Artist Blog

Courtney Wright: The Genius of the Great Thad Jones

The Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra was one of the most innovative and influential big bands of the modern era. Not only did this ensemble revolutionize the way big bands performed, but it also had a major influence on the way composers and arrangers wrote music for large jazz ensembles.


Thad joined the Count Basie Orchestra in 1954, as one of the band’s arrangers and trumpet players. In 1965, Basie commissioned Thad to write an album’s worth of big band arrangements, which he ultimately rejected because they didn’t fit with the already established style of his band. Thad wrote all original music for this commission, including some of his more famous charts like “Big Dipper” and “Low Down”, and “The Little Pixie”.


After Basie rejected all of his commissioned charts, Thad decided it was time to move forward and start his own band. In 1965, Thad teamed up with drummer, Mel Lewis to form the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra. Thad co-led his band with Mel for 13 years, in which time he wrote and recorded 94 different arrangements for the band. Of these 94 arrangements, exactly half were his original compositions! Thad was a charismatic and enthusiastically expressive conductor. The energy he had while in front of the band always inspired his musicians to make great music.


“It was different from any of the big bands that were around. You know, you take Duke and Count- they were not playing any music like this. It was like Thad had written music for a small group, only it was for a big band. It was like small group music. It was like what Dizzy did with Gil Fuller back in the ’40s. You see? That’s what made the music really different.” Jimmy Owens


Thad’s music is jam packed with complex, extended harmony and rich color tones, which he took even further by orchestrating the horn and the voicings in a way that created dissonance in the inner parts of the voicing. Thad’s use of complex harmony and his love for thick, gritty voicings, is what helped to define the sound of the modern big band.


Many of Thad’s arrangement’s feature the soprano sax as the lead voice of the sax section (e.g. Groove Merchant, Tiptoe, Cherry Juice, To You, among others).


Thad’s shout choruses are always swinging and full of energy. Baritone saxophonist, Gary Smulyan, is a huge fan of Thad’s shouts, expressing that how much of a joy his shouts were to play, even after playing them “dozens and dozens of times”. “When you play it,” says Smulyan, “you’re like, ‘Man that’s so swinging and so fun to play!” The shout choruses on tunes like “A-That’s Freedom”, and “61st And Rich’it” would get as much applause from the audience as a soloist would get after their solo!


Thad always made sure to write interesting, melodic lines for the non-lead parts. Each player’s part had smooth, melodic voice leading and was integral to the music. As a result, every part was fun to play, and the musicians in Thad’s band were more invested in performing his music at a high level.


Thad’s charts were never played the same way twice. Something was always different! The band was always looking at Thad and not the music. Thad gave his players freedom and how he fostered their creativity and their understanding of their importance as individuals and what each person brings to the band. Gave the players a place where they could express themselves creatively as soloists as well as inside of the arrangement. The music was challenging and exciting and gave the players a chance to express themselves musically and play music they were itching to play that they didn’t get to working on the scene.


Thad’s example and a bandleader and model and encouraging students to connect and play with each other by listening, watching, interacting, and getting to know each other as individuals. A strong sense of trust, safety, and camaraderie will develop within the ensemble, making it easier for students to be vulnerable and not be fearful of expressing themselves. Creativity will flourish!  


Thad normally orchestrates the trumpets and the trombones as a single functioning unit. This technique comes straight out of the “Basie” style, of which Thad was heavily influenced by. The trombones function as the foundation of the band harmonically and are responsible for playing the basic chord tones (root, 3rd, 7th, 5th/13th etc.). Thad always writes his trumpet voicings in closed position (within an octave of the melody). The trumpet section is usually structured so that the top 3 trumpets form an upper-structure triad, with the 4th trumpet supporting and the lead on the same pitch one octave lower. (example 1a and 1b)

Example 1: “Cherry Juice” Brass Backgrounds (mm.122-125) 2:48


Thad uses the saxophones to add extra color and dissonance and grit to his ensemble voicings. When the lead trumpet is written above the staff, Thad uses the saxophones to fill the gap between the trumpet and trombone voicings. When this happens, the saxes are usually in an open position voicing and are often placed so that they have whole and/or half step tensions against the top trombones and/or bottom trumpets.

When the lead trumpet is playing in the middle of the staff or lower, Thad will create a thicker voicing where the saxophones in a closed position voicing, or even in a cluster (the brass may be voiced this way as well). In addition to the 3rd and 7th, the saxophones normally cover the extended color tones as well. There are also times when Thad has the saxophones playing counter lines in unison or in octaves against voiced brass ensemble sections (the heads to Cherry Juice and Once Around, or the intro to Low Down etc. (example 1 and 2)

Example 2: First 2 Bars of Shout Chorus from “Cherry Juice” (elapsed time – 3:14)



Thad loved to crunch in as much color as possible into his ensemble voicings, which is why he typically voiced the saxophones in 5-part harmony. He is definitely much fonder of the sound the sax section produces when they are voiced in open position drop 2 voicings instead of closed position voicings. Voicing the saxophones in this manner makes it so that the basic chord tones are sitting at the bottom on the voicing with the color tones above. It also puts a spotlight on the unique timbre of baritone saxophone, who in a 5-part voicing ends up playing a chord tone or even a color tone like the 9th, 11th, or 13th. Thad took advantage of this, and very rarely had the baritone functioning as a bass instrument. When the lead voice gets low, Thad will normally use closed position voicings (4 or 5-part) to prevent the voicing from being in the bass register and sounding muddy. (example 2, 3 and 4)

Example 3: “A-That’s Freedom” Shout (first 4 bars) 5:27



The most definitive characteristic of Thad’s writing style is the way in which he colors the harmony on dominant chords. Thad’s approach to harmonizing melodic phrases in very linear in nature, and his harmonic template for voicings usually derives from a specific scale or mode. On dominant chords, Thad tends to use lydian-dominant, altered (aka. diminished-whole tone or super-locrian), and diminished most frequently, the latter being is favorite. Thad took advantage of the symmetrical nature of the diminished scale and used it to navigate harmonically through melodic passages that were busier or more complex in nature. He loved the sound of half step grinds in the inner voices, and extremely dense harmony where every single possible color tone and extension is squeezed into a single voicing. The result is an extremely harmonically dense and very powerful full ensemble sound that is quintessentially Thad. (Example 3 & 4)

Example 4: “Low Down” Intro (first 6 bars) 00:00



Below are short excerpts of shout choruses I composed with the intention of capturing Thad’s compositional style harmonically and rhythmically. In both excerpts, I utilized the sound of diminished on dominant chords, and voiced the band in Thad’s characteristic style. I was also looking to create a sense of melodic flow, dynamic variation within the lines, and rhythmic intensity as is characteristic of every single one of Thad’s shout choruses.


SKETCH #1 – Shout Chorus on “My Shining Hour”
(progression was reharmonized to fit Thad’s harmonic style)


SKETCH #2 – Ensemble Interlude from “Joey in the Pocket” (original tune)
(Inspired by shout from “A-That’s Freedom”)


About the Author:

Courtney Wright is a promising young composer and baritone saxophonist based in New York City, where she leads her own jazz orchestra and quintet that perform her original compositions and arrangements. Courtney is a native of Woodbridge, VA, and grew up outside the vibrant jazz scene of Washington, D.C.

Courtney’s music has been performed and recorded by the WDR Big Band, the Juilliard Jazz Orchestra, and the One and Two O’Clock Lab Bands at the University of North Texas. She a current member of the BMI Jazz Composer’s Workshop and the 2021 WIJO Mentors Program. Courtney was a recipient of the 2021 ISJAC/USF Prize for Emerging Black Composers as well as the 2021 Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composer Award.

Courtney studied jazz composition at the University of North Texas under the mentorship of Richard DeRosa and was recently accepted into the jazz performance master’s program at Manhattan School of Music.