The Basie band’s
interviewed by British reedman

Talking in 1964

Who would you say influenced you when you started playing, Marshall? One musician—or a lot of people?

I never had any real influence on alto. I started out as a violin player and I was a great admirer of Jascha Heifetz, Mischa Elman, Fritz Kreisler—people of that sort. I thought along concert lines. I took up clarinet before saxophone— also played guitar and banjo along with the other stringed instruments.

So my likings were sort of a mixed-up affair. As it is now I seldom go and listen to an alto saxophone player. I’d rather go and listen to a very good trombone or trumpet or guitar player. I just don’t think that way about it.

Another thing: I’ve always felt as though I played like myself. If you go around listening to people that play the same instrument that you play, you’ll find out that it will rub off on you. And you won’t be yourself any longer.

Not that I think that what I’m doing is any greater than anybody else, but I also have enough pride to play the way that I feel, rather than copy the styling of another.

Yes, it’s always best to be yourself. I think it’s all wrong when you hear people pinch phrases off of records.

Well,  if a person has no idea of any particular style, no background or foundation, then he must adopt someone else’s styling—or he has nothing. But if you’ve done nothing but study music all your life you should have something within yourself to carry you along —if you hope to be successful in your own way and stand on your own feet, that is.

Really, when I asked you that I was thinking of myself. As a kid I used to buy lots of records of different people that knocked me out at the time. One of them—and I still feel the same way about him—was Benny Carter.

Oh, he’s one of the best. He’s one of the nicest saxophone players I ever heard in my life. He plays himself. I was born and reared on the West coast of the United States and I’d never actually had any first-hand dealings with Eastern artists until I was practically a grown man. McKinney’s Cotton Pickers came out there about 1931 and Don Redman —an excellent alto player as well as an arranger around that time—came up to me one day and said: “Gee, do you know Benny Carter?” I said: “No, I only know him through hearing of him. As a matter of fact, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a record of him.”

Which I hadn’t. The first record I heard by Benny was, I think, “Sleep” in 1939 or ‘40.

So Don said: “Well, I never heard anybody that sounded as much like Benny Carter as you do.”

I thought it was quite a compliment, because Benny had the same high rating then that he holds today. He’s been one of the top men of all time.

The same thing had happened a year earlier when Harry Carney came out to the Coast with Ellington for the first time. I was still in high school. He came up to me on a job I was working— before I got up to go to school in the morning—and he spoke of  “a fellow back East”.

It just seemed that there was some phraseology or something that was similar to what Benny played. Benny happens to be a very good friend of mine now.

I think you and Benny both give something beyond the notes you play. It’s like when I hear the Basie saxophones. There’s always that full sound—the five of you giving with a good tone. It’s so good to hear five reed instruments really relaxed and blowing.

Well, I’ll tell you—most of the fellows in that band don’t play any peashooters for mouthpieces. The average section man in commercial bands and so forth uses a three or four lay. These tenor saxophone players with me are using number 10, 11 or 12 lays on these big Links. They’re wide open. And you’d better get something out of it!

It makes you work. You don’t just let the horn play itself. ‘Cause those guys blow loud and strong, with big tones. They’re always trying to excel in getting a good sound of loudness and fullness. If you can do that you can always tone down. But most players can’t get up to this zenith.

What do you use? A Brilhart, isn’t it?

That’s what I’m using this time. It’s the first time I’ve ever had a Brilhart over here. It’s a nice mouthpiece—about a 7 ½ star—the most open one they make. I use a 4 ½ -5 reed on it—about as stiff as I can get.

You like to feel a lot of resistance to blow against, do you?

I HAVE to have that. I like to feel as though the horn is fighting back at me, rather than me just overpowering it. I like to blow right against the back of the mouthpiece and the back of the horn, let it come back to me—and I can judge from my stomach.

Yes, you get an impact that way, don’t you?

That’s right. That’s the way. The other way is a different approach.

Of course. I suppose if you’ve got to do a different sort of job . . .

No, you can still do the same thing regardless—as long as you have it to pull back to you. I can play so soft you can hardly hear me. It’s just control. You’re able to blow with an open throat when you have something to blow against. Most fellows playing the commercial type things use the tight throat, with the straight flow of air into the horn. Which is the good, correct way of playing. But sometimes the trick is better than the correctness—if you can cultivate the trick.

Do you still practise?

Very little. I hate to practise. No, I’m very mature now, you know. As a matter of fact, it gripes me sometimes to continually hear practising around me.

I was the first musician in a navy band during the war, and some of the 45 men in it weren’t really accomplished musicians. When I heard some of those sounds coming out daily—hour after hour—I got to the point where I could hardly stand practice.

Three years of that got under my skin so much that now I’d rather walk out and be where it’s quiet when the practising starts.

Of course, when I started playing music I practised from seven to ten hours a day. As an aspiring concert violinist that was necessary, in order to memorise the scores of the masters.

This obviously accounts for another thing I was going to ask you. You never seem to look at the parts when you’re playing.

I learned that at a very early age. My violin teacher always told me that you could play best if you knew exactly what you were playing without looking at it. I guess I was more fluent at memorising as a child than I am now, because you’re sharper then. Once I played a number over two or three times I never had to look at it again.

Do you think anybody can do that? Or is it a gift?

I imagine there’s a little gift attached to it, but it can also be acquired. Some people speak of perfect pitch, approximate pitch, things like that. That can also be acquired. Some are gifted. They can remember the vibrations of a sound and the particular level that it appears to them in their mind. But it can be trained. I’ve seen it done both ways.

It just happened that if somebody was playing something I’d pick up my violin and automatically hit the correct pitch. After I got a little older I tried to cultivate it. I used to test myself by carrying tuning forks or pitch-pipes around with me. I’d go down the street and try to approximate what pitch the streetcars’ brakes happened to squeal in.

But that gets rather annoying after you get into it, because you start associating every sound you hear with some sort of pitch of music. That’s a drag.

I have a similar thing, where if I’m listening to a note and I want to pitch it. I automatically think of the fingering on the instrument. Mentally I’m pressing a certain key down. Do you find that?

Yes. That’s one of the better ways of doing it. I can always remember A as being the second string of my violin as a starter, then Bb as the pitch of my clarinet as I had it, and Eb as being the C pitch of my alto.

What was the first band in which you took the section lead?

That was a band you’ve probably never heard of, called Curtis Moseby’s Blue Blowers. I was in high school— 16 years old, I guess. I sat in first as second alto, and inside of a couple of months or so I was prevailed upon to play lead. I’ve played lead ever since.

What would you say are the essential qualities of a lead player on any instrument?

I never tried to figure that out, actually. But speaking casually, I’d say a lead man must be in some sense forceful. And a little demanding in the ways that musicians follow him. He should be just a little bit inventive. And, along with having a good background, he should have enough personality to be able to interpret the particular type of music that he happens to be playing— with conviction. If it’s just straight ensemble he should be able to blend with the other horns, and in turn be followed by the men that he is leading.

You should get something from those other guys without having to tell them. They should feel it right along with you.

Perfectly correct. You have to be a  sensitive person in a lot of ways to play lead alto. You can’t be too much of an extrovert. Many times when you feel as though you would like to go somewhere else with the tone, or something, you have to think: “Well, I’m playing this for five men”. So you usually have the extroverts surrounding you.

When we hear the Basie band we know that your personality is coming out in the saxophones. Do you feel it reaches the rest of the band, too?

Well, it has—especially in the band’s formative stages. As of now, most of the men have been here several years. So they consider themselves veterans also now. It usually happens that after a man has been in the band for a couple of years he feels as though he’s just as much a veteran as a man who’s been there for ten or fifteen years. So I try not to let my personality reach anywhere. I like to be just one of the fellows.

What I meant was: Does the way you play have an effect on the whole band?

It has to. If the people in your section respect you, then your personality will come out through the section and through the rest of the band. Unless you have that respect you don’t have much of a section, because everybody’s going for themselves. That’s pretty bad. You find a few little extroverts around every once in a while that want to play comedy—and other little things.

I believe there have been occasions when you’ve had to exert a lot of discipline—such as with the Lionel Hampton band.

That was my baby. I helped him  organise it. All of us were young— there wasn’t anybody in there out of his twenties. I was 27, and they ranged down to Dexter Gordon, who was 16. He was sort of my baby, too.

It was a band of young, enthusiastic musicians that wanted to achieve something—and they did it in a very short time. I think that first band had more on the ball than anything he ever had in the future. He had some wonderful talents in the band; a trombone player named Fred Beckett, who did everything anybody would ever want to hear on the trombone; an excellent teenage guitarist, Irving Ashby; and we had Ray Perry, who was just about tops as a jazz violinist. And my kid brother was playing trumpet in the band. Ernie now works for the ABC television network in New York.

Have you ever though you’d like to work in a studio orchestra?

I’m happier playing where I am. But there are certain economic factors that could arise to make me want to work in the studio again. And I’d have more time at home, more recreation.

But you sort of get the bug when you’re out on the road. You learn to know the world and to appreciate the sincerity of the new people you meet. You also meet a few phonies along the way.

Do you think it’s a good thing to stay with a band for 13 years?

It really isn’t, under ordinary circumstances. You get buried, in a lot of places. It’s all according to the way your mind works, and your ideas of the future. With me, I’ve never been much of a jump-around guy. I was always a sticker.

I stuck with every band I’ve ever been with until something serious caused me to leave.

I would have probably been with Lionel Hampton for a longer time, but World War Two came in, so I enlisted into Uncle Sam’s navy. That cut me off with him.

Before that I spent eight or nine years in California with Les Hite’s band.

As long as you’re happy. You have to make your own additions and subtractions and find out what you like the best.

My particular bandleader now is a good guy to work for. He doesn’t bug me or heckle me. We’re both grown men and we have a sort of Mutual Admiration Society going. So long as it remains that way—hell, I’ll probably be the oldest lead alto player in the world!

You take the band through at rehearsals?

That’s my job. Always has been. If  an arranger happens to be there and is a competent guy to rehearse the band I would much rather he took it through. But most guys come up, give me the arrangement and tell me to do it.

I feel the arranger is owed a certain amount of respect. I think a number should first be played in the manner that he originally thought up. If it works out that way. all well and good. But if it hasn’t come out right the way he wanted it, then he must go our way.

Then it is my job to rehearse it the way I think it sounds best. Which may mean revising the tempo, using different phraseology or putting in some new changes.

Who does most of the writing for the band now?

Frank Foster. He usually just hands it to me. I ask him what tempo he wants it in, and that’s it. He’s always there, anyway.

How about those Neal Hefti things you did?

Sometimes Neal will just send four of five tunes, with footnotes like: “Marshall, this should be sort of like the tempo in so-and-so that you did. Use your own best judgement”. Just a clue. Because when you look at an arrangement it’s just a conglomeration of notes.

I can take the alto or the trumpet or the lead trombone part and go through it, and I can almost figure from the way the fellow has written—the different ways the measures are broken down— the tempo that the tune should be played in.

But there are certain things in music that can’t be written. You can write close to the line, but there’s not always a means of indicating the way to phrase it. That’s where the band comes in.

Have you ever fancied having your own band at all?

Not really. If I had an angel that wanted to sponsor me with a band I’d be very happy to have one. And I think I could have an excellent band. I’ve had enough experience fooling around with other people’s bands.

But at this stage in the game I have to look at the practical side of it. It’s a little bit too late to be bumping my head against the wall building a band from the formative stage on up. I’d definitely need an angel to get me the type of musicians that I would demand in my band and be able to pay them.

Supposing this angel were to appear and you could form a band—would it be similar to the Count Basie band?

Yes and no. I’d play a more varied  repertoire. But when it came to the swing type of thing it would be played as close as possible to the way this is played. I’d still like to play in the section. I never get that straitjacket feeling for the simple reason that I have blown so much in earlier years. Right at the end of World War Two the thing they did was to hire people for jam sessions. They would get maybe six to twelve musicians to do nothing but jam on a Sunday afternoon. This was featured as a commercial product—and it was very successful. We used to just blow, blow, blow 18, 20 or 30 choruses one after the other.

After a while I said: “I don’t think I will ever play another jam session date in my life again.” Just the same as I wouldn’t want to work in one of those five, six or seven-piece bands where they stood up and just stomped and jammed all night. I don’t think I’d ever like to do that again. I’ve had my fill of that. I think it’s fattening frogs for snakes!

You do have a couple of Jazz solos in the Basie book, though, don’t you?

Yes, but I don’t particularly like them, because they’ve been there so long. I play a whole chorus in “How High The Moon”. As a matter of fact, that was the first arrangement that Ernie Wilkins ever put into the book thirteen years ago.

In those jam session days we’d play “How High” for an hour at a time. It’s been so overworked. That is one of the tunes that I detest, and it so happens that I have a solo in it. And every time I hear Basie call it or start playing the introduction to it, goose-pimples go over me, because I positively detest it.

That’s one of my pet heckle tunes. I can listen to somebody else play it, but for me—I never want to play it again as long as I live. If somebody would steal a few of the parts out of the book on that one I would be so very, very happy.

Of course, you’re better known as a ballad player nowadays.

And I hope they remember me that  way. You know, I find that you can reach a lot of very sincere people playing a ballad. Folks that come in and clap their hands when a musician is going through all the big motions and making the sounds aren’t necessarily sincere.

I would rather have smaller, more polite, but sincere applause than to have them stomping their feet without knowing what for. Also, any time I can get over to the people playing a ballad in this band I feel I have achieved something, because this is not known as a ballad band.

How do you feel about the tendency for saxophones to be written out of things a lot lately?

There will always be saxophones.  Please believe me. This is only a little recession in the saxophone age, for the simple reason that people are looking for new sounds.

Twenty-five years ago they almost completely excluded violins. A violin player, if he wasn’t working in the top recording bands in his city, practically starved. As a matter of fact, most good saxophone players about 20 years ago evolved from violin players, because you couldn’t make a living playing violin.

It’s the same kind of evolution going on now. They don’t put alto parts in arrangements. They’ll have maybe 5 violins, a baritone saxophone, a tenor saxophone and the rest brass. Probably put four French horns in—that were obsolete 20 years ago.

But the body and the heart of the band is in the saxophone section, especially in a swing band. That’s where your pulsation really arises from.

I went along to a session for Tony Osborne the other week and it was so nice—we had a big band with the normal set-up. Everything clicked into place beautifully. But I’ve been on dates where they’ve had gimmicks like three sopranos—all sorts of funny noises.

Let’s not mention soprano saxophones. There are only a few people in this world that have been able to play soprano so that it sounded like something that wasn’t a fish-horn. That’s what they were originally called when they put out the straight sopranos, and most people play ‘em like a fish-horn! Soprano can be a very beautiful instrument. But it’s not really necessary.

I like it. I’ve got a little curved soprano. I’ve done a bit of work on it and tried to study it as much as possible.

They play in better tune than the straight ones. But you usually have to jazz up some of those tone-holes and things to get ‘em in tune. They were never really made too correctly. You can bend it into left field—if you know baseball terminology.

Generally speaking, would you say playing standards are at their highest ever?

Yes, they are. Playing standards now among jazzmen are actually getting to the wonderful stage. At one time in jazz history the music was only played by people who were not capable of covering their instruments as well as possible.

At the same time that was also an advantage because they created other sounds and different variations. This was how jazz got its language, its style formations and everything. The beautiful part was that it was coming straight from their hearts and their souls.

Which way do you think it will go now? It’s got to keep moving, hasn’t it?

It’s got to progress from the educational standpoint. Jazz now is played by people that are practically virtuosos. These wonderful young musicians coming up have been to the finest schools possible.

The only thing is, I hope that most of ‘em will just keep an open mind and go straight ahead. With me, unless you can sort of pat your foot to jazz, I don’t consider it a true form. There should be some sort of emotional feeling. It can’t be too abstract. When it gets too far into the abstract they just lose me.

Now I’m not putting a direct fault on that, because maybe that’s just because of my ignorance—that I don’t know. And anything that I don’t know I can’t set a line on. Maybe that’s just because I haven’t progressed enough to understand it.

Changing it slightly, do you think that public taste, which in my opinion is at the lowest it ever has been. is going to alter?

It’s already altered a whole lot. The thing that I disliked most about the rock ‘n’ roll phase at its inception was the fact that most of it was played by people that were cheating on their instruments. A whole lot of them only knew three or four chords together. When it’s played like that I don’t have any use for it.

But you can also get some of those rock ‘n roll tunes and, if they’re correctly arranged by somebody that’s in the know musically, if they put them in the correct meters, try to turn them around so that they have a little melodic substance to them, they can make ‘em swing and they sound all right.

Rock ‘n’ roll can get right down and cause quite a bit of internal combustion with young people if it’s played well. On top of that it teaches the kids a beat. That’s the one thing that it does have. Some of those sounds coming out are pretty horrible—but the beat’s a gas.