“We’re the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra; we live in New Orleans,” declares drummer Adonis Rose, who in 2016 took over the position of artistic director of the ensemble affectionately called NOJO. “The thing that sets us apart from any other orchestra or band are the individuals who are in the orchestra. We make up a huge part of the music scene in New Orleans. We have some of the greatest musicians in the world playing in our orchestra and we have some of the best professors and just people who contribute to the culture. We are a New Orleans-based band solely dedicated to promoting New Orleans music and culture. There’s no other jazz orchestra that I know of in the world that is committed to doing that.”
Rose is obviously passionate about the mission of the 18-piece NOJO and its uniqueness that can be attributed to its hometown’s jazz history and culture. “What makes New Orleans different from Dallas are the people,” he offers in comparison. “We do the music of other people all the time but we have a specific thing that we put on the music that nobody else does.”
It’s pretty much a given that no other orchestra, big band or combo could pull off giving composer Allen Toussaint’s “Southern Nights” a second line beat as NOJO did on its latest, and first album since being reactivated, Songs—The Music of Allen Toussaint. Selecting New Orleans material like Toussaint’s beautiful “With You in Mind,” which cleverly teams vocalists Dee Dee Bridgewater and Phillip Manuel in a duet, also makes NOJO distinct from other jazz orchestras around the country.
“When it comes down to it, NOJO adds dimension to the musical culture and the City of New Orleans and brings that dimension wherever they happen to play when they go out of town,” says Ellis Marsalis, who is on the non- profit New Orleans Jazz Orchestra’s artistic development committee. Marsalis mentions that several of NOJO’s members, including trumpeter Ashlin Parker and drummer Gerald Watkins, play in his own quintet.
“I think it’s about the character of the band that makes it unique—for example, using a tuba versus a banjo,” says Victor Atkins, who has played a major role with the ensemble as a pianist and an arranger since its beginning. “Not that we can’t play in the traditional big band style à la Count Basie—though we were probably modeled more after Ellington—but it’s the way the guys play: the rhythms, creating the polyphony. It’s not something most jazz musicians are used to doing. I don’t know if we would win a battle of the bands between some really powerful bands but that’s not us. Part of what we do is loose and soulful. We like to mix the uptown with the downtown; we like the yin with our yang. We can go in a lot of different directions.”
That so many of the musicians in the Jazz Orchestra are recognizable from their gigs around town gives its local performances a community feel. Rousing applause often greets the guys as they walk out onto the stage, looking sharp in their suits.
The New Orleans Jazz Market, which is owned by NOJO, also provides a welcoming flavor. Designed for the orchestra, the 350-seat auditorium’s natural wood walls provide a venue with excellent acoustic quality and also bring a warm glow to the room. The Jazz Market combines the best of a concert and club experience with the Buddy Bolden Bar, a sitting area near a piano located in the conversation-friendly entrance lobby where smaller combos often perform. The main hall also offers great flexibility for a sit-down concert or, when the chairs are removed, an open dance floor.
Coming from a musical family, Adonis Rose, 44, was introduced to jazz at a young age. He remembers that when he was three-years-old he had a drum set that was set up on the porch in the St. Bernard Projects and has a photo to prove it. His father, drummer Vernon Severin, who presently plays snare with the Treme Brass Band, was his first teacher and was naturally very influential in his development. Rose’s grandfather, Wilfred “Crip” Severin also played drums and his uncle is the noted, multi-dimensional bassist Chris Severin.
Rose seems primed for his new position, as he has been drumming for the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra since its inception. He recalls its first gig at Tipitina’s when the late Clyde Kerr Jr. conducted the ensemble that performed primarily Duke Ellington material and NOJO’s founder and former artistic director Irvin Mayfield played trumpet in the brass section.
While in Texas, his Hurricane Katrina evacuation destination, he established the non-profit Fort Worth Jazz Orchestra that was conceptually based on his experience with NOJO. Through his school years, Rose played in the concert band at Phillips Elementary and led the drum section in the marching band at P. A. Capdau Middle School. He attended Warren Easton High School and simultaneously was a student of the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts (NOCCA). Thus, as he puts it, “My marching band days were over; but I still love the marching band,” he says with memories of times past in his voice.
“NOCCA was important because it was the institution that took you from being a church musician or a street musician to a well-studied jazz musician,” Rose says. “It was the next step for musicians who wanted to become professionals in the jazz or classical world. That was my aim and I think the mission of the school was to develop well-trained artists who could go out and become successful in the workplace.”
One of the early transitions made by Rose and urged on by fellow NOCCA student trumpeter Nicholas Payton was to change his drumsticks. Payton, who even in his teenage years was a talented multi-instrumentalist and offered
Adonis advice on drums, once remembered that the sticks Rose brought with him to NOCCA were so large that they resembled fat turkey legs. Rose, who explains that big sticks are used in marching bands, would go on to tour and record with the Nicholas Payton Quintet. Rose is heard on Payton’s 1995 Gumbo Nouveau, 1999’s Nick@Night, 2003’s Sonic Trance and others. In turn, Payton played on several of Rose’s albums.
“The most challenging thing about playing with Nicholas is that he’s a musical genius,” Rose says. “He can hear everything. He doesn’t have to transcribe solos to be able play them. All he has to do is hear something—he has total recall. You can’t hide anything from him.”
While Rose was at NOCCA, the school didn’t employ a drum instructor so it paid the great drummer David Lee to provide lessons for him. “One of his lessons was to listen to the bebop language of the drum set,” Rose remembers. “A lot of times, young musicians’ instincts are just to show how much we know and how fast we can play. I was like that too because I had a lot of technique.”
Rose carried that lesson forward during his five years of teaching at NOCCA. His time there included instructing drum students like the now respected and successful Joe Dyson, who regularly performs and records with saxophonist Donald Harrison Jr., organist Dr. Lonnie Smith and others, and Joey Peebles who lays down the beat with Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews & Orleans Avenue.
“I would tell my students to listen to themselves behind the drum set in the third person. Listen away from the bandstand and see how your world fits in with the other members of the band.”
Beyond being influenced by his family and teachers, Rose names drummer Herlin Riley as “the guy who took my playing to the next level. When he was on the road, I would bug him—just constantly call his phone,” Rose remembers with a laugh. “I would be at his house waiting for him when he came home. I helped take his suitcases out of the car. He was always kind and gracious. He never turned me down. I’d even spend nights there.” Riley had Rose break down the drum set and just play the ride cymbal by itself to develop endurance. He also gave him instruction on playing with brushes and the art of tuning the drums and hitting them in certain areas in order to create the desired tones.
During his time at NOCCA, many of the institution’s prestigious and hugely talented alumni such as trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, saxophonists Branford Marsalis and Donald Harrison Jr. and trumpeter Terence Blanchard would return to check in and help out the students. “They even recruited,” says Rose who, upon graduation in 1992, went on tour with Blanchard. Soon thereafter he headed to Boston’s Berklee School of Music. “Some band leaders like to have you come into a band and mold you into the musician they want you to be. Terence doesn’t operate that way; Nicholas doesn’t operate that way. A lot of the best bandleaders played underneath great bandleaders so they understand how to get the best out of their musicians. All of those guys, they’re great artists and great musicians and they give you a chance to bring your personality into the music. The more you bring to the table as an individual, the more they appreciate it.”
Rose was still living in Dallas/Fort Worth and commuting to New Orleans to drum with NOJO when he got a call from the orchestra’s former artistic director, trumpeter Irvin Mayfield. “He told me that he was resigning at the very moment that he called, and he asked me if I would be interested in replacing him as director of the Jazz Orchestra. He also said that he would recommend me to the board of directors to be his replacement. I started out as a musical director and was vetted by the board and then, after about a year, I was moved to become the artistic director.”
Rose called a meeting and told the musicians that they were trying to rebuild the band and asked them if they still wanted to be in it. “We hadn’t played a concert for close to a year and everything had fallen apart,” he recalls. “The first thing I had to do was get the band together. I called a few rehearsals at the Jazz Market just so we could play some music just to get it going again.”
“After a year, Adonis started to have sessions at the Market, like two days, one week out of each a month,” Atkins remembers. “He’s not one to ask people to do favors but we were saying, ‘Look, we’ll play. Let us play. Get us some gigs.’ It was like a reunion to be all together again. It was really special and powerful. As soon as we started to play it was like okay, we still have this. None of this would be possible without camaraderie, especially now—we started this back through camaraderie. The band was like, ‘Man, dude, we have got to play or we’re going to lose this thing that we have.”
“Most people in the band are in it for the music not the financial reward,” says saxophonist Ed Petersen who has been blowing with NOJO since 2003 and does a lot of the arrangements for the orchestra. It was Petersen who mastered the Toussaint recording in his home studio.
On taking on the position of NOJO’s artistic director, Rose conceived a plan to get the orchestra back on the scene and regain its audience. “What I wanted to do is reintroduce the band and introduce myself as the new artistic director and to bring some attention to what we were doing and show that we were credible,” Rose explains. “The first phase was to bring in a lot of guest artists to get people to look at the orchestra again and see that we were doing quality work and that other people were willing to come in and work with us.” Those early guests included drummer Sheila E, vocalists Ledisi and Dee Dee Bridgewater, who is on NOJO’s artistic development committee and for whom the Jazz Market stage is named.
Phase two of Adonis’ plan was to feature local artists to perform with the orchestra and also to do special shows in tribute to some of music’s giants like vocalists Nina Simone, Whitney Houston and Aretha Franklin. The latest performance in this on-going “phase” featured artists from two of New Orleans prominent musical families, drummer and vocalist Gerald French and trumpeter and vocalist James Andrews.
“They’ve been well-attended—people come out no matter what we do,” says Rose of the shows. “We’re diverse though I always make sure we’re true to New Orleans tradition. You’ll always know it’s the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra.”
Rose gets points for his onstage presence leading the orchestra, introducing the members and guests and chatting with audiences. Usually viewed as a quiet man, he can be quite hilarious when he stands at the center stage microphone—particularly when jiving with musicians. “I was a bandleader for a long time, ten years, when I was away from New Orleans,” Rose explains. “I was already a leader, just not here so people have never seen me in that role.”
Rose’s ambitions include expanding the Jazz Orchestra’s profile as well as his individual career as a drummer heading his own bands. “After coming back home and taking over the NOJO job, it was something that inspired me to start doing more projects,” he says. “For one, NOJO needed to record more because we only recorded four albums over 17 years—that’s not many. Recordings keep you relevant in the market place. People can see what your new ideas are and they can see what you’re doing. You have to do them all the time.”
In June, the drummer recorded the Adonis Rose Allstar Sextet Live at the Blue Llama Jazz Club in Ann Arbor, Michigan that will drop in February 2020. The band included some names familiar to New Orleans audiences such as Crescent City natives vocalist Sasha Masakowski and bassist Jasen Weaver, plus one-time resident trumpeter Maurice Brown. Rounding out the impressive group were saxophonist Tia Fuller, who blew behind Beyoncé’s all- female band, and pianist and recording artist Miki Hayama. “When you have a gig, it’s easy to put a band together,” Rose says with a chuckle. This session represented the group’s first appearance; it has yet to perform in New Orleans.
“I’m a supportive player, I play in the rhythm section,” says Rose of the lengthy span since his last album as leader, 2007’s On the Verge that included trumpeter Payton. “For us it’s easy to just get comfortable touring and playing on other people’s records all the time.”
Rose has given up the drum chair with NOJO as his position of artistic director includes so many other facets of the music including conducting. He sounds satisfied with that reality saying, “I really feel like I’m getting a chance to be a musician in a different kind of way. It’s just a different role.”
He is getting his drum fix in playing gigs with NOJO’s smaller combos and does often take on the dual role of drummer and conductor when the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra hits the road. For those dates, minus guest artists to cue, and sets composed of a dozen or so familiar tunes played each night, it’s easier to do both jobs.
In early November, the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra went into the studio to record its next release. It will feature jazz vocalist Cyrille Aimée, a native of France who moved to New Orleans via New York City. “I just wanted to get in the studio,” says Rose, who describes the album’s repertoire as coming out of the “American songbook with a New Orleans flavor.”
On Friday, December 6, NOJO will be at home at the New Orleans Jazz Market performing Duke Ellington’s “Nutcracker Suite,” an interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker Suite.”
“All of Duke’s renditions of the song were recognizable,” Rose says. “He didn’t write a piece of music where you’d have to try figure out if it was the same song from ‘The Nutcracker.’ It’s clear; the melodies are all pronounced.”
“We’ve played at Jazz at Lincoln Center many times though it’s been five years since we’ve been there,” says Rose who, early on, toured with the Center’s orchestra led by trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and played with Marsalis’ small groups.
“Wynton has invested in making sure that we’re successful by giving us a lot of opportunities through Jazz at Lincoln Center,” Rose says with appreciation. “We’re going to perform at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s club in Shanghai and at the St. Lucia Jazz Festival that Jazz at Lincoln Center collaborates in producing. They’re giving us a lot of opportunities to rebuild and get back out there.”
“I think it’s important, period,” says Ellis Marsalis of the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, “in that it is available to perform for the people in the community and periodically go out of town. It’s good that NOJO has a home, the Jazz Market, which makes a difference in terms of being able to perform in your own space.”
“Adonis wants us to know that what we do is significant and that the music is important,” says Atkins adding, “Wynton has made America realize the importance of jazz music. “Adonis has done an amazing job and I’ve been really impressed watching him take this on—it’s an awful lot. Writing for the orchestra has been a big part for me— to have a band to write for is a beautiful thing. I’m optimistic. If NOJO were to fail, it would be bad for jazz; it would be bad for New Orleans. I want it to survive us all.”
To paraphrase the lyrics sung by the late great Fats Domino, Adonis Rose is “ready, willin’ and able” to rebuild and reignite the Grammy-winning New Orleans Jazz Orchestra and once again have these fine musical ambassadors bring the sound and the spirit of this city to the world.