hostness to the mostness.” Afterward, Basie called it “the most wonderful date I ever worked on.”

Diehl and Forman had a similar assessment of their work together. “It was so successful that we knew it was important to do this again,” said Forman. “I wanted to build on the experience immediately; I felt that waiting for another year or two would let the magic wear off.” 

And though a specific date and location have yet to be determined, Diehl said another dual concert is in the works. “Dick and I will likely continue to seek opportunities to play—maybe sometime meeting halfway and renting out a space.”