Bill Hughes: Director of the Count Basie Orchestra
AAJ: The next question may seem a bit tacky. Anyhow, when I lived in New York in the 1960s, one of my most memorable thrills was to hear the Basie band at the Randalls Island Jazz Festival. The place was jumpin' of course, but I thought to myself, "This guy Basie has quite a racket going. He just sits there at the piano and every so often he bangs out a couple of notes! He doesn't do anything!
BH: (Laughter.) That's what everybody thought!
AAJ: Looking back, he seemed like a Zen Master rather than a band leader.
BH: No, he listened to the band a lot. And Basie played most of the introductions. In this way, he was able to doodle around until he got exactly the tempo he wanted. Then Freddie Green (guitar) would join in and then we'd get going.
AAJ: He certainly had a very special feel for the music. You can hear this on his early recordings with the Kansas City groups.
BH: Well he had the same ability with this band. You would have learned a lot about him if you came to one of the rehearsals. We'd start out with an arrangement that sounded unlike Basie, but he would sit there and say, "Cut that part out. "Play this like this. Or, "We'll put something in there, like a trombone or trumpet solo. He would change the arrangements around so they would be completely different. Sometimes that worked out fantastic. Do you know the story of the tune, "Little Darlin'? When Neil Hefti brought that to Basie, Hefti had us play it three times as fast as Basie, who finally brought it down to a slow drag tempo. And it became an historical piece for Basie. Basie had great ears for hearing exactly what he wanted his band to sound like.
AAJ: In effect, Basie would revise the original arrangement.
BH: That's right. He would take the arrangements that were written and change them around to his way of playing them. And they would sound completely different from what the arranger had intended!
AAJ: Basie played for a short time with a midwestern-based group called the Blue Devils. Is that where he got his "feel for the music?
BH: The Blue Devils? There's a documentary called The Last of the Blue Devils. It's not about the group itself, but some of the guys in that group who met in Kansas City much later to reminisce and play some of the records. It's very nice.
AAJ: That band influenced Basie's sound?
BH: Of course. He profited from his time in Kansas City. When Basie first went to K.C. he came with a traveling band that came straight out of New York with a different sound from Kansas City, because here comes Jo Jones playing the tempo up on top with the cymbals, while the K.C. guys were playing old-time stuff with the bass drum at that point.
AAJ: That shift in percussion emphasis was a major shift in jazz style.
BH: Oh, yeah! That rhythm section changed the whole scene. It had a big influence on Basie.
AAJ: What enabled you guys to create that extraordinary drive and bounce that the Basie band is known for?
BH: It all emanated from his rhythm section. When I got there, the drummer was Gus Johnson, and Gus was one of the swingin'-est guys I've ever played with. He wasn't as dynamic as the guy that took his place, Sonny Payne, but he had a swing, man, that just put us on Cloud Nine every time we played!
AAJ: Basie had a band going before the 1950s. They sometimes call it the "Old Testament group. Then it dissolved and in the '50s a group was convened called the New Testament. What's the story behind all that?
BH: The last of the Old Testament band got caught up in World War II. A lot of the important guys got drafted and Basie couldn't find suitable replacements. And the big band thing was coming to an end anyhow. So he had a hard time keeping them on the road, and just swapped it off and started a whole new band. I guess you know about that early seven-piece group - three horns and four rhythm. Freddie Green, the guitarist, told me Basie wanted to make it a six-piece group without a guitar. But Freddy went down to them somewhere where they were workin' and told them he wasn't leaving them! (Laughter). He jumped up on the bandstand and started playin'! And Freddy just took his job back!
AAJ: So, how did the New Testament group get started? You came in just about at the beginning, right?
BH: That band came about because John Hammond encouraged Basie a lot with the idea that he could start up a new big band and make it work. So with some financial help from John - and Willard Alexander, who booked from that time into the '70s - they helped Basie along and were able to line up quite a few prominent New York musicians to get started, among whom were Paul Quinochette, Benny Powell, Charlie Foulkes, Reynaud Jones, Clark Terry - for a short time - and Joe Newman. They had a pretty good bunch of guys. Almost right away the band was accepted soundwise - they had to work hard to get it so it sounded like a cohesive unit. They finally did that. When I joined the group, it was already poppin'. Frank Foster came in probably a little before 1953 - and of course everyone knows the history of his arrangements with the band. He did a lot of super charts.