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The Count Basie Orchestra is A National Treasure

One of the greatest bandleaders of his time was William "Count" Basie. From 1935 until his death on April 26, 1984, Count Basie was considered by many to be one of the most influential individuals in the realm of big band, swing and blues music. He and his hand-picked band members became jazz icons and made hundreds of some of the most memorable recordings in jazz. When Basie died, some critics and fans theorized that his was the end of an era; however, under the direction of such notables as Thad Jones, Frank Foster, Grover Mitchell, Eric Dixon and Bill Hughes, the Count Basie Orchestra continues to thrive after 21 years without Basie's leadership. Recently, Bill Hughes and the Count Basie Orchestra made a pit stop in Houston to celebrate Basie's centennial. Born August 24, 1904, the band has been touring the world to commemorate his 100th birthday and 70 years of music.

Presented by the Houston Symphony, the 19-piece orchestra played a medley of compositions penned by Basie and various members of his band. Many attending the concert were die hard fans and has followed Basie's music from the beginning, while others have only recently become familiar with his intuitive spirit. Big band jazz is not exactly in vogue these days, but during the 1930s, '40s, '50s and even into the sixties, the music of Count Basie, Paul Whiteman, Buddy Rich, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Cab Calloway and so many other big bands were major jazz staples in society. The stop in Houston was a reminder and a view of the bygone era. To add additional spice to the evening, the orchestra featured vocalist Melba Joyce, whose vibrant voice belted out such tunes as "I'd Rather Drink Muddy Water," "All of Me" and a host of other Basie favorites. An additional highlight was the exceptional drumming skills of Butch Miles, a remaining member of Basie's core orchestra. His rendition of "It's A Drum Thing" was another high point of the evening. His percussive and rhythmic instincts are intense, while his style is creatively colorful. Miles' contribution to the organization over the years is immeasurable and on top of that he is in demand in other pursuits throughout the industry.

On the other hand, Bill Hughes took the reins as leader of the Count Basie Orchestra in 2003. Having joined the group in 1953 as a bass trombonist, Hughes is definitely familiar with the overall make-up and chemistry of each member and instrumental position. Watching him as leader provided a perspective regarding his cool demeanor in front of the orchestra. Basically each member knows his role and Bill allows the dynamics of each to take hold. But the man in the hot seat was pianist Tony Suggs. It was he who occupies Basie's prominence as a musician and must interpret his overall style. All eyes were on Suggs whose nimble fingers were a mirror image of the Count's precise fingering and unique delivery. Of course he was masterful in the role of William "Count" Basie and did so with ease as well as perceptive subjectivity. In the end, Tony and every member of the orchestra presented a package of musical jazz delight that superbly encompassed seven decades of prominence.

Although I was never fortunate enough to see Count Basie while he was alive, his contributions to jazz reverberate in my mind. For me, his music serves as a national treasure and tribute to one of the finest composers and innovators in American history. His legacy remains as staunch today as it was during his life. He is one of the true icons associated with America's most original art form. The Count Basie Orchestra's stop in Houston was a reminder of his presence and skill. Based upon the enthused ovation and support at Jones Hall, the orchestra's popularity will continue on into perpetuity.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Count Basie Orchestra
  • Concert Date: 3/18/2005
  • Subtitle: The Legacy of a Jazz Icon Lives On
  • Venue: Jones Hall
  • City State Country: Houston, Texas, United States
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