Thad Jones, Arranger for Basie, Dies

Times Staff Writer

Thad Jones, longtime trumpeter-arranger for Count Basie and co-leader of a highly successful big band before returning to head the late Basie’s orchestra, has died of bone cancer in Denmark, it was reported Wednesday. He was 63.

The Michigan-born jazz musician died in his sleep Tuesday at a Copenhagen hospital, friends said. His wife, Lis, was with him. He had made his home in Denmark since 1978, after leaving drummer Mel Lewis, who became sole leader of the band they had led together for 13 years.

He came back from Denmark in February of 1985 to front the Basie band, for which he arranged and played trumpet from 1954 to 1963, but gave way to tenor saxophonist Frank Foster last May to return to his Copenhagen home.

At the time, he denied that he was leaving because of illness, insisting that he simply wanted to resume composing and free-lance conducting in Europe.

Thaddeus Joseph Jones was born March 28, 1923, in Pontiac, Mich., where at age 13 he was given his first horn by a trumpet-playing uncle. Two of his four brothers, pianist Hank and drummer Elvin, also went on to prominence in the jazz world.


Motivated by Louis Armstrong

As a youngster, Thad Jones thought “there was nothing more exciting” than to hear Louis Armstrong play the trumpet. It was not until he tried to play one himself, he admitted recently, that he realized Armstrong’s skill had not come easily.

Because his first horn had no case, young Thad carried it around in a paper sack. In the Pontiac winters, he often had to wait in embarrassment for the valves to thaw before he could get up on the bandstand with his fellow musicians.

He and his two brothers found their way into the Detroit jazz scene during the late 1930s and early ‘40s. His first real big-band experience was in Army bands during World War II. He went o1847620719James and George Russell bands. He also worked with Gerry Mulligan’s small group.

But it was the nine years he spent in the Count Basie trumpet section that made Jones famous as a sideman and arranger. He was more than just a trumpet player, becoming known for his rich fluegelhorn solos and cornet work. Famed trumpeter Miles Davis once said, “I’d rather hear Thad Jones miss a note than hear Freddie Hubbard make twelve.”

The band Jones organized with Mel Lewis in 1965 enjoyed remarkable popularity at a time when big bands were not always successful. It made frequent visits to Japan and Europe and a triumphant tour of the Soviet Union.

But after 13 years, during which he wrote most of the arrangements, Jones withdrew from the partnership. Financial considerations had much to do with that decision, he suggested to Times jazz critic Leonard Feather: “I was probably losing as much money as I was making by turning down so many outside writing assignments.”

Won Grammy for 1977 Album

But more importantly, Jones said, “We had reached a point where instead of moving forward, we were just going around in circles.” America was deeply involved in a pop revolution, he reflected, but it was one that was led by British rock stars. “We had our own culture, our rich and fruitful heritage, but it wasn’t being properly acknowledged here at home.”

In 1977, the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra recorded “Live in Munich.” It won a Grammy even though Jones considered it “the worst-sounding recording ever made.” He decided afterward that he had “had it” and moved to Denmark.

There, he said, “At least the people around me appreciated the fact that I was not just a ‘jazz musician,’ but a jazz artist. They afforded me that respect.”

He worked with the Danish radio orchestra and taught at clinics throughout Europe before being lured back to America by booking agent Willard Alexander to front the Basie band.

Despite a full career, Jones reportedly died in poor financial shape. His friend and longtime associate, Jerome Richardson, asked that donations be sent to the Friends of Thad Jones Foundation, 9422 McLennan Ave., Sepulveda, Calif. 91343.

In addition to his wife, he leaves their son, Thaddeus Jr., 6, as well as Bruce and Thedia, grown children by his first wife. He also leaves his brothers, Elvin, Hank, Paul and Tom, as well as a sister, Malinda Graham.