For Jimmy Wilkins and his brother Ernie, receiving a call from Clark Terry in 1951 to join Count Basie's new band in New York was an incredible stroke of good luck. Both musicians were jumping from one territory band to another trying to keep the paychecks coming. But big bands were folding fast.
Small swing groups weren't faring much better. In 1950, Basie had been working with a sextet that included Terry (tp), Buddy DeFranco (cl), Wardell Gray (ts), Freddie Green (g), Jimmy Lewis (b) and Gus Johnson (d). But the all-star group wasn't a big draw. Producer Norman Granz [pictured] told Basie to scrap the small-group effort and to start a new big band, which seemed counter-intuitive at the time. But Granz insisted and told Basie that if he did, Granz would sign him to his Clef label. So in 1951, Basie formed a big band and began hiring and rehearsing.
In Part 3 of my three-part conversation with Jimmy Wilkins, the trombonist and bandleader talks about his three years with Basie at the dawn of the so-called New Testament band...
JazzWax: When you joined Count Basie’s band in New York in 1951, who was more excited, you or your brother Ernie?
Jimmy Wilkins: Me. Ernie didn’t like playing alto saxophone at the time but that was the only chair available. Basie already had Wardell Gray and Paul Quinichette on tenors, with Charlie Fowlkes on baritone. In the other two trombone chairs were two dear friends of mine—Matthew Gee and Mitchell “Booty” Wood. They were my heroes. It was a completely new band, except for the rhythm section, which had been with Basie.
JW: Who wrote the arrangements?
JWs: Neil Hefti wrote a half-dozen or so. I was delighted. Nothing was difficult and I was sight-reading. In ‘52, I ended up playing lead trombone. Booty’s wife wouldn’t let him go out on the road. So Basie added Benny Powell to take Booty’s place. Less than a year later, Henry Coker joined on trombone, and Joe Newman and Reunald Jones came in on trumpets. It was a brand new section.
JW: The other alto sax was Marshall Royal, yes?
JWs: That’s right. Ernie was still fussing about playing alto. But as the band started to take off, Ernie began contributing charts along with Hefti. Nat Pierce also wrote charts, like New Basie Blues.
JW: How were the Hefti charts?
JWs: They were great—Songs like Why Not?, Fancy Meetin’ You and others. Hefti used to send them to us while we were on the road—but without instructions on how to play them. One time we played one of his charts without instructions at Birdland. It was called How's It? or something like that. Clark [Terry] came up with the idea to phrase it slow, so we played the song laid back.
JW: Did Hefti hear it?
JWs: Yes, but he didn’t recognize it at first because it was so slow. Hefti wound up recording the song, but renamed it. I can’t remember the name. It had a more swinging tempo.
JW: Did Basie like Ernie’s charts?
JWs: Very much so. But Ernie wasn’t happy. Basie would announce Hefti's songs on the radio by saying they were by Hefti. But when we played Ernie’s songs, Basie never said his name. After we left the band in ’53, Basie apparently had said that he didn’t realize what he had had in Ernie.
JW: Who replaced you?
JWs: Johnny Mandel. He had come in to hear the band at Birdland a few times and brought a chart or two. Johnny said he thought I was great leading the section. Johnny's charts were great. They had a certain feel—laid back but with a good beat.
JW: The sax section changed as well.
JWs: Yes, Basie went through a period of personnel problems. If you weren’t proficient or didn’t have the personality Basie was looking for, you were gone. Basie got Joe Newman and Henry Coker out of Illinois Jacquet’s band. He also brought in Frank Wess, Frank Foster and Snooky Young.
JW: Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis was in there, too.
JWs: Oh yes. Lockjaw was a rompin’ player. He put all the groove he could into a tune. He loved his showmanship. I would holler “Lockjaw!” He loved it. Lockjaw and I were very good friends.
JW: Did he play with you when you started a band in Detroit?
JWs: Yes. After I left Basie, Lockjaw came to Detroit with the Harry “Sweets” Edison Quintet. I invited him over to our house for a barbecue. I made my own sauce, and he really snacked on those ribs. Lockjaw was a comical guy and loved to talk a lot of bull. He wasn’t as tough as he made out. He was just a nice guy who loved to be the center of things.
JW: Why did you leave the Basie band?
JWs: Because the money was too short. I had an offer from my uncle to manage his restaurant in Detroit— Webster’s BBQ. It was more pay, and I could save money by being stable.
JW: Why did he want you to manage it?
JWs: He wanted a relative handling the money rather than someone else. He wanted to get away on vacations, and he knew he could trust me. I managed the restaurant for a year and a half. Eventually a fire put him out of business for a couple of months. That's when I put a big band together.
JW: What did Ernie do?
JWs: Ernie stayed on with the band but left to stay in New York and write for Tommy Dorsey. Then he started getting commissions to write for different performers and bands. He was so busy so fast. He was always up all night writing charts. Everyone overworked him.
JW: What did you do after the fire?
JWs: I had had enough. I took an exam for the Post Office. I had gotten married in 1952, and the lack of a stable check wasn’t going to help me. I passed the test and worked for the Post Office in Detroit until 1981.
JW: What did you do then?
JWs: I had been leading a band on the weekends. It was a damn good band, too. We backed up Nancy Wilson [pictured], Billy Eckstine, Lou Rawls—all hot acts. Ernie sent me charts every now and then. They sounded good. That’s what took the band over. People would say, “There’s a band in Detroit that sounds just like Basie” [laughs]. Ernie also sent me some of the charts from Here Comes the Swingin' Mr. Wilkins as well as arrangements for Sarah Vaughan in the Land of Hi-Fi. He even wrote some special charts just for me.
JW: Did Ernie play with the band?
JWs: Ernie made a couple of gigs with the band. The band was excited when he came to play. They were pleased to see him. One time he had to borrow a baritone saxophone because the baritone player didn’t show up.
JW: You also played with the Funk Brothers, the house-band that backed singers on Motown recordings.
JWs: Yes, but I don’t remember specifically which ones. There were so many. They’d just put arrangements in front of us, and we'd record them. I know we did records with Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, Martha and the Vandellas, Smokey Robinson and everyone else.
JW: When did you move to Las Vegas?
JWs: In 1994. My wife and I moved there to get away from the winters in Detroit. They were too cold and hard. Besides, we had visited Vegas many times to see friends. After we moved out, a couple of musicians suggested I start a band with my large library of arrangements.
JW: Did you?
JWs: Yes, I knew all the musicians in Vegas. I called them up and started rehearsing. I got all the baddest cats. And I had Ernie’s charts and charts that Frank Foster had sent me, including Shiny Stockings, from before Basie even recorded it.
JW: Did you ever run into Johnny Mandel?
JWs: Yes, on a Jazz Cruise. I approached him and said, “Hi Johnny. Remember me?” He looked at me sort of quizzical at first. Then, as he began to realize who I was, his face warmed and he hugged me. He said, “Wow, it’s been a long time.”
JazzWax clip: Here's Count Basie's band in July 1952 recording Ernie Wilkins' classy arrangement of There's a Small Hotel, with Ernie Wilkins in the sax section and Jimmy Wilkins among the trombones. Be sure to dig that outro!