I briefly held a chair in the Count Basie band. It was during a break at Birdland when the band was playing there sometime in the 1950s. Al Grey, whose chair was off to one side, had left the bandstand. The club was a small one and I had taken his seat to carry on a conversation. I had gotten so carried away in the conversation that I didn’t realize the band was back onstage, and Al Grey was usually late in getting back. Finally, Basie looked up and saw me and said, “What do you play?” “I play the camera, Mr. Basie.” “Get the hell outta my band.”
I loved photographing the Basie band in the studio more than in concert. They had the tunes picked out before they went in to record. They would usually discuss the music with the arranger—Thad Jones and Marshall Royal were among the best at that time—run through it and then record. Basie just sat there and let it happen. It was very easy.
The musicians were all just wonderful. The band was a precision band and it was built around time. That’s what made it so exciting. That’s not to say that other bands didn’t have that. I loved the sound of the band and the quality of the musicians. Most of the musicians learned how to play wrong and because of that they had such individual sounds.
I got to know Count Basie over the years and held him as a friend.