An Interview with Grover Mitchell: Part 2

By Bob Bernotas • August 18, 2001 • 20 min read

Grover MItchell
Grover Mitchell
Photograph by Lesley Peacock

Grover Mitchell is a professional trombonist. Born in 1930 in Whatley, Alabama, and raised in Pittsburgh, Mitchell worked his way up through the ranks of school bands, territory bands, and military bands. That's how they did it back then. In the early 1950s, after his discharge from the Marines, Mitchell settled in the San Francisco Bay area, where he gigged as much as he could, even subbing occasionally with Lionel Hampton and Duke Ellington.

In 1962 Mitchell's dedication and persistence finally paid off. He was summoned to join Count Basie's jazz powerhouse and quickly built his reputation as a lead and ballad player par excellence. (When given the chance, he also is a fine jazz soloist.) The Hollywood studios beckoned in 1970 and for the next ten years, Mitchell earned a good living playing for television and films.

Mitchell rejoined Basie in 1980 and stayed with him until the Chief's death four years later. During that period, he began working and recording with his own medium-sized big band.

In July 1995 - a year before this interview was conducted - Mitchell took over the leadership of the Count Basie Orchestra. His qualifications for the job are impeccable: more than two decades of experience as a Basie sideman and confidante, a refreshing enthusiasm, and most of all, a genuine love and understanding for the music of Count Basie.

How did you get this gig leading the Basie band?

Well, it's not exactly, "How did I get this gig?" This has been a possibility all of these years since Basie died. It just finally came around to me.

Last summer, the management asked me if I would come back and lead the band, because Frank Foster was leaving. He'd been there nine years, and Frank has definite ideas about leading a band himself, anyway, and he was writing and everything. So he gave them what amounted to about a year's notice in order to give them a chance to talk to people. On his way out, he mentioned to them that he thought it might be a good idea if they checked with me to see if I was interested in the job.

To honest with you, I wasn't even thinking about the job, but when I was asked to come and talk about it, I had a pretty good idea of what they wanted to talk about, and I wanted to hear what they had to say. I went down there and we came to terms, and I'm glad we did.

I know that you've never been a fan of the so-called "ghost bands." How is the Basie band different?

It's not a band made up of kids spending a summer away from music school. This band is peopled by some of the guys that were in there when the Old Man was still alive. These are real hard playing folks.

I've been associated with this band in the area of 35 years, and this is one of the best trumpet sections ever. We don't have the fame factor, but we've sure got the playing factor. They work so hard and they like playing together so much that the rest of the band really tries to keep up with them, 'cause I think they think I favor the trumpets. And if I were to tell the truth, I might. I just might.

So this is a good band. The reeds are good. Trombones are good. The rhythm section has good potential. I didn't go in with any great ideas about changing this, changing that, but I know what I thought the band ought to sound like.

And to the credit of the guys in the band, they pretty much felt the same way. There was no, zero, opposition to going back to a little bit of a more traditional "Count Basie concept." It's not like I know it all. Let's say I have an idea of what I thought the band should sound like, because of the many, many excellent Count Basie bands that I was in. I just thought that some of the better versions of the band were something that we should strive to match.

I know you have to maintain the Basie tradition, but don't you get tired of playing "Jumpin' at the Woodside" and "April in Paris" every night?

Those couple of tunes, they do wear on you after a while, but when you go through a two-hour concert or a four-hour dance, we have a lot of chances to play a whole lot of other things. You know, you've got to play those old chestnuts, but then some of the things that people keep wanting to hear over and over and over again are things that I like.

Things like "Corner Pocket," "Segue in C," "Moten Swing," "Blues in Hoss' Flat," I never get tired of those things. Those are good charts and they just sound better and better and better and better. And some things that Ernie Wilkins wrote, like "Basie Power," "Way Out Basie," "Right On, Right On" - I play all of those things.

And the thing about it is, there's no opposition from the guys in the band. A lot of the guys really wanted to get back into what you might call "the Basie book." So all I had was help. And then some guys would come up to me and suggest something. "Why don't we play so-and-so?" And I'd say, "Yeah, why don't we? Do we still have that in the book?"

Are you playing with the band?

I've worked one thing in so far. You know, they were playing and I'm standing out in front of the band, and there really wasn't anyplace for me to play. So little by little, I've been trying to create some spots.

The trouble is, when I'm standing out front trying to conduct, or whatever I'm doing up there, it's hard to just reach out and grab a cold trombone and play some tight, controlled piece. It just isn't done. It looks good in the movies, and some guys might try it, but I wouldn't recommend it. So I've been trying to find a way to be participating in some kind of ensemble situation where I can be warm, as far as the mouthpiece and the horn are concerned, and then play one of those tight ballads.

You know, it's easy to be selfish and insist on playing in places, but you can't just come in where guys've been playing in spots, and say, "Oh yeah, well I'm doing this now." At least, I'm not gonna do that.

Now, after 11 fairly sedentary years, you've gone back on the road nearly full-time. That must have taken some getting used to.

Well, to be honest with you, it's hard, it's tough. And sometimes it just beats me right into the ground. I see these kids, man, we get done at night and we have to leave at six o'clock in the morning. They get done with the gig and they go running, looking for a session, play all night, and then be droopy-eyed getting on the plane or the bus the next morning.

I just look at 'em and I say to myself, "I can't believe it." I used to do that stuff, too. You know, my hotel room wouldn't have even been slept in. The bed would never even have been disturbed, night after night after night. But, man, I was 30 years old, and I can't do that anymore. Sometimes we get on one of these massive trips and it just kills me. It's really tough.

Let's talk about your relationship with Count Basie. It seems like many of Basie's ex-sidemen were in awe of him, as if he were a god-like figure, and so, were intimidated by him. What about you?

Well, we were friends. He had his failings and his weaknesses, you know what I mean? And there was a time in Basie's life, especially when he got older and wasn't well when, to be honest with you, I was his mind, arms, legs, everything. Like you say, in some cases he was at a distance from some of the guys and they insisted on holding him in awe. But Basie was very much a human being.

He used to come to you for advice, even during the period when you were not in the band, isn't that true?

Well, yeah. He always thought that I had a good picture of how the band ought to sound, and somehow or other he thought that I possessed a decent level of sanity. (I hope I do.) But he used to talk to me and bounce ideas, see what I thought, and he liked the way I said things. I wasn't terribly political. I wasn't political at all, not really. I was honest with him about personnel, about who was playing what, and all that stuff. You had to be.

And there were a lot of things that Basie did not know. Again, these guys that you just mentioned, that held him in such awe, they really never stopped to think that Basie was very human. He was not a trained musician, he was a natural musician and there were a lot of little technical factors that he wouldn't know how to explain, necessarily. So he would have me come in and we would sit down and he'd ask, "How do I say this?"

Look, I've always admired him for that. I've always, pretty much, been able to explain things verbally. Very often, I could explain things better verbally than I could play 'em. And somehow or other, he had confidence in me, let's put it that way. So we got on real well that way. We were good friends.

I guess you could talk for hours and hours about your experiences with Count Basie. But in all those years that you spent playing and traveling with the Basie band, is there any single incident that stands out in your mind?

There were a lot of things. You know, he was comedian. He did a lot of funny things and he could be very street-level, you know what I mean? I don't mean this disrespectfully, but you don't think of Basie coming in the front door of Harvard. You think of Basie coming in the front door of the pool room, and everybody's glad to see him. That's the kind of cat that Basie was, but possessed of the same wisdom, and a lot more, maybe, than the guy that would walk in the front door of Harvard.

But he did a lot of funny things. Like one time, we took a bus from Aspen, Colorado, down to Denver, to take a plane to wherever we were going. We got down there and I guess one of those trunk flights must have come in and some old gray-haired lady got off the plane. You know, Basie used to wear these yacht caps. I guess she must have taken him for a red cap.

So she walked up to him and said, "Boy, I've got two bags. Would you please carry them out and get me a taxi cab?" Had no idea she was talking to Count Basie. I don't think she would have cared anyway. But he grabbed her bags and did a little shuffle in this funny Charlie Chaplin kind of walk, and we were dying laughing. He took her bags out and got her a cab, and I think she tipped him 50 cents.

Stuff like that. He could really break you up. I can remember dozens of those kinds of things, on and on and on. There was only one William James Basie!

Why did you leave the Basie band in 1970?

I had a job. It was a big deal in those days to get a network studio job, and I had a couple of possibilities. I thought I was gonna go on The Tonight Show here in New York. But I went out to California (I was living there at the time) to see my family, and while I was there, I got hired on The Flip Wilson Show at NBC. I stayed at NBC for 10 years.

There was no acrimony or anything like that. You know, to me, even to be wanted by the networks for a studio job, that was a sign that you had really accomplished something in those days. So I couldn't let that opportunity go, and I did very well there.

And then, you always have to prove to yourself that you could do all of these different things that's required of what would be looked upon as a good trombone player. You're not satisfied until you know you can do all of those things. So that allowed me to get all of those ghosts out of my attic.

So then, why did you rejoin Basie 10 years later?

Well, that's an easy one: he asked me. He had asked on several occasions. Like I told you, we were good friends, and on several occasions he had asked me to come back.

In 1980 there was a musicians' strike going on in LA, and it was directly affecting me. He said to me, "I would like for you to come back, even if you just stay long enough to get the trombones sounding like they used to sound. If it just takes a couple of months, I'd appreciate it." So when he asked me this time, it was very easy. I didn't tell him that there was a music strike going on in LA and I needed the work.

I joined the band in Japan. We stayed over there, I think, about three weeks, and we came back to the States, and the strike was still on. I hadn't been in New York in ten years, and the band was gonna work its way back east, so I thought to myself, "I might as well just stay in here, go back and hang out in New York for a few days. Then they'll have a break and when I go home the music strike'll be over, and maybe I will have contributed something to whatever he wanted me to do."

So we went and dedicated the Louis Armstrong Park in New Orleans, and all these kinds of things. It was fun. And then I went to New York and had two weeks off, and the music strike was still on! So Basie said, "Why don't you just come on back?"

I went back and then Basie got sick. He had a stroke in Chicago. And his wife, Catherine, told me that she didn't think that he was gonna be out on the road much longer, but they really needed me now. She said he was only gonna be out for a few more months, so just kind of stick with him and help him out. He trusted me. She didn't know why, but he trusted me. I was the only one that he ever mentioned in that kind of trust situation. So how you can say no?

This was 1980. Basie lasted four more years, riding in that later scooter, and in '83 Basie's wife died, a year before he did. Through all of this time, he was in a very precarious physical state. He had lost much of the use of his right side.

It wasn't so noticeable to the public, because Basie's playing was sparse anyway. And he could still do anything that he needed to do with his left hand. So he was able to cover up the fact that his playing wasn't up to what it had been. He was so good at it 'til the guys in the band, it seemed like even they didn't know that he was struggling, at times. To his credit, he was really good at that.

But he never was the same after that stroke, not really. His memory was never quite the same. He didn't exactly ask me, but it was kind of expected of me to, I guess you would say, cover his back. So it was part of my job, when he said something wrong, or when he's stumbling and searching for the word and you know what he's searching for, to help him say it. We went through four years of that, which was very interesting, 'cause I really got to know Count Basie.

That also was when you formed your own big band.

I didn't expect Basie to stay on the road as long as he did. Willard Alexander, who was Basie's booking agent for many years, liked me. And Willard had the idea, even then (and Catherine Basie, too), that he wanted me to start developing and eventually to take over the band. We had meetings and he suggested to me that I break this to Basie. If I would have said that to Basie, I would have been the biggest traitor, as far as he was concerned, in the world. I couldn't say that to Basie. And it's not that I had any designs or ideas, 'cause I really wanted to have my own band.

So in 1982, Willard got me a couple jobs. These were times when the band would take long breaks, because Basie was not well. During these breaks I would take my 12-piece band into the Rainbow Room or the Jazz Showcase in Chicago. One time we played a jazz festival in Piedmont Park in Atlanta, things like that.

I was really trying to get built up to be a leader. Willard's idea, and Catherine's, too, was that I was going to lead the Basie band. But my idea was that eventually, if I could heighten my profile, I was gonna have my own band. I had my own definite ideas about a band, anyway.

And so when Basie did die, I made the move to go on, and I thought that I could probably launch this band. It was a small big band, as you know, 12 pieces, 13 including myself. But the world wasn't exactly waiting for me with open arms.

Or for any big band.

That's right. Let me tell ya. But it was, and is, a great band.

What is the status of the band right now? Are you able to pursue anything with it?

Well, let me tell you, I've taken this job to be the leader of the Basie band, and I have to be honorable about this. I'm really trying to make a contribution. I really want to shape it back into the greatest band out there, and we're close. You never know what the future holds or what I might have to go back to. But as it stands now, I've given all my energy, my mind, whatever I have, to this band. I can never be a traitor to the idea of going back to this band. I mean, they've got confidence in me, that's why they asked me to come back. So as long as I stay here, that's the job I'll be doing.

What do young players need to learn about playing in big bands? Or to put it another way, what skills do you find that young players are lacking when they go into big bands?

The biggest problem, and this has been a problem for, like, 25 years, is that colleges and high schools and communities have de-emphasized bands and band playing. You always had horn players who came through Elks' bands, high school bands, military bands, college bands, and they always had this "band feeling." You never had any trouble with 'em. The solo type of player was somebody who had grown to that level, but there was always a lot of guys who were just good musicians, and who were not necessarily soloists.

There are some players who are natural soloists. I mean, they don't have to develop this skill. But for the most part, it's just not true with every kid. They look upon themselves as soloists and let's face it, they're not. Most of the time they have the potential to be good soloists. But this thing of being a good instrumentalist first has kind of left us.

So what you're saying is that they're not good soloists because they're not good ensemble players.

Exactly. One complements the other. Now every kid comes out of his living room thinking he's a soloist. They all think they're the finished product.

Even someone like Dizzy Gillespie started out as a section player, sitting alongside more experienced guys like Shad Collins, Bill Dillard, Mario Bauzá. Diz paid his dues before he emerged as a major soloist.

That's how it was done. That's how you learned. And you were edited out. I come from Pittsburgh. You know, that was a pretty tough scene. Those older guys, if you would dare get up on the stand and thought about playing a solo with them, and if you didn't come up to what they thought was a pretty good ability, they would all get off the bandstand, the insult of all insults. And you would be standing there by yourself. Even Bird went through this.

Then, all of a sudden you shedded and improved and worked and worked and worked, and one night you're playing your horn and the old cats didn't get off the stand. And, boy, you thought, "Oh my goodness, I must be doing pretty good." From that point on, your confidence kind of gets built up, and they actually started to help you.

And also, it was a big deal, then, to be a good reader and a good ensemble player and good player who listens. In fact, if you did play in the ensemble, you had so much stuff to listen to, to furnish grist for your solos. So if you are smart enough to listen to what you are required to play as a section man, you've got all kinds of material from which to build solos.

A lot of times, if you were a good section man, if you were a good clean player, possibly playing lead, the other guys, out of sheer admiration for the way you played, felt like they would be wasting you as a soloist. Sometimes the soloist was some guy who could, what they called in those days, "get off," but they didn't even expect those guys to be much of anything in the section.

That was your experience with the Basie band. Would you rather have played jazz with Basie?

Of course I wanted to play jazz. But my original idol on the trombone was Tommy Dorsey, and I always had a real pretty tone. And that was the thing, as far as my playing was, that got to Basie. He would always say, "You don't want to waste your time doin' that solo stuff. You're my Tommy," meaning Tommy Dorsey. He'd say, "You're a trom-bon-ist."

He wasn't crazy about the trombone, anyway, but he liked Tommy Dorsey. And for some reason or other I was a pretty good Tommy Dorsey imitator and that got me over as far as Count Basie was concerned. I'd have been with him forever as long as I played that way. You notice, just about all my recorded solos are in that vein. So it just became a way of life for me and I've gotten to the place now where I leave that other thing up to the youngsters. I'm very satisfied just to be able to play a decent ballad.

The thing that makes me feel good about my career, and life in general, is that you look at me now, I'm 65 years old and I have survived as a trombonist. It's hard to have survived as a trombonist at any age or any race or any whatever you want to say. It's hard. I mean, I've done very well. I've raised my family, I've had a good life, and all playing the trombone. So that should say something.

I came down with a reputation as a good ensemble player and a good lead player. There's a lot of hot soloists with a much better name than me in that area. But a lot of them didn't survive, either. I'm still here.

© Bob Bernotas, 1996; revised 2001. Used by permission. All rights reserved.