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"Jimmy Forrest, Basie and Me"

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Los Angeles composer and arranger Roy Phillippe and I have been exchanging e-mails on a range of topics. Recently we were on a Neal Hefti tear, particularly Hefti's movie soundtracks. Following my recent post on tenor saxophonist Jimmy Forrest [pictured in the 1950s with trumpeter Harry “Sweets" Edison], Roy passed along this story:

“In 1976, Harry 'Sweets' Edison had a regular Sunday night gig at The Baked Potato, a jazz club owned by pianist Don Randi in North Hollywood, CA. I used to go see the group often. Sweets had a great band consisting of Dolo Coker (piano); Larry Gales (bass), who had recently left Thelonious Monk; Earl Palmer (drums); and Jimmy Forrest (tenor sax).

“It wasn't uncommon for other jazz greats like Sahib Shihab to sit in. Redd Foxx stopped by once in a while for a short set of hilarious jokes. It was always a great show, especially with Jimmy Forrest there. Jimmy was a full-bodied player with a deep, rich tone. His solo feature was a ballad he wrote called Bag Of Dreams. He put everything he had into a very emotional performance and was always drained by the time the song ended.

“Despite Jimmy's powerful, confident presence on stage, he actually was a solitary, shy person. During breaks Jimmy would find a quiet spot in the club and sit by himself, having a cigarette. After hearing the band a few times, I approached Jimmy and told him how much I enjoyed his playing. Despite being withdrawn, Jimmy couldn't have been nicer or more humble in response.

“Several months later, in the fall, bassist Chubby Jackson [pictured] presented various big bands at his club in North Hollywood called Filthy McNasty's. On one of those nights, Sweets assembled a big band to perform there, and Jimmy was on hand as lead tenor. During the show, I noticed that several players were featured on solos but not Jimmy.

“During a break, I approached Jimmy. When I asked him why he wasn't featured, he said no one had written one for him. Stunned, I offered to write a big band chart for his Bag of Dreams, and Jimmy lit up. He liked the idea and told me he was leaving Sweets' group in a few weeks to tour with Count Basie's orchestra and wanted to take the arrangement with him so Basie could audition the band playing it. I told Jimmy that getting it done in time wouldn't be a problem. I took down his address.

“At this point in my career I was working as a copyist and editor at Stan Kenton's Creative World publications. I also was Louie Bellson's copyist, and I occasionally worked at Universal and Paramount. Basie's band had always been my favorite, and after I finished talking to Jimmy, I quickly realized that if my chart worked out, I would join the ranks of Bobby Plater, Neal Hefti, Johnny Mandel, Quincy Jones, Sammy Nestico and so many others who have written Basie arrangements.

“The next day, I called pianist Dolo Coker and asked for a copy of his Bag of Dreams chord chart--the chord changes written out on manuscript paper. Then I set to work on the chart using the piano. I knew that the chart's purpose was to feature Jimmy [pictured]. So I built the arrangement around his live solo performances. I utilized a three-note pattern in the intro that he was used to. It's heard at various points in the chart.

“I started out with a six-line complete sketch in the piano key. In the case of a sketch, the saxes, for example, are written on the grand staff, like a piano part, then later orchestrated onto score paper where each instrument has it's own line.

“When I finished the score, I mailed it to Jimmy, hoping it was good enough. About a month later I received a letter from Jimmy. Basie really liked the chart, he said, and the band was playing it every night. He also asked me if I would be interested in arranging his most famous piece, Night Train, which was a big hit in 1952. Of course I agreed. Later, he wrote to say that Basie liked that one, too. I wasn't paid for either arrangement, but it didn't matter. Arranging for Jimmy and Basie was an honor.

“The next time the Basie band was in Los Angeles in 1977, Jimmy and I went for breakfast at the Players Diner across from the musicians' union building in Hollywood. By chance, Basie was having breakfast there, too, alone in a booth. Jimmy introduced me as the arranger of Bag of Dreams and Night Train. Basie stopped eating and we spoke but he was as economical with his words as he was with his notes. He shook my hand and said, “Write more." [Pictured: Roy Phillippe]

“A year later Bag of Dreams was recorded on the album, Count Basie Big Band: Montreux '77. It was the first time I had heard Basie and Jimmy play it. But to my huge disappointment, not a single arranger was given credit on the album. Nevertheless, I was very pleased that the band recorded it. Night Train was never recorded for an album but it does appear in the documentary, Last Of The Blue Devils. Toward the end of the film, Basie talks about Jimmy, and then the camera cuts away to concert footage of the band playing Night Train with close ups of Jimmy.

“I lost track of Jimmy after he left the Basie band and was saddened when I heard of his passing on August 26, 1980--exactly 29 years ago today. I'll never forget the great opportunity he gave me." --Roy Phillippe

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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