As we embark on the new
The Metropolitan Jazz Octet (MJO) is the reawakening of a group that was originally started in the 1950’s by saxophonist/arranger Tom Hilliard (1930-2006).
From the 50's through the 80's, MJO performed in and around Chicago; the members were comprised of the best musicians and arrangers in the city. In 1959, they recorded an album on the Argo label called “The Legend of Bix”, a tribute to 1920's cornetist and composer Bix Beiderbecke.
For Tom, music was as much a career as a calling; the 1959 recording embodied both. He had a deep appreciation for Bix Beiderbecke and his arrangements of Bix’s piano pieces are the centerpiece of this beautiful album.
In the early 80’s, Tom Hilliard was one of the hippest teachers on campus at Depaul University; he was soft spoken, insightful and knowledgeable in fields ranging from jazz music and composition to poetry and visual art.
As the Jazz Band Director at Depaul, Tom talked about art and jazz in ways that inspired us to think; his ideas and musings encouraged my creativity for both my composition studies and late night jazz gigs in Lincoln Park.
Years later, I was very fortunate to reconnect with Tom; we got together several times a month to talk, share a meal and listen to music. He was very encouraging about my pursuits and often expressed how proud he was of his former students. These Depaul University alumni include Paul Mertens, Mike Freeman, Brian Shannon, Orbert Davis, Bob Sutter, Tom Logan, John Kornegay, Rich Daniels and many others. As Tom’s health was declining he asked if I would take possession of the Metropolitan Jazz Octet library. It represented a significant and important part of his life and passion as a composer, arranger and musician. The collection of these works (150+) were compiled over 30 years; it was a time capsule of his life and of everyone that worked within the ensemble. I was deeply honored to be the curator of these precious documents.
It wasn’t until 2014 that I began a three year archaeological journey into Tom’s legacy. I organized a monthly reading of the MJO library. The musicians involved likened it to jazz archaeology; each reading session revealed interesting layers of the former group’s creativity, thinking and performance practice. The 1959 Argo recording was an important milestone for Tom and MJO. However, the complete picture of the group were buried in the numerous unrecorded charts. The process of discovery was exciting and varied; and what we found was truly beautiful and inspirational.
The unearthing of these marvelous documents revealed how the 1950’s composer, arranger and musician thought and worked. Since each chart was hand written (unlike today) they used time saving shorthand notation, which was interesting and sometime very entertaining to decipher. Since MJO’s reawakening, the personnel have slowly evolved over the years, with the one constant being their level of musicianship and love for music. The group’s smaller octet format, with 3 saxophones, 2 brass and a rhythm section, has many musical advantages; it can sound like a big band, jazz combo or chamber group. As the Metropolitan Jazz Octet moves forward, we are very happy to be following Tom’s path; his forward thinking creativity and generosity are driving forces that we draw from. In 2018, we produced the album “The Road To Your Place”. We are very proud to be working with Chicago’s jazz treasure Dee Alexander and Delmark Records with the release of “Dee Sings Billie”; it is a cross section of Billie Holiday’s career, through a slightly more modern lens. Each song was hand picked by Dee and arranged by MJO members.