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Bill Hughes: Director of the Count Basie Orchestra


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Do you know the story of the tune, Little Darlin
The Count Basie Orchestra is a "big band phenomenon that has become a tradition. Their unique sound, combining blues and swing with an intensity and rhythm all their own, is and always has been immediately recognizable. For over half a century they have been generating thrills in concert halls, universities, nightclubs and festivals around the globe. Like the immortal Louis Armstrong, they have become our goodwill ambassadors, representing the jazz idiom to delighted audiences everywhere.

When Basie passed away in 1984, the guys decided to stay together and their saxophonist/arranger Frank Foster led the group for a number of years, followed by trombonist Grover Mitchell. Recently another alumni trombonist, Bill Hughes, was called upon to take the director spot. In just a short time Hughes has shaped the Basie orchestra into a crack team that combines the Basie sound with just a touch of modernism in the arrangements. The orchestra creates both nostalgic joy and rocking sound for their audiences, with traditional charts, some newer ones and state-of-the-art solos by every musician in the 17-piece ensemble. Bill has maintained the Basie tradition while at the same time bringing in his own unique qualities as a leader and musical force. The combination of old timers from the original band and young guys with a real flair for their instruments assures continuity while keeping the band up-to-date in today's competitive jazz scene.

When I heard the band at the Kimmel Center in May (2005), their thrilling performance got me off my seat and backstage to ask Bill if he would do an interview for All About Jazz. He was delighted to do so. Bill is a guy who comes across as easygoing, warm and friendly, yet totally aware of everything going on around him at every moment. It was a pleasure to interview him. I am sure you will enjoy reading the interview as much as I did speaking with him.


Bill Hughes, The Trombonists and joining the Basie Band
The Evolution of the Basie Sound
The Good Old Times
Getting Up To Date
One More Time: A Summing Up

All About Jazz: Ready to go?

Bill Hughes: I'm ready to go when you're ready to go. By the way, your review of the Kimmel concert was great, man.

AAJ: Thanks, Bill. First we'll go back to the past, then talk about the Basie Orchestra today.

BH: Sort of a chronological line.

AAJ: Right. By the way, Count Basie's autobiography, Good Morning, Blues, which you recommended to me, is a fabulous book. Thanks for turning me on to it. Also, a propos of your instrument, I'm a former trombonist myself. I studied with Alan Raph in New York.

BH: Oh, yes. I know Alan. He's had a great career.

AAJ: Let's start out with the usual warmup question. If you were going to be on a desert island, which recordings would you take with you?

BH: Gustav Mahler. There's something about his music that keeps me locked on the whole time the orchestra is playing.

AAJ: I too appreciate Mahler's music. The connection between jazz and classical influences runs deep. Charlie Parker and the bebop generation were turned on by Stravinsky, for example.

BH: That's true.

AAJ: What about jazz recordings?

BH: I was a great J.J. Johnson lover. Early on, I tried to fashion my phrases after J.J. He came up a few years before me and was very innovative as to the way he was phrasing, as if he had a valve instrument rather than a slide. That affected me greatly. And he was also able to manipulate that thing very fast and, of course, I tried to hook onto that too. He was one of my main heroes.

AAJ: J.J. and I became friends in his last years.

BH: Well, I became a friend of his, too, and although I never got a chance to work with him I had many conversations with him. He meant a lot to me. By the way, are you still playing, Schermer?

AAJ: No, I'm too much of a perfectionist. I don't have time enough to keep my chops up.

BH: I understand.

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Bill Hughes, The Trombonists and joining the Basie Band

AAJ: Speaking of the trombone, why did you choose to play bass trombone rather than tenor?

BH: That's a whole other story. The first time I joined the Basie band, I was playing tenor trombone. That was in 1953. Basie had three trombones and, even on those occasions when he used four, it was all tenor trombones. Even before I left in 1957 he was saying he wanted to go to four trombones and he wished that one would be a bass. As it happened, Benny Powell was playing a modified tenor with the F attachment. He was playing a lot of those lower notes we couldn't play on the tenor trombones, so he set the standard for the sound. Then when I came back to the band in 1963, after about a year or so Basie said he'd like me or Grover Mitchell - did you ever meet Grover?

AAJ: No.

BH: Basie wanted one of us - Grover or me - to play the lead and the other to play the bass trombone. I jumped on it and said, "Yeah, I'll play the bass trombone, Chief! I didn't know what I was getting into, but I jumped on it anyhow.

AAJ: Was that you on the famous recording of "April in Paris?

BH: I was on the recording, but Benny Powell played the solo.

AAJ: You played the bass trombone?

BH: No, I was playing tenor.

AAJ: What trombone are you playing now?

BH: A Holton bass trombone. Because when I took over the directorship of the Basie band, I was playing bass, so I just carried it forward to the present.

AAJ: How did you originally get connected to the Basie band? That was 1953?

BH: Yes. Well, I had played previously with guys like Frank Wess, Benny Powell and Eddie Jones, the bassist. I was recommended by Frank Wess. I was living in Washington, D.C., where Wess and Eddie lived at the time. Basie called and I didn't believe it was him! In fact, I had studied pharmacy at Howard University and was working at the National Health Institute. When Basie called I first thought he was a practical joker. I had been married a little over a year and had a kid. I told my wife, somebody's pulling my leg! Wants me to join the Basie band! And he called me back two hours later and said, "I want to give you some information about the rehearsals. I said, "Are you really Count Basie? He said, "Yeah! The guys recommended you for an opening I have on trombone. I'd like you to come up and rehearse with the band and let me hear what you got.

So, I went up and rehearsed in New York with the band - I told my wife, I don't think I'm gonna make it, be back in a couple of days. At the time, there was a place called Nola Studios at 49th Street and Broadway. I sat in with the band there. Basie seemed to be satisfied with what I was doing, so he said, "I'd like you to come back and work with the band at the Savoy Ballroom the day after tomorrow. I went back to D.C., grabbed my stuff and told my wife, I'd probably be back in a week or so, and we played the Savoy - which was the last time Basie played there. They closed shortly after that.

AAJ: Where was the Savoy located?

BH: Right up at 130th Street and Lexington Avenue.

AAJ: Were you thrilled or scared?

BH: I was more scared than thrilled! (laughter). I was scared on every note! And there was a guy named Henry Coker, who was playing the lead trombone. Coker, by the way, was one of the most underrated trombone players in jazz and somehow never got the credit he deserved for the part he played in perpetuating the greatness of this band throughout the '50s and '60s! Anyhow, Coker said, "When Basie stands up and points at you, that's when you're to start playing. I tried to avoid that, but he pointed to me on some kind of blues, and I stood up and played. I guess it was enough to satisfy him. So, that was the beginning of my career with Basie and I stayed for a little over four years. I left in September of 1957. And the reason I left was because my wife was present with our third child. Our second child was born in 1955 and I didn't see him until he was a month old because I was on the road with Basie. So, when my daughter was born I didn't want to be out on the road and I left the band. Unfortunately, I left on kind of bad terms. Basie didn't want me to go.

AAJ: What did you do during that time?

BH: I worked at the post office and played trombone at a place called the Howard Theater, and did some gigs around D.C. with some small groups. Then, when Basie would come to D.C. I'd go to hear the band and he'd invite me to sit in with them. And he'd always say, "I want you to come back as the fourth trombone. And I'd say, "OK, Chief, I'll be thinkin' about it. Finally in 1963 he called me back because Benny Powell was leaving. So when I got back, Benny had left, and Henry Coker was still in the band and Grover Mitchell had joined, so there were the three of us.

AAJ: And that was when you took the bass trombone chair?

BH: We played with those three trombones for about a year or so until Basie wanted to expand and I took up bass trombone.

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The Evolution of the Basie Sound

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.

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The Good Old Times

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?

BH: Yes.

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.

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Getting Up To Date

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.

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One More Time: A Summing Up

AAJ: How can readers keep track of the band?

BH: There's a Count Basie web site.

AAJ: Are the young people turning out to your concerts?

BH: We get most of the young people when we play the universities. It always gets those young people going "Hey! There's something new out there musically because they don't get to hear big bands play often. It knocks them over when they hear the Basie band.

AAJ: I think it's very important to bring young people into contact with jazz.

BH: Definitely.

AAJ: Just to wrap it up, I ask people "Do you have a guiding philosophy of life, of spirituality? Because you know Coltrane said that music was his life, his spirit.

BH: My thing is, if we're gonna exist in this world, we're gonna have music. And if we're gonna have music, why not make it music that's joyful? That's my intent, every time we get up on that bandstand, is to try to get the guys to play as joyfully as they can to make people happy. That's my thing.

AAJ: Well, if my experience counts at all, you certainly fulfill that goal.

BH: Thank you. That's my main intent. It's not to glorify my name or anything. My thing is to glorify the Count Basie Orchestra and make it joyful.

AAJ: It sure works!

BH: Thank you. Every little bit of encouragement I get helps me.

AAJ: What do you envision for the group down the pike?

BH: Right now, we want to get a record out, a statement of where the band is right now. The sooner we can get that done, the more relaxed I'll feel. It's a bit of a struggle because with a big band there's always some financial entanglements. So that's what we want to work out.

AAJ: Do you have ideas about tours?

BH: Our tours take care of themselves. We're working most of the year. But we want to keep doing recordings to let the world know what we're doing.

AAJ: I may be getting sentimental, but I was very personally moved at that Kimmel concert and I've gotten some emails from others who felt the same way.

BH: That's great - it makes me and the band feel good.

AAJ: And this interview was a thrill for me.

BH: Well, I guess we'll be talking more as the future rolls around.

AAJ: We sure will.

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Visit the Count Basie Orchestra on the web.

Related Article
The Count Basie Orchestra and Vocalist Lizz Wright

Photo Credit
Armond Bagdasarian

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