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Saxophonist Played with Dizzy and The CountCopyright © 2001The Scotsman, 2001
Billy Mitchell liked to tell people that music was a straightforward business: Theres only 12 notes, he would say, and you just shuffle them around. The saxophonist shuffled those notes in highly effective fashion for a variety of stellar employers, and made at least an equally significant contribution as an educator and developer of young talent.
He was born Willie Melvin Mitchell in Kansas City, but his family moved north to Detroit when he was still a small child. He began piano lessons at the age of six, then took up clarinet at ten. He moved to saxophone when in high school, and was adept on tenor, alto, soprano, flute and clarinet.
He was a professional touring musician by the time he was 17, playing with the Detroit-based band of Nat Towles, and then working in New York with Lucky Millinder in 1948. He played with several other name band leaders in the city, including Jimmy Lunceford, and replaced Gene Ammons in Woody Hermans bop-influenced big band in 1949.
He returned to Detroit in the early 1950s, where he led his own band on the fertile jazz scene in that city, drawing on a pool of young talent which included pianist Tommy Flanagan, trumpeter Thad Jones and drummer Elvin Jones.
His sound and approach to improvisation on tenor saxophone took something from both of the stellar tenor role models of the swing era, Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins, but he was equally attuned to the post-war developments in bebop. He was a member (and often musical director) of Dizzy Gillespies big band which made historic tours to the Middle East and South America under the aegis of the State Department in 1956-7, and is featured in a notable solo on Cool Breeze from Gillespies Live At Newport album in 1957.
He joined the Count Basie Orchestra in 1957, and remained with the band until 1961. He co-led a smaller group with fellow Basie bandsman Al Grey from 1962-4, then rejoined the Basie group for a further year in 1966-7. Stevie Wonder also drew on his talents as musical director in the late 1960s.
Mitchell had played in the original incarnation of the Clarke-Boland Big Band, a celebrated European outfit launched by expatriate American drummer Kenny Clarke and Belgian pianist Francy Boland, in 1963, and he joined the band again for a European tour in 1970. He worked with Gillespie again in another of the occasional revivals of the big band in 1975, acting as musical director as well as playing alto saxophone.
His activities as an educator grew more central to his work in the 1970s, working both in community-based ventures like the Jazzmobile in Harlem, and in more formal settings in seminars at Hofstra University and Yale University. He continued to tour in Europe and Japan into the 1990s, and spent 34 years as the resident saxophone star at Sonnys Place, a restaurant in Seaford, New York.
The restaurant closed in 1997, and the saxophonist decided to retire at the same time. He recorded a number of albums under his own name over a lengthy career, and appeared on many more. In addition, he was briefly an actor in the early 1940s, including an appearance in W. C. Fields famous film The Bank Dick in 1940. In the mid-1970s, he produced a film entitled The Marijuana Affair, with a jazz score by trombonist Melba Liston.
He died from lung cancer, and is survived by three grandchildren.