Recorded Telephone Interview of Butch Miles
Date: June 2006
Drummer Butch Miles played with the Count Basie Orchestra alongside Freddie Green from 1975 to 1979 and returned to the band in the 1990's, still holding the drum chair as of this interview. Butch has performed with jazz legends around the world including Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Dave Brubeck, Mel Torme, Lena Horne, Joe Williams, Ella Fitzgerald, Woody Herman, Clark Terry, Gerry Mulligan, Billy Eckstein, Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis, Harry "Sweets" Edison, Benny Goodman, Tony Bennett, Rosemary Clooney, Wild Bill Davison, and many others.
Butch has been featured at every major jazz festival in the world including: the JVC Jazz Festival, the Grande Parade du Jazz, the Montreal Jazz Festival, the North Sea Jazz Festival, the Montreux Jazz Festival, the Berlin Jazz Festival, and more. He has recorded over 100 albums and been on four Grammy winning recordings, along with being nominated numerous times for the European equivalent of the Grammy.
My sincere thanks to Butch, a warm, gracious, and very funny person, for sharing his memories of Freddie. My regret is that the text below cannot express the enthusiasm and humor in Butch's voice as he reminisced about "Mr. Rhythm."
Note: The text below is an edited version of the recorded interview and has been approved by Butch Miles prior to posting on www.freddiegreen.org.
Freddie the Guitarist
I really couldn't hear Freddie when the band was in full swing, but when he didn't play I certainly was aware that he wasn't there. He added a certain fullness to the rhythm section that was missing when he didn't play.
With rare exception, Freddie never played on the bottom lower strings. He played on the middle strings. And he would grip and release each chord. I never saw anyone do that before or after Freddie.
The strings on his guitar were enormously high. I looked at his guitar once because I was interested. I could not believe how high the strings were above the fingerboard. I remember it was a Gretsch guitar. Freddie was a strong man, strong as a stevedore. He had to be with that action.
I never heard Freddie accent beats two and four. I've read that other guitarists said that he did, but I never heard it. To my ear, Freddie always played every chord evenly, no accent on any beat. It was a straight four. And my job was to lock onto Freddie's four.
Freddie's time was always solid. We used to play some pretty blazing tempos. I don't recall Freddie ever dropping out or ever playing on one and three. He played every beat with down strokes. He never did a down and up stroke. It was always down strokes. If I ever had a problem with the tempo and I could not hear Basie or the bass, I would watch Freddie's down stroke. I would correlate my tempo to his down stroke. If Freddie and I could get together, then maybe the entire rhythm section could get together and the band would have a secure foundation. So if I ever had any type of problem with tempo, I'd tried to scope out Freddie's arm action. Even if I couldn't hear him, I could see him. I'd watch his arm and use it like a metronome.
Freddie never talked to me about playing guitar and I never heard him talk to anyone else about how he played guitar. He was a very quiet man and never said too much.
Freddie the Band Member
Freddie's close friends in the band were Basie, Bill Hughes (trombone), and Eric Dixon (sax). Those four guys kept close to each other. Eric had his own nickname for Freddie; it was Ober. I think it was a German word. [Editor's note: Butch was correct. Ober is German and translates as "a waiter in a high-class café."]
When I played with the band, we did a novelty tune where Freddie plays a solo, which is really just the final chord. It was called "A Little Bit of This and A LIttle Bit of That." It always got a big laugh from the audience. Well, one night, Freddie hit the final chord a half-step low and immediately moved it up to the proper pitch. The whole band fell on the floor. We were laughing because Freddie played it wrong. Freddie had a scowl on his face and was probably cussing at himself. Basie couldn't say anything, couldn't play anything, couldn't move because he was laughing harder than anyone.
One time, Bill Basie and I were talking and the discussion led up to money. I said, "You know, Basie, you said that a lot of guys in the band aren't going to get rich off of playing with you, with us travelling all the time." Basie replies, "Well, Green has got it all over everybody." I said, "Ah come on, Chief. Freddie's been around for a long time, but he can't make that much money. I don't know what you're paying him, but...." Basie interrupted, "I'll tell you how much money Freddie Green has. We were walking down the street the other day. Freddie dropped his bank book down on the sidewalk and cracked the concrete."
The band would take off Christmas and New Year's, then start playing again in January. One year, Freddie didn't come back in January. I asked Basie, "Chief, where's Pepper?" Basie answered, "Oh, he's down in Florida playing golf." (Now Freddie was the only one that could do that. He'd tell Basie, "I'm going on vacation and won't be back for a week.") Then Basie quipped, "Well now maybe we can play some of my tempos."
I never had a chance to play golf with Freddie or Joe Williams. I understand that Freddie was an excellent golfer and loved the game, but we never talked about it very much. When the band would play an extended stay in Las Vegas, he would bring his golf clubs. But he didn't bring his clubs when we did a string of one-nighters.
Playing with the Basie Band and Freddie
I joined Basie in 1975 and replaced Ray Parello. He was hurt in an auto accident and I got a call from Sonny Cohn asking me to fill in for a few days. So I flew to Chicago and filled in for four and a half years. I left in August 1979 and joined Dave Brubeck. It was a great time in my career as I grew up listening to Basie and Dave's quartet. When I was younger, I used to check out both bands at jazz fests. They were the top acts in jazz. I had a ball playing with both groups.
I had been on the band for several weeks and Basie had not made any comments on my playing. So one night, I leaned over to Sonny Cohn and said "Cup, Basie hasn't said anything to me. Am I doing OK? Is everything alright?" Sonny just smiled in that sweet way and chuckled, "Don't worry. If something's wrong, Basie will tell you." So when things were going good, I never heard a word from Basie.
After I joined the Basie band, I did not have any verbal interaction with Freddie for the better part of a year. I was afraid of him! I was scared to death...I mean, it was Freddie Green. He was epitome of time keeping. If I rushed slightly or dropped the tempo slightly, I didn't hear about it, but he's gave me that famous stare. And I got my share of those stares! He was notorious for that look.
One night the Basie band was on stage and playing. I was up on the riser and Freddie was seated down in the curve of the piano. Now I don't know what happened, but at one point, Freddie stopped playing, uncrossed his legs, put the guitar down by his side, turned around in his seat, looked at me, gave me the stare...remember we are still in the middle of a tune...smiled gently, bent his head forward and shook it back and forth from left to right...like "oh no no"...turned back around, recrossed his legs, picked up the guitar, and got back to playing. Scared me to death. For weeks after that I tried to figure out what I had been doing wrong. Freddie never said a word.
Eventually Freddie came to me after we had finished a set. And in his very quiet way he said, "You know that last part on the chart we just played?" I said, "Yes sir." I called him "sir" at that time. Freddie continued, "Well that's yours. Take it away from the band." I remember that I was not playing any fills in that section. I was just playing a great big backbeat so that the band could lay on it. Freddie told me to take it away, that was my spot. So I figured that he was giving me advice and that means that I must doing something OK. After that, all the ice was broken. I was able to talk with him and joke around a little bit, but not too much. I can't say we became friends, but we became good acquaintances.
After I left the Basie band, I did a series of tribute recordings for Famous Door Records. One album was for Chick Webb, another for Gene Krupa, and finally a tribute for Basie. So I had Freddie Green for the recording gig. It was a very nice session. We had a wonderful time doing the record. But I had to convince the record producer to hire Freddie. He said he didn't have the money to hire Freddie Green. I said, "You've got to be kidding! Well, I'll tell you what we'll do. You pay me and I'll pay Freddie." After we did the recording, the producer said to me, "Hey Butch, that Freddie Green really makes a difference." And I'm thinking "Of course he made a difference. It's Freddie Green!"
Freddie and I got along well musically. I don't think he ever came down on me to Basie. If he did, Basie never said a word. Everything was quite copasetic musically speaking with Mr. Green for the four and a half years I performed with him. It was time I'll never forget. I wouldn't trade it for anything in the world. Working with the Basie band and Freddie was unbelievable.