Yet another value of Jazz Casual is to remind jazz listeners of Ralph Gleason's landmark achievement of somehow presenting a weekly half-hour-long television show about jazz on the predecessor of the Public Broadcasting System, National Educational Television. Producing Jazz Casual in San Francisco, Gleason evidently invited touring musicians onto his proram, and because of his comprehensive knowledge of the art form of jazz and his enthusiasm for the subject, they relaxed. And talked.
Years before Albert Murray published Good Morning Blues: The Autobiography of Count Basie, Count Basie revealed to Gleason in wide-ranging interviews the origins of his style, including the fact that he got his start in Kansas City as a traveling burlesque show named Hippity-Hop left him there. Or that he characterized his music as the result of a "Western swing," Bennie Moten's style influenced by some of the territory bands playing in far-flung and remote places from, say, South Dakota to Oklahoma or from Colorado to Illinois.
I'm unaware of many other extended recorded interviews with Count Basie, particularly ones in which he reveals as much about himself as he does on Jazz Casual. And the CD contains several surprises: Basie's consistent modesty about his own talent and, in contrast, his breakout performance of Fats Waller's "Handful Of Keys" (which he, modestly, stops after the first chorus). Thus, the minimalistic Basie proves, through demonstration of a piano style, that a fierce technique undergirded his tinkling and light interjections. Yet, modestly, Basie says that he chooses to hold back "to make it easy on myself. Even if I really could play a lot of piano, I would still choose to simplify it."
So, while Count Basie's recordings during his prolific career highlighted his band, Gleason wisely decided to concentrate upon Basie the man and the piano player so that we could understand the quiet dynamo who created a signature sound, not only with the irresistible swing of his band, but also with the very few notes he would play. With only Freddie Green, Norman Keenan and Sonny Payne backing him up, Count Basie effortlessly demonstrated some of the styles that embodied his own.
Since the standard length of a CD allows for two half hours of content, Koch producers Donald Elfman and Naomi Yoshii found a thread between 2 Jazz Casual broadcasts separated by 5 years, that thread being Count Basie himself. The very reason for the existence of one of the premier jazz singing groups, Lambert Hendricks & Ross, was Dave Lambert's suggestion to his fellow struggling singer Jon Hendricks that they sing the music of Count Basie. After a modest success in creating some interest with their duo version of Woody Herman's "Four Brothers," Lambert and Hendricks scrimped and begged for studio time, eventually choosing Annie Ross, instead of a chorus of female singers, to go vocalese as no one has before or since. Not even Lambert, Hendricks & Bavan.
After Annie Ross left the group after falling seriously ill in Germany, Ceylonese singer Yolando Bavan was recruited to fill in until the trio disbanded after three years. Recording only three albums as Lambert, Hendricks & Bavan, this unique trio fortunately contributed to Jazz Casual as well, providing even more material for enjoying and/or evaluating their work during their relatively brief existence. Seemingly rough and careening through songs, the inspirational vocalese group's best days, with its cool swing and effortless articulation, were over.
Nonetheless, Gleason got Hendricks, the usual spokesman for the group, to talk about its beginnings and styles: "How do you write a song in vocalese? What do you start with? Why did you start with Sing A Song Of Basie?" While the Basie portion of the Jazz Casual CD alternates piano work with interviews, the Lambert, Hendricks & Bavan part contains only one interview (Hendricks') and two tracks of the accompanying trio, Gildo Mahoes' with saxophonist Pony Poindexter. Lambert, Hendricks & Bavan sing just 4 selections of modest length before "Cloudburst" inexplicably fades out after 49 seconds, thereby ending the CD.
Interestingly, 30 years before the deification of Duke Ellington by masses of people who previously were unaware of his work--including the Pulitzer Prize committee which denied him the award--both Basie and Hendricks lavishly praise Ellington for his genius. That's quite a compliment coming from a band leader whose band often was mentioned in the same breath with Ellington's.
Reportedly, video versions of Jazz Casual are available, although I haven't seen them, and they would certainly would be worth a conversion to DVD because of Ralph Gleason's ease in interviewing legendary jazz personas who were instrumental in developing the music.