Leading a big band?
Buddy De Franco and Terry Gibbs
a big band
A vibes virtuoso
Jazz - Rock and me
To speak of technique
Success of the partnership with Buddy De Franco
My approach to the vibes
The return of straight-ahead jazz
Speaking to Max Barker in 1963
Leading a big band is rewarding in the way you get a certain sound. It can also be a big headache. All the guys in the band are my friends. Ever tried to get fifteen of your friends working for you? However, the thrill is great. On the last set of the evening, I sometimes don't play more than four notesI just stand there and listen.
I am now back with my small group, but I brought my big band library to New York and I may form a band here. But wouldn't I love to show New York our California band! That had to be seen. It had such drivealmost like a cheering set.
Forming that band was one of my lifetime ambitions. I've been very lucky. When I was a kid, I grew up listening to Benny Goodman and Count Basie and I always wanted to have a big band. I had one. The guys gave up all kinds of jobs with higher pay so that we could play together. We made a rule that nobody took a night off for another job. Rather, they sent out substitutes to replace themselves on higherpaying engagements! This was even when they were only making $15 a night with our band. Most of them were with the band right from the start. We always referred to it as our band.
We all had fun with the band, otherwise it couldn't have happened. But I would have loved to have it working a lot more. I never made any money with the big band working on the West Coast. If it had been New York, we could have done better.
You know, I didn't really organise that band at all. Here's how it came about: I have a contract with Mercury Records which calls for one big band album a year. Musicians can be fined for participating in nonpaying rehearsals for a record datebut the Union does allow a band to rehearse for a club job.
At the time, I was playing with my quartet at the Club Seville in Hollywood and I made a deal with the management to allow me to take the big band into the club on Tuesday nights for the same money that the quartet was getting. That solved the rehearsal problem.
The Sunday before our Tuesday opening, I did a TV guest appearance on the Steve Allen Show and Steve announced that we were doing the Tuesday night thing. This, plus a lot of musicians' talk around Town, made the band's opening at the Seville a Hollywood sensation. The place was literally jammed with fans, musicians and celebrities. Among those present were Fred MacMurray, June Haver, Dinah Shore, Johnny Mercer, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Prima.
The band played nine consecutive Tuesdays there and then went into the Cloister on Sunset Strip for three weeks with singer Andy Williams. The engagement wasn't too successful for the band. Most of the people came to hear Andyor the comedian on the same bill.
The room was much smaller than the Seville and somehow I don't think the customers were prepared for the shock of hearing such a big band. From there, we went to the Summit, also on Sunset Boulevard. We worked Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays.
During this engagement, we played two weeks in Las Vegas. Jimmy Witherspoon was on the bill with us there and this really was a ball. This, plus a few concerts and record dates, was the extent of the big band's activities. Financially, I lost money on the dealbut I've never been so happy losing money in my life.
The Hollywood club scene is still in a state of flux, incidentally. The Club Seville is now a stripper joint called the Pink Pussy Cat and the Summit is now known as the Sundown. The Cloisters is closed. Really, the only interesting clubs at this time are Shelley's ManneHole and the Crescendo.
Are there signs of a revival of public interest in big bands? I really don't know. We haven't been too many places with the big band. People love excitementand there is nothing more exciting than a big band, as I learned from Woody Herman.
However, so many facets of the music business operate against public interest in big bands. The Twist made a lot of noise, but it never would have been a hit with a big band. Los Angeles, right now, is still full of Rock & Roll. Everybody says that the Bossa Nova is great for the music businessbut not great for jazz and big bands.
Stan Getz had a hit with it and that's great. But it is still one of the fads that takes away from jazz and big bands.
One criticism levelled at your band and others is that their precision becomes machinelike.
I think the people that write this are idiots. Why the Count Basie band sounds so good is because it has been together for nine to 10 years. They even breathe together.
The best bands have been those that have stayed together. Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw were examples. A writer once said in reviewing one of our albums that we were a great band, but we played too clean. Does that make sense?
In I947 at the age of 23, you were playing music with Chubby Jackson in Sweden that sounds just as good today. What advances have you made since then and what about jazz in general?
I think I have matured. I now know how to pace my solos. I used to start out 'shouting.' Now I know how to play into it. Music has to progress. Today, most jazz guys play a little piano and musicians are better than in the old days. There used to be only one way to play bass. Today, there are many ways. For myself, I like it straight and happysomething that will get you tapping your foot. But good music.
Are you attracted, musically speaking, to female pianists? You had Terry Pollard in your New York Quartet and Pat Moran in your Hollywood combo.
The girls have to be goodbut mostly, it's for commercial reasons. I teach all the girls to play vibes.
Sometimes we play in small towns where the audience doesn't know what we are doing. So we end our set with a vibes duet, which usually breaks them up. But the girl has to be that good, because it creates problems having a girl in the band. . . almost like having a daughter! They come up to you with their personal problems. But right now, we are using a new girl Alice McLeod.
What other vibes players do you admire? Who inspired you most?
No player has individually inspired me. I enjoy every one of themespecially Milt Jackson and Red Norvo. Victor Feldman is one of the most talented players to be around for years. Also, among the newcomers, Bobby Hutchinson and Dave Pike are great.
Why haven't you used a guitar in the rhythm section? Because it would be a little bit too tightsounding.
We don't want to sound like Count Basieand with a guitar in the rhythm section, that would be the tendency. Count has his own great sound and we want to create ours.
Do you attach greater importance to skilful arrangements or to inventive soloistsor are they equally essential in a big band?
Everything is important in a big band. My arrangers are writing for records, as that's what we have been doing mostly. I have them write three or four minutes of ensembles, with interludes for choruses. There is nothing more exciting than this. But I don't tell them what to write.
With TV experience ranging from the 1950 shows with Goodman to the Summit Club sponsored shows and the Jazz Scene USA series, would you say that TV is effective as a jazz medium?
It's a great medium for getting known. I don't know that jazz has been too well presented on TV. Steve Allen did a good job on the West Coast with his Jazz Scene USA. But you have to be a good director. All those concerned with the Steve Allen show knew what they were doing. I was on a T V show once and had my manager go into the control booth. He knew better than the engineers the sound we were trying to get. For people just to watch TV is not enough. You have to give them something more. The one show we really enjoyed doing was Vic Damone's The Lively Ones.
We had to do a club sequence and it wasn't until it was over that we were told it had been taped. If jazz shows could be shot live in clubs you would have a much better show. It's the same as recording. It's always best when an album is done live. You are part of the scene. I don't care if you are a genius; you still get nervous in a TV or recording studio.
If it could be arranged, would you like to take your band over to England?
Very much. But I realise that there are Union rules. However, I have my big band library on hand and if it were not possible to get the guys over with me, I would love to go over sometime with the book and set it up with English musicians. I'm sure we'd all have a ball.