Born: March 28, 1930 Primary Instrument: Trombone
Trombonist Bill Hughes, the Director of the Count Basie Orchestra since 2003, was born in Texas in 1930 in the midst of the Depression. Hughes’s family moved to Washington, DC when he was nine years old. His father, who worked for the Bureau of Engraving, began playing the trombone, and performed in the Elks Club marching band. After attending rehearsals and marching band gigs with his dad, Hughes began playing the trombone at the age of 12 or 13.
His musical skills progressed rapidly, so much so that by 16 he was jamming at a jazz venue called the 7T Club�”it was located at 7th and T Street. There he played with many great musicians, including his friend Frank Wess. During his last year in high school, his father took him to New York, where in 1947 or ’48 he saw the Count Basie band live for the first time. Although he had heard the band on the radio, this live performance mesmerized him. Although he loved playing music, he didn’t think that he would become a professional musician, especially after marrying his college sweetheart. He thought becoming a pharmacist would be his ticket to career stability, so he graduated from the Howard University School of Pharmacy in 1952. Hughes began working at the National Institute of Health under the direction of Dr. Arnold W. Pratt. Interestingly, Dr. Pratt would have the staff take breaks in which they would sight sing! By this time, Hughes was raising a family with his beloved wife Delores.
But in 1953, he got what he described as “The Call.” At the time, Hughes was still jamming with musicians in DC clubs such as the Howard Theater, and was noted for his prowess at swinging. His homeboy Frank Wess was performing with the renowned Count Basie Orchestra and had told the Count about Hughes when a need surfaced for another brass player for the trombone section. When Basie called and said that he had heard about him, and wanted him to come to try out for the band, Hughes thought it was a prank call. He hung up without committing to audition. Basie called right back for confirmation, and Hughes realized that it was actually the great man himself!
So he joined the Count Basie Orchestra in September 1953. Around this same time Hughes was also invited to join the Duke Ellington Orchestra but chose Basie where he would be more comfortable with friends like Frank, Eddie Jones and Benny Powell.
Hughes played the tenor trombone in a three-man section, which included Henry Coker and Benny. This section was at one time acclaimed as the best trombone section in jazz and their names appeared in several polls then popular in jazz magazines. During this period Hughes traveled the world with Basie, including the very first trip to Europe for the orchestra. It was also during this time period Basie was to record several of his timeless hits including “Shiny Stockings”, “Corner Pocket” and the famous rendition of the classic “April In Paris.”
From September 1953 until September of 1957 Hughes performed continuously with The Count Basie Orchestra. He took a six year break from touring to help raise his family, working at the U.S. postal service. He returned to the road in July 1963. He took over the directorship of the ensemble in 2003, using the leadership skills he learned from the Count.
Hughes has played at every major jazz festival in the world including The Newport Jazz Festival, Montreux festival, the Jazz and Heritage Festival of New Orleans and many more. In addition to the numerous recordings with Count Basie and The Count Basie Orchestra - including 15 of the 18 Grammy-winning recordings - Hughes has recorded and performed with such luminaries as Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae, Tony Bennett, Billy Eckstine, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Lena Horne, Nat “King” Cole and Rosemary Clooney.