Lusher: Its very nice to see you again, Henry. Our last opportunity
to talk together was in New York seven years ago, on one of the tours
with Ted’s band. We had a fine time together. You were very kind to us,
taking us around to a lot of places and showing us things we couldn’t
have seen under our own steam. We’ve never forgotten you for it.
Coker: Well, I can tell you it was my pleasure to do that, because
I’ve always dug .the Ted Heath band, you know. I admire you and Keith
Christie very much.
Lusher: I left the band about 18 months ago. I’ve made a lot of
money since and worked with a lot of very good musicians. But I miss the
band playingwise, and there was such a bond of friendship in the
band. I feel I’ve come away from a team.
Coker: I’d feel the same way if I left Basie.
Lusher: Henry, I know you come from Dallas. Texas. How did you
begin your musical career?
Coker: Well, I started out playing harp. But I didn’t really care
for it too much. You know how schoolboys are. I had quite a few fights
because of the harp. After that I started playing piano. And I still play
piano whenever I can. But I manage to sneak in a few practice hours when
our pianist’s not around! Once in a while I go and sit in somewhere
on piano, just for kicks. It keeps you more fit to play trombone, really.
I also took up vibes for relaxation.
Lusher: Tyree Glenn does that as well, doesn’t he?
Coker: Yes. He was the cause of me taking up vibeskept talking
to me about it, but I always thought it was so much trouble. You have
a lot of stuff to set up the keys to put on. But now there’s a portable
type with the keys already on, finally he talked me into buying a set.
Lusher: You joined the Basie band in 1952, I believe. I think you’re
to be admired staying with the band so long. What were you doing prior
Coker: I was with Illinois Jacquet in ’51. He had about eight pieces—a
very good, swinging group. We had a violin and saxophone player in the
band named Ray Perry—the greatest. He was something else, man. It was
very hard to have to play a solo after him. He had so many tricks on violin.
I never wanted that spot. He was one of those guys who could play just
as much alto.
Lusher: A lot of trombonists would be very interested to know that
you play a trombone which was once owned by Tommy Dorsey. He actually
gave it to you, didn’t he?
Coker: Yes, he did. It was very much of a surprise to me. I was
very moved. He always liked to sit in the band and play parts—and he’d
sit in my place. One night he’d just finished his job and he came down
and sat in, using my horn. He said, It’s a very good horn, but I
don’t think it’s for you. Try this horn. Play it and see how you like
it. Afterwards I told him: It’s a beautiful horn, Beautiful.
And he said: Well—it’s yours. I’ve been playing it ever since.
Lusher: I’ve seen you on occasions, while you’ve been on tour,
using a different horn.
Coker: Yes, I have a 6H Conn, which I like. I play that quite a
bit, too. I also have a 3B King, but that works me a little too hard.
But I use the one Tommy gave me more now. As you know, it’s a very wide
open horn. It’s a small horn, a 7 ½ inch bell—like a 2B. It was
made specially for him—and with such brilliance and freedom. You only
have to move the slide a few inches. I had to learn how to play it. The
positions are much closer than an ordinary horn. You know, he gave Basie
a number called "Moonlight in Vermont"—to hear me play. Every
time he came down Basie would call this number, and I would get nervous.
I have a part in there alone—nothing but me. He’d be sitting right in
front of me. Every time I would crack the first note, a high B natural.
When he went, I could play it. As soon as he came in—nothing.
Lusher: Yes, this is the influence he had on people. As for that
Dorsey Brothers band—we went along to hear it in New York only a few months
before Tommy died. We expected both the band and Tommy to be good—but
it was fantastic! Every member of Ted’s band, and Ted as well, was knocked
out by the band. They were playing at the Statler Hotel. I thought Tommy
would play one or two quiet solos at the microphone during the evening.
But he never stopped playing. All the leads, all the solos. One evening
after it was over, I had a 15 minute conversation with Tommy. We talked
about trombone playing, just as if I was a trombone player like him. But
that band—it was nothing like a wishywashy hotel band. Glorious.
Coker: He had a fellow arranging for him that used to be with our
band—Ernie Wilkins. You see what I mean?
Lusher: They were playing all this sort of material. And the people
in the hotel were enjoying it as well. We had a table right in front of
the band. The brass were playing open, and you could still converse, so
good was the tone of the band.
Coker: Tommy had what I don’t think any other trombone player has—perfect
breath control. He would play, say, eight bars and wouldn’t take a breath.
And he died with the secret. There’s only one other guy that has it now—Frank
Sinatra. He was in Tommy Dorsey’s band for several years and he learned
it from him. Now Urbie Green comes close to it.
Lusher: You like Urbie, do you? So do I. He’s a real allround
player. I’ve heard him play all sorts of trombone, and it’s always thrilling.
I found him a very nice person, too.
Coker: I love him. He’s made several records with us, and he’s
the sweetest guy you’ve ever seen. He’s one of those guys where you say:
Urbie, that was wonderful, and he says: Oh—I didn’t
do anything. Gee, I could do better. HOW can a guy do any better?
There are three guys over here in the same category. You’re one of them,
Don. And you have Keith Christie, and another guy in Sweden—Ake Persson.
Lusher: Oh, yes. Wonderful player.
Coker: He was on some dates with us last year when we were here.
It was called "Basie in Sweden." Be sure and hear it, because
he plays solo and section work in there. I was on third trombone and,
as you know, I’m the first trombone player.
Lusher: This shouldn’t matter, though, Henry, because a section
is as strong as its weakest link, isn’t it?
Coker: Oh, sure. And one thing I can say—we’ve always had a very
Lusher: Could I ask you something now about the present setup
in your section with the Basie band? Is it a split lead?
Coker: Yes, it is. Grover Mitchell is a very good first trombone
player, and he’s helped me out tremendously, so to speak. He writes music
and everything, though he hasn’t had a chance to make an arrangement for
the band yet. We’ve been so very, very busy and he’s only been in then
band about eight months. And. of course, you know Bill Hughes was with
us when we first came here. He broke away, then he came back. He said:
"I’ve had enough of the outside world. Let me get back home."
He’s a very good first man, too.
Lusher: It’s nice to see the three of you such obvious good friends.
Coker: Well, as a team and as a section we mostly run together,
too. After all, the exchange of ideas is the one thing that you have to
have. I mean, your own ideas can get stale. As I always say, you can always
learn something from someone else. That is the secret of playing trombone—you
have to listen to the other guy.
Lusher: That’s right. Most of all when you’re playing together
in a section.
Coker: That’s the way I see it. And with practice you learn something
new every day. When I say the trombone is a fake instrument, what I mean
is that you have to use your own judgment about it—you have to do it with
sliding. One tenth of an inch out of the right position and you will not
get the note.
Lusher: And you’ll be way out of tune as well. In fact, it’s one
of the easiest instruments to play out of tune on, isn’t .
Coker: Correct. The trombone and the violin are the only two that
are exactly like the human voice. You have to be exact.
Lusher: This brings us to a very personal point: tuning. Do you
tune dead on the A or the B flat, or whatever note you’re tuning to? Or
do you prefer to tune the instrument sharp, with the tuning slide pretty
well in, and then use your own ear?
Coker: I prefer sharp. Most trombone players do. It gives a certain
brilliance to the horn when you do that. You don’t tune exactly to the
piano. You’re always tuned just a little sharp—for that richer sound.
Lusher: And if you’re not smack on—if you’re not on the bright
side, in the home or closed positions you can become very flat. And if
you’re using vibrato you’re finished. Do you use slide vibrato all the
Coker: Most of the time. Well, sometimes I use both, because my
teacher always taught me that. I find that it comes in very handy when
you get in a hole, you know, when you don’t have the lip to make certain
notes. You have to be straight when you’re using hand vibrato. But if
you know how to use them both, the minute you know you’re off you’ll automatically
go to your lip.
Lusher: Will Bradley said the same thing to me. When I was in New
York I had a few lessons from him.
Coker: Imagine you taking lessons. Isn’t that something? What are
you taking lessons for?
Lusher: And he said: Try if you can to combine the two.And
he also spoke about you!
Coker: That’s my boy! Him and Trummy Young. Trummy’s another one
that’s very smart on the instrument. He knows a lot of tricks and turns.
He plays a lot of very awkward things that trombone players nowadays,
unless they have that experience, can’t do. I mean, you got guys like
J. J. Johnson, who knows every trick in the book. The master, I call him.
Lusher: Do you know J.J. personally?
Coker: He’s one of my dearest friends. You know, I was on a session
with him, where he was the director, and there were ten trombones.
Lusher: Oh, I have the record—Trombones Incorporated.That’s
lovely to listen to—a classic. Half was made in Hollywood and half in
Coker: Yes, I must say it was something wonderful. We had a very
good time making it. J.J. didn’t play on it, he made all the arrangements
for the date. I think I was the most nervous trombone player there. They
had five trombones on either side of the mike. I was the first man on
one side and Jimmy Cleveland on the other. I felt very aware of the weight
that was on me. It just sort of got me. All those wonderful guys: Benny
Green, Frank Rehak, Eddie Bert, Benny Powell. And we had one girl trombone
player, Melba Liston. She sounded so great. We were tricked by Bobby Brookmeyer.
He was very smart. He managed to be on both sessions, the East Coast and
the West Coast. And he played solos on both of ’em. He’s one of my favourites,
too. me, really. He gasses me, really.
Lusher: Yes, he does me. Frank Rosolino was on the West Coast side,
wasn’t he? His playing was marvellous on it. Marty Paich did the writing
for that side. And there were Murray McEachern, Dick Nash, Joe Howard,
George Roberts, Herbie Harper, Hoyt Bohannon, Ed Kusby and Tommy Pederson.
They play a ballad called Impossible and it’s one of the most beautiful
things I’ve ever heard.
Coker: Yes, it is. Well, sectionwise, they kind of had us there.
Lusher: In all fairness, though—there was more sectionplaying
on that side. On yours there were more solos.
Coker: And they had all the best men, section—wise. You had at
least seven first men there. All those guys are working jobs such as The
Frank Sinatra Show, all his dates and everything. When you get someone
like Murray McEachern leading the section
Lusher: You’re dealing with the finest trombone players in the
Coker: Solowise we were very much above them. They had so much
going on that I didn’t even have a solo on the record. And didn’t want
one. J.J. said: Listen, Henry, I have a solo written for you.
I said: Give it to Benny Green. These guys have so many more ideas
than I have. I was just content to lead the section as best I could.
Lusher: It’s a record every trombone player should own because
it incorporates so many types and styles and ways of trombone playing.
You can buy it over here.
Coker: It was very beautiful music that J.J. wrote. I loved playing
it. We spent about four or five days on that date.
Lusher: Henry, it’s a thrilling thing, isn’t it, to work with other
good musicians, and to do something good. I think that people in other
walks of life have more security than us, and maybe a more steady sort
of life. But I’m certain they don’t get the kicks that we get from time
to time. Not all the time, but just every now and then you produce a piece
of worthwhile music, with friends, and you all know it’s good. I must
tell you this, Henry. I have two sons, aged twelve and nine and I said:
"I’m going to take you to the Festival Hall on Saturday night."
Coker: Oh, were you there? I’m glad I didn’t know about it!
Lusher: They weren’t too keen on going, because the Beatles weren’t
on the bill. But I’m pleased to say that both my kids, after the first
number, were sitting on the edge of their seats. And it was a big thrill
to me. Watching Sonny Payne helped, of course, but they thoroughly enjoyed
the concert. So I’d like to thank you for that—because it’s a problem.
I don’t believe we should really be against the pop field, but it does
grate sometimes on a musician to hear so much terrible stuff going on.
Naturally, you want to influence your children, and it’s very hard. So
thanks very much.
Coker: Well, it was a pleasure.
Lusher: I thought the band was excellent. In spite of the four
changes, the way the brass was playing together, the dynamics, the trumpets
as well as the trombones, were glorious.
Coker: Well, he’s a very good judge of things like that. He’ll
sit and listen to a guy for about two or three months. Then all of a sudden
he says: Well, give me your address, just in case.And when
something happens like one of us should want to stay home, or quit, he
already has somebody in mind. And the men have to fit in the band, for
what he’s doing. It’s very important, because he has a certain knack of
swing. And you must think alike. He knows a lot of guys that can play—but
maybe they won’t blend with this band. We haven’t had too many changes
in the saxophone section. We’ve had quite a few in the brass, and the
brass are supposed to be his strongest background.
Lusher: Yes, but the saxes were beautiful as well. So foot—tappy,
apart from the sound.
Coker: They have a wonderful first man. Marshall Royal is very
experienced. He’s been with mostly the same bands as I’ve been with. We
were together in Eddie Heywood’s band. Now that was a most wonderful band,
for seven pieces. We had two trombones, Vic Dickenson and myself, Parr
Jones on trumpet and Marshall on alto. Eddie had the harmony and the voicing
spaced in someway so that it sounded like a full band—reed section and
all. We recorded "Sunny Side Of The Street," "Paper Moon,"
"On The Alamo"—you remember? No one has been able to capture
that sound since. It was the way he wrote for the band. Fantastic. Some
of the things that he had me doing, sort of like a guy playing baritone,
looked ridiculous, but they sounded good. You’d say: You don’t write
this way for trombone.But he did it, and got away with it. But I
got most of my experience from Benny Carter.
Lusher: Do you see Benny at all these days?
Coker: Quite a bit. He taught me a lot, because he’s a man that
plays all the instruments. He and I used to practice together on trombone.
We’d get in those books, and he’d run away with the stuff while I was
still struggling. I said: Hold it. Don’t go so fast,and he
said: "Well, that’s all right, old buddy. You’ll get it.But
he was my biggest influence, because he used to make me play those things
right. He used to put me under a lot of pressure.
Lusher: This is good for one. I think it’s always good to play
with better guys than yourself.
Coker: I’d say: Why do you have to write this way?I
had a number called I Can’t Escape From You and he’d put it in
B. Then he’d turn his back, because he knew what I’d be saying about him.
He had me struggling all night. He would call it and laugh and say: "I’m
only making you do what you can’t do." I would be angry with him
every night. But it was serving its purpose. When I left his band I was
at the point where I could not play in a flat key.
Lusher: Henry, you’ve been an important personality in the Basie
band for such a long time now. Have any ideas about breaking away in the
future and doing something by yourself?
Coker: Well, I’ve had that chance three or four times. We went
on a month’s vacation about three years ago, and I had a small group in
Birdland. It was sounding pretty good, so the fellow that owns Birdland
tried to get me to keep it together. I had Frank Foster, a very good trumpet
player—Ray Copeland, two fellows who have worked with Sarah Vaughan—Ronnell
Bright on piano and Richard Davis on bass, plus a very fine drummer named
Jerry Segal. We had a nice little thing going, and I had a couple of recording
offers for it. John Hammond came down to hear us one night and he said:
"Why don’t you keep the group, I’ll get some recordings and I’ll
push you. But I really didn’t have any eyes for that. The big band
sound is here.