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No Giving Up the Ghosts

Years after their originators have passed on, groups such as the Count Basie and Glenn Miller orchestras travel the road keeping the sound alive.

July 19, 1998|Don Heckman | Don Heckman is The Times' jazz writer

It's the sound of the Count Basie Orchestra, all right: the trademark, in-the-pocket drive of the rhythm section; the crisp, punchy brass; the lush harmonies of the saxophone section.

The look is there too: the front row of five saxophonists, the risers filled with trombonists and trumpeters, the rhythm section to one side, the spiffy jackets on the players, the precisely placed bandstands bearing the symbol of a piano in the shape of a "B" surmounting neat lettering identifying the "Count Basie Orchestra."

And the fans are eating it up, crowding the bandstand, applauding the soloists, grooving with the music, jitterbugging vigorously in the open portions of the dance floor.

What's missing from this picture of the Basie orchestra in action?

Only one element: Count Basie himself.

Because the legendary pianist and band leader passed away in 1984, at the age of 79. And the Basie orchestra, playing on without him for the past decade or so, is one of the most prominent examples of a music business phenomenon known as "ghost bands."

But what exactly is a ghost band? How can a band bearing Count Basie's name--or, for that matter names such as Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Jimmy Dorsey, Duke Ellington, Woody Herman or Guy Lombardo--continue to exist, long after its original leader has passed on?

Ghost bands, in essence, are the continuing manifestations of musical franchises that have lost their titular heads. And they continue to exist because the inheritors of the estates of leaders such as Basie, Miller and others have decided--either for commercial or sentimental reasons, or both--that the lives of the bands should not end with the passing of their leaders.

"It amazes me," says Steve Rudolf of Producers Inc., who books numerous groups, including Basie, Miller, Herman, Lombardo and others. "There's always a market for big bands. It's nice that we're getting some interest from young people now, but we've always had plenty of dates every year for most of these bands."

So what's the attraction?

For older audiences, it's nostalgia and a memory of music that was young when they were young. For today's young audiences, it's a newly emerging fascination with swing music and swing dancing. Because of that appeal, ghost bands--like vocal groups such as the Inkspots, the Drifters, the Mills Brothers and the Limelighters--are still viable music business commodities. Tunes such as Count Basie's "Lil' Darlin' " or "April in Paris," Glenn Miller's "In the Mood" and "String of Pearls," Duke Ellington's "Satin Doll" or "Take the 'A' Train," Tommy Dorsey's "Getting Sentimental Over You" and Artie Shaw's "Begin the Beguine" continue to be surprisingly energetic crowd-pleasers.

The result is a solid base of avid supporters, many of whom will undoubtedly turn up at the Hollywood Bowl on Wednesday night when the Count Basie Orchestra, now directed by trombonist Grover Mitchell, appears on a bill with singer Rosemary Clooney, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and the Dirty Dozen.

The Basie Orchestra was last in the Southland at the Playboy Festival in 1997. It is one of many Ghost Band ensembles that frequently return, often annually, to the same venues in the same cities. And they do so in a manner that is as retro as some of the music they play. In an era of jet planes, Internet Web sites, 500-channel cable television and the computerization of nearly every aspect of contemporary life, many ghost bands continue to tour the country by bus.

Their performances are built around grueling one-nighters that can have them on the road for as often as 48 weeks a year, on schedules that make the typical rock band's big-venue tour seem easy.

The Basie orchestra, for example, arrives at the Bowl after July bookings that include a Carnegie Hall program; a gig at the Rams Head Tavern in Annapolis, Md.; a private party at the Lake Shore Country Club in Glencoe, Ill.; concerts in Syracuse, N.Y., and Highland Park, Ill.; a five-night run at the Blue Note in New York; and a one-nighter at the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas. All that in three weeks.

"Well, yeah, it's quite a schedule," says Mitchell, 68, who has led the Basie ensemble for the past four years, and first performed with the orchestra in 1962. "But we travel by plane, sometimes, and when we have to take the buses, at least they're a lot more comfortable than they were in the old days."

More comfortable, but a grind, nonetheless. The Glenn Miller Orchestra--perhaps the busiest of all the ghost bands--cranks out mileage like a long-haul trucking firm, and not always following the most logical routes between gigs.

"Occasionally," says trombonist Larry O'Brien, 65, who has been with the Miller aggregation off and on since 1961 and has been leading it since 1988, "we get what we call a 'bouncing ball' tour. That's when we go 300 miles to the south, and the next day we go 300 miles to the north, 15 miles from where we started out the day before.

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