No Giving Up the Ghosts

Don Heckman is The Times' jazz writer

It's the sound of the Count Basie Orchestra, all right: the trademark, in-the-pocket drive of the rhythm section; the crisp, punchy brass; the lush harmonies of the saxophone section.

The look is there too: the front row of five saxophonists, the risers filled with trombonists and trumpeters, the rhythm section to one side, the spiffy jackets on the players, the precisely placed bandstands bearing the symbol of a piano in the shape of a "B" surmounting neat lettering identifying the "Count Basie Orchestra."

And the fans are eating it up, crowding the bandstand, applauding the soloists, grooving with the music, jitterbugging vigorously in the open portions of the dance floor.

What's missing from this picture of the Basie orchestra in action?

Only one element: Count Basie himself.

Because the legendary pianist and band leader passed away in 1984, at the age of 79. And the Basie orchestra, playing on without him for the past decade or so, is one of the most prominent examples of a music business phenomenon known as "ghost bands."

But what exactly is a ghost band? How can a band bearing Count Basie's name--or, for that matter names such as Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Jimmy Dorsey, Duke Ellington, Woody Herman or Guy Lombardo--continue to exist, long after its original leader has passed on?

Ghost bands, in essence, are the continuing manifestations of musical franchises that have lost their titular heads. And they continue to exist because the inheritors of the estates of leaders such as Basie, Miller and others have decided--either for commercial or sentimental reasons, or both--that the lives of the bands should not end with the passing of their leaders.

"It amazes me," says Steve Rudolf of Producers Inc., who books numerous groups, including Basie, Miller, Herman, Lombardo and others. "There's always a market for big bands. It's nice that we're getting some interest from young people now, but we've always had plenty of dates every year for most of these bands."

So what's the attraction?

For older audiences, it's nostalgia and a memory of music that was young when they were young. For today's young audiences, it's a newly emerging fascination with swing music and swing dancing. Because of that appeal, ghost bands--like vocal groups such as the Inkspots, the Drifters, the Mills Brothers and the Limelighters--are still viable music business commodities. Tunes such as Count Basie's "Lil' Darlin' " or "April in Paris," Glenn Miller's "In the Mood" and "String of Pearls," Duke Ellington's "Satin Doll" or "Take the 'A' Train," Tommy Dorsey's "Getting Sentimental Over You" and Artie Shaw's "Begin the Beguine" continue to be surprisingly energetic crowd-pleasers.

The result is a solid base of avid supporters, many of whom will undoubtedly turn up at the Hollywood Bowl on Wednesday night when the Count Basie Orchestra, now directed by trombonist Grover Mitchell, appears on a bill with singer Rosemary Clooney, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and the Dirty Dozen.

The Basie Orchestra was last in the Southland at the Playboy Festival in 1997. It is one of many Ghost Band ensembles that frequently return, often annually, to the same venues in the same cities. And they do so in a manner that is as retro as some of the music they play. In an era of jet planes, Internet Web sites, 500-channel cable television and the computerization of nearly every aspect of contemporary life, many ghost bands continue to tour the country by bus.

Their performances are built around grueling one-nighters that can have them on the road for as often as 48 weeks a year, on schedules that make the typical rock band's big-venue tour seem easy.

The Basie orchestra, for example, arrives at the Bowl after July bookings that include a Carnegie Hall program; a gig at the Rams Head Tavern in Annapolis, Md.; a private party at the Lake Shore Country Club in Glencoe, Ill.; concerts in Syracuse, N.Y., and Highland Park, Ill.; a five-night run at the Blue Note in New York; and a one-nighter at the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas. All that in three weeks.

"Well, yeah, it's quite a schedule," says Mitchell, 68, who has led the Basie ensemble for the past four years, and first performed with the orchestra in 1962. "But we travel by plane, sometimes, and when we have to take the buses, at least they're a lot more comfortable than they were in the old days."

More comfortable, but a grind, nonetheless. The Glenn Miller Orchestra--perhaps the busiest of all the ghost bands--cranks out mileage like a long-haul trucking firm, and not always following the most logical routes between gigs.

"Occasionally," says trombonist Larry O'Brien, 65, who has been with the Miller aggregation off and on since 1961 and has been leading it since 1988, "we get what we call a 'bouncing ball' tour. That's when we go 300 miles to the south, and the next day we go 300 miles to the north, 15 miles from where we started out the day before.

"If we're in a town for two or three days it's like a location gig for us. I joke with the guys about taking a subscription to the local paper, because two or three days in one spot is a luxury."

In this environment, life on the road becomes a kind of musical cocoon.

"We're completely self-contained," O'Brien continues. "We carry everything with us on the bus. Instruments, personal luggage, bandstands, music, even our own sound system." And self-sustained, as well, with the band's male vocalist, Bryan Anthony, serving as the audio man, and several of the band members acting as roadies--setting up and taking down the equipment ("for extra pay, of course," notes O'Brien).

But O'Brien sees social differences from the time when the ghost bands were live bands.

"In those days, there was a very social atmosphere in the bus. Guys played cards, and there was a lot of interaction. Guys would sometimes get up and do routines to entertain everybody. But now most of them sleep, some read, or they listen to music on headphones. The time on the bus is a little more solitary today than it was in the old days. Maybe it's because so many of these guys are college-educated."

If there's a commonality in having to deal with the grueling aspects of life on the road, there also are notable differences between ghost bands. There are, for example, jazz ghost bands and dance ghost bands. The Count Basie and Duke Ellington ensembles are the most successful jazz ghost bands, and the Miller orchestra is, far and away, the most thriving dance ghost band.

Ghost bands such as Basie, Ellington and Miller (as well as Tommy Dorsey and a few others) are fairly successful at maintaining a stable roster of personnel. Other groups--Jimmy Dorsey, Guy Lombardo--are more free-floating, using key players, filling in with local musicians as they move from region to region. Some other bands limit their activities to areas near their home bases, using older players not eager to do bus tours.

Who are the musicians, in an era of hip-hop and rap, who have the skills to play this music?

"They come from everywhere," says O'Brien: "the younger ones from music schools, the veterans because they haven't gotten the road out of their system, or maybe because they have just gotten a divorce and they want to get out of town and forget about their troubles."

In the case of the Basie orchestra, the skills have been maturing throughout the jazz community for decades. The young musicians who come out of colleges such as North Texas State or, in the Southland, UCLA or Cal State Northridge, have all had ample experience performing with large jazz ensembles. But it can be difficult for inexperienced young players to crack the Basie and Ellington rosters. As long-established jazz organizations, they are able to attract experienced, mature jazz artists.

The Basie orchestra roster, for example, includes players such as trombonist William Hughes, who first played with Basie in 1956, as well as trumpeters Robert Ojeda and Michael Williams, who first joined the band in the mid-'80s, after Basie had died. And even the newer additions--alto saxophonist Jackie Kelson is one--are often well-established artists with extensive jazz band histories.

"One of the secrets to success in the band business," says Mitchell, "is to go out and get the best musicians you can find. This band is still a fine jazz organization, as good as some of the bands that the old man [Basie] had. And my main concern is making sure that I have the players who can solo, who can play in their sections, and do whatever it takes to keep it first-rate."

Younger players have better luck with the dance ghost bands. The Miller orchestra, like other pop-oriented bands, focuses upon maintaining the sound and the style associated with the band since its earliest hits. And, because of the rigors of constant touring, the band's management maintains a roster of talented young players.

"Some people expect to see a bunch of aging, gray-haired musicians on stage when they come to hear our bands," says Rudolf. "And when they come in--especially the young people--and see a young, talented band on stage they're amazed."

The average age of the Miller orchestra is under 30, with most of the players coming from collegiate jazz programs.

O'Brien points out, however, that the younger musicians need some careful rehearsing before they can master the swing style.

"This is not the kind of music they learn to play in the music schools," he says. "They play charts that are faster, louder and higher to win prizes in competitions, because their directors are under pressure to win. So they have to learn how to play this music, and it's a good thing that they are, because the style gets more and more distant with each generation."

To keep their roster active, the Miller organization uses some unusual techniques to maintain a database of possible sidemen. There's a certain irony in the fact that one of the methods is a Web site ( retro act using a forward-looking technology.

The Web site includes background information, personnel lists, bios and tour information, along with an invitation that reads, "If you are a musician who likes to travel and would like to perform with the Glenn Miller Orchestra, please send your resume and a performance tape." Although the Web site has just come on line, the orchestra's vocalist and road manager, Julia Rich, expects it to result in the addition of some proficient players to the Miller pool of available talent.

Once through their ghost band experience, young players use the proficiency they've gained to enhance a variety of musical careers.

"Miller alumni are all over the place," says Charles DiStefano, the orchestra's manager. "Kevin Sheehan, one of our saxophonists, wound up in the Phil Collins big band tour, and Mark Vinci, another saxophonist, is beginning to make a name for himself in the New York jazz scene. But we've got guys in all the major music areas--New York, L.A., Nashville, Miami--working in studios, teaching, stuff like that, even a guy in Chicago who's been doing very well writing advertising jingles."

Transitions from live bands to ghost bands have not always been easy, often complicated by a bandleader's illness, as well as the complications of inheritance. Some estates--Stan Kenton's is one--will not allow ghost band versions of the originals.

In Duke Ellington's case, the legacy moved, logically, to his son, Mercer Ellington, when the legendary composer/pianist/bandleader passed away in 1974. After Mercer died in 1996, leadership passed to Duke's grandson, Mercer Ellington's 20-year-old son, Paul Mercer Ellington.

When Count Basie died in 1984 at 79, his band, like the Duke Ellington orchestra, was one of the most revered large jazz ensembles in the music's history. But in this case the situation was more complicated, and the organization has seen several leaders over the past 14 years--notably trumpeter Thad Jones and saxophonist Frank Foster. With long-standing personnel and competition over who would take a leadership role, the band went through a variety of growing pains as it moved into an existence beyond Basie's presence.

Mitchell, the current leader of the Basie band, was obliged to carry the torch for the original identity. Unlike some ghost band leaders, he recognized that furthering the Basie legacy meant more than simply cranking out nostalgic repetitions.

"I was in the Marine Corps," says Mitchell, "and if you're going to survive in the Marine Corps, you have to understand leadership. I knew that I had to take charge, so I did, and I did it my own way. Leading a band is pretty much of a dictatorship. Democracy just doesn't work.

"I had a drummer one time who tried to tell me when he wanted to play his solos, and a bass player who cranked up his amplifier too loud. I told him [the bass player] I just wanted to hear some good basic time, and he said, 'I don't play no time, man, I groove.' Well, you can bet that those two grooved themselves right out of the band."

The net result of Mitchell's efforts is a Basie ensemble comparable to some of the better original outfits. Last year, it won a Grammy award for the album "The Count Basie Band With the New York Voices," and a new album is scheduled on the MAMA label in the fall.

The Miller transition was somewhat easier, even though the ghost band version of the ensemble has been fronted by a string of leaders over the years, among them (in addition to O'Brien) Tex Beneke (a star of the original band), Ray McKinley, Buddy DeFranco and Peanuts Hucko.

When Miller, who was then leading an all-star armed services ensemble, perished in 1944 on a flight from England to France, he left behind a style and a name that had dominated popular music in the early '40s. In the first three years of the decade alone, the band had more than 40 Top 10 records.

The value of the Miller orchestra was obvious, especially so since big bands--which usually had more than 14 instrumentalists and one or two vocalists--were less linked to individual personalities than are rock groups of the post-'60s era. Granted the high visibility of individual soloists (including such virtuosic leaders as Benny Goodman and Harry James) and, occasionally, singers (Frank Sinatra with Harry James and Tommy Dorsey is a notable example), bands were best known for the uniqueness of their sound and the originality of their arrangements.

And that sound, whether it is in a community arts center, a dance hall or a club, whether it is produced by a ghost band or one of the numerous, swing-style incarnations that arise from time to time, is continuing to have an impact. Recently, at the Coconut Club in the Beverly Hilton Hotel--a weekend mecca for swing band music--young couples, the men in zoot suits, the women wearing pompadours, seamed stockings and platform shoes, were working their way through jitterbug routines. When the music concluded, they were asked where they'd picked up their dancing technique.

"From records," said one.

"And old movies," said another. "But this is the first time we've ever danced to a live band. And it's taken our dancing up to a whole new level."

Do the successes of the ghost bands mean that the recurrent cry that "the big bands are coming back" will finally come true?

Probably not. The economics of maintaining an ensemble with 15 to 20 musicians simply don't work out in today's world.

But swing music, nonetheless, does seem to be making some inroads, if in a fashion more appropriate to the young generation of the nineties. Groups such as the Royal Crown Revue, the Squirrel Nut Zippers, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, the Brian Setzer Orchestra, San Francisco's Levay Smith and her Red Hot Skillet Lickers--all units dealing with swing in one way or another--are selling records and drawing larger fans. And clubs such as the Moonlight and the Derby are devoting more nights to swing dancing.

On Broadway, the success of "Sideman," a play centered around the life of traveling big band musicians, further underscores the current fascination with the swing era.

But none of this particularly surprises swing veterans such as O'Brien, who take a somewhat longer view. "As far as the Glenn Miller Orchestra is concerned," he says, "swing music never went away. We've been out here all this time waiting for the rest of the world to catch up. Maybe it's finally happening."


The Count Basie Orchestra under the direction of Grover Mitchell, with Rosemary Clooney, the Preservation Hall Jazz Orchestra and the Dirty Dozen at Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave. Wednesday, 7:30 p.m. (213) 850-2000.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World