During my time as music director of the Royal York, ninety-five percent of the Imperial Room headliners were either solo acts, or stars with their own trio. In all of these cases, my orchestra provided the music. The exception to this was the rare occasion when the headline act was an orchestra. My band didn’t mind giving up the stage in December of 1975 — the week that the Count Basie Orchestra came to town. We were elated to have them. In my opinion, the Basie Band typified Swing.
By this stage, the legendary players (Lester Young, Herschel Evans, Buck Clayton, Harry “Sweets” Edison) that came to prominence at the height of the Basie era, were gone. The one big name remaining was Freddie Green – an extraordinary rhythm guitarist. For over fifty years, Freddie was the “keeper of the quarter note” for Basie’s band. He perfected a style of playing “one note chords” which was so unique, it became known simply as the Freddie Green style.
Even with all the changes in players over the years, the band’s 40’s groove was still at the top. One of Basie’s secrets to success was that he knew how to hire good musicians. He also knew the value of good arrangements, and he brought with him his legendary Sammy Nestico and Neal Hefti charts. As his band played, the Count (most called him Bill) sat at the piano and added classy, yet very simple decorations. I’ll never forget the comment made by his manager as we talked about this great ensemble and its leader, “Bill don’t play nothin’, but it sure sounds real good.”
One thing that many didn’t know was that Bill was having trouble with his mobility. (Hey, I can identify with that.) He was in his early seventies and in a wheelchair. With curtain closed, we would wheel him on stage and set him up at the piano. Then when they hit the opener (usually One O’Clock Jump), the curtain opened and there he was. He played as well as ever and no one knew.
On Tuesday, the second night of their show, Basie was faced with an unexpected challenge that had the potential to undermine the band’s performance. Their first trombonist, Al Grey, had to leave immediately to appear as a witness in court in New York. In a pinch Basie’s manager asked if I thought MY trombonist could cut the Basie book. Our man was Jerry Johnson and I said “of course.” Jerry filled in Wednesday and Thursday and his performance was spot on. He had saved the day, and at the end of the week, Basie’s band players threw him a party. To my knowledge, he is the only Canadian who could say that he played, in the Count Basie Band.