Interview of Dennis Mackrel
Date: June 27, 2006
Drummer Dennis Mackrel performed with the Count Basie Orchestra alongside Freddie Green from 1983 to 1987. In 2010, he returned to direct the Basie band - the first drummer to do so. Dennis has shared the stage with jazz legends including Lionel Hampton, Joe Williams, Tony Bennett, Nancy Wilson, Quincy Jones, Carla Bley, and many others. He has played with the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, the Dizzy Gillespie All-Star Band, and the Manhattan Symphonic Jazz Orchestra. Dennis is also a renown jazz educator and respected arranger. The McCoy Tyner Big Band has performed and recorded arrangements by Dennis.
His web site is: http://www.dennismackrelmusic.com
My sincere gratitude to Dennis for sharing his honest and insightful memories of Freddie.
Note: The text below is an edited version of the recorded interview and has been approved by Dennis Mackrel prior to posting on www.freddiegreen.org.
JOINING THE BASIE BAND
I attended college at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas (UNLV). Joe Williams lived in Las Vegas at the time and that coincidence changed my life. Because Joe took an active interest in the UNLV jazz program, he would come to our concerts and hang out with the students. If our director needed an announcer for the concert, Joe would come onstage and be the master of ceremonies. He always was interested in the music and cared about the musicians who made it.
After leaving school, I moved to New York and found myself playing Broadway shows and various freelance gigs. After some time in New York, the work started to run out so I called Joe. He had given me his phone number and said to call him if I ever needed help. Well, I needed help then! So, Joe tells me, "The Basie band is looking for a drummer. Why don't you give them a call?" I was only 20 years old at the time.
In typical Joe fashion, he had already recommended me to Basie and the Basie management had been looking for me. The previous drummer had left the band and although they had hired another drummer to replace him, he wasn't working out. The band was finishing up the year and going on Christmas vacation. In January1983, on the personal recommendation of Joe Williams, I joined the Basie Orchestra in New York.
While at UNLV, I concentrated mainly on big band playing and arranging so that by the time I left school, I thought that I had a good understanding of how to play in a large ensemble. However, in hindsight I was twenty years old and had much to learn. When I was growing up, I was not a fan of the Basie band and rarely listened to their recordings. I was drawn to what I considered to be more "modern" big bands. In other words, bands that played more complex poly-rhythms and were harmonically more dense. Honestly, I took the gig with the Basie band because I needed a job.
When I first joined the band, I didn't realize the depth of the band or of the music, but I wanted to do a good job so I bought quite a few Basie records to learn the charts and do my homework. The first rehearsal was at Carroll Rehearsal Studios in New York City. Shortly after I arrived for my first rehearsal, Mr. Basie rolled in on his motorized wheelchair. He seemed larger than life. You knew he was "somebody" even if you had no idea who he was.
Then Freddie Green walked into the studio right behind Basie. Basie was the "good cop" – sparkling, smiling, with his trademark captain's hat. Freddie, on the other hand, walks in – not sparkling, not smiling. He looked like the "enforcer... the bad cop." I smiled when Basie looked my way but when Freddie looked at me, I said to myself, "Uh-oh!". His vibe was very heavy you know? Basie smiled and said, "Good to have you in the band." Freddie didn't say anything... not one word.
Actually, I didn't even know how to address either one of them. Do I call him "Sir" or "Mr. Basie" or "Bill?" John Williams, the baritone sax player, understood my dilemma and told me to call Basie "Chief." To Freddie, I didn't say anything. We started to play and Freddie never said a word. Now and then, he would look back at me and bark something out something like "Come on!!" This is my first day of working with Freddie Green. I had expected to receive some suggestions on how to play, but no one could have prepared me for this experience.
Because of the fact that so many musicians had played with the Basie band over so many years, Mr. Basie in most cases wouldn't remember your name unless you had been there for a while. I'd played with many older musicians, but I was not used to working with people who couldn't remember my name or as in Freddie's case, hardly spoke to me at all! He wasn't mean or nasty; he just didn't see any reason to speak to me. In his eyes, I was a child who was over 50 years younger than he was.
One day, I received my uniform from Sonny Cohn who was the manager at that time and Freddie happened to be in the room. He started to instruct me on how to pack my suitcase, how to fold my uniform and how make certain it was placed on top of all other clothes. That was the first advice that I got from Freddie... not how to play the music, but how to pack my suitcase. So this is how it started. Freddie rarely spoke to me about playing music or how to approach the music. It was very clear that if I was not hooking up time-wise with Freddie, I was wrong, that applied to everyone in the band. If the time was not where Freddie wanted it, he'd lean back to me and say "Come on... come on." So this went on for a while... actually for a long time!
I had respect and admiration for Freddie, (or perhaps it was shock and awe). Anyway, I didn't really say much to him either. I tried very hard to please him when we performed. I really tried to match his time feel, but there always seemed to be something that was not right in his mind. I would ask him, "What can I do to play this better?" Many times, he would not say anything. One time, he barked, "Play out. Play out!" But I didn't know what he meant by that! For the first year, I was trying to figure out what he wanted from me as a drummer. And I don't think that I ever came close.
Every now and then, he would speak to me. Once we were having dinner somewhere in Texas, eating Mexican food. We were having a pleasant dinner conversation. I thought that I was finally accepted by the older members of the band until Freddie said to me, "When I was brought up, children were seen and not heard." So this is where Freddie and I were at for a long time – teacher and student.
LIFE WITH FREDDIE AND THE BAND
Playing with the Basie band was one of the best experiences of my life. The traveling library had charts numbered up to the 800's. I slowly started to learn the history of the band - how it had been together for over 50 years and how the music and the style of the band had evolved over time. I started to get a much deeper understanding of how to play those 800 arrangements.
After about a year, I began to realize that playing with this band was much more of a learning experience than I had anticipated. Basie, from the beginning, told me to be myself when playing. Don't try to be Jo Jones, or Sonny Payne, or other drummers that had been with the band. Now, others in the band would say, "Why don’t you play that like Butch did? Or like Duffy did?" But Basie never said that. He gave me the freedom to be myself.
However, I did study recordings of all of the great Basie drummers to learn what they did on different charts and then incorporating those concepts into my playing. Not directly copying them mind you, but by understanding the choices they made and how they came to make them.
Basie never said much to me in terms of instruction. In fact, the only thing he really ever said to me was to insist from the beginning that I play four beats to the measure on the bass drum. That was essential to the sound and the feel of the Basie band.
Toward the end of my first year with Basie, I began to feel that on certain nights the entire rhythm section would lock in and it would feel like the band just lifted off the bandstand. I don't have words to describe it accurately, but I knew when it was happening. I think Freddie called it "the rhythm wave." There is a pulse and feeling that is so strong. It seems as if you're playing hard and heavy, but the feeling is of lightness. The feeling is very much like an out-of-body experience. Like I was above the band watching it happen!
Freddie still never said much... that's no surprise. But at this point he would occasionally say things like "I want you to make it in the band" or "I want you to do well." Others in the band told me that Freddie actually liked me and liked my playing, though he never said so directly.
I believe that Freddie acted like a drill sergeant because he felt that you had potential. He would tear you down and then build you back up again as a stronger musician. Someone once told me, "If Freddie didn't like you, you would be gone by now" which made sense. The fact that he criticized me gave me the hope that he actually wanted me to do better and to be in the band. The lessons that I learned from him helped to shape me as a big band drummer and will stay with me for the rest of my life. While I will always appreciate that, it was not always smooth or pleasant.
As far as life on the bus went, things were pretty clear. The back of the bus was called the "Lounge" because that's where the younger guys sat. On the contrary, the front of the bus was the "Executive Section" this is where the band's older veterans sat. One day we were all talking about music. I made a comment that Freddie didn't like, and he said, "Why don't you keep quiet back there." Well, I lost it. I had tried so hard to please Freddie for over a year, and to hear that comment brought all of the frustration out. We screamed and cussed at each other and the entire bus got real quiet while we argued. The singer, Dennis Rowland, tried to stop me but I wasn't going to back down. I didn't care about my job at that moment. I said, "I'm sick of being treated like a kid. I'm an adult and I'm a member of this band too."
After that blow-up, Freddie and I did not speak for many months. Eventually, I broke the ice about some mundane subject, and Freddie did reply. We never became close friends, but that was not unusual with Freddie. One of the band members said to me once, "It takes a man to sit in the drummer's chair." And it was true, because if you did not have a strong sense of self, the comments from the veterans in the band could really get to you.
Although Freddie was 50 years older than I and we didn't get along, it was nice to see how he did get along with Basie. They would share looks and smiles during gigs. They would play little games from time to time on stage. At times, they were like little kids together. Once, Basie played an odd note on the piano, and Freddie echoed it on the guitar, then Basie played another odd note, and Freddie echoed it and gave him a dirty look. It was fun to watch! I never saw Freddie and Basie argue or exchange angry words.
Freddie would joke around with Basie, Bill Hughes, Eric Dixon and some of the older musicians. I also remember that Kenny Hing and Freddie would hang out together and talk a lot. Being in a big band is kind of like being in an office – you tend to hang out with the person seated in the cubicle next to yours.
We were traveling and unexpectedly Freddie didn't show up for work. I found out about a week later that Freddie had left for Europe to be part of a Basie alumni small group. Anyway, a couple of weeks went by and we were performing at the San Diego Zoo and in the middle of a tune, Freddie walks on stage with his guitar still in the case. He sits down, unpacks the guitar, and joins the chart that's already in progress. No one said a word. Freddie just came and went as he pleased.
I remember that gig because Freddie's son, Al, was there. He looked just like Freddie, but not as old and gray. He even had the same Cheshire cat smile. I met Al and he was quiet like Freddie. But with Al there, Freddie was a lot softer... no longer the disciplinarian of the band.
Freddie was a great golfer. He would become very animated (for Freddie) when talking about golf with Joe Williams, Ray Brown, Tee Carson, Sir Charles Thompson, or Sweets Edison. I do remember golf clubs being on the Basie bus occasionally.
I also remember the band getting tour jackets and there were stars sewed on each member's jacket that represented your time with the band: 1 gold star meant 5 years and 1 red star meant 10 years. Freddie's jacket had 5 red stars and that looked very impressive! With his gray hair and quiet dignity, I felt like I should have saluted him whenever he entered the bus wearing that jacket.
The band was in Las Vegas with Tony Bennett and Freddie passed away after the second show in the middle of the week while we were performing at the MGM Grand. When working with a guest vocalist, the Basie rhythm section would play the first part of the show with the band. Then on the break, the vocalist's rhythm section would take over and play the second half. However, Freddie would usually join the guest rhythm section.
Our bassist, Lynn Seaton was not there as his mother had just passed away, so John B. Williams from Los Angeles was filling in for him. Tee Carson was on piano. After the second show, I was going up to my room, and several paramedics got onto the elevator with me. The elevator doors opened and the paramedics rushed out; I could see Carmen Bradford, our singer, in the hall, and she was screaming as she was looking into one of the hotel rooms. I got off the elevator and rushed to Carmen. I looked into the room and saw that Freddie was on the floor.
The paramedics were trying to revive him, but were not having any success. The paramedics took Freddie downstairs to transport him to a local hospital. I had a rented car that week since I was back in Las Vegas so I took Bill Hughes who was the senior member of the band to the hospital after the paramedics had left. When we arrived, an emergency room doctor told us that Freddie never regained consciousness and had died. It was likely that he was already dead when paramedics arrived at his room.
The band performed the next night and I'll never forget it as long as I live. We placed Freddie's guitar and a bouquet of flowers in his chair. We played so strong that night, like we were coming together as a family and honoring Freddie with the music that he loved.
When you spend a large part of your life on a bus playing a string of one-night engagements, sometimes the music is what gets you through. The music and your fellow band members. We always felt that what we were doing was important and that Freddie would have wanted us to carry on without him... in other words, the show must go on!
We felt that it was the most important thing in the world to play that night and for the rest of the engagement. It was difficult and very emotionally draining for everyone. But the power of the music got us through. We felt that same power the first gig after Basie passed, and after Thad Jones had passed. It's just something you have to do. In the 1980s, the band had seen several older players pass on. You never get used to it, but you learn to perform in spite of the loss or your personal feelings; you do the gig.
Shortly after the week in Las Vegas the band flew into New York to pay our last respects at Freddie's memorial service. In true Basie Band fashion, we performed and then left immediately to make it to the next gig.
LEAVING THE BASIE BAND
I left the Basie band in December 1987. I got tired of the road. I distinctly remember starting a tour in November and the itinerary went straight through to April. After looking at that itinerary I said to myself, "That's it. I can't do this anymore." I needed a change in my life.
When I hear the Basie band now, it's like coming home again. But it also reminds me of why I left. I love the music, but I need to play some different music from time to time and not be on the road constantly.
The Basie band is a world unto itself. When I joined the band, the fans would look me up and down and say (not to my face), "So that's the new kid, huh? What do you think? Will he work out?" It was like I had to pass inspection by the fans of the band because they love the band so much. And because the members of the band are like family, they are protective of each other because in a real sense, it is a family.
FREDDIE'S IMPORTANCE AND MUSICIANSHIP
I believe that Freddie's way of playing was based on necessity. He figured out how to pare down his chord voicings to what work best for the band harmonically. Instead of actually hearing his guitar, I felt it most of the time and when I did hear it, I'd only hear two or three pitches.
His guitar cut through the band, and occupied the mid-range. With Basie playing most of the time in the upper range and/or the lower range. Freddie likely thought, "Well, I should fill up the middle. Or maybe he thought "How do I keep time but not step on the piano player?" I believe that he was a good enough musician to hear what was needed and adjust his style accordingly.
He was also very versatile. We did a recording session with a European singer named Caterina Valente. We recorded a bossa nova tune, and Freddie was right there, playing the correct type of syncopated rhythm.
Basie and Freddie were great musicians. They invented a style of playing based on what worked in the context of their band. They would shift how they played depending on what the music demanded.
We went to Japan in 1983. Freddie did not make that trip due to a medical problem. So during that trip, Basie started to play a lot more with his left hand, and he started comping fatter chords. He filled out the texture to cover for Freddie's absence. It showed me that Basie was completely aware musically and could do far more than plink-plink-plink with his right hand.
My goal as the drummer was to swing the musicians as long as they had breath and Freddie helped me in many ways to reach that goal. He was tough, but always fair. It was hard to escape the sound of Freddie's guitar on the bandstand. His sound was so strong that you actually felt it. When I wasn't with his quarter note pulse, it felt like turbulence... it actually made my teeth hurt. When everyone is playing four, if you don't all sync up, it's very obvious. When the time really went awry, Basie would play a big chord on a downbeat as a way to get the rhythm section to sync up. Saying musically, "The time is here. Pay attention and get with me!"
Where Freddie put the time was also an important learning experience. I had a very unique experience that opened my eyes to just how important he was. We were performing with Ella Fitzgerald on one occasion and during a sound check while she was singing with the band and her rhythm section, Freddie who was late for the rehearsal, came in, sat down and started playing in the middle of a song. I was sitting in the audience and heard the band before he arrived and then after he started playing. The band sounded completely different once Freddie joined in. The time feel relaxed and it sounded like the Basie band! I was really struck by the difference he made.
Drummer Mel Lewis described Freddie as having "wide time." Freddie's time would shift to match the character of the music. During a section with just the rhythm section, his time feel might be really tight, but during a shout chorus he might loosen up the time to accommodate the horn players that were working hard to create the sound.
He was not a rigid metronome. His playing changed based on the musical texture of the chart. He knew that certain tempos worked better at certain parts of a chart. Freddie's genius was to always find the tempo that felt right.
He was never a slave to the metronome marking on the chart, or even to the tempo that Basie set! When I was new with the band, I would interpret this as, "Freddie is slowing down... or speeding up." But what he was really doing was finding where the music would really swing. He told me once that he took cues from how the dancers were reacting. He would then lock into the tempo and the chart would groove.
These are only a few of the many ways that Freddie would contribute to the band's swing feel but there's no way to clearly explain just how important Freddie was to the Basie Band except to say that he was truly unique and one of a kind!