By the late 1940s, Lionel Hampton had begun to turn out a growing number of jump-boogie jukebox hits that compressed strong swing tempos with catchy bebop lines. But for all of Hampton's success, he had trouble holding onto sidemen. Like most extraordinary entertainers who came to prominence in the swing era, Hampton was an incorrigible spotlight hog, demanding that the focus and adulation be on his performances and stage routines. While this me-first approach worked wonders for the Hampton brand, it left many of his band's musicians yearning for recognition. Benny Powell [pictured, top] was among them.
In Part 2 of my interview with the legendary trombonist, Benny talks about Lionel Hampton, the toll that racial prejudice took on his soul while touring in the late 1940s, his move to Canada and return to New York, and how he came to join Count Basie's newly formed band in late 1951:
JazzWax: Do you remember your audition for Lionel Hampton’s band in 1948?
Benny Powell: Not the details, but I’m sure I was scared. I remember that the band could jump. One thing I learned from Hampton is that you are both a musician and an entertainer. Whether you want to admit it or not, you are entertaining people for the set they are coming to see. A lot of musicians look at entertainers as guys who just tell jokes with an extroverted persona.
JW: How did Hampton get that across to you?
BP: By watching him. It was fascinating. We’d play big venues and he’d get people in the audience so excited. You couldn’t believe it. He’d strive to do that each time. After playing for a while, members of the audience would become like those people in Morocco who do the Guerda dance and work themselves into a frenzy. Hampton purposefully tried to put people into a trance-like state. I’ve seen ladies start taking off their clothes and men do crazy stuff. People would hear Hampton’s music and enthusiasm and get so involved it took them out of themselves.
JW: Did you get solos with Hampton?
BP: Not as much as I’d like. He was a pretty self-centered guy. If a musician got too much applause on a solo, that person wouldn’t get that chance again. Somehow he was jealous of that. He liked the spotlight all for himself and was a little selfish because of it.
JW: Why was that?
BP: People said he learned that from Benny Goodman. I understand Benny had the same type of personality. Hampton wasn’t a very sharing man. I suppose in retrospect, I wish he would have set a better example and was a better role model. After all, I was just a teenager when I joined his band. I didn’t have an extroverted personality, and I didn’t really try to win his favor. I wanted to do it with my talent and dignity.
BP: This was the 1940s and dignity was an important part of the African-American persona. I preferred to make it on my own and with dignity rather than groveling after someone and adjusting my personality to win his favor. [Photo of Hampton by Rex Hardy, Jr., for Life]
JW: Who were the big saxophone soloists in Hampton’s band while you were there?
BP: There were no big household-name soloists in the 1948-49 band. We had a few guys who were great but pretty much unknown. We had Gil Bernal [pictured] and Johnny Board. Of course, the band also had Bobby Plater, Al Grey and Wes Montgomery.
JW: What year did you leave?
BP: In early 1951. Hampton played Ottawa, Canada. By that time I was all of 21. Between Hampton’s pettiness and the racial prejudice in the U.S., I was fed up. When we played in Ottawa, I discovered a place where neither pettiness nor prejudice existed. It was Hull, Quebec. It was the first time I saw that jazz could be played as important music in a museum. I left Hampton’s band soon after and moved to Hull.
JW: Was life in the U.S. hard on you as an African-American in the late 1940s?
BP: Racial prejudice was really getting to me. I couldn’t understand why people didn’t like me before they knew me. Racial prejudice existed all over the U.S. in the 1940s. There were signs up telling you where to eat and sit on trains, and which bathrooms to use. It’s hard to imagine now. Even in the trolley cars in New Orleans, on the backs of seats you’d see signs that told you where you could sit and where you couldn’t sit. It was demeaning and emotionally exhausting not to mention depressing. Worst of all, it was accepted by the federal, state and local governments and by local societies down South. It permeated everything. [Photo: Trolley—New Orleans, by Robert Frank]
JW: Were you happy in Hull?
BP: Well, yes. Until I decided to come back to New York.
JW: How so?
BP: When I was living in Hull, my mother called to tell me that the FBI had come to the house looking for me. They didn’t know why I was living in Canada. And apparently I had missed my draft notice. When they found out I was up in Canada, they thought I had moved up there to dodge the draft. I hadn’t. I was up there to dodge the prejudice.
JW: What happened?
BP: My mother told me to come back and straighten things out with the draft board. So I did. I was 4F because of kidney problems, and the FBI didn’t know that. After I straightened that out, I headed back to Hull. But as I was about to cross the border into Canada on the train, immigration woke me up at 2 am and asked me if I was living there permanently. I said yes, which clearly was the wrong answer. I was taken off the train and put on a southbound train to New York.
JW: What did you do back in New York?
BP: I played with a number of bands. I also wrote a letter to Charlie Ventura asking if he needed a trombonist. A friend of mine, trombonist Bennie Green, was part of his band. I also wrote to Illinois Jacquet for the same reason. In the meantime, I was working at the Apollo Theater with saxophonist Joe Thomas’ band. Charlie Fowlkes [pictured] was in that orchestra and told me that Count Basie was organizing a new big band. This was just after Basie had his small group with Wardell Gray and Buddy DeFranco. So I rehearsed with Basie's band in October 1951.
JW: Do you remember your initial conversation with Basie?
BP: Basie wasn’t a very talkative guy. There was a rehearsal, and I sat in. That was it. After the rehearsal, I never found out whether he was putting together a big band permanently. I was told I would be advised of the next rehearsal. Of course, I got the call, and we started doing one-nighters a short distance from New York. Billy Eckstine was the one who talked Basie into getting a band together again. He caught Basie’s small group somewhere and said to Basie, “Your small group is fine but you belong with a big band.” Billy sort of talked him into it and gave him the music stands. At this time, Billy had broken up his own band.
JW: Was your spot in Basie’s new band permanent?
BP: I never found out. I was anxious to know so I could plan my own future. I began asking Basie slyly, “Mr. Basie, how did you like the trombone section?” He’d say, “It was OK kid," without too much enthusiasm.
JW: Did you always call him Mr. Basie?
BP: Of course.
JW: No one ever called him Count?
BP: I’m sure some people did. Very few of his friends called him Count. The Basie band prior to the one I was in, with Lester Young, Buck Clayton and so on, they had a name for him: Holy Main. I’m not sure why. They had all sorts of names for him. When people are loved by their friends, friends give them nicknames. Basie had a lot of names like that.
JW: Was Basie’s band exciting?
BP: I was 21, man. Everything was exciting. Basie was larger than life, and being with him was larger than life. I kept asking him in the beginning if I was hired permanently rather than just for weekends. I’d sidle up to him and ask if he liked this or that. Embarrassing things a kid would ask a grownup. After asking five or six times, the closest thing I got to a “yes” was “You’re here, ‘ain’t you kid?” So I decided I’d just leave it alone.
JW: In 1953, Johnny Mandel was in that band.
BP: He and I were roommates for a few minutes. He was a beautiful guy. Still is.
JW: What don’t people know about Basie that you observed?
BP: Well, he was more of an uncle figure to me. He was a very caring man, and always impressed on us that we were a family. To this day, Frank Wess [pictured] lives two stories above me in my building, and I saw Frank Foster yesterday. Snooky Young and Joe Wilder are also surviving members of the band. I don’t see Snooky that often, though, because he lives in California. We still have that kind of family thing.
JW: What did you think of Basie?
BP: For me, Basie was like an uncle. He used to give me advice. He was a role model without having to say a word. He taught me how to dress. So did Freddie Green [pictured], who was sort of like the Fred Astaire of fashion in the band. Basie and Freddie always had the best shoes. Basie taught me about textures in garments, grooming, manners, all of that. He was a role model by example.
JW: How was Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis?
BP: He was a strong force. He was a great businessman and club manager as well as a fierce tenor saxophonist. Most people don’t realize he was actually a very nice guy who just had gruff ways of showing it. I think he came up in a tough section of the Bronx. I never saw him exert his physical strength. But he was vocally tough so no one started up with him. And he’d handle that saxophone like a toy plane.
JW: Was Basie OK with Lockjaw’s ego?
BP: Oh, absolutely. Basie liked that stuff. Basie was a very patient man. Same with Duke. They could deal with all types of personalities. Nothing was an affront to them. Jaws got along great with [saxophonists] Frank Wess and Frank Foster. Everyone in the band had enormous respect for each other.
JW: Were you improving quickly as a trombonist in Basie’s band?
BP: Just being in Basie’s band helped my self-esteem. I wasn’t conscious of growing as a musician.
Tomorrow, Benny talks about his favorite Basie arrangers, the Basie recording session that gave him goose bumps, Basie's sly trick for keeping musicians from leaving the band, and where Basie would sit when the band played a new chart for the first time.
JazzWax tracks: Basie's "New Testament" recordings between 1951 and 1957 recently were remastered and released as The Complete Clef/Verve Count Basie Fifties Studio Recordings (Mosaic Records). The fabulous eight-CD box set features Benny as a member of the band's highly efficient three-man trombone section and documents the orchestra's flowering as America's greatest swing band.
The box includes Neal Hefti's [pictured] game-changing arrangements for the band, such as Fawncy Meetin' You, Sure Thing, Why Not?, Every Tub, Plymouth Rock, Cherry Point and others. Ernie Wilkins' charts are here, too, including Peace Pipe, Stereophonic, Sixteen Men Swinging and the swinging Dolphin Dip among others. There's even Johnny Mandel's Straight Life from 1953, which in many ways set the band's cooler course going forward. And, of course, there are many arrangements by band saxophonists Frank Foster and Frank Wess as well as tracks with band vocalist Joe Williams.
Benny Powell's earlier recordings with Lionel Hampton's band can be found at iTunes on a download called Hampton: Juke Box Hits, 1943-1950. Tracks on which Benny is in the band include Beulah's Boogie, Drinkin' Wine Spo-Dee-o-Dee, Pink Champagne, Rag Mop and Everybody's Somebody's Fool with Little Jimmy Scott on vocal. Or you can hear a good percentage of Benny's recorded tracks with Hampton on Lionel Hampton: 1949-1950, Lionel Hampton 1950-1951 and Lionel Hampton: 1951-1953, all on the French Classics label. All three CDs can be found at Amazon.
JazzWax video clip: To give you a sense of the energy level and extraordinary skills of Hampton and his band, go here and see Bongo Interlude, a short from mid-1951. Benny had already left the band by this date. Dig Hamp's stick tosses toward the end and note that by curtain, he isn't even out of breath.
Benny Powell and I watched this clip together and he picked out the different instrumentalists. That's Benny Bailey on trumpet, with Jerome Richardson and Bobby Plater on flutes and Milt Buckner on organ.