A Conversation With... Guido Basso
Occasionally in life we fall in with people with big personalities, big talent and who can charm the skins off a room of snobs. Trumpeter Guido Basso has this gentle way of manoeuvring from one decade to another without ever knocking over an empty chair. Everybody loves Guido!
Basso has now reached that point (78 years old) in his life when most gigs and bandstand experiences have been put to rest, yet he still keeps the trumpet and flugelhorn close by when something that matters prompts him to run through the daily grind of warm-up exercises and take his rightful position main stage. Playing live just keeps him young and engaged.
In 1994 Basso was awarded the well-deserved Order of Canada and in 2004 a Juno for Best Traditional Jazz recording for a CBC side – Lost in the Stars.
Over the years we have shared many studio sessions together – I being the younger one positioned on the quiet side of the room behind a piano. I remember one intimate evening when we were the only players in sight. Gary Slaight invited me play piano for his mom Aida’s birthday. This was the tail end of the mayoral election and David Miller just won over John Tory. Tory’s mother was there and came near the piano and expressed her feelings – “You know, John would make a great mayor of this city.” I thought about her as I played and the feeling of what it was like to be such a public figure, then face defeat. Guido Basso gathers around the piano with harmonica in hand. He calls a tune and the two women move close in and listen as Guido turns that moment into magic. Talk about beauty – talk about painting broad smiles on everyone!
I spent last week rummaging through my archives and transferring interviews dating back some thirty years from cassette to digital and came across this hour I spent with Guido in 1988 at CIUT 89.5. I thought this was truly worth a revisit. Keep in mind an era was closing and new one beginning. The studio scene was dying off but there was still money to be made as a player – if you thought ahead.
Bill King: Is there a particular period of jazz that helped shape your playing style?
Guido Basso: It would be when I was just starting – that would be the late forties or early fifties. There were quite a few great jazz records during that period. Of course Miles Davis was my idol at the time and remained so until he lost everyone late in the ‘60s when he got crazy and disappeared. His current stuff doesn’t thrill me because at one time he was the king of ballads and no one could play a ballad like Miles. Also, Chet Baker. At the time he had that wonderful breathy type of sound on trumpet. That’s the kind of sound I try to get on flugelhorn yet they got it on trumpet – that’s amazing!
I had so many great times listening to music in those days and I had the time to listen to music.
At first, I was exposed to Louis Armstrong, Harry James and all of the big band things that were going on at the time. I got into the jazz thing because of Jazz at the Philharmonic. They had recorded volumes of performances and that’s where you had all of the jazz greats. Bird was there, Lester Young, Dizzy Gillespie, Roy Eldridge, even Oscar Peterson was part of the JATP at the time
B.K: What separates the greats from the pack when it comes to playing a ballad?
G.B: To express ballads the way they do you have to be very romantic beings deep inside even if you are very aggressive outwardly. I guarantee you can find a very warm heart there. I’ve never heard a cold person play a ballad with warmth – it’s impossible.
“Bill, would you say great ballad players are frustrated singers who would love to sing?” They use their instruments as balladeers. Maybe they hear lyrics - Lester Young used too. Young knew the lyrics to every song he played and he was a master.
Stan Getz is one of the best examples. He can play a ballad and make it sound better than what is written.
Think of this, wouldn’t it be nice to go to a Miles Davis concert, even with all the electronics and he’d pause and say, “for old time’s sake I’m going to play a ballad.” And just slay everybody. He still has the chops but I guess he just doesn’t want to.
B.K: I remember catching him in concert recently – this is after recording Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” and Cindy Lauper’s “Time After Time” and he played the melodies as is and mixed in a few “kacks.”
G.B: I guess he doesn’t want the stress anymore.
B.K: How did you navigate the big change from hard bop to the modal playing of Coltrane, Woody Shaw or Herbie Hancock during the sixties?
G.B: I never got into the modal style of playing. There was one way you could accomplish that and that would be woodshed an awful lot and I never had the time. I’m more of an instinctive player – cerebral. Modal stuff requires a certain amount of preparation. You have to go through all those modal chords and scales and play them over and over again until they become second nature to you – then from which you start creating. I don’t have those tools. I missed it. Next life perhaps.
B.K: We may have already passed that with the revisionist in play.
G.B: Freddie Hubbard sort of fused the two – the bop playing and modal thing and created a style of his own. People tried to copy Dizzy Gillespie, yet he was really tough to copy. You need an abundance of technique. Miles Davis was easier for students to copy because he’s quite a lyrical player. His phrasing was short and not terribly technical or terribly high – but so musical. To write a transcription of a Miles solo was an easy thing to do in the earlier stages – then he acquired more chops. Then he really came on and you really had to play over and over and over again to grasp some of the lines he was playing.
These guys were giants and will forever be.
B.K: Music turns around generation to generation.
Q.B: Rhythmically a lot has changed. In the days of bebop and before everything was kind of “ding – digga-ding-digga-ding” swing. The rock fusion thing brought in straight-eight time. You couldn’t be rolling bebop licks against that rhythm – it just didn’t work. The styles had to change melodically in order for them to fuse. Now, we are getting more accustomed to rock time and figuring out ways to still swing. Now we have salsa. Does that ever swing! You can let the rhythm section cook away and ride on top. You don’t have to play many notes. You can even hold notes for awhile and let the rhythm carry you.
Unfortunately, there aren’t many occasions to play like that. I stay home and play with my Jamey Aebersold records and leave my spot vacant for the younger players to go out and blow their brains out.
B.K: What makes a great jazz musician?
G.B: I guess the bottom line is still dedication and commitment. That means time, – a life – a lifestyle and how do you want to live your life. If this is your choice it’s going to be slim pickings lifestyle wise. I thought I wanted to be a jazz musician then a better lifestyle won out. Some “jazzniks” call that selling out. It’s not really selling out – I chose my lifestyle. It’s even more frustrating in that you are in a commercial world trying to still be a jazz artist and there are many mental and emotional battles that go on within. There’s a price for everything. Jazz for me is a luxury. I have to be able to afford to play jazz.
B.K: Many players throw in the towel and move on..
G.B: I’ve found a market for a guy wearing so many hats. Playing jazz is one, then during the golden age of television I would be either a music director or guest playing trumpet on the show or even hosting. Another hat I’ve had is having a dance band around town and that was strictly commercial stuff. The way I liked it was have the dance band play the Glenn Miller all the way to the current stuff and top forty and also have a top forty band and alternate. You do thirty minutes apiece and it gives people a lot of variety to dance to.
Going out with the Boss Brass was the only jazz outlet for me and at one time that was fine, the band was busy enough. We haven’t done much lately and it’s coming to an end and then Rob is moving to Los Angeles. We worked twenty years trying to keep this band together.
A twenty-two piece band is impractical to try and move across the continent. I’m sure Rob faces that on a daily basis when negotiations come up.
B.K: How come you waited so long to do your first recording under your name?
G.B: I’ve recorded with a lot of other people on pop albums and commercial stuff but never my own jazz album with my own name on it. It was recorded June 1986 when we were playing the Playboy Jazz Festival in Hollywood, California at the Hollywood Bowl then four nights at Dante’s with the band. Frankie Collette piano, Andy Simpkins, formerly of the Three Sounds on bass, and Terry Clarke on drums.
B.K: You grew up in the French section of Montreal and began playing at thirteen – what kind of establishments would allow you on the bandstand?
G.B: Thirteen is when I started with the first big band but actually I was eleven when I formed my first quartet. There was a restaurant called St. Hubert Spaghetti House. We used to go out there and play Friday’s, Saturday’s and Sundays three hours a night. It was non-license – just spaghetti, bananas and cokes – stuff like that. The owners got us in there for a dollar an hour each. You are talking about the late 40’s and at the end of the weekend you had $9 and you thought you were rich. The budget was killing the establishment so they fired us. So we said we’d play for free food so we went back and did that, then they said no – let’s go back to $1 an hour because we were eating them out of stock.
When I was thirteen I was asked to play in a dance band - Al Nichols, about a fifteen piece band. They used to put me up on the chair and I’d be featured now and then doing Harry James trumpet solos. From then on, kept playing nightclubs then ended up at the El Morocco.
We had a house band under the leadership of Maury Kaye and backed up all of the names of that period – that would be fifties – to mid-fifties. Tony Bennett, Sarah Vaughan – Ella Fitzgerald would pop by, Johnny Ray who was a star in those days – name acts would appear there. Singer Vic Damone came by their once and liked what I did and had a gig away from Montreal – my first trip abroad so I ended up in Puerto Rico. As a green kid winding up in Puerto Rico in December – what a treat that was. We were also scheduled to go to Cuba but it was cancelled when Castro took over. I came back and was very blue. I went back to the El Morocco.
Then Louis Bellson – who at the time had a eighteen piece band and Pearl Bailey – he was backing Bailey who had chorus lines of male and female dancers - vocalists – tap dancing acts and jugglers. They were a troupe on the road. One night there was a session and I sat in and Bellson heard me and the next day I got a phone call from his manager and he asked me if I wanted to join them. I did and stayed with them for two and a half years. What an experience that was meeting the people I idolized on records in New York etc. Finally, I’m playing with them. Pearl did an album once and the trumpet section was “Sweets” Edison, Charlie Shavers, Ernie Royal and me. As a section, they were the worst trumpet section ever – as soloists, the best. They all had big personalities but couldn’t play together. I preferred the road trumpet section – at least they phrased and blended. It was still an honor.
I had heard “Sweets” play those gorgeous Harmon mute fills behind Frank Sinatra, those old Nelson Riddle charts. He always had this tremendous Harmon mute sound so I said to Sweets – “Mr. Edison, I really love the sound that you get. I have a Harmon mute here and it doesn’t sound like that when I play it.” He says, “Well, show me your mute.” I show him – it’s a brand new mute. He takes in his hand then bashes on the floor – stomps all over it and hands back and says, “Try it now again!”
B.K: Did it sound better?
B.K: When did you arrive in Toronto?
G.B: December 1960. It was ’61 when I got the feelers out – I was the new kid in town and looking for work – so I phoned everyone. I found out who the leaders were – did some one-nighters – casuals – then heard about the First Floor Club and George’s Spaghetti House and House of Hambourg – three jazz outlets. I just sat in and played with everybody and about six months later Rob McConnell and I, Ed Bickert, Archie Alleyne and Bill Britto wound up being a quintet and started working around. Then again it’s about wearing the hats; it’s always been that way. There were quite a few rehearsal bands like Ron Collier’s etc. at the time. The music community was lots of fun. We were all young at the same time aiming for the same thing – trying to get a career going.
There was plenty studio work happening. We were the young guys who moved the older guys out much like now – we are being moved out by the younger guys.
B.K: I think its technology this round.
G.B: It’s a major contributor.