Bill Hughes: Director of the Count Basie Orchestra

Victor L. Schermer By

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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

About Bill Hughes
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