Drivin’ The Basie Rhythm Machine
by Gabe Villani
Numerous elements characterize the Basie sound, but none more so than the unique Basie rhythm section — an unmistakable trademark recognized around the world. What could be more musically fulfilling than being the heartbeat at the core of that infamous trademark? Well, drummer Butch Miles can’t think of anything he’d rather be doing. Sitting in the hot seat — once occupied by the likes of Jo Jones, Gus Johnson, Sonny Payne and others — this young, energetic and talented player generates the steam that so aptly propels the Basie band — and loves every minute of it.
MD‘s own Gabe Villani met with Butch in Miami during a recent engagement and gained some insight from the man who drives the Basie rhythm machine.
MD: Butch, could you tell us a little about your background?
BM: Well, I was born in Ohio and raised in West Virginia. I only had a year and a half of formal training, but my teacher was beautiful. He didn’t have a lot of technique – but he swung his ass off. His name was Frank Thompson, back in Charleston, West Virginia. He’s the man who got it together for me on the set.
Frank was one of those rare teachers who couldn’t play a lot of things, but he could hear everything you were doing and correct whatever you were doing wrong. If he heard you trying to go somewhere without knowing how, he would get you there. A gifted teacher who is still teaching back in Charleston. I’m very grateful to Frank.The man who taught me to read was a band director — Bob Leurant — a very fine drummer in his own right. If it weren’t for Bob and Frank, I don’t know what I would have done.
MD: What memories do you have of those early days in your career?
BM: I practiced my ass off! I practiced eight hours a day. I would get up in the morning — grab a towel, put on a tee shirt and swimming trunks and go down in the basement and practice until everyone came home. I was sixteen years old and had just started taking lessons from Frank.
I would practice EVERYTHING! I practiced with records and without records. I practiced straight time, with a metronome and without a metronome. I practiced soloing with everything – sticks, brushes, mallets and fingers, and I practiced 4/4, 3/4 and 5/4 time, Latin beats…everything. I practiced everything I felt like — but I had to feel it.
Young drummers always ask me how much they should practice. Well, I think it varies with the individual, but you’ve got to want to practice. If you don’t want to practice, you can sit down for two hours and not get a damn thing done. If you really want to practice, the time spent isn’t important, but you must definitely practice on something, and not fool around.
MD: Should a drummer practice with a metronome?
BM: I used one, but the damn thing kept changing time! They cheat. I don’t trust them. The only metronome I trust is Freddie Green.
MD: What musical experience did you have that prepared you for the Basie band?
BM: I played with school bands, did the “Mickey Mouse” jobs, weddings, barmitzvahs and Elk’s clubs. I played the gigs for $5.00 and a chicken sandwich and I even played with the Charleston Symphony. I also completed four years at West Virginia State.
I paid a lot of dues, and I don’t think you ever stop. If you ever stop paying dues, it means you’ve stopped learning.
MD: How about big band experience?
BM: I was with a trio out of Charleston, a good group called the “Iris Bell Trio”. We travelled quite a bit and wound up in Ann Arbor, Michigan. There, I decided that what the group was doing wasn’t the way I wanted to go — so I quit. One day, I went to a rehearsal with a friend and sat in with the first big band that I’d ever played with.
MD: What year was that?
BM: That was 1971. I was always into big bands, but I’d never played with one. I LOVED it! It was as natural for me as a bird taking off and flying. It was the “Austin-Moro Band” in Detroit — a hell of a band. You know, looking back, the first big band that I ever heard live was the Basie band. It was 1960 at a jazz festival in Virginia Beach and Sonny Payne was playing drums. He was a big influence on me.
While I was playing with the Austin-Moro rehearsal band in Detroit, I started getting into commercials and other type jobs. Through a series of mis-adventures, I finally got into a house band in Plymouth, Michigan — John Trudell’s band. John used to be lead trumpet player for Paul Anka. We were working at a club called Lofy’s and that’s where I met Mel Torme. In fact, I was hired to start the week that Mel opened.
A few weeks after Mel left, I was on my way to a big band rehearsal when I heard on the radio that the club burned down to the ground. Luckily, I had my drums with me. The following day Mel happened to call to say hello and I told him that I was out of a job. He talked with his manager and offered me a job.
I opened with Mel, October 18, 1971 at the Century Plaza Hotel’s West Side Room, in L.A. Talk about a nervous kid — I was scared to death.
MD: How old were you?
BM: I was 27. I was with Mel for 39 months, from October 18, 1971 to December 19, 1974.
MD: How do you remember all those dates?
BM: Well, they were very important to me. At the opening with Mel at the West Side Room, I was flabbergasted! I had never seen so many stars, actors and actresses up close before. For a kid from West Virginia…I didn’t know what to do.
I could never thank Mel enough for what he did for me professionally. He opened a lot of doors and helped me in many ways. Through Mel, I’ve become close to Buddy Rich. Buddy and I share the opinion that Basie’s band is the greatest.
Let me say something about Buddy Rich. Buddy treated me with respect when I was a nobody – just a kid who would hang around clubs and bother him between shows. He was never rude, and he’d always talk to me. One time in Windsor, Ontario, I got him alone for an hour and we talked and had a great time. Buddy’s a great man, and also the man that helped me get together with Basie.
Six weeks after I left Mel, I was hanging around, depressed and wondering if I’d ever work again, when on January 28, 1975 at 8:30 in the morning, I got a call from Basie’s office. The funny thing was, I had just seen the movie “Blazing Saddles” the night before, and the part with Basie in the desert killed me. Anyway, Sonny Cohn was on the phone and he told me, drummer Ray Parello was in a car wreck the night before and if I’d fill in with the band for a few weeks. I caught the first plane for Chicago. Two months later, Ray had recovered. I asked Basie what he was going to do, and he said, “You’ve got the gig”.
MD: You certainly seem to be quite content with what you’re doing.
BM: I am. I’m having the time of my life. I’ve never had so much fun, and I don’t know how you can top that.
I’ve just celebrated my second anniversary with the band, and it’s been incredible! We’ve been all over the world — Japan, London, all over. While we were in Toronto, I went out with Basie to see Buddy’s band. Buddy has always been Basie’s favorite overall drummer, and Basie has always been Buddy’s favorite band. I found out that Buddy was keeping an eye on me. He would frequently ask Basie how I was doing, and if Basie would have a problem concerning me, he would discuss it with Buddy. I also found out that before I joined Basie, Buddy had given me a very nice build up. If Buddy reads this, he’ll deny every word, after all he has his image — but I’m here to tell you that Buddy Rich is a sweet man — a very nice man.
MD: This may sound corny, but what does it feel like playing with Count Basie’s band?
BM: (laughter) Another gentleman did an article on me a year ago, for a Charleston, West Virginia paper. He asked, “What does it feel like to be the first FULL TIME white drummer that ever worked with Basie?” I said, “How do you think the first man on the moon felt”?
I love playing with the band. Every night I learn just by listening to Basie. Louie Bellson once told me, “whatever you do, just listen to Basie”. Basie and I have continuous eye contact. I take all cues from him and the band takes all cues from me. He tells me what to do and I turn on the juice. I’m in the driver’s seat back there and it’s a scary seat to be in, but I’ve got to be in it, and I’ve got to perform. Basie doesn’t hire slouches.
MD: When I tried to reach you at the hotel, the operator accidentally rang Basie’s room and woke him. I was concerned about waking him, but he very graciously spent a minute chatting with me. He’s a real gentleman.
BM: There are probably a handful of incredibly beautiful people I have met in this business. Gene Krupa was one of them, and Louis Bellson is another. I can’t say enough about Louis, he has helped me so much. I consider him one of my closest friends, and Basie is another!
He’s beautiful to work for, and as long as you do what’s good for the band, he lets you do what you want. He has a great sense of humor and he’s a brilliant musician. A lot of people take his easy going personality for granted; they think he doesn’t care anymore. Don’t believe it for a minute!
“It took me the better part of a year to learn not to
phrase so much. I didn’t have to kick every brass figure.
I learned to let the band breathe. The band is a
living organism, and Basie plays the band more than
he plays the piano.”
Basie is on top of the game as much as ever. He’s got giant ears. He can take a tune that was written for the band that doesn’t make it, and insert a piano chorus or cut a section and make it pure Basie. He’s got it in his head. As a piano player, there are nights that he’ll ROMP. He’s incredible – damn!
MD: Is it true that Freddie Green makes the Basie rhythm machine what it is?
BM: Freddie is fantastic and his sense of timing is uncanny. I have never heard anybody play chords like he does either. You would think an un-amplified guitar pitched against seventeen blowing instruments wouldn’t be heard. You know, there are times that you don’t hear Freddie — and when he isn’t there, you can hear the silence. Freddie is a huge part of the Basie sound.
The Basie sound is also the way the brass and reeds phrase out of time and come back as a unit. It’s really incredible. It’s the only band in the world that does that…that’s what makes it Basie.
MD: Does that bother you?
BM: It used to drive me nuts! I’d hear the thing go out of time and I’d feel if I didn’t keep that steady tempo going, the time would go all to hell. It also took me the better part of a year to learn not to phrase so much. I didn’t have to kick every brass figure. I learned to let the band breathe. The band is a living organism, and Basie plays the band more than he plays the piano.
MD: Could we briefly mention the type of equipment you use?
BM: I use Pearl drums which I’ve had for two years, and they’ve been fantastic. They’ve withstood band boys, skycaps, planes, boats, buses and trains. I’ve gone through two sets of cases a year — but the drums have remained trouble free. I use the full fiberglass and they give me a great sound. I use a 5 1/2″ metal snare, one 9″ x 13″ and two 16″ toms. I also have 14″ and 16″ Roto Toms by Remo, and a 14″ x 24″ bass drum. All my cymbals are Zildjian – 14″ New Beat high hats, an 8″ paper thin splash, two 18″ crashes – medium thin, a 20″ ride and a 20″ medium thin swish with no rivets. The rivets came out one by one from traveling, but it sounds like one of Dizzy’s old cymbals – wow – I love it.
MD: If you had a chance to have your own band, what type would you have?
BM: I hadn’t given it a thought. I’m happy enough where I am, but for conversation sake, I’d have a small band — six to nine pieces. I’d play jazz, rock and maybe some funk. I’d also do some 5 and 7 time, and lots of colors and textures — not just triple forte.
MD: On the order of the Don Ellis Band?
BM: I love Don Ellis — I’ve got lots of his recordings back home. I love to listen to Don’s band, but I don’t think that I could get that deep.
I would like to do some things with an extra percussionist. Exciting things can be created from rhythms.
MD: How about some advice to pass or to fellow drummers?
BM: There’s only two things that I’m really concerned with. The number one thing all drummers should be concerned with is TIME. It’s hard to learn time – it can’t really be taught. You have to feel it. My time is not great — it’s passable enough for the job — but not perfect. I don’t have Freddie Green’s time, few drummers do — except, maybe, Shelly Manne and Buddy when he’s thinking about it.
The other thing I would be concerned about is two-part. Technique and textures. You can have all the technique in the world, but if you can’t color an arrangement, it doesn’t do you any good. If you’ve got the fastest single stroke roll in the world, but you can’t play pianissimo, it won’t do you any good. You’ve got to have textures – the coloring. You can learn technique quickly enough, but textures is another story. It takes a lot of playing and years of experience to learn textures. I don’t care if you’re a sixteen year old whiz kid on drums, you cannot sit down after only a few years of playing and know textures and coloring.
MD: Do you develop textures from your own inner feelings?
BM: I learned from listening. I listened to everybody. I bet I have almost every drum record that was ever recorded. I used to learn the solos by sound. I had no idea what they were playing on the record, but I could reproduce it note for note. I had no idea if it was left stroke or right stroke. I’d go by the sound and by going back and dissecting what I was playing, I could understand what I was doing. That’s the important thing, to understand what you are doing and knowing why. Anybody can learn how, but to learn WHY is a different matter.