in which prominent British trombonist
Don Lusher
swops views with
Henry Coker of the Basie Orchestra

Lusher: It’s 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 playing–wise, 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 some–where 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 vibes—kept 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 to that?

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 wishy–washy 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 all–round 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 strong section.

Lusher: Could I ask you something now about the present set–up 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 time?

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 New York.

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 section–playing 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 world.

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.