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Heath’s Queens Jazz Orchestra debuts to cheers

Queens jazz legend Jimmy Heath introduced his long-awaited Queens Jazz Orchestra at Flushing Town Hall Friday night, drawing an impassioned standing ovation for the project he hopes will help bring the borough's rich musical history out of the shadows.

"There's been a lot of beautiful energy surrounding this project since it began," said Flushing Town Hall Jazz Producer Clyde Bullard before Heath took the stage at the sold-out event. "They've got offers to travel already and they haven't even performed yet."

Heath, still spry at 82, sauntered onto the stage in front of the 17-piece jazz ensemble he put together over the last year. Heath did not waste time once on stage. With a wave of his hands, the Queens Jazz Orchestra launched straight into "Cultural Crossroads," a new composition Heath wrote specifically for the group.

Though instrumental improvisation abounded during "Cultural Crossroads," Heath made sure the mission of the Queens Jazz Orchestra was clearly stated.

"This borough of history is no longer a mystery — the Queens Jazz Orchestra is here," the band chanted during the song.

Friday's performance, the group's first, was dedicated entirely to paying respects to the laundry list of jazz legends, such as Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespse and Heath himself, who called Queens home during their careers. The performance included classic selections such as Fitzgerald's "What a Little Moonlight Can Do" and Gillespse's "Night in Tunisia."

While many of these luminaries performed mainly in Manhattan when they were in the city, Heath said it is unfortunate that Queens was overlooked as a creative center for jazz throughout the 20th century.

"When I lived here, Louie [Armstrong] was living around the corner, Dizzy [Gillespse] was living around the corner from him and I lived with Clark Terry and Cannonball [Adderly]," Heath said. "So that's why I'm still here."

The 17-piece brass band performed nearly a dozen songs, all of which were composed by or dedicated to jazz musicians who lived in Queens during their careers.

Heath and Bullard said they hope to take the Queens Jazz Orchestra to each of the five boroughs in the coming months and abroad to international jazz festivals.

"I think it's long overdue for the people of this city, for the people of the world that like jazz, or even those that don't, to know what Queens gave to jazz," Heath said.

Reach reporter Stephen Stirling by e-mail at Sstirling@timesledger.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 138.

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