Grover Mitchell, 73; Trombonist Brought New Success to Basie Band

Times Staff Writer

Grover Mitchell, a jazz trombonist known primarily for his work with the Count Basie Orchestra, has died. He was 73.

Mitchell, who since 1995 had also been the leader of the Basie band, died Wednesday in a New York City hospital of cancer.

A member of Basie's orchestra from 1962 to 1970 and again from 1980 to 1984, Mitchell became the third person to lead the group after Basie's death from cancer in 1984. In taking over the orchestra, which had been led after Basie's death first by trumpeter Thad Jones and next by saxophonist Frank Foster, Mitchell solidified the group and returned it to making music more closely reflecting the great sounds of the Basie era.

Under Mitchell's leadership, the band made several fine recordings, including the Grammy-winning "Count Basie Orchestra With the New York Voices" (1996) and "Count Plays Duke" (1998).

Born in Whatley, Ala., Mitchell grew up in Pittsburgh. He wanted to play trumpet, but his school band teacher took one look at his long arms and gave him a trombone. He hated the instrument at first, he once told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but grew more receptive to it after hearing Tommy Dorsey play. Mitchell later earned a degree in music from Empire State College.

As a teenager, he started playing in local bands around Pittsburgh and then territory bands in Indiana in the late 1940s. By the early 1950s, he was living in San Francisco and working with Earl "Fatha" Hines. After serving in the Marines, he played with Lionel Hampton in the late 1950s and Duke Ellington in the early 1960s before joining Basie.

Mitchell developed a reputation as a solid brass player with the Basie orchestra but quit in 1970 for more lucrative opportunities as a studio musician in L.A. He had a regular gig on the "Flip Wilson Show" on NBC for nearly a decade and did film work as well, including "Lady Sings the Blues."

In 1980, Mitchell returned to the Basie orchestra as lead trombonist. Off the bandstand, he was an important figure as well, helping the increasingly frail Basie prepare for concerts.

After taking over the band in 1995 at the invitation of the Basie estate and organization, Mitchell reinstituted the core Basie sound.

He told jazz writer Zan Stewart that the Basie units led by Jones and Foster "had gotten away from the original sound."

While retaining such Basie standards as "One O'Clock Jump" and "Every Day," he brought back several tunes including Ernie Wilkins' "Kansas City Suite," Quincy Jones' "Dum Dum" and "For Lena and Lennie."

As the result of these efforts, Mitchell told Stewart in 1997, "the current version of the band is as good as I ever played in." No successor to Mitchell has been named to lead the Basie orchestra.

Mitchell is survived by his daughter, Gail O'Brien; two sisters, Edwina Posey and Marva Wilkes; and two grandchildren.

For The Record Los Angeles Times Wednesday August 13, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction Mitchell obituary -- The obituary of jazz trombonist Grover Mitchell in Saturday's California section referred to "Kansas City Suite" as being a composition by Ernie Wilkins. In fact, it was written by Benny Carter.
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