When Jeff Lindberg needs a historic arrangement for the Chicago Jazz Orchestra, he must start from original recordings.

Lindberg, who founded the CJO more than 40 years ago, realized that many classic big band recordings have no sheet music parts available, either because they were lost altogether, were never written down or are “sitting in a file cabinet somewhere.” His solution has been to listen carefully to original recordings and “notate it note-perfect for each part.”

That’s how he approached “The Piano Soul of Nat King Cole,” a slightly belated centennial tribute to the onetime Chicago resident and his role as a ground-breaking jazz pianist, in the period before he became known for smooth vocals. Lindberg and the CJO will present this program in an SCP Jazz concert on Feb. 14. They will be joined by Kenny Barron and Benny Green on piano, Russell Malone on guitar and David Wong on bass.

Though Cole (1919-1965) is best remembered as a popular vocalist, second only to Frank Sinatra during the ’50s in terms of chart success, he began his career as a jazz pianist. After moving to Chicago at age 4 with his parents, Cole began formal music lessons at 12. Later he attended Wendell Phillips and DuSable high schools and at night, he would sneak out to clubs to hear jazz greats such as Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines.

Jeff Lindberg, artistic director of the Chicago Jazz Orchestra.

Lindberg was trained as a classical musician, and when he did his first jazz transcriptions as a graduate student in the 1970s, “I didn’t know how to arrange, and I didn’t even know how jazz was notated.” But over the years, “I’ve learned the basic principles of jazz arranging, and I can predict, by knowing the bass line and the harmonic progression, what the other parts are going to be,” he said. With experience, he can produce an arrangement in a few days now, instead of taking a month or more.

But the musicians on the recordings that he listens to varied widely in their approach. Count Basie’s band, for instance, didn’t used printed music; they would memorize a short riff and knew the harmonic progression to apply to it. “That’s where transcriptions are really valuable,” Lindberg said, “because you’re preserving what was played, and allowing bands today to play what Basie played in the ’30s, especially in educational settings.”

Sometimes his transcription work involves correcting mistakes from the recording; as time passed, the arrangements got more elaborate, and then “you’re guessing if it was written down or if people were creating their own.”

In the case of Nat King Cole, the arrangements were probably done by Nelson Riddle, one of the greatest composers and orchestrators of the post-war era. However, as Lindberg observed, Cole himself “helped transform the whole art of jazz piano in the ’40s and ’50s.”

For Cole’s final piano albums, Riddle alternated between big band arrangements and a studio orchestra. The concert at Symphony Center will not use strings, but Lindberg transcribed some of those numbers, substituting “woodwinds, muted brass, that sort of thing.”

Founded in 1978 as the Jazz Members Big Band, the Chicago Jazz Orchestra took its current name in 1999 because of the more varied repertoire it was playing, including songbook and musical theater standards that were often performed with strings.

In the early days, Lindberg played in the trombone section and led the band by counting off tempos at the start. Now he no longer plays, but a jazz ensemble, even a big one, needs less conducting than a symphony orchestra. “I don’t need to wave my arms all the time,” he said, because with the steady tempos that are typical, he can usually just count off and let the band play; the rest of his job in performance is cuing sections and giving the cutoff.

The group plays 25 or 30 dates a year and has performed at Symphony Center several times before. “It’s always a very receptive audience,” Lindberg said. “It’s a great venue for jazz.”

After a 2018 CJO concert, Howard Reich wrote in the Chicago Tribune, “This was a rare opportunity to hear these orchestrations not on a recording but live, with all the depth of sound, brilliance of color and details of instrumentation that not even the most pristinely recorded album can convey.”

Along with his CJO work, he is a professor at the College of Wooster in Ohio, where he leads a college-community orchestra. Switching between classical and jazz “keeps my life interesting and full of variety,” he said. “The ideas of improvisation and notation are not mutually exclusive. It’s great when a classical soloist takes liberties with a cadenza, or when a solo in a jazz group becomes a standard part of the arrangement.”

TOP: Nat King Cole at the piano, circa 1947. | Photo: William Gottlieb/Library of Congress/Wikimedia