Dobbin's Den


August 7, 2003

GROVER MITCHELL, a trombonist, best known, in recent years, as the leader of the "Count Basie Orchestra", died yesterday, August 6, in Sloan Kettering Memorial Hospital in NYC, he was 73, born in Whatley, Alabama on St. Paddy's Day, March 17, 1930. He moved to Pittsburgh with his family when he was eight and his first musical interests were recordings by people like "Peetie Wheatstraw" (William Bunch) and Blind Lemon Jefferson. While in public school he began playing the bugle before switching to trombone. By the time he was 16 he was working with the territorial band of King Kolax in Indiana before moving on to San Francisco, where co-led bands with Texas pianist Cedric Haywood before joining Earl "Fatha" Hines, this in the early 50s. The trombonists he listened to most were Jack Teagarden, Tommy Dorsey, Lawrence Brown, J.J. Johnson and Bennie Green with T.D. and Green having the greatest influence on his playing.

He was heard with the Duke Ellington band in 1960 and then there was a short stint with Lionel Hampton before joining the Basie band in 1962 – he stayed through 1970 and was in the trombone section when I was lucky enough to attend a Basie recording session at NY's famed A&R Studios in April of 1963 – a Verve session arranged by Billy Byers that saluted Frank Sinatra. Grover then worked in TV (NBC) and films (including "Lady Sings The Blues") from 1970 through 1978. He formed his own big band in 1984 after a return to Basie from 1980 through the leader's death. After Basie died in 1984 the band was lead in succession by Thad Jones, Frank Foster and, beginning in July 1995, Mitchell himself.

The arrangers he favoured were Thad, Ernie Wilkins and Ellington and Strayhorn and he also mentioned Urbie Green and Bill Harris, as trombonists he listened to. He recorded with Basie, as leader of his own band on Stash and Ken labels and as leader of the Basie band for MAMA. The later sessions include "Swing Shift" and "Count Plays Duke". Among earlier titles: his own "Meet Grover Mitchell" and "The Devil's Waltz", "Li'l Ol' Groovemaker", "Straight Ahead", "This Time By Basie", "Kansas City Shout" and "Frankly Basie" with the Count, "The Nifty Cat Strikes West" with Roy Eldridge, "Now and Then" with Buddy Collette, "Ella and Basie" with the Count and Ms. Fitzgerald, "Passion Flower" with Zoot Sims, "Send In The Clowns" with Sarah Vaughan and "Entre Nous" with Frank Wess.

During a stay here when he led the Basie band at the Montreal International Jazz Festival, I ran into him on Jeanne Mance Street and had the pleasure of his company for a couple of blocks, a most interesting man and a true gentleman.

© Len Dobbin 2003
Montreal, Quebec, Canada