August 7, 2011

Tales of the Big Bands: Basie, Part 2

In Basie, Part 1 we listened to musicians speak about the magic of the Count Basie sound. The day-to-day stories of sidemen also yield an inside look at the trials and tribulations of playing in a touring band. Let’s return to bassist Jimmy Lewis, who offered us his view on the Basie swing machine in Part 1.

When musicians recall bad or difficult gigs, it is rarely about the music, but more often about logistics. Jimmy offered up a memorable story about getting to one of those out-of-the-way gigs.

MR: Let me ask you about a little thing. You had a story about flying with Basie?

JL: Yeah, you know we had some Army camps to do. We had to ride in the Army planes, the ones with two tails and that big thing in the middle. So one day we got on this thing going to one of the camps, and it was noisy, this thing was so noisy you couldn’t hear. Now Billy Eckstine and all those guys were used to riding. But me, I was scared to death. We all had parachutes. Basie had on a parachute over by the door you know. So we were going to Corpus Christi, Texas. So the plane took off, but before we got there, something happened just before we got ready to land. They couldn’t get the landing gear down. So the guy kept punching it in back, there was some long pole they couldn’t get it down. So the man said “we’re going to have to circle around and go further, and come back around again.” So they went around, and started back to see if we could land, and still couldn’t get it open. So one of the guys, the one who was right by the back door here, pulled that big door open. Now we were flying. So I said “what’s this — what are you doing?” The guy said “well see, we’re trying to get a little more air in the plane.” I said “air in the plane!” I said “man, we don’t need no more air.” So he said “well, I’ll tell you, we’re having a problem with the landing gear, and you might have to bail out.” And Basie looked at me. He said “what do you mean bail out?” And so he asked the pilot, he said “look, are you going to bail out too?” The pilot said “no, I’ve got to stay with the plane.” Basie said “well I’m going to stay with you,” he said, “I’m going on with you. Because if I jump out and I pull this string and the ‘chute don’t open up, man, I can’t fly — I don’t have no wings.” Well everybody was laughing. And so Billy teased me, he said “man, we’re going to crash” — oh baby, I don’t know what to do. And I’m running back and forth. It’s funny, you know I’d never been in a plane before anyway.

MR: Something finally happened because you’re here with us.

JL: So we get to Corpus Christi, Texas. Now, so finally we land. Everybody set there about fifteen minutes before they got out of the plane. It was quiet — boy you could hear a mouse — quiet you know. So everybody started getting out one by one, taking off the parachute, taking their instruments and go outside. We got outside, and we had to play under some trees. We get out there, and set up under these trees out there, in the hot summertime. Oh, man, it looked like a big field. And people, as far as you could see. And they had all these big speakers about like that. So they set the band stand up, all the band stands, they put the music, you know the fella he’d taken care of all that. And so then Basie went up to test the piano to see if it was in tune you know. So then he called us, his band. We got up there and Basie was telling about this trip, how much trouble we had with the plane and all that. So the people settled down. We started playing. As soon as we started playing, all these little chrysalis come out of the tree and started falling on the bandstand. And it’s falling in the bell of the horns, and the guys would dump it out and keep playing. I got me some string, tying it all around my pants legs you know, in case they would crawl up my leg. And so when we finished the job, now we’ve got to take this same plane and go to California. So me and Wendell Cully, we walked out to the plane and looked in, and we see all these parachutes on the seats, and Cully said, “they look like dead people, man.” He said “we can’t take this thing, can we?” I said “no.” So I said well let’s go tell Basie we don’t think we’re going to go on this. So we went and told Basie and he said “I don’t blame you, but,” he said “I’ve got to stay with the band and so you go ahead and see if you can get a train out, and meet us in California.” So we did. We got a train. We got to California three days later. And I think we missed one gig. But we got to the gig and we played and everything. So we asked Basie, “how was the trip?” He said “man that was the worst trip I ever had.”

Travel was not the only daily challenge. Road bands, especially the black bands, often times had to settle for less-than-optimal accommodations. Musicians always shared rooms, in some cases even the boss had to share a room with one of the sidemen. Clark Terry, who is always good for an inside story, shared this anecdote with his friend Joe Williams about rooming with the Count:

CT: I have to tell you my favorite Basie story.

JW: Yeah, yeah.

CT: Yeah you know what am I telling you? Well we’re playing Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania, and this was during a period when we were not allowed to stay in the big hotel, we were relegated to the homes of Miss Brown, Miss Jones, Miss Green and so forth.

JW: Oh, those were the good old days. “Have you had your breakfast?” “No, M’am.”

CT: So we were in Miss Green’s or Brown’s or somebody’s home, and she said “well I’ve got one room left and I’ve got two beds in it, and one is a big bed and one is a little bed, and I can take two of ‘em.” So Basie and I are the only two left. So I’m going there with Basie, and the big bed is in the middle of the room, a huge bed and he’s got that. And my bed is a little slab up against the wall. So I said okay, it’s beautiful. At least it’s some place to sleep other than the basement of the police station. So here we are, now Basie can’t get to sleep with the light out.

JW: I know, yeah.

CT: He had to have that light on. And he had to read his comic book every night and he’d laugh, ah, ha, ha, ho, ha, ha. Well I couldn’t go to sleep with the light on. So I said well I know what I’ll do, I’ll just play possum and wait until I hear the comic book hit his belly. Then I’ll know he’s asleep. Well I should preface this by saying that it’s always customary for people when they go to bed we all empty our pockets on the dresser, you know, and undress and put the pajamas on and go to sleep. So I had put all my things there and Basie put all his things on the dresser. We didn’t have that far, just the little table top that we put our stuff on. So the light is right by this little table top, and so I had to get up and go over, and when I heard the book go “plop” on his belly, I eased over to the light and grabbed the chain and pulled the chain. Now the minute I pulled the chain, before I released it, he starts turning in the bed saying “put it back.” I was never sure whether he said put the lights back or whether —

JW: Oh Lord. “Put it back.”

CT: “Put it back.”

Almost without exception, Basie alums talk about the skill that the Count displayed in leading his band. While being a man of few words, his approach to hiring and maintaining his band with the members he wanted was as unique as his playing. Trombonist Benny Powell joined the newly formed Basie band after the small group experiment, and addressed Basie’s leadership personality:

BP: I joined [Basie’s] band when I was 21. I’ll tell you the essence of my experience with Basie. I don’t know if it’s the essence but it’s certainly the beginning. I was at the Apollo Theater working for a week in Joe Thomas’ band. Also in the band was Charlie Fowlkes, who had been with Basie. Basie was on a hiatus and he was about to form another band. So Charlie Fowlkes told me where the rehearsal was going to be, and invited me to the rehearsal. So I went, and it was nice. Pretty uneventful. I can’t remember — at this particular time there were a couple of jobs I wanted. The job with Charlie Ventura. Benny Green had been there and he was about to leave, so I really wanted a small situation to play in. Then I was waiting to hear from Illinois Jacquet also. In the meantime, the Basie thing comes up, I make the rehearsal and that’s fine. Charlie Fowlkes tells me when the next rehearsal is. And I come back and I make that also. I don’t know how many rehearsals we did, but pretty soon we started working, and the first date I played with Basie was October 31 I think, 1951. So I think at this time we would go out of town for maybe one night or two nights a weekend, and come back in town. Well this went on for just a little while, a couple of weeks. In the meantime, from Basie I’m trying to find out if I’m hired, if I have a job or shall I tell Illinois Jacquet that, you know, no. But there was a strange quirk about Basie. If he had something that you wanted, he would sort of play a cat and mouse with you, you know, dangle it in front of you. Anyway, he knew I wanted him to say yes, Benny, you’re hired. So the first time, well you know I was sort of in awe of him anyway. I think I was all of 21 and he was the world famous Count Basie, so I would sort of find myself next to him by my own design, and I would say “Mr. Basie, how do you like the trombone section?” He’d say “it sounds all right.” And that’s all I got out of that conversation. So maybe the next weekend I got brave enough to say “Mr. Basie, are you satisfied with the trombones?” He said “yeah, it sounds pretty good.” That’s all I got out of that one. Next time I went to him, I can’t remember, each time I would disguise it. But finally I said “Mr. Basie, what I’m trying to find out is, you know, am I hired? Am I with the band?” He said “you’re here aren’t you kid?” And every time after that for about four or five times, that’s what I’d get. “You’re here aren’t you, kid?” So finally I stopped asking him. And during the twelve years, I don’t think he ever said “yes, Benny, you’ve got a job. You’re hired.” But he was a wonderful man. I loved him. I was always in awe of older musicians.

The “old” Count Basie would have been 47 when Benny joined the band in 1951.

Benny’s best known Basie moment is his eight-bar bridge on the classic April in Paris recording, at the :50 spot.

The Basie mode of leadership should be a chapter in a book about how to be a boss. Butch Miles talked about his way of silent but positive reinforcement, and it reminds us that although the Count was a man of few words, he was not someone to be disrespected:

BM: Oh, [Basie] was wonderful. He was a wonderful boss because he never told you what to do or what to play. I asked our band manager at that time — it was Sonny Cohn — and Cup [Cohn] sat right in front of me on the band bus, and after I’d been with the band about maybe two weeks, you know I said “Sonny, you know, Basie hasn’t said anything to me about whether he wants it this way, or he doesn’t want it that way,” I said, because I’d worked with a number of other people who’d made it quite clear what they wanted and the way that they wanted it. And Basie didn’t say a word. And so Cup just looked at me, he says, “well if it’s wrong, he’ll tell you, and if it’s not, he’ll just let you go.” And that was why he had great professionals in the band who took care of the business so well, because they were professionals. Basie didn’t hire somebody that just turned 16 with an incredible reputation but couldn’t play. So one time — I can’t remember if Al [Grey] was still on the band at that point or not, but we had a trumpet problem and somebody recommended a young trumpet player from Chicago. He flew in to New York, and since we made it pretty much a point to not rehearse, there was no rehearsal again or audition, it was kind of like a closed shop. You got in on a recommendation or if Basie had heard you play himself and wanted you to come in with the band. And I can’t remember the young man’s name but he came in and he was all full of fire and brimstone. He was ready to show the world that he was like the greatest trumpet player in the world, probably like in his early twenties or something, although that doesn’t have anything to do with it. And the night of his first gig with the band he made the absolute mistake of thinking that Basie was a real cream puff and he lipped off to him. He said something sassy or nasty, right before the job. I never saw this happen before. Basie fired him, right then.

MR: The guy didn’t play a note yet?

BM: Not with the band. Basie fired him, right then, gave him his ticket home and told him good-bye. He never did play a note, not with the band. He came in all hot, you know had his hat over to the side. It didn’t work like that. The band was a very well oiled machine and it was a band, it was a big band, it was a full ensemble. Basie played the band like he played the piano. And it had to work like that. You couldn’t have eighteen or nineteen superstars up there ‘cause it never works. So the band was as a unit. And it had to be that way. Oh we had stars. We had Jimmy Forrest, we had Al Grey, we had Curtis Fuller at one point, we had Bobby Plater, Charlie Fowlkes, a great baritone saxophonist, you know, various people that passed through the band from time to time over the years. But you didn’t have anybody that ran roughshod through the band. Basie wouldn’t stand for that. He just would not. And I never saw him get mad at anybody in the band except that one time. He was a very affable, easy going, wonderful man and just marvelous to work for, but you did not sass him.

Trombonist Al Grey was nicknamed “Fab” and was thrilled to become a Basie member, but quickly became frustrated when, as the new guy, he could not get in the queue for solo space. Al spoke to my colleague Michael Woods and related a story of one of the few times that Basie stepped out of his silent mode with a fatherly gesture:

AG: [Y]ou must also remember that when I joined the band, Count Basie’s personnel had been the same for like twelve, fourteen years, same personnel. So when I joined the band, I didn’t have no name at all. I was called the “new boy” and I didn’t used to like that. And that was on me for a whole year, until the next person came into the band, and this is when I got my name. But then, when I did get my name, I had become so prominent with that band until Basie said, “oh, this is the fabulous one — Fab.” And that is my name today, they call me “Fab” but that comes from Count Basie who started calling me fabulous because I could go out and get standing ovations every night, every night. Standing ovations, until this became a big part of Count Basie’s band, until when we’d go out where we’d have Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald, that meant that Count Basie’s band didn’t have no chance to play, but opening number, a middle number, and like the featured drum number, and then they would bring Ella on and then Frank. This is where it was always sad moments, too, because here you have all these great musicians sitting there playing the music for the singers, you see? And they never got that good, and had no opportunity to express themselves. And I know many won’t even take a day or two to talk about this but I’ve gone far enough in life that I feel as though I do have that privilege to speak about that because in a sense in music that would be a no-no, all these different things that come on with bands. I myself, after joining, we recorded that day and then a few days later we go to England, and here this is still the days where they didn’t have that many baths in the hotels, but we still stayed like in the clean hotels and things. And we could really completely tell the difference of the treatment.

MW: In other words, you were treated differently in Europe?

AG: Completely different. You was treated like an artist. Like artists are supposed to be treated. And they would roll out the royal carpet to you and you was treated that way. And you was accepted that way. Well, I myself, leaving the United States, it was a long time in my belief, gee, how is it this much of a difference, you see? And again, a lot of this that I am speaking about, wasn’t permissible a few years ago to even make statements. But here this is to the Hamilton College, and I would want the students and everything to know what you have come here to talk about, okay? But for myself, when I first got over there, there was no music written out for me. And that just drove me crazy after playing solos night after night and a lot of them with Dizzy Gillespie. Now I come in to Count Basie’s band, and there’s no music written for me.

MW: So he had to do much of the music by memory?

AG: Well on that particular tour, the musicians had been in the band so long they only took three books with them. And that was Snooky’s book, Lockjaw’s book, and my book. And they saved all this money for not taking all the rest of these books. It used to run into big costs, you know. And here I am buried in the music, now I want to solo so bad, ‘cause Joe Newman just went out there and he just performed like ever. And here’s Sonny Payne and Frank Wess and me, and Henry Coker who was a trombone player, and Benny Powell. Now I get no chance to play, nothing, nothing.

MW: Was there any etiquette by which you could kind of go to Basie and say, hey, you know, I want you to throw me a solo here?

AG: Well, it boiled down to where I felt as though that coming from Dizzy I should get a few bars. So one day we were in line, this is when you had to jump off the bus and run in and get in line because you know that the bath is going to run out. So that means that you’re going to have to go down the hall to get a bath. So this particular day I jumped off and run in and I get in line and here I am, the new boy and everything, and everybody was always jumping in front of me because I was the new boy. So you’re the new boy and you’d better recognize it and accept it if you’re going to stay in that band. And so this day I was getting ready to sign in for this band, and Marshall Royal ran in and said “Royal” and, he was the Straw Boss, and they gave him this last bath. And I just went off in the lobby of this hotel. I just went to hollering and screaming and cussing and going on. And of course you know this is a no-no, you know you’re not supposed to do like that in the Queen Hotel, and because I was completely so uptight from not playing any solos. And you’d pick up the paper the next day and they’re talking about Marshall and Snooky and all these guys that did all this last night, and you don’t see your name or anything like that because you hadn’t did anything, see? And so he got this last bath and I just went off because I was so upset from not playing. But Count Basie was sitting in the corner over there. He would always wait until last because you know he had his suite coming and everything like that. And he finally got my attention and he beckoned me and he says “come over here.” And I says, well I said “I was in line and I was correct to get my bath and he just stepped in front of me.” And Basie said “well he’s Straw Boss, you know how they are.” And he tried to calm me down. But I went in to saying “well look, I don’t know why you hired me because I come over here and you won’t let me play anything.” And this is when he came up and I had never heard him cuss or anything like that but he came up with a cuss word, and said “one minute — you just got here. Now when we get back to New York, we’re going to fix up music and everything for you, but you just got here and so we can’t do nothing about it and this is not an old jam band and so we’re not going to have no jam session,” and he says “but you know I like you, and I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. I’m going to let you come down and have a bath in my room and there’s an extra room over here, the suite, and you can stay there tonight.” And this is like he became like my father. Because then I would listen to everything he had to say.

Basie’s promise to Al would soon be realized. Check out this rare Count Basie piece for a marvelous track featuring them both.

Our three-part series on Basie will wrap up in the next installment with stories and reminiscing about the great Joe Williams, Basie’s number one son.

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