The ex-Maynard Ferguson/Woody Herman trumpeter talking to trumpeter/bandleader Bob Leaper during a 1963 Count Basie tour of Britain
Is this your first trip over?
Well, not really. I was here twice when I was in the Navy, in 1955 and 1956. I was in a ship band, but we didn’t really get to play in town, except for the NAAFI clubs in Portsmouth and Plymouth. We used to go around and sit in with local bands in the dance halls down there. I played with Ronnie Scott one night at the Flamingo club when I was on leave here in London. Which was really the only musical ball I had.
Were you playing professionally before that?
Not really. I graduated from high school in the June, did one semester in college and joined the Navy right after that. I used to work in Latin bands mostly around Los Angeles.
Were you born in Los Angeles?
No, I was born in Rochester, Pennsylvania, which is about 30 miles from Pittsburgh. I started music when I was five years old. My father was a trombone player and he’d been on the road a long time. He wanted me to play trombone, I think, but they had a pretty good trumpet player in the band he was travelling with. I took a liking to him and decided that I wanted to play trumpet.
My father, being a brass expert, took care of my basic tuition. Although when he saw that I was really getting interested in playing he tried to discourage me, because he’d given up fulltime playing then. He tried to make an insurance man out of me, which is the scene he’s in now. At the time I got out of the Navy there wasn’t much happening in L.A. I sat around for about nine months.
I had a job with a newspaper. I still had it in my mind that I wanted to play, but I was getting sort of old. Like, I was 21 and I still had never worked with a band! So my father said: “Why don’t you forget it?” I tried to, but in the meantime this tenor player friend of mine, Beau Boyd, went down to college in Texas. He wrote me a letter and he said : “Listen, man, they’ve got a good band down here. If you can make this dance band they’ll put you on scholarship and pay all your expenses through the school.” So I saw this was a chance to be playing for a couple more years. I’d joined the Service for the same reason.
How did you come to join Woody Herman?
Well, Beau had been with Woody’s band before. So after about a year and a half Woody decided to form another big band and he called Beau. So I just mentioned to him: “Why don’t you ask him if he needs a trumpet player?” ‘I didn’t think any more about it, but sure enough two days later Woody called me. He said Beau had recommended me and we could forego an audition because he respected this cat’s opinion.
And could I meet the band in Jackson, Mississioi in a week? I was very excited and very happy. In fact, I quit school that same day. I called my folks at home and I told my wife. It was the thing I’d been waiting for all my life.
How did you find Bill Chase’s lead playing?
Well now, he’s a gas—but at that time he was still trying to find himself. He’d been a third trumpet up until that time. I guess he got a chance to play some lead with Maynard. Though he was mainly second and third there, because Augie Feretti was playing all the leads.
He’s certainly found his feet now in the present Herman band.
This particular trip with Woody only lasted seven weeks and then the band broke up, because he only had one tour booked. It was from October until around December 1st, 1959. The band formed again in February, 1960. In between times Bill went with Stan Kenton—and that’s where he really seemed to get his chops together. When he came back he was really blowing good, and since then he’s continually got better and better.
How about Augie Feretti? I should imagine that playing lead in Maynard’s band is a tricky job, anyway. You lose your lead chair to Maynard and you’ve still got to sit there and play solid lead.
I can truthfully say that Chet—that’s what everybody calls him—is the best lead trumpet player I’ve ever worked with. And the most exciting lead I’ve ever heard. That includes cats like Conrad Gozzo. Chet has that brilliance and that certain edge. It’s just a fiery sound that he gets. Almost a nervous sound, but very exciting and always identifiable. You can pick him out on any record.
I thought maybe it was a bit tough, because everybody’ll notice Maynard’s playing, but who’s going to notice what the lead trumpet’s doing, except maybe another trumpeter sitting listening.
Well, I’ll tell you one thing about Maynard that I’ve never seen done before. When we’d played a real hard chart, at the end of the tune Maynard always introduced not only the soloists, but the lead trumpet player. Which I thought was pretty nice, because lead players seldom get any recognition, except among other musicians who hear them.
It’s difficult to define what makes a lead player. Usually they are predominant personalities, but he may not be the loud type or even a big guy. But somehow he seems to put something around in the band. Maybe it comes out in his playing or just in his whole approach, but there’s something there which sort of says: “I’m in charge and you play like me.”
That’s right. There has to be somebody to do that. He’s probably the most important cat in the band. Even the rhythm section can follow him. The drummer, especially, has to be able to kick in and all that.
Reverting to Woody, did you find his book easy to blow?
Well, yes, but I’d heard the records so many times and I knew pretty much what was going to happen before I went. In fact, that week between him calling me and me joining, I got all my old sides out and started listening to all the themes. So I was prepared when I went in. I figured: “If I blow this chance, that’s it.”
I suppose they were mostly Nat Pierce charts, and Al Cohn, maybe?
Well, let me see. There were a couple by Nat Pierce, but there didn’t seem to be too many. We played some things by Gene Roland all the time, a couple by Al Cohn and this cat A. K. Salim, who’s written for Basie—he also had some in there. And we had some of the older things by Shorty, and a couple by Bill Holman.
How do you like Bill Holman’s writing?
Oh he’s my favourite. I love him.
There you go. He’s mine, too.
And I dig Shorty. He was my first influence as far as writing goes. Even as far as trumpet playing goes in a lot of ways, because I met him when I was a kid, out in California, and he was working at the Lighthouse.
I was never so strong on his playing, but his writing impressed me after I got out of the still-trying-to-understand-the-Swing-Era bit. Because I came through orchestras when I first started playing, and I didn’t know much about anything. But his big band LP, “Cool And Crazy,” with “Sweetheart Of Sigmund Freud,” “Infinity Promenade,” all those things—I thought they were great. They had a lot of influence on me when I first started writing. But now I don’t find so much to follow in Shorty’s things. He seems to have stood still, while everybody else has gone on.
It seems that he did so much all at once—like starting to use a tuba and French horn, which nobody, except Miles Davis, had done before. He had all these things going in a period of about two years and then he sort of stopped. But his work still excites me, man.
But Bill Holman is something else, isn’t he? The period when he wrote “Theme And Variations” I like very much. He took all that heavy, unmoving sound out of the Kenton band and made it light, rolling and wonderfully swinging. His later things with his own band are marvellous.
When I was in college down in Texas we were very lucky. Every year we used to have a clinic—all the high school jazz and dance bands would come—it was like a contest.
Every year they had a different clinician. The first year I was there they had Shorty. Part of the thing was that he would bring charts and we would play them with our band on the concert. Then when he went—he just left us the charts. And the following year it was Bill Holman. He left us a a dozen beautiful charts. In fact, his “Theme And Variations” was one of ‘em. And I don’t know if you ever heard “YouAnd I”—all those charts that were on that album—“Bright Eyes,” “Evil Eyes” and the whole suite, “The Big Street”—he gave us them.
Oh yes—wonderful. That “You And I” knocked me out—the way the saxes play all long notes at the beginning there. And then the first contrapuntal entry has the trombones coming in on those quavers.
Yes, that’s beautiful, man. But I’ll tell you my favourite Bill Holman chart to date—it’s probably not his best—but the one that really kills me is “Stomping At The Savoy” that he did for Stan. The first time I heard that in L.A. I almost died—especially that out—chorus. Stan was using the tuba there, and two bass trombones—and boy!
He did some lovely things on the same album, such as “What’s New?” And on the Charlie Mariano feature, “Stella By Starlight,” there was a marvellous unison bit where they doubled up the tempo.
It started out like a mysterioso type thing, then they started playing time and then it doubled on top of that, I think. Yes, I loved that whole “Contemporary Concepts” album.
I think darn near everybody has been influenced by Bill to an extent, because you start hearing these counterpoint lines, especially unison sax things——I hear ‘em all the time, even on pop records. Sometimes it is him—because he’s written a lot now for people like Peggy Lee and June Christy. Have you heard the one he did called “Bill Holman And His Great Big Band”? There’s some great stuff in there.
I agree, and I also like his “In A Jazz Orbit.” You must have been playing his music almost constantly for several years. Did you go direct from Woody to Maynard?
Yes, I did. What happened was: I was in New York and I went down to Birdland to hear Maynard’s band. It was the first time I ever heard the band. And it really killed me. I knew Chet and also Rolf Ericson, who’d been with Woody previously. So I just casually mentioned to Chet that if something ever came up I would dig playing in the band. And I gave him an itinerary.
We’d been out on the road with Woody for about two years and everybody was pretty tired, so Woody decided to break up the band. Three days before we disbanded I got a telegram from Maynard asking me if I wanted to come in the band, and if so, when could I make it? This was a Thursday, so I said: “I can be there Monday, if that’s not too soon.” So as soon as Woody’s band broke up in Virginia I drove up to New York and I left the same day to go out on a trip with Maynard. I was very lucky there.
And a nice new book to work your way through.
And that one really stumped me, man—when I saw that book. The first chart they pulled out when I got there was a thing by Jaki Byard, called “Jaki’s New Blues” or something. We recorded it, but I can’t remember the title we recorded it under. Boy, that was far out! And his copying looked like chicken scratches.
After getting through that I was just about ready to put my notice in right then. But after that it turned out all right. It’s just a matter of changing styles completely. I would have stayed with Maynard’s band, except for financial reasons. And exposure reasons. Being that he’s a trumpet player and it’s his band, there’s only so much left over for any other trumpet player that happens to be there.
I really didn’t want to leave, because we all got on so well. My closest friends are in the band, like Willie Maiden and Frank Voccari, the other tenor player, and Nat Pavone, another trumpet player. It was like leaving home, but I figured I’d better grab the chance to go with Basie while I had it, because it would probably never come again. It isn’t every day that you get a call from Count Basie.
And I had to consider all that—plus the good that it’s done me. It’s done me a lot of good, just the six months I’ve been in the band.
How did you find the Basie charts at first?
Well, I had to get accustomed to the way the guys play, which is like night from day compared to Maynard. It’s a much older style, and I had to start using vibrato again—things like that, that I hadn’t even thought about for years. I’d never been into the Swing Era bag before, except for touches of it with Woody, but that was still more modern.
At first I really didn’t know what to do. Should I start trying to play like Harry Edison or what? I was really mixed up for about a month or so, until finally one night Base called me over and he said: “Listen—when you go out and play solos I want you to play your own things. That’s what I hired you for. Play the way you played with Maynard. Get out there and do your bag. We got all these other cats with their bags, but we want you to do what you do.” So that made me feel better right then. After that I relaxed and it’s been a gas ever since then.
And you’ve written some things for the band, haven’t you?
Well, I’ve only done two so far. It’s hard for me to write on the road. Before I even take a chart to a copyist I like to get to a piano and check everything, so that I don’t have to waste rehearsal time. And it just seems like I never have access to a piano. I can do a thing, and I’ll have the score sitting in my suitcase for a month before I’ll finally get a couple of days where I can erase what has to be erased. I’ve started on a third one now.
But in Maynard’s band you had more chance to write?
Oh yes, I did half a dozen things, and that band is really a writer’s dream. You’ve got Maynard moving around all night on trumpet, valve trombone, baritone horn and French horn. Both of the trombone players double on tuba. One of the trumpet players he has now plays flugelhorn. Lanny Morgan plays alto, flute and clarinet, Willie Maiden doubles on clarinet, Frank Voccari on flute and Ronnie Cuba on bass clarinet. Also the bass player, Link Millman, doubles on tuba, so you can have three tubas.
It’s amazing what a big sound the band gets.
Yes, that’s what always surprises everybody. You hear the band outside a club and expect to see 20 cats up there. You walk in and there’s five brass and four saxophones and that’s it. But everybody’s playing—you can’t have any dead wood on that band. Most of that, though, you can thank Willie Maiden for—it’s the way he writes for the band. He knows how to get that sound out of it.
But I would think it can be tricky, when you’ve got Maynard and whoever’s playing lead trumpet and they both get up pretty high. Then you’ve only got four saxophones and two trombones—that’s going to leave some little empty spaces, somewhere.
That’s true, but it’s also an advantage, too, because the range is limitless. You can write as high as you want or as low as you want. But Willie is, in my estimation, really the cat who’s put that whole thing together. I think Don Sebesky probably copped a lot of his things from Willie. In fact, on a lot of the arrangements Don brings in he’ll put on the parts: “Play it as if Willie wrote it.” And Willie’s the main cat who helped me. He took me under his wing and showed me all there was to be shown. He’s so underrated. Not only his writing, but his tenor playing is something else, too. This guy can stand up and play the right notes every time. In the two years that I was in the band I never heard that guy sound bad once —and I can’t say that for almost anybody else I’ve ever worked with. Every chorus is a gem—and they’re always different. Yet he doesn’t claim to be a hot tenor player. He calls himself “the last of the old balladeers”—which is what he is, man. He can stand up and play a ballad like nobody—just beautiful.
Any other good writers in that band?
Yes, the pianist, Mike Abene—he’s more or less into the new thing—the Third Stream bag. He’s a very talented cat—19 years old. What they call a bitch. He’s done some things with Don Ellis. I don’t think he’s ever recorded with him,. but he knows him pretty well, and he’s into that pretty heavy.
I think we can expect further changes in jazz writing as time goes on now, don’t you?
Well, if it keeps going straight ahead it’s got to change at least as much as, say, Bill Holman changed things. He may not have changed them that much, but he took what there was and went another step with it, anyway. I may be wrong, but I don’t recall hearing that much counterpoint before he came on the scene. So maybe somebody’ll come along—maybe it’ll be Willie—who just might do another thing. There’s a lot more room for that. There are guys now who are just sort of stumbling over the fact that there’s something apart from continual block harmony.
The biggest changes that I’ve noticed recently have been in melody lines, rather than any kind of form. Like, Frank Wess just wrote a chart for the band which to me is one of the most exciting things I’ve heard since I came in the band. It’s just a twelve—bar blues, but it’s so far out in the choice of melody notes that he used.
It’s something that I never expected to hear Count Basie’s band play. This kid Mike Abene’s into that same thing. We did a 6/8 tune of his called “New Bag Blues”—it’s hard to describe this melody line thing, but . . .
You mean all the extensions of all the chords?
Right. If you heard the melody without the changes you probably wouldn’t know what key it was in at first, until you’d heard it a few times.
That’s usually reserved for between the opening chorus and the out chorus—all the sustained passages and things behind the soloists. Everybody writes all the raised elevenths and the thirteenths then, but in the actual melody it’s usually very basic harmony notes, with the odd passing note which doesn’t really belong. To change the subject a little, what do you think about the present big band scene?
I think it’s getting better all the time. In the four years that I’ve been on the road I’ve noticed a marked improvement in the hipness of the audience. It seems now when you play a ballroom it’s getting to be like what I assume it was in the old days. People are gathering around the bandstands and they’re asking for the hipper charts.
Instead of going up there and saying: “Play ‘Stardust’ or ‘Night Train”’ or something, they’re asking for “Whirlybird” and “Splanky”—things like that. To me that’s a good sign. People are dancing, but at least 50 per cent. of the people are coming to hear the band. And with Maynard the percentage was even higher. Because Maynard’s band is a very visual band, anyway. Maynard is running around—first he’s up here by the trumpet section, then he’s down there, then he’s over here.
He’s like a ball of fire, isn’t he?
He is—and people dig that. They like to watch all that. He’s always snapping his fingers—he’s never standing still. He’s an excellent showman and that counts a lot. That puts it right over. When I saw him for the first time in person I thought: “God, he’s going to run himself into the ground.” He’s working like mad, all around the stand, sparking everything off.
That makes it that much more exciting. I don’t know how he does it—but he does the same thing in a record studio, man. You never know where to find the cat—he may be by the solo mike or over playing eight bars with the trombones. Then he picks up the French horn and he’s playing along with the saxophones—you know.
But he’s in great physical shape. He’s an exercise fiend, he lifts weights, plays golf—he digs the outdoor life. I only saw him sick once, and even then he didn’t miss a day’s work. In order to play those high notes he plays you’ve got to be in good shape. Chet Feretti was another one who was always on the vitamins and working out all the time. He can play high, too.
Well, your chest has got to be in good condition.
Any brass player works physically hard. In Maynard’s band, especially. I remember after some of those gigs at Birdland I’d be exhausted.
But it’s a good feeling when you can “Man I did something today. I knew I wasn’t up there shucking”—like you might be with Les Elgart’s band or something, just going through the motions.
It’s funny, because no matter how tired you are, provided they keep putting up the right stuff all the time you keep going—you’ll kill yourself. Somewhere you pull the energy out to keep blowing hard.
Well when we used to start getting a little bit tired, that was the time to pull out the drum feature or let one of the tenor players stretch out for a hundred choruses, to give everybody a chance to recoup a little bit.
As to your present situation, what’s it like being the only white musician in a coloured band?
As far as getting along with the cats, it’s just the same as my other jobs. But for one thing, I probably get more notice taken of me—because they can’t miss me. And, not so much here in England or even Europe, but in the States a lot of times we’ll be playing and we’ll notice somebody looking up. Then he’ll whisper to the guy next to him, then they’ll both look, and whisper again. They’re trying to figure out whether I’m coloured or white.
Fip Ricard and I have a little act we go through whenever we see this. He’ll wave to them and make signs towards me to indicate: “Yes, he’s white.” Naturally I consider it a great compliment to be a member of the band, because there haven’t really been that many white players on the band. Most of my musician friends in the States have told me that they feel it’s about the greatest compliment that could be paid to a white musician.
I didn’t think it would ever happen. I never even gave playing with this band a thought. So when the call came I was, as you might say, shocked. I didn’t know whether I was being put on or what.
I was very lucky, because there’s lots of other guys who could handle the gig, I’m sure. But I was just fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time. Somebody was looking out for me.
I should think it was your showing with Maynard that did it.
Well, probably so, because we played a gig opposite them on a concert and they heard me, and they called me the next day.
Do you think a band can have ‘a white sound’ or ‘a coloured sound’?
Well, I don’t know, because you take Harry James’ band. You listen to that band sometimes, man, and this has happened to me—I didn’t know it was the Harry James band until Harry started playing. Their chart on “Shiny Stockings,” for instance, is almost exactly like ours. Before I came in the band I didn’t know whether it was Basie or James, until Harry’s solo.
By the same token, Gerald Wilson’s band is half white and half coloured, So what kind of sound do they get? Same thing with Maynard —that band’s always been integrated, so you can’t really say there was a coloured sound or a white sound in there.
You might be able to say that solowise, but I don’t even think so in that case. Because what tenor player hasn’t been influenced by Pres, what alto player hasn’t been influenced by Bird or what trumpet player hasn’t been influenced by Fats or Dizzy? Now you could call the Shorty Rogers small band thing ‘a white sound’—but that’s not really true either, because Miles Davis did that five years before Shorty did.
People would associate a coloured sound normally with the slightly bluesy sort of feel about things. Even when they’re playing the up–tempo things there’s still a little bending and so on that goes on with the notes.
That’s merely relaxation. I can’t really see any kind of difference. Just because a band has an identifiable sound, and it may be either white or coloured, it doesn’t mean that it’s a white or coloured sound. It just sounds like a band.
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