Bill Hughes: Director of the Count Basie Orchestra
BH: By the way, did you ever hear of a guy named Johnny Mandel?
AAJ: Did I ever hear of Johnny Mandel!! [The great songwriter.]
BH: He was with the band then. I took his place when he decided to go to Hollywood and compose, where he did very well, of course!
AAJ: I had no idea he was a trombonist early on. I just thought he was one of the great popular composers. Did he ever do any arrangements for Basie?
AAJ: What are the Foster classics? "Shiny Stockings, right?
BH: He wrote "Shiny Stockings, "Who, Me? "Blues in Frankie's Flat.
AAJ: He was the main arranger then.
BH: Frank is still very busy. Even though he lost his playing chops because of a stroke.
AAJ: Is that why he left as director of the band?
BH: No, he left the directorship for other reasons.
AAJ: Is he all right?
BH: He had a stroke about five years after he left the Basie band and he can't use his left side any more, so he can't play the sax any more, But he's still writing and still conducts a band every now and then from his wheelchair.
AAJ: Now, I love Benny Carter's music. Like Basie, he led a band that played at African-American music halls prior to desegregation. Basie and Carter knew each other, right?
BH: Definitely. And Benny did an album for Basie back in 1956 or '57. He did the arrangements and it turned out to be a very good album if you ever get a chance to hear it.
AAJ: So, the Count would ask these guys to do arrangements. But he would sort of take over at that point?
BH: Yes, he would ask guys to do arrangements for him. And on some occasions he would tell them exactly what tunes he had in mind. They would write what they wanted, and then invariably Basie would change some things.
AAJ: Did you work those great European festivals, Montreux and the like?
BH: Oh, yes, did I ever!
AAJ: Did you do those recordings with Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald?
BH: All that stuff!
AAJ: What was it like to record with Sinatra?
BH: With Frank, the one that was the biggest was the one called Basie and Sinatra at the Sands, a live recording. We would tape every show, straight ahead, no revisions. And it came out to be a pretty good album. Sinatra always seemed to be very relaxed with the band. He loved Basie. There would be a lot of humor between him and Basie.
AAJ: Did Sinatra, powerhouse that he was, take over the sessions?
BH: More or less. But he was not too instructional when we were playing. Every now and then, something would be too loud for his taste and he would say, "bring that down, etc. But as far as the phrasing and all that stuff, he left that to the band and Basie. On the Sands gigs, Quincy Jones was conducting and a lot of the music was his.
AAJ: How did that come about?
BH: I think Frank had a special connection with Quincy.
AAJ: That's right. Quincy Jones was his arranger for a period of time. To change the subject a bit, do you have any special memories or anecdotes of the band?
BH: You know, there were so many humorous and interesting things that happened along the way with this band. Some of the stories are kind of "red-lined if you know what I mean (laughter).
AAJ: Any recollections of Lester Young?
BH: Lester wasn't actually in the band, but we did a series of concerts with him that a guy at Birdland put together. It was called the Birdland show. We went around the country with a variety of musicians from Sarah Vaughn to Pres (Lester Young) to Terry Gibbs to Roy Eldridge. The personnel would change with each show. To play with Pres in action was new for me, although I had played with him on one occasion in D.C., and I think he was so high, he never remembered me playing with him then! Pres used to just stay on the back seat of the bus, and he called everybody - men and women - by his pet name, "Lady, and he'd tell a few stories with those he was comfortable with, like Freddy Green and Basie. My greatest thrill was being able to talk to the Pres.
AAJ: Billy Holiday sang with the group?
BH: That was before I joined. Now we did do a concert that John Hammond put together called From Blues to Swing, and Billy Holiday was on that job. Boy, she would cuss like a sailor all day long while we were rehearsing! As I remember, she did a great performance.
AAJ: These connections are just unbelievable. So now, let's take it up to the present time. How did you come to take over as director after Frank Foster?
BH: Frank led the group for about ten years. There developed some differences of opinion and he chose to leave. I came to it after Grover Mitchell. He was the leader from about 1995 until he died in 2003. Grover was one of my best buddies and we more or less got together on the running of the band. He confided in me a lot and I did what I could to help him, but I was still playing the bass trombone chair. He had a very rough year in 2003. He had a cancer that finally took him out in August 2003. We floated around some names of people who could possibly take over and not jilt the public too much. We thought of Frank Wess and Benny Powell. They weren't too keen on it, so the next logical person was me because of my connection with the '50s band.
AAJ: So what made you accept the position? I mean, you could do whatever you choose to. Why would you take on such responsibilities, road trips, etc?
BH: It took a lot of persuasion from family, from people calling me from everywhere, and the encouragement of the guys in the band, and I finally said, "Well, OK. I'll give it a try. It's been a little over a year and half now. It's different- you're used to playing the horn on every tune, and all of a sudden you're not.
AAJ: I noticed at the Kimmel concert that you picked up your axe only once or twice.
BH: Well, you've got to give the other guys their shot!
AAJ: Some of the arrangements at the concert were fabulous. Who's doing your charts now?
BH: Well, Bob Ojeda has done a considerable amount of arranging for us, and Frank Foster and Sam Nestico still contribute.
AAJ: Where is Nestico these days?
BH: He lives in California. He does some great things with schools and universities, and every now and then he does a big band album. He's still active.
AAJ: How do you recruit the new guys for the group?
BH: One of the guys is very new - he's only been with the band about two weeks! Grant Langford.
AAJ: How do you find these guys?
BH: Mostly, as is true of the history of the band, somebody recommends someone they think can play the chair. Grant came to me because he was highly recommended by several musicians. Grant is a very well-balanced young man and he plays good saxophone, so I guess he'll be here for a while.
AAJ: So you look for musicians with good character as well as ability to play?
BH: That's right. Because you get a lot of great instrumentalists who wouldn't fit into the band. That's one thing that Basie was careful about, getting someone who melded into the band scene itself, because you're close with these individuals traveling, sometimes you're together three or four weeks at a time. If you have an individual who's a bit off center he can cause problems. When you hire someone you have to look at them for a while to see if they're gonna fit in on a personal level. Basie taught me that.
AAJ: Basie was evidently very mature as a person - very responsible, thoughtful.
BH: Basie was one of the most impressive men I've every met. To me, Basie was a psychologist in his own right - he seemed to know how to figure guys out.
AAJ: On another note, the musicians in the current Basie Orchestra, do they do other gigs too - make the scene, so to speak - or are they exclusively working for the Basie group?
BH: No, when we have some time off we're playing elsewhere, doing our thing. That's good. It keeps our chops together and lets us vent some steam in other ways.
AAJ: One of the wonderful things you've done with this group, with some of the newer musicians, you've blended the contemporary sounds with the traditional almost seamlessly.
BH: I'll tell you what: when I'm leading and conducting rehearsals, I'm trying to hear what Basie would have heard, and trying to figure out whether I should change a phrase, maybe lay back a little bit, because sometimes the way the music is written is not the way you want it to sound. I think it's important for the leader to step in and inject something into it.
AAJ: So the music is still evolving. In one tune, "Nature Boy, which Lizz Wright sung with the band at the Kimmel, there was a beautiful antiphonal thing between the brass and woodwinds.
BH: We very rarely repeat in any show any particular line, because we keep trying to put up new stuff every night and put up new tunes every night, just to challenge the guys. We never do two shows in a row with the same tunes. We've got to keep the musicians interested. In his later years, Basie physically lost his ability to keep up with all the tunes and a lot of the time we were playing the same tunes every night. It started to tell. We lost interest. So that's a lesson learned. We have a big repertoire, so why not use it?
AAJ: In terms of your audiences these days, are you playing mostly in concert halls, colleges?
BH: Mostly concert halls. We do a fair amount of schools. And now we're doing a fair amount of work with symphony orchestras. We work with orchestras like the Dallas Symphony, The Malaysian Symphony in Kuala Lampur. Last month, we worked with the West Palm Beach Pops Orchestra for five nights and the reception was tremendous.
AAJ: What pieces do you play?
BH: Well, I tell you what, Frank Foster comes through again. He's written some orchestral extensions to be played around his original arrangements. We have some as well from Sam Nestico. We're trying to see if we can get some of it recorded.