Swing University Loren Schoenberg's Biography

“Some people say to me, ‘You should have been born fifty years earlier’,” conductor/saxophonist/scholar Loren Schoenberg told John Robert Brown in an interview found on The Jazz Museum in Harlem’s website. “Of course I would have grown up to the great music of Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw. And I’d have probably spent my life interviewing the widow of Scott Joplin!” A historian by nature, Loren Schoenberg became a fixture in the jazz world with his encyclopedic knowledge about the genre and passion for preserving its past while making it eminently contemporary. Today, in addition to his work performing, conducting, writing, and teaching, Schoenberg has been named Executive Director of The Jazz Museum in Harlem.

Loren Schoenberg was born July 23, 1958 in Fairlawn, New Jersey. His father worked for the New York Telephone Company. His mother, a children’s librarian, began teaching Loren the piano when he was three. A year later, she found a neighborhood piano teacher to take her son beyond simple scales. Schoenberg’s love of old films led him to Benny Goodman, and his love of Goodman’s music made Schoenberg a jazz fan in the early 1970s. Jazz’s heyday as a popular music form was over by that point, and while Schoenberg was collecting classic 78 rpm records by jazz originators like Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, and “Fats” Waller, most of his peers were busy listening to rock and roll and folk music.

Scholars disagree over how to best define jazz. In his book, The NPR Curious Listener’s Guide to Jazz (2002), Schoenberg wrote: “What makes Jazz music different from country, classical, rock, and other well-known genres is its basic malleability. . . . The great majority of it is not, as many believe, spun out of the air, but is rather a highly organized and (hopefully) spontaneous set of theme and variations.” Rock and roll supplanted jazz as popular music in the 1950s, and by the time Schoenberg discovered it, many of jazz’s greatest practitioners had fallen out of the spotlight and were often struggling to find gigs. Subsequently, the young aficionado was able to watch the greats perform up close and personal in humble venues as nearby as Hackensack, New Jersey, talking to them afterwards and occasionally invited to demonstrate his own skills for his idols, who were impressed that someone as young as Schoenberg was still interested in the genre. It was in this way that Schoenberg received informal piano lessons from master jazz pianists Teddy Wilson and Hank Jones. In 1972, Teddy Wilson brought his young protégé to a jazz performance at the Waldorf Astoria where Schoenberg first met Benny Goodman.

That same year, Schoenberg began volunteering at the now-defunct Jazz Museum in New York City, meeting more jazz musicians and growing involved in the scene. It was while volunteering that Schoenberg, at the urging of cornetist Ruby Braff, met respected piano and music theory teacher Sanford Gold, who did a great deal to supplement Schoenberg’s musical foundations with lessons on piano and musical theory. Also at the Jazz Museum, the fifteen year-old met Benny Goodman again, while working on the Museum’s Goodman exhibit. Later, two producers from the radio station WBAI were referred to Schoenberg as the local jazz expert, while researching an upcoming show on jazz music. They brought the youngster on the air for an interview. Schoenberg enjoyed the experience so much that he produced two more shows for the station, interviewing several well- known jazz musicians himself. At 15, he began to teach himself how to play the saxophone, inspired by jazz saxophonist Lester Young. In 1976, his piano lessons with Sanford Gold made it possible for Schoenberg to enter the prestigious Manhattan School of Music as a music theory major, with a minor in piano. While at school, Schoenberg got a job playing sax in Eddie Durham’s jazz quartet. “I’d been jamming, sitting in and waiting for an opportunity,” Schoenberg said recently. “I was one of a very small group of young guys interested in these great old jazz players at the time. . . . They were happy to have somebody who knew all the old songs.” Playing with Durham, one of the original members of the Count Basie band, gave Schoenberg opportunities to meet and work with jazz musicians such as Al Casey, Sammy Price, Roy Eldridge, Jabbo Smith, Eddie Barefield, Jo Jones, and Panama Francis. After two years at Manhattan School of Music, Schoenberg switched his major to saxophone. In 1979, he produced a Charlie Parker and Lester Young tribute at Carnegie Recital Hall, arranging the songs, gathering the musicians, and performing with them. The concert featured Howard McGhee, Joe Albany, Buddy Anderson, Dickey Wells, Eddie Bert, Herb Ellis and Mel Lewis among others. It garnered Schoenberg the first of many glowing reviews in The New York Times.

In 1980, Schoenberg received an unexpected call from none other than Benny Goodman. The clarinetist intended to donate his collection of historical jazz arrangements to the New York Public Library for posterity. Schoenberg, known around the jazz world as a history buff and an expert on Goodman’s music in particular, was the perfect choice to compile the archive and write the accompanying documents. Schoenberg left the Manhattan School of Music to work on the collection, which were to be divvied out to the library in yearly installments. Meanwhile, Schoenberg formed the Loren Schoenberg Big Band, a repertory group devoted to performing the more obscure classics of the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s, though it eventually performed new works as well. “It was difficult to keep the guys together because there was really no work,” he told Stuart Troup in (New York) Newsday (May 26, 1989). “We would spend ten months rehearsing and have a one-night gig.” Eventually, however, the skill of the performers and the quality of the arrangements began to make a difference. “We began to get enough gigs so that it was hard to find time to rehearse,” he told Troup. The band won over jazz critics with its musicality and deft handling of the classics. “Mr. Schoenberg . . . knows exactly how to calibrate his orchestra,” Peter Watrous wrote for The New York Times (July 14, 1994), after seeing the band perform at the Village Vanguard. “. . . The band crackled with energy and intelligence,” Watrous added, “and never once raised its voice without reason.” The band has also performed at many other major venues, including the Blue Note, Michael’s Pub, and Carnegie Hall.

A few years after he began, Benny Goodman decided to stop donating his arrangements to the New York Public Library. He hired Schoenberg on as his assistant, however, and later, as his personal and business manager. In 1982, Schoenberg got his own weekly radio show on WKCR, where he played old jazz recordings, interviewed musicians, produced documentary specials, and broadcast live performances. Schoenberg continued hosting jazz shows at WKCR until 1990. In 1984, Schoenberg became a co-host of Jazz from the Archives, a radio show on WBGO run by the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University, where he continues to occasionally participate as one of several hosts on the program. Also in 1984, the Loren Schoenberg Big Band released its first album, That’s the Way It Goes. The band would go on to release Time Waits for No One (1987), Solid Ground (1988), Just A-Settin’ and A-Rockin’ (1989), Manhattan Work Song (1992), and Out of this World (1999). Schoenberg recorded S’posin’ in 1990 with a quartet, and has recorded with other jazz musicians such as Benny Carter, John Lewis, and Jimmy Heath. In 1985, Schoenberg’s band formed an association with the New York Swing Dance Society, and began providing the accompaniment for the organization’s dance events all over the city. Until that point, Goodman, Schoenberg’s boss, had shown little interest in hearing the Loren Schoenberg Big Band. “It was frustrating . . .,” Schoenberg told John McDonough in the Chicago Tribune (April 2, 1989). “He didn’t think of me as a working musician.” Despite frequent hinting by Schoenberg, Goodman had never asked to even see a rehearsal or listen to the band’s first record. Then, to Schoenberg’s surprise and delight, Goodman asked the band to perform with him on a 1985 PBS television special, Let’s Dance, which turned out to be Goodman’s last televised performance. In recalling the very first rehearsal with Goodman, Schoenberg told McDonough, “I guess that’s why my knees shook when he walked through the door at RCA carrying his clarinet. Benny Goodman was going to play with my band. He could have had any band in the world he wanted, with any players. Money was no object. But this was the band he picked. I had to sit down.”

Benny Goodman died in 1986; his will stipulated that all his remaining jazz arrangements and recordings be donated to Yale University. Schoenberg was the obvious choice to appraise the Goodman Archives, and Yale later hired him to help curate the collection, and to compile a 10-CD set of never-before-released Goodman recordings. Also in 1986, Schoenberg joined the American Jazz Orchestra, where he remained until 1992, playing tenor sax and later following John Lewis as its musical director. He has also conducted the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra. In 1988 and 1989, Schoenberg conducted the West German Radio Orchestra for a series of concerts, performing the works of George Gershwin and Duke Ellington for audiences in Cologne. Also during that period, he led, with Mel Lewis, a band for “third stream” jazz great Gunther Schuller in Japan.

In 1993, Schoenberg was musical director for that year’s International Duke Ellington Conference. Schoenberg has won 2 Grammys for his writing: in 1994, together with Dan Morgenstern, he won a Grammy Award for Best Album Notes for the accompanying materials to Louis Armstrong: Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man 1923-1934, a boxed set of rare and essential recordings from the jazz great’s early years, and in 2005, he captured his second Grammy for Best Liner Notes for the The Complete Columbia Recordings Of Woody Herman And His Orchestra & Woodchoppers (1945-1947) for Mosaic Records.

Night club legend Bobby Short hired Schoenberg as his musical director and saxophonist in 1997, a position he retained until Short’s passing in 2005. In September 1998, Schoenberg participated in a televised jazz music special filmed at the White House with President Clinton, along with Wynton Marsalis, Marian McPartland, Dr. Billy Taylor, and Dr. David Baker. Schoenberg played his sax and spoke about the long history of the quintessentially American art form. In 2001, well-known documentary filmmaker Ken Burns brought Schoenberg on as an advisor for his ambitious JAZZ documentary. Also that year, Schoenberg became a host on the SWING channel, on Sirius satellite radio.

Schoenberg has been a prolific writer on jazz. His articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Lester Young Reader, The Oxford Companion to Jazz, and Masters of the Jazz Saxophone. In the summer of 2002, Schoenberg’s first book, The NPR Curious Listener’s Guide to Jazz, was published by Perigee Books, with an introduction by Wynton Marsalis. Also in 2002, Schoenberg was appointed Executive Director of a proposed National Jazz Museum in Harlem. Though the museum has yet to find a permanent home, buzz has already been generated amongst jazz fans. “I’m already getting phone calls from people who find it on the Internet,” Schoenberg told John Robert Brown in an interview found on the Museum’s Web site. “‘We’d like to bring our family up. What time does it open?’ It’s very clear that this is an idea who time had come. It’s long overdue. America does not have a first class jazz museum in a major city.” Leonard Garment, an adviser to President Nixon and the Museum’s first Chairman, managed to secure the project a million-dollar grant from Congress in 2000, but significantly money more will have to be raised. “Of course you can’t build a jazz museum with a million dollars in New York City,” Schoenberg admitted. The choice of Harlem for the jazz museum’s home was an obvious one to the saxophonist. “The museum must be deeply rooted in the Harlem community,” Schoenberg told Brown. “A museum like this will only succeed if there is a perception that it comes from the community and it receives support from the community leaders, and all the others in the locality, who have everything to gain from this. Harlem has been an incredible cradle for jazz. Importantly, it continues to be.” In June 2003, Schoenberg and his National Jazz Museum in Harlem All-Stars band performed at the White House to raise awareness about the museum project. The band played with a special guest performer: Herb Jeffries, a 92 year- old baritone singer and an original member of the Duke Ellington Orchestra. After the performance, President Bush declared June Black Music Month. They have also created a strong relationship to the community through their HARLEM SPEAKS interview series and educational programs based in local schools.

Recently, Nat Hentoff wrote in JazzTimes: “Loren Schoenberg is a first-class musician, arranger, leader, and a critic with a rare comprehensive perception in the tradition of the late Martin Williams.” The Encyclopedia of Popular Music says: “It is Schoenberg’s chosen role as dedicated archivist, educator and energetic advocate for jazz that is his greatest contribution to the music that he loves.” Today, Schoenberg’s Big Band continues to appear occasionally, though merely as “a labor of love,” according to Schoenberg. In addition to his duties as Executive Director of the Jazz Museum, Schoenberg is on the faculty of Julliard’s Institute for Jazz Studies, and Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Jazz 101 series. He has taught at the New School, the Manhattan School of Music, William Paterson University, SUNY/Purchase, the Essentially Ellington Band Director’s Academy in Snowmass, Colorado, The Julliard Evening School, and Long Island University. In addition, he has given lectures at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the New York Philharmonic. Schoenberg is the Program Director of the Jazz Aspen Snowmass Jazz Colony summer program.