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Bill Hughes: Director of the Count Basie Orchestra

Victor L. Schermer By

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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.

Index

Introduction
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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