Above - Guido Basso's first band
Guido Basso has been playing trumpet for nearly 75 years, since the age of 9.
“My brother played alto sax. He had an all-amateur rehearsal band and I was impressed. So one Christmas, my brother shows up with a trumpet for me. I said, ‘I don’t want to play trumpet, I want to play the accordion! ‘
But the trumpet stuck. At about the age of 13, he became a member of Al Nichols’ dance band, playing stock arrangements and Harry James trumpet solos. The musicians got paid cash until the club owner decided to compensate them with food because they were getting too expensive. But when they started eating too much, he reverted to cash because it was cheaper.
Around the age of 16, he played in the house band at Montreal's El Morocco Club, backing major international stars like Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett, and Sarah Vaughan.
Below - the legendary Billy Eckstine poses with young Guido Basso at the El Morocco
One week, superstar drummer Louie Bellson was booked with his band and his wife, singer Pearl Bailey. Their controversial interracial marriage propelled them to the international spotlight, and Bellson had resigned from Duke Ellington's band to become his wife's music director. The booking at the El Morocco meant the house band in which Basso played had the week off. He went to the club to watch the Bellson/Bailey show.
“So I sat at the back of the lounge, and I was really impressed with Louie’s band. I had my horn with me, and after the show, as always, there was a jam session with some of the musicians. So I went up there and played. The next day the phone rang. It was Bellson’s manager. He says, ‘Guido Basso? Are you the guy who was playing at the jam session last night? Louie wants you to come and join the band and go on the road. We’re going to St. Louis.’
“So I told him I actually had to go and ask my mother. So he says, ‘you go ask your mother, and you’ve got two days to make up your mind.’ Mom and Dad said if that’s the only thing that’ll make me happy, then go and God bless you. I was ready to go. It was wonderful. I was in heaven.”
"We went to Vegas. Stayed there for two months at the Flamingo. Some of America’s greatest musicians were in that band. They loved it. It paid well, and they loved the way they were treated.” He has told friends that Pearl Bailey took him under her wing, and called him her son when introducing him to others.
After three years on the road with Bellson and singer Vic Damone, Basso relocated to Toronto to carve out a career in the studio, TV, and playing gigs. Hearing Miles Davis' "Sketches of Spain" album was a turning point in his musical life.
"Oh, yeah. I said, what is that? That’s not a trumpet. That’s when I decided to play the flugelhorn. His series of recordings at that time were masterpieces. I loved them and played them every day. He was my role model."
“So I dashed over to Long and McQuade, and I said, can you get me a flugelhorn?
“When I ordered my first flugel, it took forever for it to come into the store. My friend Freddie Stone was eyeing the same kind of instrument. I told him that Long and McQuade’s had some on order. I said, when they come in, let’s go down together to check them out.”
With a laugh, he recalls the trip to the store. "So when we get there, there’s only one flugelhorn. Freddie says, ‘it’s mine.' ‘No ____ing way it’s yours,’ I said. So Jack Long orders another one, Freddie gets his horn, and it became the battle of the flugelhorns.”
“I like the flugel better than the trumpet because it’s so mellow. If you listen to Miles, he doesn’t blast it, he plays it where it’s supposed to be. So Freddie and I had a good time trying to figure out how to do it. Just blow it. Not too much air. Not too much.”
Basso built a career in Toronto as an elite studio musician, a TV show music director and host, and leader of his own dance orchestra. He was criticized by other jazz musicians for being a "sellout" - playing profitable commercial music instead of jazz.
“Jazz in those days was too far out for a lot of people’s ears. Too many of them (other musicians) were playing in that bag, where you just can’t make any sense of it, and it doesn’t make any sense emotionally for you, and it’s just a bunch of noise. So that’s where I pulled away…and did it ”My Way.” (chuckle)
“The commercial stuff is making a living. Sure….weddings, Jewish music, this and that….and then people would say, Oh man, how can you play all that shit? And I’d say…it pays the rent.” Besides, his "society dance band" was made up of some of Toronto's finest jazz players.
Later, Rob McConnell & the Boss Brass would be THE outlet for Basso’s flugelhorn jazz.
“Rob would write me something. He’d phone and say ‘What do you think of this? It was Portrait of Jenny. I’d say, “Oh, that’s a lovely song, would you write it for me? He said yeah, I’m working on it right now.” Portrait of Jenny was a signature Basso ballad with the Grammy-winning band that was considered the best in the world.
"With all due respect, Mr. Goodman..."
In the 60s and 70s, Basso organized and led bands at the CNE and on CBC TV featuring all of the prominent big band leaders still active at that time - including, but not limited to, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Woody Herman, and the King of Swing, Benny Goodman.
Many musicians over the years found Goodman, for all his fame, talent, and popularity extremely difficult to work with - among them, Guido Basso.
“He (Goodman) comes into the rehearsal, and distributes his music. We start to play. Then he says, stop, stop.”
“What’s the matter, Mr. Goodman?”
“The drummer’s no good.”
“He’s a top player, a top studio guy I got for you.”
“Nah. Get another one.” So, Basso did. Drummer number two shows up.
“I don’t like this one, either.”
“Oh yeah? OK, I’ll get you another one.”
Drummer number three was Terry Clarke, later the Boss Brass’ drummer, and one of Canada’s best-ever.
“So Terry comes in, and Benny says to me, ‘that’s good, that’s really good. But then he stops the band again. And again. He’s really raining on the drummer. This is the best drummer in the city, and he’s saying this? And I get pissed off.”
“Mr. Goodman,” I said, “with all due respect, go f___ yourself.”
“He was much easier to deal with after that. As a matter of fact, he’s looking at me and really getting into the groove as we run “Opus One.” He knew there’d be no show if he did it again."
“If I’m getting ready for a major performance, I’ll have that horn on my face all day long practising."
"I get really nervous before I play. I try to control it as much as possible, but jazz makes me nervous. It’s something that you never know what’s going to come out. Playing a written part, you know it’s gonna be that way every time you play it. Sometimes I start panicking a little bit, get a little shaky. I just tell myself to get rid of that and just get going. It doesn’t last long. Everything’s OK soon.”
He’ll keep playing publicly.
“I think so, if they want me. If not, I’ll just keep practising.”