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Big Band Report

After You've Gone . . .

By Published: September 29, 2003
How would you like to be remembered? I mean, after you’re gone. Yes, you are going, my friend. I’m sorry to have to be the one to tell you that, but sooner or later we’re all going. And when we’re gone, we’ll continue to live on — for a while, anyway — in the memories of those we’ve left behind (who, by the way, will soon be joining us, small comfort that that is). I’d like to be remembered for having made some contribution, however slight, to the betterment of humankind, but most of all as having been a decent person who treated everyone with respect, regardless of his or her station in life as compared to my own.

I remember Grover Mitchell, who passed away on August 6 at age seventy-three, as a fine trombonist and the leader in recent years of the Count Basie Orchestra, but mostly I remember him as a really nice guy who once did me a favor I’ve not forgotten, nor will I ever forget it. It wasn’t much, really, but to me it separated Grover from the herd and placed him apart from and above many of his more self-absorbed peers.

It happened nearly a decade ago, I guess. Had to be more than six years, as I was still living in Illinois. The occasion was an appearance by the Basie band at FitzGerald’s nightclub in Berwyn, a suburb just west of downtown Chicago. Rob Parton’s excellent ensemble was first on the bandstand with the Basie band to follow. At the time, I was reviewing discs and writing an occasional column for The Jazz Report and Marge Hofacre’s (now-defunct) Jazz News, and planned to say a few words about the concert. As there were no printed programs and I wasn’t familiar with the Basie band’s personnel, I ventured backstage after Rob’s set to see if I could get some names.

Spotting a tall, heavyset gentleman standing alone, I approached to see if he could be of any help. When he introduced himself as Grover Mitchell, I asked if he would be good enough to let me know the names of some of the band members so I could write them down. “No need for that,” he said. “I’ll do it for you.” With that, he took my pad and pen and wrote in a legible hand the names of every member of the band and the instruments they played. To him it was no big deal. To me it was an unselfish gesture by someone who had much better things to do with his time but chose to be helpful instead of making excuses. In doing so, he left an indelible memory, and as long as I’m around Grover Mitchell will be remembered not only as a splendid musician but, even more important, as a warm and generous human being with an abundance of class. Rest well, Grover; you’ll be missed.

And Speaking of Class . . .
No one ever had an unkind word to say about Bill Perkins, a modest, soft-spoken giant of the tenor sax who once replied, when asked why he’d never led a band of his own, “I’m a born follower.” Perhaps so, but there are many who consider Perk one of the leaders of the so-called West Coast school of Lester Young-influenced tenor stars who emerged in the ’50s and ’60s.

Perkins, who died in California on August 9 at age seventy-nine, is perhaps best remembered as a stellar soloist with the Stan Kenton Orchestra in the mid-’50s but performed with a variety of groups large and small including the Woody Herman Orchestra, trumpeter Shorty Rogers’ Giants and the wild-and-woolly Terry Gibbs Big Band before leaving music for ten years to work as a recording engineer. He returned in 1969 as a member of Doc Severinsen’s Tonight Show ensemble, remaining there until 1992. An excellent sight reader who doubled on clarinet, flute, soprano and baritone saxophones, he was in great demand as a studio musician as well as a sideman who always came to play. In 1991 Perk finally led a big-band studio recording, Our Man Woody, which sought (rather successfully) to recapture the spirit and fire of the celebrated Herman Herds. He’d been battling cancer for more than a decade but kept on playing almost until the end. Last year, he led a re-creation of the Shorty Rogers Giants at a festival in England and returned this year to do the same. An optimist to the end, he bought a new clarinet only three weeks before his passing in spite of having had nine operations on his throat. A memorial service was held on August 18 at the musicians’ union in Los Angeles, and if it wasn’t packed to the rafters I’d be very much surprised.

On the Road Again . . .
As we’ve mentioned before, Betty and I are heading west this month, to Albuquerque, New Mexico, from which locale next month’s reviews and column will come. We’ll be shutting down operations here in NC on September 27 and flying out the next day. We hope to be in the new home on or about October 1. Right now I’m hoping for a fresh infusion of big-band albums, as there are none on the stack. But there are a couple in the pipeline, I hear, including a new one by Gordon Goodwin’s beefy Big Phat Band, so we do have something to look forward to. Until then, keep swingin’!



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