Composer Jack Elliott was known for his themes for the TV series “Charlie’s Angels,” “Barney Miller” (both written with his longtime partner, Allyn Ferguson) and “Night Court.”
But starting in 1979, Elliott, who died in 2001, had another vocation as music director for an organization that sought to commission and play new music that combined jazz and classical techniques — a continuation and expansion of the “Third Stream” concept and that of Stan Kenton’s famed Neophonic Orchestra of the 1960s.
Over the next two decades Elliott’s Foundation for New American Music and his 84-piece L.A. ensemble — variously called the Orchestra, the New American Orchestra and the American Jazz Philharmonic — commissioned or premiered more than 100 new works by such film composers as Henry Mancini, Lalo Schifrin, Dave Grusin and Patrick Williams, and such jazz greats as Ray Brown, John Lewis and Bill Holman.
Elliott’s family has donated all of these scores to his alma mater, The Hartt School at Connecticut’s University of Hartford. The school will commemorate the donation with a “Concert of American Music” on April 20 at the university’s Millard Auditorium. Dionne Warwick, a Hartt alumna who performed with Elliott’s orchestra at a 1983 tribute to Martin Luther King Jr., will host; bassist John Clayton will be a soloist.
The concert will include several pieces commissioned by the Foundation, including Brown’s “Afterthoughts,” Clayton’s “Open Me First,” Claus Ogerman’s “Symphonic Dances,” John Williams’ suite from the film “1941,” and Elliott’s own arrangement of works by early American composer L.M. Gottschalk.
According to Elliott’s son Alan, president of the Composers Guild of America, this music constitutes “the largest collection of commissioned works for orchestra in American history.”
Many of these pieces — such as Mancini’s “Piece for Jazz Bassoon and Orchestra,” Schifrin’s sophisticated “Invocations,” and Patrick Williams’ “Spring Wings,” a double concerto for saxophone, piano and orchestra — are notable compositions that have received only a handful of concert performances.
“The real world of making music is much more intregrated, and more globally oriented, than ever before,” says Hartt School Dean Aaron Flagg (who once played trumpet for Elliott at the 1984 Summer Olympics in L.A.). “Students need to be exposed not only to the masters of classical tradition, but to Broadway, Tin Pan Alley and these (Foundation-commissioned) composers and arrangers who were such great craftsmen.
“We’re not just doing a concert,” adds Flagg, “but a multi-year project to study, digitize and perform the music.” Flagg says he is halfway toward a $50,000 goal of donations to cover the costs of archiving, cataloguing and preparing the music for study and performance.
Among the gems of the collection are concert suites from composer Jerry Fielding’s Oscar-nominated scores for “The Wild Bunch” and “The Outlaw Josey Wales,” which were performed only once, by Elliott’s orchestra after Fielding’s death in 1980. All of Elliott’s music for the Grammys — for which he served as musical director for many years — was also donated to Hartt.