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Billy Mitchell: In Memoriam


Billy Mitchell, one of Detroit's major jazz figures, passed away on April 18 at his home in Rockville Centre, New York, after a long illness. Mitchell's main claim to local fame was his leadership of the house band at the Blue Bird Inn in the years between 1951 and 1953. This group included Pontiac brothers Thad Jones on trumpet and Elvin Jones on drums, bassist Beans Richardson, and pianists Terry Pollard and Tommy Flanagan. The group recorded four sides for Detroit-based Dee Gee records, which were later released on Savoy. The leader was then known as "The Executive," a sobriquet immortalized in the title of the Thad Jones composition "Zec," first recorded at that session.

Mitchell was born in Kansas City in 1926, and was raised in Detroit, where he attended McMichael Intermediate School, Northwestern, and Cass Tech. He dropped out of high school to start his musical career with, among others, Harold Wallace's band at the Club Zombie. In 1945, he went on the road for the first time with Nat Towles' Omaha-based territory band. Before forming the Blue Bird band he played with King Porter (in Detroit), Lucky Millinder, Milt Buckner, Milt Jackson, and Woody Herman. He moved to New York in 1955 and was soon playing and recording, including a memorable appearance on Thad Jones' Detroit Junction for Blue Note. He soon came to national attention as a member of Dizzy Gillespie's big band, and in 1957 he joined the Count Basie orchestra. After five years off and on with Basie, Mitchell returned to New York and went out on his own, recording for Smash and co-leading a sextet with his former colleague from the Gillespie and Basie bands, trombonist Al Grey. The two had already co-led a recording session in 1957, which featured Wynton Kelly and Lee Morgan (and the first version of Benny Golson's "Whisper Not"). The new combo toured extensively and made some fine recordings in the few years that it stayed together. Mitchell eventually rejoined Basie for another brief stint and also played and recorded in Europe with the all-star Francy-Boland and Kenny Clarke orchestra. In later years he worked as a freelance musician, as a university educator, recorded some fine albums for Xanadu, including De Lawd's Blues with Benny Bailey and Tommy Flanagan, and worked for Satra Music Productions, a subsidiary of the Soviet-American Trade Association.

B. Mitch, as he was called by some, was a powerful tenor saxophonist who combined the rhythmic and harmonic innovations of bebop with the sonic and expressive traditions of earlier times. His big saxophone tone can be heard on a number of recordings, both as a sideman and as a leader. Particular mention should be made on his appearances on the Ray Charles-Milt Jackson collaborations Soul Brothers and Soul Meeting (Atlantic). On "Bags of Blues" (Soul Brothers), B Mitch shows his wonderfully relaxed blues playing at its best. He can also be heard on many of the Roulette period Basie recordings and on some of Gillespie's big band releases, including the 1957 performance At Newport (Verve) and the recently issued two volumes of Dizzy Live in South America (Cap).

We had the fortune of hearing him at a marvelous performance at the Attic Theatre in 1990 in tandem with trombonist Curtis Fuller. Although his health was already declining, Mitchell played powerful emotional tenor saxophone lines, excelling, as always, at the blues.

Select Discography

  • Billy Mitchell Quintet (1953) — Dee Gee; reissued on Swing not Spring (Savoy).
  • Dizzy Atmosphere (1957) — Specialty reissued as an OJC CD under the names of Lee Morgan and Wynton Kelly
  • The Basie-Ites (1960) — Jubilee
  • The Al Grey - Billy Mitchell Sextet (1961) — Argo
  • Night Song (1962) — Argo (the sextet under Grey's name)
  • This is Billy Mitchell (1962) — Smash, reissued on Trip
  • A Little Juicy (1963) — Smash
  • Now's the Time (1976) — Catalyst
  • The Colossus of Detroit (1978) — Xanadu
  • Night Flight to Dakar (1980) — Xanadu
  • De Lawd's Blues — Xanadu

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