Trombonist with the Count Basie band
Thursday 28 August 2003
Grover Curry Mitchell, trombonist, bandleader and arranger: born Whatley, Alabama 17 March 1930; married (one daughter); died New York 6 August 2003.
After the glory days of the previous decade, the Count Basie band of 1962, when Grover Mitchell joined it as a trombonist, was about to come off the boil. Mitchell stayed for eight years, and by the end of that time the band had lost the vivid character that had been established by the now-departing master soloists of the Fifties.
Mitchell was by no means a master soloist, but he was an expert section man and led the trombones. Basie, who was never very keen on trombone solos in any case, was content to place the emphasis on his saxophone and trumpet soloists. But away from Basie in his own bands Mitchell showed himself to be a soulful player with an impeccable technique. He spoke of his influences having been Lawrence Brown, Tommy Dorsey and Benny Green, vastly different stylists but all with accomplished and smooth trombone sounds.
In 1938, when he was eight, Mitchell's parents moved from Alabama to Pittsburgh. That city's burgeoning jazz scene produced Earl Hines, Mary Lou Williams, Roy Eldridge, Kenny Clarke, Erroll Garner, Ray Brown, Billy Eckstine and Billy Strayhorn, among others.
Oddly, Mitchell was first drawn to jazz through the work of raw, blues guitarists such as Blind Lemon Jefferson and Peatie Wheatstraw, but he took up trombone and more sophisticated music when he joined his high-school band. Following the path taken by other future Basie musicians, he joined the territory band led by King Kolax. In the early Fifties he moved to San Francisco, where he led bands of his own.
In 1961 he was called on by Duke Ellington, and stayed in Ellington's band for a few months. The next year he went on to play in the rugged and low-paid band led by Lionel Hampton before eventually joining Basie in 1962.
Tired of travelling, he left Basie in 1970 to take on more profitable work in the Los Angeles studios. By now he had added the craft of arranging to his talents, and he wrote some of the music for the film Lady Sings the Blues (1972), which starred Diana Ross. He worked for the various big companies including NBC and CBS and recorded with, amongst others, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan.
From 1978 he simultaneously led his own band until, during a musicians' strike in the studios, Basie asked him to rejoin in 1980. He did and stayed until Basie's death in 1984. From 1984 to 1995 he led his own band again and made several recordings with it.
Meanwhile the Basie band became a "ghost" band led by the ex-Basie trumpeter Thad Jones. Illness forced Jones to give up and his place was taken in February 1986 by one of Basie's most reliable and inventive soloists, the tenor sax player Frank Foster. The backers of the band naturally wanted the best return on their money and consequently nostalgia had to be the main element in its programmes. Foster's artistic integrity rebelled against this, and he did his best to introduce new music, much of it his own, into the library. But he stayed until July 1995, when he handed over to Mitchell.
Mitchell's calm expertise made him ideal for the job for he knew exactly what was required. He carefully mixed experienced soloists and ex-Basie men with the younger ones, all the while sticking to the sounds of what had been known as Basie's "New Testament" band of the Fifties and Sixties (the "Old Testament" Basie band had been the one of the Thirties that included Lester Young and Buck Clayton).
The band achieved the success that Mitchell so carefully aimed for and in 1996 it won a Grammy Award for its album Live at Manchester Craftsmen's Guild and in 1998 another for Count Plays the Duke.
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