July 24, 2011

Tales of the Big Bands: Basie, Part 1

For many fans of big band music, the Count Basie Orchestra was the epitome of what an 18-person ensemble could and should sound like. Throughout his five decade career, Basie (a/k/a “The Chief”), held tight to his inner compass of what and how his bands should play. Though he was a man of few words, he made his feelings and intentions known through subtle but forceful direction. The Hamilton College Jazz Archive oral history project focused first on Basie alums and we are blessed with a wealth of material about Count Basie and his career. The first entry will focus on why his band sounded like it did.

We heard from Clark Terry in his conversation with Joe Williams at the end of our Ellington blog post. Clark spent time with both bands, and offers his opinion on Basie’s number one strength:

CT: I’ll tell you about this cat, Basie. Although Ellington was more endowed with harmony and theory and so forth, Basie was the king as far as tempo, and he taught us all the greatest lesson in the world and that is the utilization of space and time. They say he learned it through the medium of just socializing at Kansas City at the Cherry Blossom and the little places where you would have people sit, in a small room like this where you would have gingham tablecloths and he’d play a little bit with Jo Jones, and Walter Page, or Freddie [Green], and The Fiddler [Claude Williams], or whoever was there, and he’d go socializing. Bing-a-dink and he’d go over there socialize “yeah, baby, how you doing?” Bing-a-dink, go over there and have another taste over there and have two or three tastes. Meanwhile Jo Jones and Biggun [Walter Page] are still going [scats]. And he’d come in [scats]. So he was so endowed with rhythm and utilization of space and time, so he knew exactly the way a tune should be before you played it. Now the one, the best example is when Neal Hefti was writing for the band, he brought in a tune and passed it out, and Basie played it and Basie shook his head. He said “what’s the matter, you don’t like the arrangement, Chief?” He said “no.” He said “what’s wrong with it?” He said “the tempo.” Well the tune was about here [claps]. So he said “well what do you think it should be?” “About here” [claps slowly]. Well the tune was [scats]. He brought it in to be [scats slowly].

JW: That was “L’il Darling.”

CT: He heard it. Right away he said “uh oh.” And look at the result. If he’d a kept it up there it would have just been another also-ran tune. He was the king of space, time.

Basie’s band of the late 1930’s was the loosest of his aggregations, operating more like a large combo. Much of the music they played was created on stage or in rehearsals and called “head arrangements,” only to be written down later. Harry “Sweets” Edison talked of the challenge of becoming a part of such a swinging band, and associating with Basie’s fellow musicians:

MR: At the time you joined the Basie band, how much of the music was written out?

SE: We didn’t have any music.

MR: That was my question. Now how did that work? And how did you learn what to play when you first got in there?

SE: Well, that’s an interesting question. Because when I first joined the band, everybody in the Count Basie band had played with Bennie Moten’s band. So they all knew what they wanted to play. They all had notes to different — like “One O’Clock Jump,” “Swinging the Blues,” “Out the Window.” It was a head arrangement you know. They just, the brass section would get together and they would play, set a riff behind a melody Basie would play on the piano. The saxophones would go in to another room and they would set a riff. And when we all came back to the rehearsal hall, we’d all have an arrangement, you know? So that went on with me for about a couple of years. And finally I told Basie I said “I’m going to quit.” He says “why? You sound good.” I said “well all these arrangements that you play every night — I can’t find a note. I can’t find a note to ‘Swinging the Blues’ and playing it fast.” I haven’t had a chance...I really was disgusted.

MR: Discouraged, huh?

SE: Yes. So I said “I’d rather for you to take my notice.” He said “well if you find a note tonight that sounds good, play the same damn note every night.” So that’s what I did. He encouraged me to sit there. And it was very difficult. Because when they played a tune like “Out the Window” or of course “One O’clock Jump” wasn’t too fast, you could find a note, but “Jumpin’ at the Woodside.” Hell they’re playing and you’re trying to find a note to play, and it’s passed, and they’re finished before you can find a note.

MR: There’s no rehearsal time to do that. You’re playing every night, right?

SE: Sure, sure. But he encouraged me, and I stayed there for twenty years in and out you know. And had it not been for Count Basie, I wouldn’t be here with you, because nobody would have never heard about me. He gave me a chance and I had so much fun I don’t know why he kept me with the band because I was having a ball. You know every night was fun to me. Just absolutely — sitting next to Lester Young — gee whiz, what a thrill you know. Jo Jones. Walter Page. Freddie Green, Buck Clayton, sitting next to him — you know it wasn’t but three trumpets, Buck Clayton, Ed Lewis and myself; there was two trombones, and four saxophones. And four rhythm section. So I should have paid him to be in the band because I was having so much fun.

One of the first things an aspiring big band musician had to learn was the difference between two-beat and four-beat — a subtle but profound change in the basic feel of swing. Trumpeters Snooky Young and Gerald Wilson were both Basie alums and often played a musical game of tag team in and out of various bands. They talk about that subtle swing difference, when they were interviewed together on September 30, 1995 in Los Angeles:

GW: When I joined Count Basie, who do you think I was supposed to replace? Snooky Young. Snooky left the band. They were playing someplace, and Basie called me and he says “Snooky there had to go back East, Gerald,” and I played a couple of days with him at the Lincoln Theater. I think you left and so they didn’t have a trumpet player. So I went and played a couple of days at the Lincoln, and so Basie said “well look, Snooky had to go and he’s going to re-join us when we get to Chicago. You come on and go to Chicago with us and then Snooky will be back.” I said “fine” you know. So I left with the Count Basie Band, which I loved. I mean let me tell you, that was another great day for me to be able to join a band like Count Basie, because I was going to get a chance as a writer to sit where swing had really started. And remember that there was the original rhythm section, which they called the “All American Rhythm Section,” with Walter Page, Jo Jones, Count and Freddie Green. So for me that was going to be another education deal. Because I’m going to sit here now as a writer, I can just observe really what’s going on. And what’s going on with this swing. Because you must remember the Count Basie band and that rhythm section, they’re the ones that put the word in, the real meaning into swing. All bands had to change to that type of rhythm section. All bands. The Lunceford band would have had to change, Duke Ellington. Everybody. If you’re not playing this type of rhythm, you’re not into the newest form of rhythm that would finally take over the world. And because you must remember that bebop had no rhythm of their own. They had to use that same kind of rhythm in their first efforts. So it was a great day for me. But Basie had more in mind, by the way, because when we got to Chicago, Snooky didn’t show up. He didn’t show up. And I said, you know I thought I was going to come back home. But he had other ideas. He also needed a writer at that time. And I was the man.

MR: That must have been a thrill. Is it possible to put into words what that rhythm section did?

GW: Well you know, you remember Jo Jones was an innovator into drumming. Jo Jones was a real innovator. He had some things going that drummers had not been doing. Walter Page had been one of the first to start the walking bass rather than playing the root and the fifth. In other words Boom Boom BOOM Boom. In earlier days, they just played the one note. Boom Boom Boom Boom Boom Boom Boom Boom. So Page started walking on the chords more or less. And Freddie Green, who had you know, nobody can play the guitar, rhythm guitar, like Freddie Green. To this day.

SY: That’s right.

GW: To this day. He never bothered about a solo.

SY: You know when I left Lunceford’s band and getting back to what he’s saying, I went directly into Basie’s band. And those two bands was night and day. I mean Lunceford’s rhythm was a two beat rhythm thing, you know. And it was great and all like that, but you’d come out of that and move into Basie’s band, I almost felt like I didn’t know how to read music. ‘Cause everything was laying so different.

MR: Especially for a lead trumpet, right?

SY: That’s right.

MR: Because you’ve got to be in sync.

SY: That’s right. And I had to learn how to play with Basie’s band, because, well, can you explain that better than I can? Because it’s very difficult, because you asked a question that kind of hit on that, and I left from one band and went directly into this band, this swing band what you’re saying. And I noticed a difference. But Lunceford had great rhythm and everything, but it was a two beat rhythm. And so most bands was playing two beats. Not like Lunceford’s band did though.

GW: Yeah, Lunceford had the two beats.

SY: They had the two beats, Lunceford’s band.

GW: But they had to get that, you know to play jazz, the ultimate jazz beat is when you’re playing four four. It’s the ultimate rhythm. And they had this thing. Jo had it going here, he had it going here, and it was the thing that all bands needed, and still to this day, I mean the band you play with now, all bands, you’ve got to have this.

The early 50’s were challenging years for big bands. Even the Basie band was struggling economically and the Count pared down to a 7-piece group for a number of years. Bassist Jimmy Lewis found that the Count’s knack for creating intense swing could be applied to a small group as well as a big band:

MR: Is this when Basie had the small group?

JL: Yes, the small group. We had Wardell Gray, Clark Terry, Gus Johnson on drums, Freddie Green on guitar, me on bass and like we used Bud DeFranco playing tenor. … We worked the Brass Rail [Chicago] down at the loop. We opened up one night and all the people were sitting at the table, and so Basie started off real soft. We started playing soft you know. I thought I was playing louder than anybody, I mean I’m just playing it. Basie says “don’t play so loud.” He said “they’ll hear ya.” So I cut down on the bass. And Basie set a tempo and then he’d watch the people’s feet. He said “okay, everybody’s starting to feel you over the conversation.” He said “now Gus, pick up your sticks.” Gus was playing with brushes. He said “pick up your sticks.” He said “we’ve got ‘em now.” And by the time we opened up, everybody turned and you couldn’t believe it. Buddy DeFranco walked out to the stand, and man, everybody would start to play. He and Clark Terry started doing tricks. Clark would take his horn, take the mouthpiece off and just put it in the end of a glass and blow you know, and make all kinds of funny sounds you know. And Gus Johnson, then here comes Wardell Gray. He’d walk up and he’d just play something like Lester Young. … And Freddie Green boy, he was like a metronome sitting there. And you couldn’t get away from him. The tempo might move up a little bit, I’d get excited, and Freddie would say “Come back here. Right here.” And boy that thing would take off. And Basie, he’d sit there and give signs. He had all kinds of signs. He’d do his face, you know when he’d want you to play louder or softer you know. And when he’d get ready to close a number he’d double his fists. And like if he wanted some excitement, he’d stand up from the piano and look at you. And boy, and Gus was sitting on the drums and you’d hear this thing, it sounded like it was coming up out of the floor. And boy the people just went crazy.

We will hear again from Jimmy Lewis in a subsequent Basie blog entry.

The heyday of the big bands occurred before the Civil Rights era. While some swing bands made tentative moves towards integration after the Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton, Teddy Wilson, Gene Krupa combination, there was an obvious distinction between black and white bands for many years. Grover Mitchell, a Basie trombonist and an eventual leader of the band, reminds us why the Ellington and Basie orchestras were able to sound as they did:

MR: The Basie groups that you played with had some marvelous players, and some of the best ensembles that he had. Who were your favorite bandmates?

GM: Well we had some genius-level people you know. Ellington’s band and Basie’s band, the one thing that caused them in some way to be at the ability level that we were able to maintain was we, in the older days and prior to 1964, we couldn’t get jobs in studios you know. We couldn’t play at the networks and all that. And so Ellington and Basie had access to the greatest black musicians alive. In other words, that’s what we had to aspire to. And you couldn’t think of going to NBC or ABC or be in a Hollywood studio, which later I did, and quite successfully. But in those days they had access to the greatest black musicians available. The greatest. And so they had their choice. That’s something.

MR: That’s a really important statement. I haven’t heard it put quite that way.

GM: I know, most people won’t say it. They’re afraid to say it. But I know it. Because we would sit there and our greatest competition was each other because we, you know, until Clark Terry and those guys in 1964 and ‘63 started getting into the networks and all that kind of stuff. There was a couple of guys here and there you know; CBS was pretty good, they had a guy over there. And a New York contractor named Lou Shoobe, he was quite fair, and so some guys got jobs. But for the most part you couldn’t even dream of getting a studio job, it was just unheard of in those days.

Both Grover and Clark Terry spent time in Duke’s and the Count’s bands. It’s not a stretch to say that this is tantamount to a classical musician touting the fact that he spent one part of his career with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy then moved on to the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein.

Tenor saxophonist Frank Foster is high on the list of important Basie figures. He was one half of the two tenor team of Frank [Foster] and Frank [Wess], in the New Testament Band. Foster became one of Basie’s most dependable writers, but even he was subject to the Basie musical scrutiny.

MR: How about the first time you brought an arrangement to Basie?

FF: The first arrangement I brought to the Basie band was one I brought from Korea with me that I had played with a band in Korea. It was an original cha-cha-cha.

MR: No kidding.

FF: And the band needed a couple of Latin flavored songs for the dancers that they were playing. And they only had one mambo. So this was a mambo, not a cha-cha-cha.

MR: You wrote a mambo?

FF: Yeah. This was an original sort of thing based on a mambo groove, and it was very simple. And I brought it in to the band and we played it. And Basie encouraged me to continue writing. And the results of that encouragement were “Blues Backstage,” and “Blues in Hoss’ Flat,” and eventually “Shiny Stockings.” But it’s not all peaches and cream or roses as it were. If you could count the arrangements that were rejected as stacked up against those that were accepted, the stacks would be pretty even.

MR: No kidding.

FF: Right.

MR: So you’d take it into a rehearsal and did it take him a long time to decide?

FF: No. It never took him a long time. If the arrangement played down the first time and nobody had to decipher it as though it were hieroglyphics and it swung, it was in. Generally if it took too long and people had to labor over phrases and how does this go and what does this mean, and if it sounded like too much dissonance, or too many “pregnant nineteenths” as Basie used to say...

MR: Did he say that?

FF: Yeah he said “son, when you write an arrangement, don’t put too many pregnant nineteenths in there.” So I knew what he meant by “pregnant nineteenths.” And if was too busy, too overloaded, every time it got rejected. Which brings me to the story of “Shiny Stockings.” We were playing a place in Philadelphia called Pep’s Bar. And we’d just arrived in town that morning and we had to rehearse that day because it was customary to rehearse on the opening day of each nightclub engagement. For the Basie band that was practically the only time we ever rehearsed, was the opening day of an engagement at Birdland or Storyville or the Blue Note or the Crescendo or this place in Philadelphia. But we had arrived late and checked in late at the hotel, a long trip from somewhere. Everybody is tired, ill-tempered, hungry, and no one felt like rehearsing. You know we’d rather have done anything than rehearse. But we had to rehearse that day. And I brought “Shiny Stockings” in. And the first rehearsal of “Shiny Stockings,” it just sounded like a 43 car pile-up on the New York Thruway. Everybody ran into everybody. I said oh my, he’ll never play this song and I put so much into it. Well Mr. Basie must have heard something, because with that horrible rehearsal, he must have understood how tired everyone was and how unwilling we were to rehearse and that was the result of our attitudes. He must have heard something because we played it and played it and played it and I guess you could say the rest is history.

MR: I guess so.

FF: But many other songs that sounded like that in rehearsal never got played. And we had an expression, if we were rehearsing something and it wasn’t going well, either because it was too busy or the harmonies weren’t right or it sounded amateurish, we had an expression, “Pasadena,” which meant pass it in. And after we worked on that chart for about ten, fifteen minutes, Marshall Royal, who was the straw boss, he’d say “Pasadena.” And I guess this was sort of code terminology so that if the arranger was somebody outside the band, he wouldn’t know what we were talking about, but you’d see all this music converging on one spot, and it was being passed in.

MR: Well I guess it was a left handed compliment to say I was rejected by Count Basie.

FF: I’ll tell you, Basie, he would always make it up, because years after, this must have been in the early 60’s now, “Shiny Stockings” was introduced to the book in 1955, Basie pulled me over in the corner and he said “kid, you know you wrote that ‘Shiny Stockings?’” I said “yeah.” He said “you really put one down that time, boy.”

MR: It was five years later, huh?

FF: Yeah, right.

MR: He was a man of few words most of the time?

FF: Definitely. But every word meant something.

MR: Just like his playing, right?

FF: Right, exactly. Like his playing.

A non-Basie musician offered a brief story that summed up the respect and admiration that jazz musicians had for Basie and his band. Alto saxophonist Jerry Dodgion was never an official member, but did have the opportunity to play on the 1966 LP “Hollywood Basie’s Way.”

MR: You played on this particular record with Basie. Remember that one?

JD: Sure I do.

MR: Nice record. How did that come about?

JD: Well I knew almost everybody in the band because I’d gone to hear the band so much in those years. And one day Billy Mitchell called me and he said “what are you doing Thursday?” I said “I’m not doing anything, why?” He said “well would you like to make a recording date with Count Basie?” I said “that’s why I’m alive.” I mean that’s the dream, I mean unbelievable, I thought that’s never going to happen. Well he said Bobby Plater had to take off, because he was writing a date for Lockjaw that was scheduled at the exact same time so he couldn’t be there, so would I come in and play. I said great. So I got to play with Marshall Royal, with Basie, and that was always a dream too, you know, because [Royal was] the consummate lead alto player for that band. As Thad [Jones] used to say, “tailor made lead alto.” That was really a thrill. Wonderful.

It’s bittersweet to reflect on the fact that six of the nine Basie alums quoted here are now deceased.

Our next blog will spotlight road stories originating from Basie band members.

July 13, 2011

Tales of the Big Bands: Ellington

At least half of the 300+ individuals we’ve interviewed for the Hamilton College Jazz Archive experienced significant big band work during their careers. Some toiled with obscure bands before they found their way into the small group scene, studio work, and other means of employment. Other well-known musicians spent their whole careers in various big bands. Only a handful of musicians stayed with one band for more than a few years; most of them played musical chairs. They sought better pay and more challenging musical situations, while balancing the road life with home and family. This blog entry will start a series of entries comprised of stories from big band musicians.

A legitimate place to start is with Duke Ellington. Ellington is America’s greatest jazz composer, a man who was able to hold a band together for 50 years and who deservedly is a household name.
In 1964 bassist John Lamb was living in the Philadelphia area making $48 a week as a mail boy in the office of the Acme Food Market chain. He was invited to play a “socialite gig.” Someone recorded it and passed the tape through channels to Duke Ellington. John relates the result of that fortunate incident:

JL: One day I came home after a long day and I saw this telegram. It says “Opportunity if interested give me a call.” So a few days later I called and it was a woman that answered the phone who happened to be a member of a very prominent family in New Jersey. As a matter of fact at one time he was Attorney General. His name was Walter Reed. And it was his wife, Mrs. Reed, had written the telegram, and she said “I have this thing, I’m a friend of Duke Ellington’s and maybe we could set you up with some kind of contact there. All you have to do is come over to the house and we’ll have a little party and we’ll have some Cornish hens, bring your family and your kids and all that and I’ll invite a few other people and I’m going to invite some musicians to play along with you.” And in the back of my mind I said she wants some free music for her party. And so this went along and we set up a date and I piled my son in the back of the station wagon and my wife, and the bass and we went over to Riverton, New Jersey. And we played and she stuck a tape recorder down there. I was aware that the tape recorder was there so what I decided to do I decided to play in the style of Jimmy Blanton. So I was playing in the style of Jimmy Blanton, you know that very basic, driving beat. And so a few weeks later she shoved it in front of Duke when he came to the Steel Pier. So later I was living in a housing project by then and I was comfortable, my kids were walking around. I got this phone call “good evening, Mr. Lamb?” “Yes.” “This is Duke Ellington.” I said “who?” “Duke Ellington.” I said “just a moment please.” So I went back in there and told my wife “that’s Duke Ellington on the phone.” She was very cool about that. So I walked back in and I says “yes, what can I do for you, Mr. Ellington?” And he says “well look here, Mr. Lamb, we’d like you to come up to New York and play some things with us.” So okay, fine. We set up a date. He said “well we’re up at a place called Freedom Land, why don’t you try coming up there” — like say Tuesday or so. “Fine.” “Bye.” That was it. So I hopped on the train at North Station in Philly. Took my bass. This was before we had the wheel, and I carried it. Hopped on the train, went up to New York, got off the train, this was all on a Tuesday. Got off the train and got on another train and went up to the Bronx, and we ran out of subway. And so I had to take a taxi from there. So I took a taxi on over to Freedom Land, which at that time was sort of like a resort area or an entertainment place. And I walked in the place back there, back to the tents. I saw this guy walking around with his slippers on and I said that looks like Johnny Hodges. I’d seen his pictures you know. And I walked back through there and I says “where’s the band” I asked the guy. He says “oh back there.” So I went back into the tent, walked in and there was this guy sitting up with his blue outfit on, he had this blue bandana around his head. And the television was blasting, blaring, it was distorted, I mean it was so loud. And he was fixed on that television set. Turns out that it was Duke. And I was approached by the band boy and he says “are you here, the new bass player?” I said “yeah.” And he says “hey Duke, the bass player’s here.” And Duke stands up and he walks, very gracious, a very nice man. He was like a perfect six feet, a perfect mannequin so to speak, you know, so graceful. Even in that outfit that he had on. And he was very soft spoken and as a matter of fact I says hmmm I’m in the presence of something here, but I don’t know what it is. And he told me he says “well yeah,” he says “you want to take the next set? The second half of the show?” “Yeah.” He said “okay.” Then the band boy says “can he read?” “Yeah, I can read.” You know. So I went on up and did — Peck Morrison was the bass player at the time, he was there for a short time. And so I went in and played the second show. The first tune we did was “Stomping at the Savoy.” I saw this blur, you know, he was kicking off the tune and I didn’t — most band leaders will do something like this [gestures] you know. I didn’t see none of that, he just did like that and the band started. I says uh oh, this is a train. So I hopped on the train and we didn’t quit until the end. It was in the key of D flat. “Stomping at the Savoy.” Okay, the next tune I did was one of the tunes from his “Far East Suite,” he had written that. And I looked at the music and I says this is written in fourths, I says that’s going to be very muddy, I can’t play that that low, with a low A on the bottom. So I reversed everything and made it like this. And somebody says he had noticed that I was changing Duke’s music for the notes. He said “what’s he doing?” So I changed the music around and played, it was a bass solo in the very beginning. As a matter of fact that same thing was recorded afterwards and it received an award. So we played that Far East thing and Cootie [Williams] says “uh huh, that’s all.” Because everybody shook their head. So that was the end of that and the bass player came back out.

MR: Talk about trial by fire.

JL: Yeah, that’s what it was. So I went in and did that and went on back to Philly. The next day another bass player was supposed to come by. But somebody was supposed to pick him up and the person didn’t pick him up. And he didn’t get the gig of course, he never showed up. He was depending upon somebody’s word, whereas I took the train and lugged that thing up there and that probably made the difference. And the ability to play the bass notes. That’s all it is is playing the bottom, whatever is required. And shortly after that I got another phone call back in Philly, it was from Mercer [Ellington]. Mercer says “hey John, Pop wants you to come up to New York” on like Monday or so in a couple of weeks. Well I had to quit my job, you know, I had a day job. And so I said “okay I’ll arrange that.”

MR: Yeah. Interesting. This was 1964?

JL: Yeah, ’64, right. 1964.

MR: What kind of salary did he offer you?

JL: Well my being naïve about salaries, anything was better than what I was getting, $48 a week, and so they decided to start me off with scale. They had to pay me the scale. It was about $60 or something a night I guess.

MR: $60 a night?

JL: Yeah probably $60 a job or something like that. And the stars were getting all the money. And my being, not knowing anything about charges and all that, and prices, I was just happy to get a gig. I had been making $48 a week at Acme Markets. So $60 a night was great, huh? And compared to $50 a week at that other place years ago. And so I worked my way up. Gradually it began to increase.

The late Louie Bellson was one of Ellington’s favorite drummers and was able to witness the almost mystical collaboration between Ellington and Billy Strayhorn.

MR: Did you get a chance to see Ellington and Strayhorn, how they collaborated on their music? It seems like such a fascinating thing the way they pulled that off.

LB: Well you know Strayhorn joined Ellington as a lyricist from what I hear, and Billy Strayhorn told me that he didn’t think that Duke knew at first that he arranged. So Duke gave Strayhorn an assignment for lyrics, and he said “I’ll check you out when I get back, we’ve got to go to Europe.” So when they came back from Europe, Billy said “I write arrangements also.” So Duke said “really?” He said “do you have one?” He said “yeah.” And that was “Take the A Train.” And Strayhorn told me that Duke put his arm around him and said “you’re with me forever.”

MR: Wow.

LB: But you know that was a perfect match. Because nobody in that band, even the guys that had been there for years like Harry Carney, they couldn’t tell the difference, whether Strayhorn wrote the composition or whether Duke did it. That’s how close it was.

MR: Amazing.

LB: They were an exceptional twosome. I would say they were both geniuses, really. Very superstitious. Don’t ever whistle in the dressing room; Duke and Strayhorn never put a button, a finé on an arrangement. They got down to letter S and then just let it fizzle out, then they worked it out at the rehearsal, but never really put like boom, the finale there.

MR: They didn’t write it you mean?

LB: They didn’t write it. They worked it out at rehearsal, see? And never wore a shirt with buttons all the way down, there was only maybe three buttons this way and then the slipover, and no color yellow, but blue was the favorite color. And I made the mistake once of giving him a gift for his birthday, a pair of shoes, he says “no, no, no, don’t do that, don’t do that. That means you’re going to be walking out of my life.”

MR: No kidding?

LB: I said “oh really?” And so I exchanged those for a blue sweater. But they both had that great originality that you look for, that you strive for, and it came natural for them. You know Ellington never really went to school to learn how to write music. And Strayhorn may have had a little bit, but they had that God given talent to be able to sit down and write music but it was strictly their style. They weren’t getting it from somebody else. There it was. In the voicing in the reed section, the voicings in the brass section, being able to supply the soloists. He knew every soloist, what their range was, so when he wrote something for you, it was perfect, just like you getting a brand new set of clothes and they fit perfect. And he gave you the greatest introductions in the world. He really set you up you know. One thing, when I joined the band, Strayhorn and I roomed together for almost three weeks. And I made the mistake of telling Strayhorn one night, we were just talking and I said “Strayhorn, how did Duke voice that ‘Caravan?’ thing? Boy, man, I could really see the camels coming when they play that one part.” And he went like this to me “ahhh.” And I said “oh, excuse me, I’m invading your privacy.” So I didn’t say a word, and I guess Strayhorn had talked to Duke about me asking and so forth, and nothing happened for about oh, three or four months, and all of a sudden we were doing a one-nighter and Duke got up on the piano, this was before the people came in, and he said “come here, sit down by the piano.” He explained to me how he voiced “Caravan.” What notes he gave to Johnny Hodges, what notes he gave to Procope, Carney, and so forth. “This is what I did.” So I thought to myself man, here the great Duke Ellington is taking time out to show me some voicings.

The early 50’s was a time of significant racial tension, depending on where you were in the country. Here Louie addresses that part of traveling with a big band.

MR: Was there ever any problem in certain parts of the country with any racial subjects coming up?

LB: Well yes. In 1951 they had the Big Show of 1951, which consisted of Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughan and Duke Ellington’s band. They were the three big stars. Now besides that they had Peg Leg Bates, Timmy Rodgers, Stump and Stumpy, Patterson and Jackson, all these wonderful acts — tap dancing acts, you know. It took us a week to rehearse that whole show, playing with Nat King Cole and Sarah, Duke, and all these acts. So after we finished rehearsing for a week, Duke finally discovered that hey, we’re getting ready to go down to the deep south you know? And in those days, you had segregated audiences. And we couldn’t, the whites couldn’t play with the blacks at that time you see. And in those days it was “colored,” you didn’t use the word “blacks” see? So now the big problem is, Duke called me in the dressing room and says “what are we going to do? I can’t find a drummer to take your place, because it would be a week’s rehearsal and the guys that can do it, they’re all busy.” So Duke says “you mind being a Haitian?” I said “no, okay, that’s all right” you know. So we got through it okay. It was a little tense, because the situation was still down there, and the audience, because they told Jack Costanzo with Nat King Cole he couldn’t appear because of the racial thing you know. But some spots it was a little rough. But we got through it. I think through Ellington’s peaceful ways and the wonderful attitude that the band had you know, kind of rubbed off on everybody. But still it existed.

MR: Well it’s nice that the music had a part in helping that situation to move along a little faster.

LB: Well you know we played a gig in Mississippi and there the townspeople were wonderful, they came to the rescue, where we couldn’t stay in certain hotels. I mean these people came from wealthy families too. They had Strayhorn and Duke and Clark Terry stay in one house, and Carney and Russell Procope and myself in another house, and all on down the line. Beautiful homes and they fed us. So you know, along with the bad there’s some good too. And these were situations that we got over, we dealt with it. Sometimes it’s almost like a slap in the face but you realize what the situation is and you go straight ahead because you’ve got something to do that’s valued and I think when you do that you realize that none of those things should bother the musicality of something. It’s the fact that whoever’s playing that music doesn’t make a difference, let’s play it and show where the peace and love is.

The late trombonist Grover Mitchell was a player who was lucky enough to spend time in both the Ellington and Basie bands, eventually leading the Basie Orchestra in 1995. Grover describes the discipline, or lack thereof, that resulted with a band that carried all the positives and negatives associated with a large family.

MR: I heard [Ellington] had his own method of discipline.

GM: Look, let me tell you, just to give you an anecdote. The first night, I lived in the San Francisco area. We had left the Monterey Jazz Festival. This was the second year, 1960 I guess it was. And we got to San Francisco in this club that we played that was owned by the DuPonts called The Nevey. And the first night was just absolutely gorgeous. The band just roared. This was my first night with these people, see? And the second night, it seemed like everybody was late. There was a nucleus in this band that was always on time. You could always figure you would see Lawrence Brown, you know he was very dapper and he was sitting there and never late and all that stuff. And oh, Lou the trumpet player there, and the rhythm section pretty much would be there. And so some of the guys were out milling around in the audience and I mean here I am in what was my hometown then, trying to make this big impression and you know I was really embarrassed you know what I mean? So he had this funny old medley or something that he could play with two or three guys on the stand, and he would go through this act, you know “Ladies and Gentlemen, we’ve been successful over the years” and he’d go into these unison type things with maybe six people up there. So I told him I says “wow, Duke, man this is terrible, this is embarrassing, all of my friends are here.” And he says “look, I don’t worry about these people. Number one, these people are not going to drive me crazy. I live for the night that this band is great. Tonight means nothing to me.” I said “oh, how can you say that?” Because here are these guys milling around, and Jimmy Hamilton was sitting there, he was playing and I’m all upset, and I says “Jimmy, look at all these people walking around out here, and we should be up on the bandstand playing” you know and he looks at me like I’m crazy and the waiter comes up to the bandstand and says “Mr. Hamilton, your steak is ready.” And right in the middle of the tune he steps over the rail and starts cutting on a steak. And so about a week later we were playing at an Air Force Base outside of Sacramento called Mather Air Force Base now. There’s no place to go. So here’s the band, and they’ve got to play. There’s no place for these guys to fool around and you know, this whole military atmosphere, and so the band is just roaring, beautiful. And so I hear the piano player, Duke, saying dink-dink-dink-dink; dink-dink-dink-dink. And so I looked around, and he over there and he says [whispers] “see what I mean?” So. That’s the way he was. And nothing bothered him.

I think it’s safe to say that a “rich jazz sideman” is an oxymoron. Life as a big band sideman was strenuous, sometimes monotonous, and occasionally exciting, but rarely financially rewarding. Salary issues played a role in the decision of moving from one band to another. Because of union regulations, loyalties, and simple good manners, leaving one band for a competitor had to be undertaken with caution. In this clip, trumpeter Clark Terry relates to his friend Joe Williams the behind-the-scenes story of his move from Basie to Ellington:

CT: Joseph, I’ve got a Basie story.

JW: Count Basie?

CT: Yeah. I don’t know if everybody knows about this, but when I was with the Basie band, and when I left the Basie band to join Duke, you know I left, well we had kicked it around a little bit and he had sent his scouts around, and one time Joe Morgan said “you want to join the band?” And I used to like his little hat that he used to wear. And he said “I’ll get you a hat like this if you’ll join.” So finally we talked about it long enough and I finally decided well I think I’d like to join Duke’s band. This is when, at this time, Basie was down to a quintet. So we were working in Chicago —

JW: At the Brass Rail.

CT: At the Brass Rail, right. So Duke finally he comes around and he says “I’d like to discuss things with you.” So he says “okay?” He says “but we can’t do it out in public, so later on I’ll have to come to your hotel.” So I says “okay, I’m at the Southway.” He says “all right, I’ll come by and I’ll call you when I get in the lobby and I’ll hurriedly get out of the lobby and meet you in your room.” So I says “okay.” So he comes to the hotel, and he calls up and I says “oh, all right.” So he says “I’ll meet you on your floor and I’ll meet you at the elevator and show me where it is.” So Duke gets off the elevator about the same time I come out my door. And just as I walk out of my door and Duke steps off the elevator, and next door to me is Freddie Green. Freddie Green opens his door and steps out. He says “woah,” and went back and slammed the door. So of course Duke and I went on with our business. But that night on the gig, Freddie, I walked in and you know, Pep [Freddie Green] would look at you like this, he didn’t even say hello. “If you don’t you’re a fool.” So the funny thing is, the conversation with me and Duke, he says “well now we’ve agreed on the bread and everything,” and for me it was a big bread in those days. ‘Cause I was making with Basie $125 a week, and the last part of my stint with the Basie band I got a raise, $15 raise, so I’m making $140 a week. And Duke says, Duke would give me $225 a week.

JW: All right.

CT: Oh, man, that was great big bread for me, you know, ‘cause there was cats in there making three and four and five, but I didn’t know it. But to me, that was big bread. So that day he says to me, he says “well you know, it’s just not proper protocol for a person to snatch somebody out of his buddy’s band. So we’ll have to strategically work this out.” I said “okay, what do you suggest?” He said “well I’ll tell you what I think. I think you should maybe just get sick and tell Bill [Basie] that you’re going to go home and recuperate and while you’re home recuperating I’ll put you on salary.” Yeah? Wow man. Ain’t no better deal than that. So I went back and told Bas’ that I put my notice in, I said “no Bas’, I’m just not feeling good, I just need to go home and just get on.” And he said “okay, well when you get yourself together you can come on back, because this is always home for you.” So I said “thanks, Bill, I appreciate it very much.” So I went home, I’m on salary, and right away the first check, wham, so before I get home, you know?” So this went on and on until the band just happened to come through St. Louis, three months later, I’m on salary for three months, and they’re coming through St. Louis playing the Keel Auditorium on November the 11th, Armistice Day. And I just happened to join the band. That was the Big Show with Sarah Vaughan, Peg Leg Bates, Patterson and Jackson and all them from the Big Show. I don’t know if it was ‘51 or ‘52. But anyhow, I left and went with the band. I stayed with the band for almost ten years you know? And years later, I went up to the Carnegie Hall when Basie was already sick and he had to take a little side elevator to ride up, this was before they installed the thing that they’ve got there now. And I went backstage to see him and I’m standing at the top and he’s coming up and I said “you know one thing?” I said “I have a confession to make to you, something that’s been bugging me for years and years.” He said “yeah? what is it?” I said “when I left the band you know, I told you I was sick and going home,” I said “I wasn’t really sick.” He said “um humm.” I said “the reason I did that is because Duke had made me an offer I couldn’t pass up.” He said “um humm.” He said “why do you think I took the raise back, you think I didn’t know that?”

Clark will help us transition to the next entry which will focus on my favorite big band, the Count Basie Orchestra.