Orchestra dresses in jazz

As Italy is being liberated from Nazi-Fascist occupation, what will become the soundtrack of newfound hope is broadcast from the radio studios of Radio Florence: light music with a syncopated rhythm, performed by an orchestral ensemble of excellent instrumentalists.

These at the end of World War II moved to Rome to join the Ritmi Moderni Orchestra, also called “L’Orchestra dei Fiorentini,” of public radio (RAI), conducted by Maestro Francesco Ferrari.

In the late 1950s, Rai commissioned Maestro Armando Trovajoli to form another Big Band, L’Orchestra di Musica Leggera. The instrumentalists who are called upon are mostly former members of the Jazz Orchestra, with which Trovajoli himself, also serving as pianist, used to perform regularly at the Capannina di Forti Dei Marmi, a historic venue that regularly hosted important European and American jazz figures, such as saxophonist Lars Gullin and American trumpeter Chet Baker.

Music made by the Rai orchestras, which have since become two in Rome and one in Milan, “entered” the homes of Italians through radio and, later, television with Saturday night variety shows. Public radio and television programming actually conveys that change in habits, styles, expectations and tastes characteristic of the “Italian economic miracle” of the 1950s and 1960s.

The instrumental ensemble of the orchestras deputed to perform theme songs, interventions and sound commentaries to dramas or ballets within radio and television broadcasts had a classical big band conformation with four trumpets, three trombones and bass trombone, five saxophones and a clarinet, vibraphone, guitar, piano, double bass and drums, with the addition of strings and harp in the ensemble used in television. Conducting the orchestras were Maestros who have remained in the history of Italian music: Piero Piccioni, Bruno Canfora, Gianni Ferrio, Gorni Kramer, Lelio Luttazzi and Giulio Libano.

The orchestral ensemble included the best Italian jazzmen of the period, who entered by competition at Rai: Oscar Valdambrini, Gianni Basso, Dino and Franco Piana, Gianluigi Trovesi, Gianni Oddi, Cicci Santucci, Baldo Maestri, Attilio Donadìo, Antonello Vannucchi, the Corvini brothers, Sergio Fanni, Rudi Migliardi, Emilio Soana, Attilio Donadio, and Roberto Pregadio.

Several of them, outside working hours, devoted themselves to personal projects and, in some cases, served as teachers; for example, Baldo Maestri and Alberto Corvini, the latter one of the first teachers at the Scuola Popolare di Musica di Testaccio in Rome. Large ensembles or combos are also being formed in those years that include instrumentalists from sections of the public service broadcasting orchestra: saxophonists go on to form the backbone of the Saxes Machine, led by drummer Bruno Biriaco, saxophonist Gianni Basso, trumpeter Oscar Valdambrini and trombonist Dino Piana form one of the most prolific sextets in the history of Italian jazz, and trumpeter Cicci Santucci gives life to a duo together with saxophonist Enzo Scoppa.

Between the 1970s and 1980s, both orchestras, including the one in Milan, became involved in wide-ranging jazz productions: the purpose was to revitalize and give new impetus to the full expressive and technical potential of the instrumentalists within the ensembles, which were often relegated to a mere framework of “consumerist” entertainment.

Promoters of such initiatives are prominent figures in public radio and television: critic and presenter Adriano Mazzoletti, from Rai’s Sala A in Via Asiago in Rome, and author and presenter Pasquale Santoli, with concerts by the Ritmi Moderni Orchestra together with instrumentalists of the European jazz avant-garde, broadcast live from various Italian locations in the program aired on Radio3 “Un certo discorso musica.”

RAI’s renewed interest in this type of event is contextualized in the period between the 1970s and 1980s during which orchestras became the site of formation and evolution of European and American jazz and, in particular, the free jazz movement. Mention may be made of the Jazz Composers Orchestra of Carla Bley and Mike Mantler, that conducted by Muhal Richard Abrams, Globe Unity, and the Danish Radio Jazz Orchestra.

In the following years, the high operating costs of orchestral ensembles would affect their gradual disappearance from the television and radio scene: in 1984, RAI set up a single television production center to coordinate the two orchestras for television and radio, and then, in the 1990s, disbanded all orchestral ensembles, including the Rome and Milan symphonies, the “Scarlatti” Chamber Orchestra of Naples and the three polyphonic choirs.

The only orchestra still in activity is the Sinfonica Nazionale di Torino, a worthy representative of a key period in the growth of the entire Italian music scene.

Note: The album titled RAI Big Band & Soloists – Jelly Roll (recorded on May 31, 1980 at the Teatro Argentina in Rome) represents an important record document related to the productions as part of Pasquale Santoli’s program “A Certain Discourse Music “. It featured the Modern Rhythms Orchestra joined by prestigious exponents of the European jazz avant-garde, including, pianist Alexander Von Schlippenbach, double bassist Bruno Tommaso and drummer Paul Lovens

Pictured (excerpted from the book “L’Italia del Jazz” edited by Adriano Mazzoletti) is the Kramer Orchestra

Paolo Marra