“An aardvark is an eclectic animal in the animal kingdom, so we thought that would be a great name.” That’s how Aardvark Jazz Orchestra’s founder-director Mark Harvey explains the group’s quirky, attention-grabbing moniker. And it makes perfect sense – in an entirely unpretentious and endearingly clever, creative, cute, catchy way – as does the ensemble’s slogan, “Adventurous Jazz Since 1973.”
One of the longest-running large jazz ensembles on the planet, AJO is critically acclaimed for the virtually boundless range of its performances in which it plays Harvey’s original compositions and jazz classics. And while the group’s size has varied over its nearly 50-year existence from between 10 and 26 members, it’s always featured a regularly revised selection of rarities from the genre’s greats including Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, John Coltrane and pianist arranger-composer Mary Lou Williams, who arranged for Ellington and Benny Goodman while mentoring and teaching Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell and Dizzy Gillespie.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Harvey’s own background is an eclectic one. Raised in Binghamton, New York, he grew up surrounded by traditional hymns and gospel music and both his parents sang in their church choir. He began playing trumpet in early elementary school then fell in love with jazz at age 13 after buying a Dizzy Gillespie record from the late 1940s, the first album he ever owned. “It was the very wild band that Dizzy had…and it sent me off in my direction,” he says. He recalls his first live-jazz experience as being a Woody Herman show around 1963, when Harvey was in his mid-teens, and that Herman was onstage with tenor-saxophonist Sal Nistico and two Massachusetts natives, trumpeter Bill Chase from Quincy and trombonist Phil Wilson from Belmont, the latter of whom taught at Berklee College of Music and the New England Conservatory. Harvey played trumpet in his high school big band and often at his neighborhood’s cultural center.
After graduating from Syracuse University in the late-1960s, Harvey relocated to Boston as a graduate student at Boston University’s School of Theology, where he earned a PhD and wrote his dissertation on the connections between jazz and religion while immersing himself in the free jazz genre. After renowned classical composer and MIT faculty member John Harbison invited him to guest lecture at the school, Harvey became a full-time jazz studies professor there and taught at MIT for 40 years, retiring as Lecturer in Music Emeritus.
AJO’s foundations were laid in 1969, when Harvey fronted the eight-piece Mark Harvey Group (MHG), which played hard-bop and jazz-rock and was the resident jazz ensemble at Boston’s Old West Church, where Harvey was an intern-minister. In 1970, the group performed as “jazz ambassador” for Boston’s Summerthing outreach program, playing shows in underprivileged areas of the city while also performing across New England and along the eastern seaboard. By the end of that year, the ensemble had transformed into an experimental-jazz powerhouse heavily influenced by Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane and the Art Ensemble of Chicago, playing without sheet music and calling their collective improvisation “aural theatre.”
In 1973, wanting to significantly expand both MHG’s range and repertoire, Harvey assembled the first AJO lineup – 13 brass players and a rhythm section – for a Christmas concert featuring classical and gospel music plus some of his own arrangements. Until 1979, the group performed only at Christmas, but in 1980 Harvey began putting together more far-reaching programs that encompassed a broader spectrum – from Duke Ellington’s swing to Miles Davis’ cool and from New Orleans-style improvisation to John Coltrane’s hard bop – including some of his own compositions, which he says are largely influenced by Roland Kirk, Sun Ra, Eric Dolphy and Charles Ives.
“We’re not the typical big band in that very often we’re very, very quiet with just one or two instruments,” says Harvey. “And then a few minutes later we might have everybody roaring at full tilt. I like variety, and we all thrive on risk and adventure.”
Since 1980, performing in concert halls and clubs as well as at festivals, colleges and universities – and collaborating with dance, film, poetry, choral, chamber and symphonic ensembles – AJO has premiered more than 200 of Harvey’s works and recorded 14 albums, the first being Aardvark Steps Out (1991), all on Leo Records, a British experimental-jazz label. The group has also recorded the seasonal album An Aardvark Christmas (1997) and Duke Ellington/Sacred Music (2002), featuring music from Ellington’s “sacred concerts” in 1965, 1968 and 1973, and in 2020 The New York City Jazz Record, a monthly covering the national jazz scene, included the group’s latest album, Faces of Souls (2020), in their “Best of 2020” in the Large Ensemble Releases category.
When asked about AJO’s revolving roster of musicians, Harvey says “I consider them all virtuosos, all wonderful soloists as well as section players.” A doubly impressive assortment of esteemed artists has appeared with the group including saxophonist Ricky Ford, singer-songwriter pianist-bandleader Geri Allen, singer songwriter Sheila Jordan, pianist-saxophonist Jaki Byard, clarinetist-saxophonist Jimmy Giuffre, singer-composer Dominique Eade, pianist-composer Lewis Porter and pianist Matt Savage, a “prolific savant” from Sudbury, Massachusetts, who graduated from the New England Conservatory at age 12, earned a bachelor’s degree in Piano Performance from Berklee at age 18 and completed a master’s program in Jazz Performance at the Manhattan School of Music at age 20.
In addition to leading AJO, Harvey has performed alongside a cornucopia of jazz masters including legendary composer-pianist-bandleader Gil Evans, pioneering bebop trumpeter Howard McGhee, free-jazz multi-instrumentalist Sam Rivers, trumpeter-singer-composer Kenny Dorham and Brazilian trumpeter Claudio Roditi. In 2015, he was named Boston Jazz Hero by the Jazz Journalists Association and in 2019 JazzBoston presented him with the Roy Haynes Award “for exceptional contributions to jazz and Boston’s jazz community,” making Harvey the fourth person to receive the honor, others being Haynes himself, legendary promoter Fred Taylor and “The Dean of New England Jazz Radio” Eric Jackson. Harvey is co-chair of Jazz Week, an annual event featuring concerts by local artists and bands at multiple venues across Boston.
Asked in a 2020 interview on the Neon Jazz radio program what he likes about being a musician, Harvey spoke about music’s unique expressive range. “I love the ability to come up with very creative ideas and express them through a musical organization, whether it’s a quartet or my large jazz orchestra,” he said, “and then see how that music reaches out to people, gives them various kinds of uplifting or healing or joy, and in many cases expresses the whole range of human emotions.”
(by D.S. Monahan – August 2022)