Interview with Clarence Banks - trombone
Date: September 12, 2006
Trombonist Clarence Banks has played with Basie band since 1984. He was the last player hired by Basie himself. Clarence can be heard on most of the Basie band recordings made since 1984. Many thanks to Clarence for sharing his memories of Freddie Green.
Freddie The Musician
Even before I joined Basie, I knew the name of Freddie Green. His name was synonymous with great time. He carried himself proudly. He was someone the younger players could look up to.
There was always a solid pulse when Freddie was playing. Even without a microphone, we could hear him, loud and strong. After Basie passed, the band started to play louder, but Freddie could still be heard.
I used to see Freddie squeezing a tennis ball, or a hand-gripper in his left hand for strength. I found out why one day when I looked at the string height on his guitar. My goodness, the strings were so high it was like an acoustic bass!
Freddie could be very intimidating. There were some great drummers that came through the Basie band and Freddie would make some of them nervous wrecks. Some of these wonderful drummers just could not play with Freddie being on the same stage.
I never knew that Freddie's nickname was Pep until Thad Jones came to take over the band. Everybody called him Freddie, not Pep.
After Basie had passed and Thad was leading the band, we were in California doing a gig with the Mills Brothers. Actually, we said it was the Mill Brother because there was only one left! The band was having a problem with one of the Mills charts, particularly the piano part because the pianist at the time was not a good reader. There was single line that he just could not get. Finally, Freddie got frustrated and said, "Just give the chart to me, damn it. Let me look at that. Here, there is how it goes." And he proceeds play it perfectly. I said to myself, "Wow, this guy is great." I never expected it from him because I had never seen him play anything but chords. I had never thought much about the Freddie's musical ability. I knew he was a good player, that he could read the charts well, that he had no problems with chord symbols, and that he provided a strong four-to-the bar, typical rhythm guitar playing. But he handled that single line part with ease.
Freddie The Comedian
Freddie could be humorous. He liked to imitate people and he could be very funny in a subtle way. I remember Freddie refusing to give some guy an autograph. He told me later "They only want your autograph thinking you're gonna die...and I ain't dead yet!"
At our first recording after Basie had passed, we were playing "Corner Pocket." He would often offer phrasing tips to the horns. He knew what he wanted to hear. There was one phrase that just wasn't being played to Freddie's liking. So he says, "No, no, fellas. Play it like this... 'Drop those funky drawers!' " That was the rhythm he wanted. Then he noticed that were some ladies in the recording booth, and he immediately apologizes, "Oh, I'm sorry, ladies. I didn't mean to say 'Drop those funky drawers' in front of you!" That broke up the whole band and we were rolling on the floor laughing.
Freddie The Disciplinarian
When Freddie had something on his mind, he'd let you know it. Johnny Coles and I used to have a few beers early in the morning before getting on the bus, and then we start joking with everybody. One morning, Freddie couldn't take it any longer and he yells, "Shut up! You crazy?" And everybody got quiet because the Man had spoken.
He got mad at me once in Milwaukee at a festival. I like my beer and I had drunk several before the gig because the band got free beer. Hey, it was Milwaukee. So we start to play the set and I got to get rid of some of the beer I had consumed, but it's in the middle of the gig. So I think, "Uh-oh, now what am I gonna do?" So I wait until Sonny Cohn going to play his solo in Li'l Darlin', because it's a slow tune and I'll have time. So Sonny starts to play and I leave the stage and got back in time to play the rest of the chart. But Freddie had seen me and I could feel the daggers coming from his eyes. He watched me all the way to my seat and then gave me "the ray." He didn't say anything but I knew I was in trouble!
Freddie was known for giving "the ray" to guys in the rhythm section. If you got that "the ray" too often, you weren't going to be in the band too long.
Once on the bus, Freddie got tired of another musician providing a non-stop "sex education course". He said, "I'm tired of this sh-t all the time; I'm going up front." So he goes up front and tells me, "I'll trade seats. You go back there."
Freddie The Quiet Man
When I joined the band, I didn't say too much to Freddie. "Hello. How ya doing?" Things like that.
Freddie didn't say too much. When he did, we all listened. He gave me a compliment one night after my solo on "Good Time Blues". He said, "You played the sh-t out of that motherf---er. Keep playin' like that." All I could say was "Thanks, " because I was so stunned. I then asked Eric Dixon, "Freddie just said I played a great solo. Was he kidding?" Eric replied, "If Freddie gave you a compliment, you'd better take it because he doesn't give them out too often." It was sweet of Freddie to offer the compliment and was spiritual moment for me.
After Basie passed, Freddie had his turn at being the front man for the band. That lasted about a week and a half! He was really nervous at the beginning; it was funny. But he did an admirable job; he went up and did what he had to do. The last gig he did as a leader he was starting to get into it. Freddie goes to the microphone to announce the next tune, "Ladies and gentlemen, (he always addressed the audience in this manner) The Heat's On!" And he raised both hands up in the air, hamming it up on stage! I thought, "Oh boy, that's it." And sure enough, the band decided to find someone else to front the band. But Freddie was relieved that he no longer had to do that job.
I remember one pretty funny scene with Freddie. While recording the Diane Schuur date, Leonard Feather shows up asking the whereabouts of Freddie. When Leonard finally runs into Freddie, he asks for a interview. Freddie told him, half joking and half serious, "Get the hell out my face." We all had a nice chuckle over this. Freddie avoided Leonard for almost 2 hours. He finally gave in and Leonard got the interview.
Memories of the Basie Band
I was hired by Count Basie in 1984 to replace Booty Wood, who was ill. I was asked to sub for six weeks. Of course, I said yes for a chance to work with Basie. That six weeks turned into a year, at which time I asked for a raise. They said, "No raise, but you got the gig!" Basie was tight with the money, but I got a raise eventually. I actually made more money in New York freelancing before I joined the band. But it was, and still is, a great honor to play in the Basie band.
No one auditions for the band. You get recommended and then you come play. That's the way it has always been, even now in 2006. I can never remember an audition. You get on stage and if you make it, fine. If not, you're gone. When I joined, I was told, "Don't expect any solos." Hey, I didn't need any solos. I was shaking in my pants just playing the charts and fitting into the ensemble. Basie finally gave me a solo and when I finished playing, I looked over at Basie and he nodded slightly. Man, that felt great.
The band was looking for a new drummer and we had a young kid come to play. We were in Phoenix and our music didn't arrive in time for the gig. So the promoter asks if we can have a jam session. So we agree and a few of us start to play. Well, this drummer is absolutely terrible. Freddie played about a song and a half, then gets up and leaves the stage. I'm thinking, "Oh, this is going to be bad." Freddie later goes to Sonny Cohn, the band manager, to say, "This drummer can't cut it." Sonny counters with, "He's a big band drummer. This was a small group." Freddie comes back, "Big band...hell, it doesn't matter. Big, small, he's not making it." The music finally showed up and we gave this drummer one big long set to prove himself. Well, he was terrible and we let him go that night. His name was Stan and I said, "Well, there goes One Night Stan." That broke up everybody.
In 1986, the band did a recording with Katarina Valente, a singer from Germany. The producer was not happy with Freddie's playing and he erased the guitar tracks. When Thad Jones found out about this later, he told the producer that Freddie was going to be on that recording. The producer replied that the tracks had been erased. Thad told the producer that he'd have to fly Freddie over to Germany to re-record the tracks and that he'd have to pay Freddie again, too! Now I heard this story second-hand and Freddie never said anything about it, but I hope it's true.
It feels like I knew Freddie longer than three years. I was there the night he passed in Las Vegas. That was very sad night. We were playing with Tony Bennett. After the end of the second night of the gig, I was in my room just about ready to leave to play the slot machines. The phone rings and it's Bill Hughes. He says, "We've got a meeting downstairs." Now this was within an hour of the late show has ended. So I go downstairs and most of the older guys are there, Eric, Bill, and Tee, and a few other guys. One of them says, "We just lost Freddie." I couldn't believe it. I heard that Freddie's lady friend, E.P., was with him when he left us. I heard they were watching TV in the hotel room and Freddie just suddenly slid to the floor. Now it takes a lot for me to break down and I stayed cool at the band meeting. I went back to my room to tell my wife the news, and I just started crying. When I reached the room, my wife asks, "What's wrong?" And I told her, "We just lost Freddie." I'm not ashamed to say that I cried like a baby. I quickly realized how much I would miss him and how much I appreciated him. We played the rest of the engagement but it was very difficult. The first night we played without Freddie, I did fine until Li'l Darlin' . I had to hold back tears while still trying to play. Dennis Mackrel, our drummer, looked at me and asked, "Are you OK?" And I answered, "No, I'm not." Freddie's guitar was on stage, placed on his chair, with a flower on it. I could hardly look at it. The very next day, I ran into bassist Ray Brown in the lobby. Ray says, "Hey man, have you seen Pep?" So I had to break the bad news to Ray. Ray just stopped in his tracks and said, "What!" Ray had come to find Freddie so that they could play golf together.
Freddie's guitar was an integral part of the Basie sound. His sound was unique. After Freddie passed, the band went for a while without a guitar but the sound was empty. We tried a few guitarists that didn't work. One had an alcohol problem, another was a bassist that also played guitar. Another claimed to know the book so well that he didn't need the charts. This proved not to be true when at a sound check before a gig, someone in the sound booth turned off the guitar mic because he was butchering the chords and playing whatever he wanted. It was a drag. We went through a few before we found Charleton Johnson. He did a great job as does our current guitarist, Will Matthews.
The guitar is really important to this band. On occasion our guitarist, Will Mathews, can't make a gig, and if we play Li'l Darlin' without that opening guitar arpeggio, the horns never enter together! We so used to hearing the guitar we don't know how to count in after the piano intro. I'm not kidding! Every time we mess it up if the guitar is missing.