Easily, the most influential and widely imitated big band of the 1950s was Count Basie's "New Testament" orchestra. The impact that this band left on jazz, musicians, arrangers and popular music cannot be overstated. And the mere fact that Basie was able to take two completely different bands at two different points in his career to national acclaim is an astonishing feat that has never been satisfactorily recognized and applauded. Basie made it all look too easy, especially in the 1950s. His "New Testament" band recorded primarily for two labels—Clef/Verve and Roulette—and trombonist Benny Powell [pictured] was along for the entire ride. [Photo by J. Harlaar]
During his 12 years with Basie, Benny also recorded several important small-group albums, with Buck Clayton, Frank Wess, Osie Johnson, Donald Byrd and Gigi Gryce. Today, Benny continues to tour regularly with pianist Randy Weston and records with saxophonist TK Blue. He also teaches at New York's New School university.
In Part 3 of my interview with Benny, the legendary trombonist reflects on how Basie auditioned new arrangements, the band's most underrated musicians, the recording session that gave Benny goose bumps, and what happened the night on tour when the band wound up with no music:
JazzWax: Whose arrangements for the Basie band were your favorites to play?
Benny Powell: The ones by Frank Foster, Frank Wess, Quincy Jones and Thad Jones. And Ernie Wilkins' charts.
JW: Whose charts had the most punch?
BP: We didn't play a chart unless it had some kind of emotional impact. You have to remember that the band seldom rehearsed, except when we had new material. When that happened, Basie would sit in the audience listening, to see whether it would have the right kick.
JW: Who would run the band?
BP: Marshal Royal [pictured]. He was the guy who conducted. He was the straw boss, which meant he was the director and very much instrumental in its precision and all of that. We all knew we had to play as clean and as precise as possible. Marshal didn’t have to tell us. Everyone monitored themselves. When you’re in that environment you know what to check up on.
JW: Do you remember April in Paris?
BP: I don’t really remember much about that date or specific recording sessions and dates. I think I was more conscious of April in Paris when the song became a hit. At the time it was just another recording session. I really think Wild Bill Davis, who wrote and arranged it, never got his just due. Basie, of course, added that great touch, “One more time” and “One more once.” But Wild Bill’s arrangement was something else.
JW: What was your favorite Basie arrangement?
BP: All of it, man. There was such a wealth of material. Going back to Hampton’s band, some of the things I enjoyed playing most were arranged by Quincy Jones and Bobby Plater [pictured]. Bobby was a very fine writer. Very underrated today. Benny Carter was Bobby's mentor. He taught Bobby how to write. His arrangements had great flair.
JW: When you'd listen to the Basie band while sitting in the middle of it, did you get goose bumps?
BP: No. I only got goose bumps when we recorded with Duke Ellington’s band [First Time!, July 1961 ]. Both bands were in the same studio. I was so awestruck at being in the presence of both the Basie and Ellington bands.
JW: How was the session set up?
BP: We sat on separate bandstands across from each other.
JW: What exactly gave you the chills?
BP: Hearing both bands playing together. There are points where both bands are playing at the same time. There are a number of chords where both bands were voiced to play together. At the very end of a tune, the band hit the same chords, and drummers Sam Woodyard and Sonny Payne played solos over those chords. When the band was hitting those chords, the force of all of those horns playing at the same time was like walls of sound.
JW: Looking back, what do you remember most about the Basie band?
BP: I can remember that the biggest impression was playing in Europe for queens—the Queen of England [pictured] and the Queen of Denmark. That was very impressive. Playing for a queen was almost like a dream. I’m from New Orleans, and Royal Albert Hall is a long way from New Orleans.
JW: Those tours abroad must have been amazing.
BP: They were. A lot of people over there at the time had never heard a big band before. A lot of people there had never seen African-Americans before. We were really exotic, and we were treated with admiration and respect. We had our pick of the ladies. Everyone wanted to come aboard the Basie bus.
JW: Throughout the 1950s, you also freelanced on other musicians' dates.
BP: My first recording outside the Basie band was a Buck Clayton jam session in 1953. I got that through a recommendation from producer John Hammond. That was the first big-time date I had. John was trying to encourage me and push my career, so he made that opportunity available to me.
JW: Who in the Basie band deserved greater recognition?
BP: Henry Coker was a fine trombonist who didn’t get his just due. Trumpeter Joe Newman, too.
JW: Did the trombonists in the Basie band get along?
BP: Oh, yes. We were like stepchildren because we didn’t get the first solos. After the trumpet players finished, the tenor saxophonists would get a shot and then the drummer. Then maybe we’d have eight bars. We felt we didn’t get our just props. We stuck together as a result. [Pictured: Henry Coker]
JW: Why was the trombone viewed that way?
BP: The instrument doesn’t project as well as the others in a band. The trombone just isn't as loud or as instantly exciting as a trumpet or saxophone. A trumpet projects much brighter, as does a tenor sax. Of course, drummers can project. Same thing in a symphony orchestra: The cellos and violas are never viewed as prominently as the violinists. The violas and cellos get the scraps. [Pictured: Basie trombone-mate Bill Hughes]
JW: How about the Atomic Basie band of 1957 and beyond?
BP: All of Basie’s bands were exciting.
JW: But how good was the Atomic Basie band?
BP: Beyond belief. I remember we went to Europe, and somehow the music didn’t get to London in time. We had to play an entire concert with no music. It blew everyone’s mind. The next day, what we had accomplished was all over the press. I don’t know if we even had music stands in front of us.
JW: How did you pull that off?
BP: The band had been together so long as a unit that we had memorized all of the sheet music. Plus, Basie’s directing and leadership had been minimal, so we knew what to do. Later in my career I got a chance to lead the Basie band. Before I did, I was thinking in my head, “What am I going to do, and how will I wave my hand for this note or that note?” Suddenly I realized that for the whole 12 years I was in the band, no one stood in front of the band conducting or telling you what tune was next. So I didn’t have to worry as much or over-think it.
JW: How did the Basie band know what to play if there was no song list and Basie never called out the tunes?
BP: What Basie would do is play an introduction familiar to everyone.
JW: Didn’t that mean you had to scramble for the music?
BP: Not really. We had it memorized. Or in other situations, Basie would play long introductions, long enough for us to pull the music loose. Basie never had to call a set or say, “We’re going to play this or that or the other thing.” After one bar of Basie playing that piano, we knew what the song was going to be. He was an amazing minimalist. He always got more for less.
JW: When did you leave the band?
BP: In 1963. I wanted to try and make a name for myself. I had been in the band for 12 years and wanted to try different things, like leading my own band. I had exhausted all the possibilities available to me in Basie’s band. But it took me a few extra years to officially leave.
BP: Every time I would go to Basie to give him two weeks’ notice, he’d say, “OK Benny, but that’s too bad because you’re going to miss this next tour of Sweden.” I didn’t want to miss that, so I’d respond, “OK, well, maybe I can take that back and leave another time.”
JW: Basie was clever wasn’t he?
BP: Oh yes [laughing]. He knew how to dangle that carrot. He was very subtle. He didn’t say, “Don’t leave.” He’d say, “Too bad you’re going to miss some fun.” He was a gregarious guy.
JW: I wonder how many other guys stayed on with the band longer thanks to that carrot trick.
BP: He had a bunch of carrots. He had different carrots for different rabbits [laughing].
JW: You recorded with Basie and Frank Sinatra in the early 1960s and in 1984, for L.A. Is My Lady, which actually was recorded in New York. Both were arranged by Quincy Jones.
BP: Frank was always highly professional. Always very prepared. He never hung around and made small talk. The band would be very well rehearsed prior to his arrival in the studio. He’d come in and do his shot. Very seldom would we have to do two takes on anything. And then he’d leave.
JW: Were any of the solos behind Sinatra improvised?
BP: No. Quincy had written everything out in terms of who would play behind Frank, when they’d play and what notes they’d play. It wasn’t a loose affair. Frank decided who would play behind him.
JW: What are you doing now?
BP: I just released a new album called Nextep, with TK Blue on alto and soprano sax and flute, Sayuri Goto on piano, Essiet O. Essiet on bass and Billy Hart on drums. The album is a culmination of New Orleans Second Line marching music, and rhythms from South Africa and the Caribbean. I called it Nextep because our next step is to be recognized as composers of original songs.
JW: You have played with TK Blue for some time.
BP: Yes, we’ve been playing and touring with pianist Randy Weston for 15 to 20 years. TK [pictured] is head of C.W. Post College's music department. He’s an extremely talented and humane guy. A good human being who’s spiritual and caring, and an original musician.
JW: Not bad for a guy from New Orleans.
BP: Life is an amazing journey.
JazzWax tracks: When Count Basie's band wasn't touring or recording in the 1950s, Benny recorded on several superb small-group dates. These included a Buck Clayton jam session in December 1953, on which he recorded two tracks: Moten Swing and Sentimental Journey. Both are available here on a three-CD, Lonehill release called Buck Clayton: Complete Legendary Jam Sessions, Master Takes.
Benny also recorded on a spectacular session led by Frank Wess for Commodore in May 1954. The recordings are on a CD called Wess Point that's available here.
Another excellent session featuring Benny in a small group setting was on a date led by drummer Osie Johnson in February 1955. Benny recorded four tracks, which can be found at iTunes on Osie's Oasis. The four tracks are Blues for the Camels, Flute to Boot, Johnson's Whacks and Osmosis.
In 1957, Benny played on Donald Byrd and Gigi Gryce's magnificent Jazz Lab recording. The album is available on CD here. Or you can download Nica's Tempo, Smoke Signals and Speculation from Gigi Gryce's Nica's Tempo album at iTunes.
Benny's current album, Nextep, can be found at iTunes or here at Amazon.
JazzWax tracks: To see Benny in action today and hear his suede-soft tone, go here.