Ellington And Ives Meet The Aardvarks

This article is more than 8 years old.

BOSTON — Most bands are lucky if they stay together and make creative music for four years. The Aardvark Jazz Orchestra, a Boston based jazz ensemble, has that beat by a factor of 10.

Forty years ago, trumpeter Mark Harvey named his budding big band after a miscellaneous and eclectic category in the classified ad section of the now defunct weekly Real Paper. Today the Aardvark Jazz Orchestra has earned international recognition, collaborated with jazz masters like Sheila Jordan and Geri Allen, and is as eclectic as ever. As Option Magazine describes it, the music is “not just the Evans/Russell jazz axis, but [has] blues, rock and African pop elements as well.”

They’re celebrating their 40 years of success with a concert March 8 at the Museum of Fine Arts, which will feature the premiere of Harvey’s 10-years-in-the-making composition, “Boston JazzScape,” an extended suite that tells the tale of Boston. I talked to Harvey about Aardvark and his recent composition.

Claire Dickson: Where did you get the idea for “Boston JazzScape?”

I've been writing pieces based on Boston themes for some time, and it occurred to me, why not put them together to form a suite. I'm inspired in a general way by my two musical heroes, Duke Ellington and Charles Ives, who both did these kind of portraits on people, places, and events that were important to them.

How do you represent historical events in music?

Tricky question — sometimes, I try to get into the emotional center of what I feel/intuit about the subject. Other times, I try to take an imaginative perspective, so recasting Charlie on the MTA as a Film Noir sort of scenario--old Charlie still roamin' around in the tunnels, causing havoc, etc. Less often, I may go for a literal representation, like my piece about the Big Dig. Had shovels as part of the perc section and read quotes from the "Starts and Stops" Globe column on road closings, detours, etc. that appeared daily during construction.

When you started Aardvark, did you have any idea that it would last 40 plus years?

Not at all. Just a matter of going concert to concert, year to year and trying to keep the music fresh and enjoyable for the band and our listeners.

What are some of the ways you think Aardvark has changed over the years?

We have developed a very strong commitment to each other as collegial players, to the music which is still wide-ranging after all these years, and in addition I feel that my writing and conducting and encouraging the band to take risks has all matured. I often describe us as a big band with the soul of a quartet, able to make intuitive moves and keep an improvisational, spontaneous spirit within complex musical structures.

[Here's an example.]

Do you have any particular fun memories/stories from Aardvark?

Many, many — hard to think of one right at the moment. Maybe our tour of about a little over a year ago to New York City and Connecticut — very special concerts and everyone played with an extra special flair and we all enjoyed being on the road together, to hang out more than usually happens in town.

What do you see in Aardvark’s future?

Hopefully, to keep on making high quality music that is adventuresome and enjoyable for all concerned.

Don’t miss Aardvark’s 40th anniversary concert. Like the historical events weaved into Harvey’s latest composition, the Aardvark Jazz Orchestra is looking to be one for the books.

Claire Dickson is a 16-year-old jazz vocalist. She has received five Downbeat Student Music awards and is a 2013 National YoungArts Foundation honorable mention winner. Her website is

Click here for the Radio Boston report on the Aardvark Jazz Orchestra.

This program aired on March 6, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.