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NEW AMERICAN ORCHESTRA RIDES WESTWARD

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The way musical director Jack Elliot looks at it, eight years of financial hardship for his New American Orchestra is enough.

The 60-piece assemblage of select studio and jazz musicians has been drawing mostly modest audiences to its performances at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion since its inception in 1979. Elliot hopes that will change when the orchestra embarks on its 1987 season Sunday at UCLA’s Wadsworth Theater.

“Dollars are really the reason for our move to the Westside,” Elliot, 59, said during an interview at his Beverly Hills home. “It became so expensive to rent the Music Center, to publicize our events and to draw an audience. When we lost the major underwriting from AT&T; this year, we had to figure out what to do.

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“Our concerts downtown were running $60,000 a performance, and that figure is just for presentations, including rehearsals, and union benefits and taxes. So the situation became ‘How do we stay alive, and how do we find a home?’ See, we never had one.”

Now, thanks to UCLA, the orchestra has a “home.”

“They gave us the choice of either Royce Hall or Wadsworth,” Elliot continued, lighting up one of the Cuban cigars he obtains on trips to Europe. “We chose Wadsworth because it already had a jazz audience. That way we won’t have to do what we did downtown--use singers like Ray Charles and Dionne Warwick--to attract an audience. We can do more of what we do, which is using guest jazz artists whom people have written works for, like using (alto saxophonist) Bud Shank to play a piece written for him by Manny Albam. And if you can’t make it with greats like Bud and Supersax (both of whom will appear Sunday), then you better start to look for another way of doing this.”

Each of the orchestra’s performances (additional shows are set for May and June) are free. “They’ll cost $15,000 to put on,” said Elliot, who is the orchestra’s principal conductor, “and that’s coming from different sources, including the American Federation of Musicians, Local 47, UCLA’s Center for the Performing Arts and the Foundation for New American Music.”

While money may be central to putting on concerts, it’s the least of priorities for Elliot--who draws no salary but is paid for performances--and his cohorts. “For the players, it’s a labor of love,” he said. “They even donate one day a month when we all get together at Cal State L.A. and just read music. The players do it because they want to. That way we can audition new material and the composer can get a chance to hear how something turned out.”

The orchestra started a New York branch in 1984, and last fall a Chicago branch was begun. “Whenever we get enough money to do a concert, we do it,” Elliot said. “I just take the charts and go. We use the terrific talent pools in both towns”.

The ensemble, at first simply called The Orchestra, was formed in 1979 by Elliot and his then musical partner, composer Allyn Ferguson. “Steve (Lawrence) and Edye (Gorme) wanted to do a party and hire an orchestra for all the arrangers who had worked for them--get the best players and so on,” recalled the Connecticut-born Elliot. “And suddenly I thought, ‘Wait a minute, why don’t we give the party--get the best studio players, the best writers, form a dream band and see what will come of it.’ Literally, that was the genesis.”

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The debut concert at the Chandler Pavilion included such works as “El Gamino” by Dick Grove and “Symphonic Dances” by Claus Ogerman, pieces that are still among Elliot’s favorites. Among the jazz notables who’ve taken part in the orchestra’s shows are Sarah Vaughan, Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan, Lee Ritenour and Dave Grusin.

While Elliot has made his living as a television (Judy Garland, Ed Sullivan, “Charlie’s Angels,” the Grammy telecast) and film (“Where’s Poppa?” and “The Comic”) soundtrack composer, it’s the New American Orchestra that keeps him going.

“It feels like a work in progress,” he said. “From fund raising to selecting the concerts, I’m learning all the time. I can’t get this kick anyplace else. It’s not just standing in front of the orchestra. There are these works being created, and some of this stuff’s liable to last.”

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