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Interview Three: The Imitable Basie
Third interview with America, New York born jazz trombonist Benny Morton in 1975. Morton was talking to Les Tomkins.
Source: Jazz Professional
When I joined the Basie band in 1937, fortunately I’d had enough experience to adapt myself easily. With the Don Redman band, I’d had to adapt violin parts when there wasn’t enough music for three trombones. Basie, too, had only used two trombones before I came in. He had Dan Minor and Eddie Durham, who also played the guitar part at times. So there again, when they added the third trombone, I had to create my own part.
In this case, there were no parts for me to work from. This was a band from Kansas City, and they all knew each other thoroughly. They played a lot of blues tunes; the harmony, rhythms and expressions in one tune were the same as in the next tune. The only way I could overcome my confusion: one happened to be in C, the other in D flat. They both sounded the same, but they weren’t.
See, there were no titles on that music; it might be a piece of manuscript from Buck Clayton to kick off the introduction, but from then on it was a head arrangement. You keep in mind what you’ve picked up along the way, and you tune yourself in. I enjoyed the challenge of it, sure.
Did you ever hear Glenn Miller’s “Slip Horn Jive”? Well, the history of that goes back to Eddie Durham. He thought he’d give me something to play; so he took the tune of “Nagasaki”—we played it our way, based on my expression of it. Last summer I saw Jo Jones in Nice, France, and he was laughingly recalling the night that Glenn Miller brought his band in to hear Basie. We played what he had bought from Eddie Durham and turned into “Slip Horn Jive”; after he heard the number, he took the whole band out again, because it was so completely different from the way he played it—and his was a hit record. So you just don’t take those things away. You can buy it, but you still have nothing—because what came from Basie’s band and from me wasn’t on the paper.
This was a matter of the individuality of the Basie band,. the men in it, what they were saying then. When it comes to the self–expression of jazz, if you try to copy what another band is doing, you can go so far—but it’s synthetic. Technically, maybe, you can improve on some things, set about cleaning it up. But what we had then with Basie was a giving thing—unfinished in its way, and yet finished.
Yes, I’ve thought about the difference between that band and more recent Basie bands. There are never more than five key people in a band. Also, it’s more difficult, when you’re introducing a fourth man in a section, to fake that harmony. It’s easy with three; you step on a guy’s note, you can get off it quickly. But this other way, you gotta have all arrangers, almost, or arrangers’ ears, to avoid doubling. Then, by the time you unscramble that double, you’re not getting any solidness; this guy says: “Oh, he’s got that note” and so on.
We only ever had three trombones; there were three trumpets when I got there—later it became four. But when Basie’s band went to four trombones, four trumpets and five reeds they could never have faked as quickly as we could.
Basie would come to a rehearsal, sit down and warm up on the piano; a couple of guys would join in, just jamming with him. By the time everybody had walked in and picked up their horns, we had made a number. And it never got a title until it was recorded. Maybe no one in the band even gave it the title. Because after I left Basie’s band, and was jobbing outside, some people engaged me because they wanted to play some of Basie’s music. They called numbers out of their book by the titles, and I didn’t know what the devil they were talking about—because there was no title when I had made it.
With that type of band, when you change the personnel, you’re changing the music. Each band had something all its own. Sy Oliver is doing a good thing with the reproduction of Jimmy Lunceford’s band, but he has difficulty in trying to get the same effect that the original membership of Lunceford’s band got. Because each man’s horn had a particular voice; you accumulate that mixture of those people who have worked together for years. The bands of Basie, Lunceford and Duke had that: you can’t steal it.
Many of Lunceford’s boys went out of the business after the band broke up. You don’t get that back—except by putting that exact combination together.
What I’m saying must apply to the Ellington band today—without Duke. The voicing will be the same—you can break that down—but you’re writing up to the date that Duke wrote his last composition. And if you’re gonna do fifty more arrangements, you’re gonna choose from things that he has already written. But if Duke had lived five years longer, what would he have said? That you’ll never get. In any case, Duke’s band even changed, as Basie’s did, with enlarging the band. He was able to keep the definition: “This is Duke” through the stamp of his harmonies in the orchestrations.
Now, some of the accepted voices in other bands would not have been satisfactory in the Fletcher Henderson band, as far as the overall tone was concerned. But elsewhere, it’s the ideal flavour to make up an ensemble that will be enjoyed by all.
There again, it’s a sad situation if a guy is ideal for one band, but doesn’t match up for another. So if you’ve got a playing gimmick—its okay, as long as you can keep it popular. You may be a trumpet player, say; you’re dropped from a band, you go outside, and you run a lot of changes, but you never play enough to carry the melody part of the band—you’re short of work. It’s professionalism I’m talking about: the glamour is only there when you’re part of a band that’s hot, and you get a lot of raves, attention from the press and all that. This has been a real problem for many players: they’ve dedicated themselves to playing just what’s needed for a particular band, but they find they can’t use that in the general jobbing field when they’re thrown into it.
It is a dilemma faced by certain individuals. Now, someone like Harry Carney, though he remained with Duke all those years, his was still the baritone sound that everyone else would engage if they could get him, if he was available to do an outside job. But, for instance—I’ll stick with my own instrument—if you just play growl trombone, and you go out and play weekend club dates, as we call ‘em, you can’t growl through the waltzes and the tangos. I mean, you have to broaden out.
My mind was made up, before the end of the band era came, how I was gonna use the trombone. I had lasted because I could play more than in jazz. At the end of my time with Basie, I had been out on the road a total of twelve years—out of contact. This was 1940, and there wasn’t one regular job in New York City for a black trombone player. At that time, this situation was never questioned.
The work that you got: you had to be in one of those bands that moved. The Savoy had stopped having bands big enough to carry a trombone in the number. I was fortunate—I was sent to Cafe Society to see the owner and Joe Sullivan. So I wasn’t out of work—but I was out of money, because that job dropped me back to nowhere. I finished up with a very good salary, because I kept moving during my time of service, and became the leader.
To relate this to the present day: the rate of talented players coming out is tremendous; now, Buddy Rich might change his personnel three times within a year; you can be happy and excited in that band because it plays so well, but you’re still an individual.
If you’re not in there, how can you take care of yourself alone—that’s what I’m trying to emphasise. If you’re a good section man, then you’ve got to pray that some other band will pick you up, but you’ve still got to survive as a musician—or go in for selling books.
The money you handle—use it well. Miraculously, I made it this long, but only by looking ahead. I don’t care who it is—times don’t stay the same.
The test is how you face your difficulties—you can suffer less if you prepare for such situations. Up to 1959, I had contact with men who were contractors for the theatre; then their wheel of fortune changed, when some of the producers left Broadway shows and went into movies, followed by the price of theatre tickets going up from six dollars to twelve and fifteen. Production was too expensive, and they had less shows; new contractors came in, who brought in their chosen personnel.
So time went by. This is 1975; I became a regular member of the World’s Greatest Jazz Band in 1973, although previously I had worked in Vic Dickenson’s place whenever he wanted to take leave. The last band that I was a permanent member of was Basie’s in December, 1939. This is the survival of an individual with a trombone. Yes, I’ve been virtually a freelance all of that time.
You work a show for a year or so—you’re out of circulation as far as the market for employment outside goes. The show has folded, or gone out of town on the road, you’re out of a job; a fellow says: “Do you know a trombone player?” and the next one says: “Morton he’s in the pit”, without even thinking about the fact that that show has closed. It takes you about six months to really get word around that you’re free—because you’ve been written off.
So many times, I was a slave to the telephone. You don’t go out in the street in case your phone is ringing for you and you’re not there. So I played my horn, and listened to my telephone. I’m telling it like it is, and it’s not always a pretty picture.
I’m happy now to be with an outfit that’s sure of itself; we make it here and in the States. But I don’t want to mislead anybody younger than I, who may have ambitions. I just want to tell him, when he’s making a buck, to take care of his own personal business; then, during any period that it isn’t coming in, he can present a strong appearance to the world.
Copyright ©1975, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.