TT 232: Elusive: Thad Jones at 100, by Russell Scarbrough
A guest post about the legendary trumpet player, composer, and arranger
Most jazz fans know Thad Jones for his work with the famous Thad Jones/Mel Lewis band, the house ensemble of the Village Vanguard. I was intrigued by all the non-Thad/Mel material Russell was posting on his socials, and am grateful for the opportunity to repost these fascinating insights here. — e.i.
by Russell Scarbrough:
Below are notes I collected while contemplating a book on Thad Jones. All this material first appeared on my Facebook page. Corrections welcome, for accurate and complete information about Thad remains elusive!
Thad Jones, born 100 years ago today in Pontiac, Michigan, recorded “Elusive” on his first record in 1954.
“My Centennial” is number 100 in that fat book of charts at the Village Vanguard.
Thad’s parents had moved to Pontiac from Mississippi in the Great Migration. His siblings included two other great jazz musicians, Hank (older), and Elvin (younger). Their father, Hank Sr. was a deacon at Trinity Baptist Church, within sight of their childhood home (one of Thad's first big band charts was "The Deacon"). By all accounts, his sister was the most talented member of the family, but she died tragically at age 12. Thad apparently didn't pick up a trumpet until he was about 13, and was completely self-taught (his uncle gave him the horn and a book about how to play). No jazz was allowed in the house on Sundays.
Thad played locally until enlisting in WWII in 1943, then ended up in Guam in time to hear Dizzy Gillespie on the radio. After the war, Thad played in Detroit and in the midwest, but didn't arrive in NYC until May 1954. He was 31! Hardly a note of Thad's career was recorded until his life was almost half over.
Since many jazz musicians regularly went through Detroit, Thad was well known along that circuit before he moved east. He joined the Count Basie Orchestra on Frank Wess's recommendation just as Basie was entering one of his most fruitful and enduring periods.
In addition, Thad immediately became part of Charles Mingus's circle of performers and composers for an important three year run.
By the end of the summer of 1954, Thad had recorded his debut LP The Fabulous Thad Jones with Mingus on bass; he also recorded Mingus's "Portrait" (a trumpet solo with orchestra) for10-inch record. An oft-quoted letter by Mingus to Metronome Magazine praises Thad as "Bartók with valves.”
The relationship didn’t last. In Gene Santoro's biography of Mingus Myself When I Am Real, he reports a plausible enough story about Mingus and Thad having a dispute about an appearance Thad made on some album that — due to some contractual matter — caused one of Mingus's records to be held up... so Mingus called Thad's residence, got his wife on the phone instead, and proceeded to subject her to one of Mingus's famous tirades. When Thad heard about this, said to Mingus, "I'll kill you if you ever do that again," and then according to Santoro, they didn't speak for 20 years.
Except — In 1972, for Mingus's big band album Let My Children Hear Music, the CD reissue notes by George Kanzler state: "Mingus conceived of an ambitious project with a large ensemble and hired Thad Jones to do the arranging and scoring. But Jones, in the midst of writer's block, didn't produce any music.”
Say what now? So they were certainly talking. And Thad had "writer's block?" If Thad was getting paid, he would be writing charts: this was a period when Thad did a lot of freelance arranging of all kinds of lesser commercial material (after his day gig with Ed Sullivan at CBS dried up). I really don't believe this.
I have a lot of questions about Thad and Mingus. They worked together during important years for both of them, and clearly there had been mutual respect for each other's music. And them one day it was over? What really happened after that falling out in 1957? What was their relationship like afterwards? What if?
It seems likely that Thad Jones spent time playing, and presumably writing, while serving in the US Army in WWII (from 1943-46). We know practically nothing about Thad in the first half of the 1940's, and practically nothing about when he became interested in writing music or how he developed that craft.
Chris Sheridan's bio-discography of Count Basie notes that the Ernie Wilkins arrangement of "Every Day I Have The Blues” — which was a giant hit — was “written out from riffs and figures supplied by Thad Jones and Frank Wess.” Bill Kirchner is quoted on the Living Jazz Archives website saying that a 1956 arrangement of Denzil Best's "Move" featured on the Hall Of Fame LP was actually co-arranged by Wess and Thad — representing Thad's first chart for Basie, and therefore, the first Thad chart we know about (though he wrote many original tunes for his small group records).
1955-56 were good years for Thad. His first son and daughter were born. He played his iconic "Pop Goes the Weasel" solo on "April In Paris" (another massive hit for Basie). He recorded two more solo albums and won Down Beat's New Star award. And on August 29, 1955, while on the road in Chicago with Basie, he met the drummer from Stan Kenton's orchestra: Mel Lewis.
Apart from that half-a-chart of “Move,” from 1954-58 Thad contributes no other arrangements to the Basie band. Strange but true? According to Sheridan's exhaustive catalog of radio checks and (many) other documented performances at that time, there were no Thad charts in the book. Basie had other great writers, of course: Ernie Wilkins, Frank Wess, Frank Foster, Neal Hefti, and others.
This changes in 1958 when the great Chairman Of The Board LP comes out. Thad contributes four charts to the album: "The Deacon", "H.R.H.", "Mutt & Jeff", and the rather progressive "Speaking of Sounds" (also known as "Brushes & Brass”). The kinetic "Counter Block" appears in concerts in the first half of 1959 and may have been written about the same time as the Chairman charts.
(A listing of Thad's charts for Basie is here.)
Thad became very close to Al Grey, who joined the Basie trombone section in 1957 just before a triumphant tour of Great Britain. Sheridan suggests Grey was the "missing link" providing real depth to the Basie band, and his arrival inspired Thad's pen. Indeed, Thad wrote at least three great charts to feature Grey: “H.R.H.," "Bluish Grey,” and "Makin' Whoopie," perhaps the definitive showcase for Grey's plunger technique.
"To You” on the First Time: Basie Meets The Duke (1961) was also originally intended for Grey, but he’d been fired from the Basie band 6 months earlier, so it ended up being a feature for Quintin Jackson's plunger.
(Incidentally, Sheridan also mentions that “H.R.H.," obviously the acronym for Her Royal Highness, was inspired by the British tour. The title specifically refers to Princess Margaret, who was a fan of Basie's and made quite a favorable impression on the band.)
Thad spent almost 8 1/2 years with Basie. In his seniority, he self-promoted himself from "The Deacon" (1957) to "The Elder" (1962).
But other than the concept album projects where Thad was contracted to write most of the arrangements — Dance Along With Basie and Count Basie/Sarah Vaughan — less than a dozen Thad charts were performed regularly.
From this vantage point it seems odd that Thad’s arrangements were so scarce in the Basie book, but there were reasons. Basie had no shortage of great writers for the band; Verve Records wanted to feature Neil Hefti; Basie was notorious for his pickiness regarding charts. In the Hall Of Fame liner notes, Wilkins is quoted: "[Basie] rejects more arrangements than he accepts,” a sentiment echoed by many later voices.
Basie also made no hesitation in changing, cutting, and correcting his arrangers, which naturally led to some tension. It’s possible that Basie simply didn't dig much of Thad's writing. Too hard, too complicated, too modern, not in keeping with the signature Basie style. "Bartók with an arranger's pen" might have too much for the leader, no matter how elegant or progressive the writing may have been.
Thad joined Basie as a relatively unknown voice from the mid-west with practically no documentation of his talent. Over 8+ years he'd become and experienced and widely-admired veteran player, acknowledged as a significant force in progressive jazz. Basie had featured him, shown him how to be a successful leader, and given him a chance to grow as a writer.
But Thad eventually outgrew the limitations of the sideman role, so on January 24, 1963, Thad finally left Count Basie freelance in NYC, writing, arranging, playing, and band-leading. Publicly he said it was to spend more time with his family, which makes sense. Life in a big band like Basie's meant large periods of time on the road, and sometimes grueling schedules.
(An example of a grueling schedule: In May 1959, in the midst of a two-week nightly residency at Birdland in NYC, the band flew to Miami with Joe Williams to play an all-night dance from 2-7am, and flew back to make their Birdland hit later that evening! The Miami performance is captured on the Breakfast Dance & Barbecue LP.)
But was this a good time to stop being a sideman? On one hand, Thad was a seasoned 40-year old and in good artistic company: Roland Hanna, James Moody, Pepper Adams, Shirley Scott, Gerry Mulligan, Ben Webster, Sonny Stitt, Thelonious Monk, McCoy Tyner, George Russell... great voices of the past, present, and future. He regarded his week of playing "Night Creature" with Duke Ellington and the Detroit Symphony in March 1963 as one of the high points of his career. (See Mark Stryker's Jazz From Detroit for more about “Night Creature.”)
On the other hand, the scene was changing: The Cold War heating up, instability in Europe, the assassination of JFK, the Civil Rights movement beginning to have wide effects, Vietnam on the horizon….TV was increasingly a focal point for all Americans (most broadcasting was in color by 1965), keeping people at home evenings. and there were fewer young people interested in jazz (no longer the music of rebellion and freedom, but of rarefied modern art). Birdland went bankrupt in 1964 and closed early in 1965, just after a weeklong residency featuring John Coltrane.
Finally, at the encouragement of his brother Hank, he joined CBS as a studio musician in 1964, and began performing regularly on the Ed Sullivan Show. He stayed on the show until it was cancelled in 1971.
Meanwhile, Thad played occasionally with Gerry Mulligan's Concert Jazz Band. Unlike Basie, Mulligan's group was not full-time, and was mostly centered in New York. Also unlike Basie, Mulligan tended to feature a limited number of soloists: Mulligan himself, valve trombonist Bob Brookmeyer, and Clark Terry or Conte Candoli on trumpet, giving far less to the other (quite capable) players in the band. And Mulligan's band could be said to have an element of restraint and refinement, perhaps unusually so for a large jazz group at that time, and not necessarily to everyone's taste (which may partially explain why Mulligan didn't keep it together for long). But while less satisfying for Thad to perform in, he made important connections there: composer Brookmeyer would become an important ally, and he built a relationship with the drummer Mel Lewis, whom Thad had previously met on the road. Lewis would then power a quintet with Thad and baritone sax player Pepper Adams (the 1966 LP Mean What You Say is a great document of this group).
Knowing Thad's writing aspirations (and finding no outlet with Mulligan in that regard, it seems), Mel began to encourage Thad to start his own band. Mel was not the first to suggest this: Roland Hanna said the same thing immediately after Thad left Basie. And it's not as if Thad wasn't writing: in fact, Harry James hired Thad for about a chart a month once he had left Basie, resulting in the 1964 LP Harry James Plays New Versions of Down Beat Favorites, containing 12 Thad Jones arrangements. So why not just start writing, get the guys together and start playing? After all, there were other bands in NYC doing just that: besides Mulligan, Duke Pearson had a big band, and there were many other part-time or occasional bands that only played locally. Take a few months, write out a couple of sets, and we're off and running, right? What was Thad waiting for?
In his biography of Mel Lewis The View From The Back Of The Band, Chris Smith gives a hint in passing which may be the key to understanding a lot of Thad's decision making. Regarding this question, why did Thad not write charts for his own use, even when many encouraged him to do so, and logistical pieces were falling into place, Smith writes, "...as Mel later discovered, Thad rarely composed or arranged music unless he had a paid commission to do so.”
Turns out, on principle, Thad didn't write music in his spare time — only when he was on the clock. This perhaps help explain why he didn't write much for Basie, except when there was a project (like a concept album) where he could be contracted to write without the possibility of Basie rejecting his charts (and therefore, not getting paid for the ones Basie didn't accept). On the other hand, Thad did write for Harry James when he was basically on retainer and getting a monthly check. If he was going to write big band charts—which he really wanted to do—Thad needed a way to get paid.
Perhaps this principle is at the heart of one of the strangest chapters in Thad's career: the ill-fated "Basie/Thad" record of 1965.
Somewhere along the line, Thad and Basie spoke. They agreed that Basie would record an album of Thad’s charts. Not a bunch of arrangements dashed off in a hurry for some singer, but a full LP of Thad’s original compositions. The very thing Thad had wanted all those years, but never quite got. And… Basie would pay for it. This is the story as we’ve received it.
So — again, at some point — there was a handshake and Thad got to work writing in Spring 1965. The Beatles toured America, and Birdland closed. The first indoor baseball game happened in the Astrodome, and the US sent 250,000 personnel to Vietnam. “Thad, we’ll bring the band into the hall at the end of the summer and read down what you’ve got so far.”
In September, Thad brought seven charts — about half of what would be needed for an album — to a reading session with Count Basie and the orchestra. The titles are familiar to those who know the future Vanguard band: “Back Bone,” "All My Yesterdays,” “Big Dipper,” “The Little Pixie,” “Low Down,” “A-That’s Freedom,” "The Second Race,” Some of them, like “A-That’s Freedom" (actually composed by Thad’s brother Hank, arranged by Thad) and “The Second Race” were sort of Basie-ish: one could imagine the CBO playing these well. The others were brilliant, modern, thoroughly Thad, and really not much in Basie’s conventional style. In any event, at the end of the reading, Basie gave all seven of them the same response he had given to so many of Thad’s charts when he was in the band: No. Not for me. Not for us.
(Incidentally, some suggest these were “too hard” for the Basie band to play. Nonsense. Basie always had a band full of tremendous all-around players. Perhaps the sight-reading was rough-around-the-edges in the moment, or perhaps Thad felt compelled to make explanatory remarks ahead of some charts that Basie had little patience for. But none of these titles are as technically challenging as, say, Thad’s “Counterblock,” which Basie’s band played perfectly well in a live recording from 1959).
Some claim Basie tried letting Thad down easy with a patronizing, encouraging attitude: “Thad, why don’t you take these and start your own band?” As if the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra was Basie’s idea. Others have Basie throwing the record company (Verve) under the bus: “I’d love to record these but they really want an album of Chico O’Farrill charts, what can I do?” Which is plausible enough, but then why have the reading session in the first place? Still others suggest there was quite a bit more tension in the air as that session progressed.
I admit that none of this makes any sense to me. Basie and Thad knew each other for a decade at that point. Basie knew how Thad wrote—they’d been through all this before. What did he think, after three years away from the band, that Thad would suddenly start writing like Ernie Wilkins, for a whole album? And did Thad think, “Chief never liked this stuff before, but these charts will knock his socks off…they’re so hip he’ll have to record them…”
Both of these guys must have had some purpose going into this session. Without a clear sense of exactly what was said in the months before Thad wrote the music — when the “handshake” was made, “OK, we’ll do this” — it’s impossible to say who got what they wanted out of it. Basie didn’t keep a big band going for decades by being a dummy. Whether or not this day went down the way he’d hoped is another question. But Thad left that September 1965 session with a stack of original charts under his arm: new music, brilliantly conceived, and without a home.
And Basie did not want to pay Thad! They had to go to the union for arbitration over it, and finally Basie begrudgingly paid Thad for only the seven charts completed (this being only the first half of what was originally to come). So much for the warm and fuzzy feelings between them. To his credit, Basie did allow Thad to keep the charts, and the copied-out parts in ink, made from Thad’s scores, weren’t exactly cheap.
On Thanksgiving weekend 1965, Thad called up Mel, Brookmeyer, Pepper, colleagues from the studios at CBS, and other friends, met them all at Phil Ramone’s A&R studios on 48th street, and began to rehearse. The charts had “COUNT BASIE ORCHESTRA” stamped on them.
At this point, others have taken up the story. On February 7, 1966, the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra premiered at the Village Vanguard. In short order they were considered one of the greatest big bands in the world. From this point until January 1, 1979 (when he didn’t show for the first Monday night back at the Vanguard after an ill-fated European tour), Thad Jones has a thoroughly documented jazz career.
Those who are new to Thad and Mel can start right at that cold winter night in 1966 with All My Yesterdays, a magnificent recording/book package from Resonance Records (2016) documenting the first two performances at the Vanguard and all the characters involved. Mosaic Records reissued their first five instrumental albums in 1994, and all of them are still available as digital downloads. Most of their official albums are still in print, and bootlegs abound. There are also dozens of complete Thad Jones scores published and widely distributed by Kendor Music, most of which were in print during Thad’s lifetime. (In contrast, Duke Ellington’s scores are almost exclusively transcriptions, and only came into print decades after his passing.)
After returning from a grueling European tour, the band was set to resume their usual Monday night performances in the first week of January 1979. The band was there, Mel sat at the drum set.
Thad didn't show.
Bewildered, they played the set without him. The next week, on January 8, Mel went to Thad's place and found him moving out, heading to Copenhagen... peace out, as we now say.
But... the band? The gig? The last 13 years? You and me? Uh, your family? Thad didn't give any explanations, just packed up and left the United States for the next six years. Done.
At the Village Vanguard, each music stand held a fat book of ordered charts. Number 5 was titled, "Don't Ever Leave Me," and they had played it on the first night in 1966.
There are important questions about Thad that will never be answered, especially concerning his move to Europe.
One precipitating event took place in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, early November 1978, after the show, late at night. Thad had been in a dark mood for much of the long European tour, a string of one-nighters that began early in October. He had made some outbursts during the tour, on the bus and in hotel rooms, that perplexed Mel and the band. Like, maybe something was really eating at Thad. Who knows? After playing a recorded concert at the Belgrade Jazz Festival, Thad hails a cab. Maybe—probably—Thad had been drinking. But who knows? What does a Belgrade cab driver think when a large black man enters his cab late at night? Who knows? The only source for this story is Thad. All we know is what he told people, how on a cold Belgrade night, this cab pulled over, and Thad rolled the back seat passenger side window down partially. He made a remark to a young woman on the sidewalk from the cab. What did he say? Who knows? What does a stranger say to a woman on the street late at night from the back of a cab? Then, out of nowhere, her boyfriend (?) was there, and a punch was thrown through the glass and hits Thad in the face. The glass shatters, and Thad has glass shards embedded in his lip.
That's it, that's the story. Presumably, then Thad goes (in the cab?) to the hospital or something, and gets his face and lip patched up the best they could be. There must have been blood everywhere. It's a trumpet player's nightmare.
The band had more than a month of European dates left to play. At least through December 6 in Stockholm, and then Thad was scheduled to lead the Danish Radio Big Band in Copenhagen later in December. There is a bootleg recording of the band in Milan on November 7 in which Thad doesn't play, just directs. Same thing in Paris on November 15 (which according to my research is the final recorded evidence of the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra). Everyone eventually got back to NYC by the end of December, in time to take up the Monday nights at the Vanguard again.
Later on, Thad said his lip had become infected.
What does Thad’s lip injury have to do with his flight to Europe? Who knows? Most likely it just made the idea of a hard goodbye that much more dreadful. We know he had a long association with the Danish Radio Big Band — had even made records with them — and that he had been negotiating plans to spend more time with them (many Americans do this, going to Copenhagen several times a year). But later it seemed like he had been planning a more permanent move there for a while, maybe for most of 1978.
But why leave without a word? Why didn’t he just say to Mel and the band in September, this has been great but I have to move on, this is my final tour then I’m going to Denmark? Wouldn’t everyone in the band have understood, been supportive and shown him an outpouring of love — even if they had to keep it quiet? More that one person has said to me, “Thad didn’t like goodbyes.” But we don’t know that answers why he burned every bridge behind him.
Thad also left his wife and family behind in NY. His children had just become adults. I don’t know if his departure was any less a surprise to them than it was to Mel and the band. “Thad never really spoke about his family,” was a remark made in several conversations I’ve had. “He had walls up around his personal life.” Once he settled in Denmark, he quickly married a Danish woman, Lis, and had a child with her, Thaddeus Jr.
Thad didn’t just quit, he ran away from all his responsibilities, his obligations, his accomplishments, and everyone who cared about him and relied on him. With all the time and energy he had previously put into making a solid living, having a steady income, leaving the road for stability on the home front, it does make me wonder if there’s a really big part of this puzzle we have no pieces for. There’s something else. Did he feel like he had to escape? That he couldn’t tell anyone? Sure, there was a job and a woman waiting him half a world away, but…. I don’t think those elements alone all add up. Thad had secrets, and he didn’t reveal all of them even when he left.
The job didn’t work out. Danish Radio wanted Thad to conduct all their programs, and not just play his own music. After a couple of activities with them, he didn’t sign a contract to stay on permanently. It probably didn’t help that he couldn’t play his horn — his lip required corrective surgery more than once over a couple of years. In the meantime, he picked up valve trombone, and by all accounts, sounded much like his old self down an octave.
Even so, within a few months of arriving in Europe, Thad was already putting together another big band, called “Eclipse.”
Meanwhile, Mel did his best to honor the commitments Thad had made for the band without him, and through sheer stubbornness and force of will (and the determination of all the players), Mel kept the band together successfully through the end of his life. That band continues today as the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, and current members Dick Oatts, Rich Perry, and Doug Purviance were on that last tour with Thad in ‘78. They play every Monday night, and they always play Thad’s music.
By September 1979 the Eclipse band had made a record and begun a Monday night residency at JazzHouse Vognporten in Copenhagen. Despite television appearances and the band including name players like Horace Parlan, Sahib Shihab, Tim Hagans, and Jesper Lundgaard, the ensemble failed to play enough to gain any traction, and by 1981 had disbanded.
A second band, the inexplicably-named “Ball Of Fire” big band, managed to record a short television special in 1981 and can be viewed on You Tube. Packed with regulars from Eclipse, European jazz stars, Jerry Dodgion and Jerome Richardson from the 1966 band at the Vanguard, and Roger Kellaway on piano, it seems like this band could have really been a major draw at festivals and large venues across Europe, but somehow this one did no better than the first. Tim Hagans, a member of both groups, speaks of a week-long recording project sponsored by an Italian promoter, but this recording has never surface, making it a kind of “holy grail” of late Thad, a rumor of lost treasures.
While Thad’s lip was getting treatment, he was writing. Kendor’s catalog of Thad charts practically doubled between 1980-82, resulting in a large number of post-Mel compositions. Thad seemed in some cases to be stretching out from song-form style tunes and writing through-composed work, possibly inspired by Ellington’s longer forms. Occasionally some of these European charts made their way back to the Village Vanguard, at times simply ordered from Kendor.
Rayburn Wright’s seminal textbook Inside The Score was published in 1982, profiling three of Thad’s best works from the Vanguard years, “Three And One,” “Kids Are Pretty People,” and the rock anthem “Us,” alongside examples by Bob Brookmeyer and Sammy Nestico. Thad was reportedly gratified by the inclusion, and Wright’s book has been the standard text for big band writing since its publication.
As more and more of Thad’s music was finding wide distribution, he was becoming more in demand as an educator. The hit-and-run workshop was suited to his spontaneous style, and in ’80-’81 he was a featured artist-in-residence at the Jazz Seminar of Catalonia in Banyoles, Spain, which left a lasting impact on young musicians in the region. His wide, broken-tooth grin reappears in photographs from the seminar.
Between the dashed hopes for big band projects, and trying to heal and rebuild his lip on the one hand, and then his new marriage and son, wide respect and admiration for his past accomplishments on the other, the early 1980’s was a season of dramatic ups and downs for Thad. Perhaps his frustration about not performing often enough is reflected in the sharp uptick in his writing (and the popularity of his published music provided the financial incentive to keep producing). But one gets the impression he felt stagnant, impatient. Thad needed something to happen.
On April 26, 1984, Count Basie passed away in Hollywood, Florida. The longest continuously-running jazz big band in existence was suddenly left without a leader. The Count Basie Orchestra limped along for a few months, and finally came to terms with the fact that they couldn’t survive without a leader. Basie was the beating heart at the center of the organization. Now they needed a transplant. They had name recognition, international tours, prestigious bookings, management, and institutional momentum. The first person they thought to call for leadership was Thad Jones.
So in February 1985, six years after stealing away across the sea without so much as a good bye, with a busted lip, no job, and a string of broken relationships behind him, Thad came back to the United States to be the director of the greatest big band in the world. He had newly-strengthened chops, a trunk full of new music, growing respect for his position as an elder statesman, and little Thad Junior in tow. It was a celebrated, even triumphant homecoming, but no one who knew the history failed to grasp the irony of Thad Jones, of all people, taking control of Basie’s early-1950’s style orchestra.
In the press, he said he was ready to keep the heart of the music beating with all the classics and add stylistically appropriate new works to the rep list. Privately, he wanted to modernize the book, eventually transforming it to something suitable as a vehicle for mostly his own music. He couldn’t do it all at once, though. First he had to take the CBO on the road — and fate again gave Thad one last chance to redeem, for his part at least, one of the most hurtful breakups.
Mel Lewis had kept up the Jazz Orchestra, and they still went to Europe every summer, playing the jazz festival circuit. So did the Basie Orchestra. So it’s not surprising that both ensembles would perform the Stockholm Jazz Festival in the summer of 1985. The scheduling of them on the same show does give one pause….
Thad found Mel, and the two who had frequently described themselves as “soul brothers” looked at each other for the first time in six years. Thad embraced Mel… some who were there say Mel’s arms stayed at his side. It must have been a flood of emotions for Mel, who never really understood what happened in 1978.
But the Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra, and especially the guys who had been in the band when Thad left, were thrilled to see him and eager to reestablish that comradeship that comes from seeing the old captain again. It seems like Mel wasn’t quite sure what to think, but was relieved that the open hostility was gone. Over the next year, there were rumors and rumblings about some sort of possible reunion. It was not to be, and Thad and Mel never saw each other again.
As a 35-year old during the 1950’s, when Thad was in his prime, and being only a section player in the Basie orchestra, he took the road life in stride. Now, in his early 60’s, and being the leader, it was exhausting. He had high hopes for this gig — finally, everything Thad had always wanted seemed to be within his grasp: a world-renowned ensemble, full schedule of performances, family stability and financial stability, love and recognition.
But the road itinerary for the CBO was grueling. And when they were finally able to take a break in the fall, Thad had an album of charts to write in a little over a month, before flying the band to Tokyo to make a concert video. Upon return, recording sessions with vocalist Caterina Valente would take place through the holidays, so the record would be done for them to tour with her in the spring. Before the album was complete, Thad was sick.
Age, drink, and years of smoking and neglecting his body were catching up with Thad. He was barely able to do the tour with Valente. May 6, 1986 was Thad’s last date leading the Count Basie Orchestra. He led them for 15 months. He immediately left the US, seriously ill, going back to Copenhagen with his family. He died on August 20 at the age of 63 of bone cancer.
Thad is buried in Vestre Kirkegård Cemetery. His headstone bears the title of one of his last compositions: “Live Life This Day.”
— by Russell Scarbrough