Basie represented the hallmark of sophisticated simplicity-elegant simplicity. He was the ornament that embellished the very roots of swinging the blues; like no other big band, Basie perpetuated the swingin' blues till his final hour; yet the band goes on playing the music he made so famous, and continues to rendezvous with the love that Baise left for all. Basie's band was, and still is, the greatest swing band existent! As composers, Warren and Gordon, titled one of their great jazz standards, "There Will Never Be Another You." They didn't know it at the time, but the title is in reference to the one and only.....the inimitable....."Count Basie and His Orchestra."
According to his many sidemen, Basie was a great guy to work for; it was a fun band. Basie gave his sidemen space and latitude to exercise their soloing ability. On the video documentary, "Count Basie Swingin' The Blues," in an interview, he was asked.....
"How do you want to be remember....." Basie responded with simplicity..... "Two words.....nice guy."
And Basie was all of that, a nice guy; so say the many musicians that worked in his band. There was an aura of cohesiveness lurking within the shadows of the Basie band; the band was tight. Basie conducted the band in a somewhat unique fashion-he didn't conduct-his delicate fingers did it, with a few notes, precise spacing, and then.....BANG! Most of the endings in Basie's charts are enough to send you into orbit-an orbit of purity- as you hear the incredible and qualified sound of that final note as perpetuated by four trumpets, three trombones, five saxophones, and the "All American Rhythm Section," which we will discuss later.
Count Basie was known as an economical player, and as blues singer, Joe Williams put it, "Basie left out more than a lot a people played." Joe was right. Even though Basie was an excellent stride pianist, he didn't need to play a lot of notes; the notes he did play were subtle and had a charisma only unto the Basie style. One thing is for sure, when it came to tempos, Basie knew what he wanted-he wrote the book-even if it took a week or two to find the right tempo; the sound of the Basie band reflected this tempo exactness-which dancers and listeners could relate too; the right tempo is paramount to establish a cohesive unit that will ultimately rendezvous with nuance; that's the Basie band.
Born in Red Banks, New Jersey, in August 1904, Basie received his first piano lessons from his mother. But this wasn't enough, he wanted more. So he ventured across the Hudson River to Harlem for a rendezvous with, and listen to, the New York kings of the keyboard, James P. Johnson, Willie "The Lion" Smith, and especially Fats Waller-Basie was to become Waller's protégé, with some organ tutelage thrown in for good measure; which Basie would soon be in need of.
Basie first heard Fats Waller playing organ at the Harlem Lincoln Theater; he received tuition from Waller. Pianists were in demand to accompany vaudeville acts; Waller recommended Basie as his successor. When in 1927, in Kansas City, Basie became ill and had to say put, he found the town wide open. He played accompaniment for silent movies for awhile. Then in 1928, Basie joined Walter Page's Blue Devils; this began a 20-year-long association with the great bassist. When the Blue Devils broke up, the kid from Red Banks hooked up with the Benny Moten musical entourage; his turn was coming. So in 1935, Basie started his own band, and his career as a bandleader actually began at the Reno Club in Kansas City; he managed to lure Moten's best musicians into his musical entourage. With regular broadcasts on local radio, and Basie's feel for swing, the band became the most excellent driving force in the history of music; for downright unstoppable swing, Basie could not be beaten; he was in a hemisphere unto his own.
Basie was at the starting gate of what was to be, a big band career that would last over five decades. He new what he wanted, and went to whatever extent it took to get it. When it came to tempos, he would take the time to find the right tempo; when he found it, the band would swing it, making all the musicians comfortable with it; presenting a precise and cohesive unit.....if you were dancing, you would wear out the soul of your shoe, and then your socks!
When the starting gate "did" open, Basie heard the bell.....so did the jazz critic and impresario, John Hammond, who heard the Basie explosion on a local radio broadcast. In 1937, an augmented Basie band made it's recording debut for Decca Records. Now enter, the All American Rhythm Section: Freddie Green-guitar, Jo Jones-drums, Walter Page-bass, and the boss on piano; they were unique in lightness, precision, and relaxation, providing a steady driving tempo; they became the forerunners for accompanying styles within the idiom of modern jazz.
Basie's theme song was none other than, "One O'Clock Jump." The swingest blues chart ever written. As to how it came about, well, lets let Basie tell it to you. From Ralph Gleason's "Jazz Casual" video series, 1966, Ralph was asking Basie about his theme song; the conversation went something like this. Ralph asks Basie:
"In all these years do you have the same theme song....."
"One O Clock Jump, yes" Ralph continues with.....
"Where did you get that....."
"Well Ralph, it was in Kansas City.....while we were at the Reno Club. In those years, you didn't have to program a number, ya know, clear a number for broadcasting. You could just play anything you'd like to play, and it would be perfectly OK.
So on Sunday night, we had a two hour broadcast, and we started to run out of tunes.....and ah.....we must have had about half hour .....we'd light up and play a number and someone would ask what's the name of that.....we'd say.....well that's ah, ding ding ding. So we still got about fifteen minutes left.....so I threw something in there, then we went to Db for solos. We were asked if we had a tittle for that one..... since it was 10 minutes to one I said....."One O'Clock Jump." It sorta stuck because the guys remembered it and the solos.....it laid there." Ralph asked another good question..... "Has it changed much during the years....." "Well ah.....no. I think everybody else has a better arrangement than we do on it."
As Ralph and Basie go out laughing, you can see now why Basie is associated with the phrase, "Swingin' The Blues," with no better example then with his theme, "One O'Clock Jump."
Basie was one of the first big bands to feature two tenor soloists, namely, Herschel Evans, and the musician who holds his horn sideways and up-the inimitable Lester Young. Herschel joind the band in the mid-1930's. It was unfortunate but he died in 1939. Lester was originally with the Blue Devils, then Benny Moten, and George Lee. Then in 1936, he joined up with Basie, then he rose to national fame for the first time. Lester will always be linked with the Basie band. Billie Holiday was with the band at that time, she gave Lester the nickname of "The Prez," for the president of the tenor saxophone; he was all of that! These two swingin' tenor players help make a mark for Basie's musical conglomerate. The tenor sound from Herschel and Lester were completely different; they complemented each other. To this day, young tenor saxophonists are still being influenced by Lester; his sound was incomparable.
From the video documentary, "Count Basie.....Swingin' The Blues," trumpter, Harry "Sweets" Edison, had some praise for the boss; let me share a few with you:
"You want to play something that swings, just think of how Count Basie would stomp this off, because he was the greatest tempo man that ever lived." "With the right timing, you can accomplish anything.....you put the right note, in the right place, at the right time.....you swing....." "I joined the band in 1938, I was 20 years old. I was so excited to play in the worlds greatest band." It was in the year 1938 that Basie gave birth to still another great swingin' chart; "Jumpin At The Woodside," featuring solos by Erle Warren-alto, Herschel Evans-tenor, Lester Young-tenor, and Buck Clayton-trumpet This hit was recorded and could be taken as a definition of swing. "Jumpin At The Woodside" is still being played today by big bands; I remember playing it in high school, and in several big bands I had worked with, when mine wasn't working; it is, and always will be.....a classic!
It was in July, 1938, that Basie and company took up residency at the Famous Door club on West 52nd Street in New York; the gig was a great success and carried through till late January, 1939; CBS was broadcasting the band over it's radio network which enhanced the popularity of the band. Basie's swingin' locomotive was pickin' up momentum. The Famous Door gig had come to an end, and the one following it took Basie and the band to Chicago and the "Brass Rail," a six-month gig; Basie's cup was to runneth over with ongoing success.
With Basie's simplistic-just a few notes-piano style, the precision thrust of the horns, and the uncompromising stalwart metronome-beat from the rhythm section, steady work would follow the band everywhere. The recorded sides of just period represent some of the great music of the century. In 1939, Basie left Decca and began recording with Columbia Records; he remained there through 1946; while providing dancers with a composite musical dictum of uncompromising rhythm, and the jazz fans were treated with the prestigious array of soloists ornamenting the saxophone section: Don Byas, Buddy Tate, Lucky Thompson, Illinois Jacquet, and Paul Gonsalves; the likes of these musicians doesn't exist today!
On the vocal side of the band, we had the popular front man, Jimmy Rushing. Then there was Helen Humes for pop and novelty numbers; enter the great blues singers, Joe Williams, and Billy Holiday, who was with the band for only a year when she went out on her own. Let us not forget Sara Vaughn who would adorn the stage on an occasional gig with Basie and his entourage.
By the end of the thirties, the combination of airtime and records had made the Basie band quite popular from coast to coast. It was now time for the west coast; his first trip there was in 1939 to play the San Francisco Worlds Fair and the Palomar Ballroom. Basie and company were to be the Palomer's first black band; two nights before their opening, the ballroom burned down. Throughout the forties, Basie's popularity continued to grow; this was enhanced by record sales and appearing in several motion pictures.
From the video documentary, "Count Basie.....Swingin' The Blues," narrator, Roscoe Lee Browne, has these important words to say about Basie:
"In 1942, Basie married a dancer he knew from the vaudeville circuit, Catherine Morgon. The next year, they had a child, and would eventually adopt three more. The band continued to evolve, but in spite of personal changes, the Basie Orchestra that established it's reputation at the Famous Door, with it's Kansas City flavored instrumentals and arrangements by Eddie Durham, Jimmy Mundy, and Buck Clayton, remained the same for more than a decade. This is the band whose outstanding soloists, are enshrined as if they were Old Testament apostles spreading the Kansas City gospel, and whose recordings are now regarded as books of the old testament of the Basie bible."
In the early fifties, with the band business deteriorating, Basie fronted a sextet-clarinet, tenor, trumpet, bass and drums; this gig took place at the Brass Rail in Chicago. The group sounded good, even when playing "One O'Clock Jump." It wasn't long till Basie started missing Freddie Green. When Green joined the group, there was an incredible difference-now they had a rhythm section. The group continued on for close to two years. Basie was getting the big band fever again, so he put the big band back together while so many others were dropping out; it was a question of economics allied with the onrush of 'pop music-rock 'n' roll.
In 1954, Basie made his first of several sojourns to Europe; tours with arrangements by Neal Hefti and Ernie Wilkins. On one tour, they played a command performance for the Queen of England. And on to 1957, Basie broke the color barrier at New York's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel; the first black band to play there; they stayed on for a four month engagement; truly a colossal event for the city, and a great boon for the Basie band.
There were countless musicians who would have given anything to play in the Basie band. The musician's grapevine was accurate, and it swung. All of them knew that Basie was a nice guy, easy to get along with; they also knew that it was a fun band, Basie made it that way. He loved his sidemen, as they did him, and with his incredible line up of soloists, the boss gave them latitude and the freedom to-blow their horn; this made them comfortable which, for Basie, was a sign of some happy troopers; this makes for a precise, cohesive unit. And when necessary, at the end of a tune, the band can make you think you just felt a cataclysmic eruption-that's The Basie Band!
At rehearsals, Basie was known to go to another room while the band was rehearsing and listen to the band. Upon his return, he had a change in mind. Lets say, the second trumpet part; he would ask to leave out a certain four bars, he would play them on the piano. And that's the way it was; yes he was a nice guy, but Basie knew what he wanted-he usually got it! It was events like this one, and so many others, of a different nature, that gave the Basie Band the "Mark of Excellence," which he lived up to during over five decades of being a bandleader.
In 1960, Basie's blues singer and popular front man, Jimmy Rushing, left the band; but the sojourns continued. In 1963, they made a tour of Japan with earth shattering success; this is the way it was no matter where Basie went; if the earth didn't shatter, then the chandeliers would swing with the band! The 1960's continued with Basie in the movies. He was embraced by the American entertainment industry to appear in two films: "Sex And The Single Girl," and "Made In Paris." He also became a regular guest on television with such celebrities as, Frank Sinatra, Fred Astaire, Sammy Davis Jr., and Tony Bennett.
On one engagement, the band was playing "Jumpin At The Woodside. At the bridge, trombonist, Al Grey, got up and exercised his be-bop chops for an eight-bar solo. When the time was convenient, Basie took Al aside for a little chat, and here's what Al had to say about the conversation he had with Basie:
"Basie would pull me off to the side so there wouldn't be any embarrassment. I had played so much be-bop until Count Basie said 'that's all-right but don't try to play all your notes in one number.....' So what do you mean? he said 'Simplicity. Try to make the people understand what you are playing. You can stick around the melody a little bit, the jazz players are not going to hate you for that.'
From the familiar atmosphere of New York's "Bird Land," where they were a regular feature, Basie took his 50's come-back band all over the world; played in jazz festivals, big tours, jazz headliners, and regularly backed the most important jazz and pop singers of the day; all of this continually introducing new audiences to Count Basie.
From the documentary, "Count Basie Swingin' The Blues," trombonist, Grover Mitchell, had this to say about Basie's ongoing success story:
"To me, another of the most significant things that happened with the band was the time when we worked with Frank Sinatra. He was at the height of his creativity and popularity as such. Sinatra asked Basie to accompany him at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas. Out of this came the priceless album, "Frank Sinatra At The Sands featuring Count Basie and His Orchestra." I might add, the band was very, very good. It was so good, I could hardly wait to get to work."
The year 1965 was still another boon for the Basie organization; Basie signed to Sinatra's Reprise Records and made several recording dates with Frank, as well as performing with him on a number of concerts.
Lets go back to 1955 and see what happened when the blues singer, Joe Williams, became the bands vocalist. From the video documentary, "Count Basie Swingin' The Blues," Joe had this to say before committing himself:
"They hadn't had a male singer for some time..... I had no feelings at all about.....I might step into somebody else's shoe per se.....what I did do though, was to refuse to do.....things that he had already done. So when joining the Basie band in 1955, the only thing I had to do was to establish what I wanted to do." Joe sings a number and....."But he said 'why don't you come and see what people all over the country think of your work.....and ah, I can't give you what your worth or.....even what you want right now.....but.....as things get better for me they'll get better for you.' And as fate would have it, I brought "Every Day I Have The Blues" to the band."
Joe was a complement to the band and stayed with Basie for a number of years. Joe's blues singing was in line with Basie's concept of straight away-swingin' the blues; this fit in with Basie's perennial theme-the simplicity of the blues.
Every day was a hit that brought attention to both Joe Williams and what was dubbed the come-back, by many who doubted anyone could have success with a big orchestra in the 1950's. But Basie succeeded, not only in the United States, but beyond; with additions to the repertoire that added up to sort of a new testament. And, as far as the comeback was concerned, as they call it, the skillful arranging techniques of Neal Hefti were very important. His charts were quite popular, they were all recorded and their still considered classic albums. From the video documentary, "Count Basie Swingin' The Blues," trombonist, Grover Mitchell, had this to add:
"During this time, another genius that really held things together on a daily basis was Ernie Wilkins. At their best, the two Franks, Frank Foster and Frank Wes, were both very important to this era. In fact, Frank Foster, by the time I joined the band.....ah, it was in 1962, Frank Foster's work almost dominated the book."
It was around 1969 when most of Basie's original sidemen had left the band. However, guitarist, Freddie Green, had remained; with his incredible, steady-as-a-metronome guitar strumming.....maintaining, at least, part of the original rhythm section. Now enter the individualistic style of tenor saxophonist, Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis. With a style only unto himself, Eddie became Basie's distinguished soloist; his mannerism were unique, putting him in concert with other soloists occupying the same chair; Davis was with the band for only a short time.
Speaking of soloists, in his book, "Big Band Almanac," by Leo Walker, on page 31, Leo shows a picture of Basie and part of the band, with the caption, "Basie in action, 1944." Right next to Basie, sitting at the end of the saxophone section is, the inimitable tenor soloists, who today, continues to influence other tenor players, the author included, Lester Young; the technique and rich sonorities that emanate from his horn, are hard pressed to duplicate today; even by the best-Lester was the best!! Don't waste your time!
It's a great picture of Basie, doing what he does best, leading his big band! And the many musicians who worked with the Basie band, as well as those who were admirers with envy, considered Basie's band to be the major big band in the history of jazz; the band was a model for resonance with the ensemble, depth perception and tonal balance.
During the 1960's, Basie and company experienced a number of changes. It started in 1963 when the Beatles first made their alleged debut on United States soil, therefore intensifying the undercurrent of rock music that was to follow on into the 1970's; giving Basie and others in big band jazz an over rated blast of their popularity. Basie was one step ahead when he hired the arranging architect, the masterful Quincy Jones. Quincy soon came up with charts in response to the current pop tunes by giving them the big band treatment.....'Hits of The 1950's and 1960's. This commercial success of the Basie movement lead to still other albums arranged by Billy Byers. There isn't a rock group on the planet that can keep up with the superiority and swingin' capabilities of the Basie musical conglomerate; this applies to other big bands as well!
As we roll on into the late 1960's, we find a few more changes. Basie made a rather short-sojourn crossing the San Pedro Channel to Catalina Island; they were to play at the Casino ballroom. Navigation charts show the channel as being the San Pedro Channel. Channel or not, it has the same idiosyncratic nature as the Pacific Ocean-because that's what it is; trust me, I've sailed across it many a time. In the book, "Big Band Almanac, by Leo Walker, on page 32, we see the Basie swingin' entourage in full dress-four trumpets, four trombones, five saxophones, and four rhythm, counting the boss. The band is wearing new music stands-white face, with the initials CB embedded in the body of a note; the look of sophistication as with the musicians behind them. It is not known just how long the band played the Casino, but if their popularity sustained itself thus far, it is my guess that-there're still there-swingin' the blues!
Of the many facets of a good bandleader is, accompaniment. Basie's spacing with chords, commonly called 'comping,' became a model for those combo pianists, as they improvised accompaniment for the next three decades. The very roots of Basie's solo technique originated from the pre-swing-era style of Fats Waller; Basie continued to display his 'stride style' in performances up into the early 1980's.
While watching the video documentary, "Count Basie and Swingin' The Blues," I noticed quite a lot. One thing has to do with the early arrangements like "One O'Clock Jump" and "Jumpin At The Woodside." These charts were informally worked out and memorized, eliminating the need for reading; giving the band the freedom to stand up at the out-chorus.....and at the same time, eye contact with the audience; trombone slides going one way then another, trumpets in hats with the wow wow sound; this is showmanship at it's finest. It provokes an emotional response from the audience; excitement, exuberance, and the passion to swing all over the dance floor; kick your heels up in the air and.....swing with the blues!
Basie was a legend in his own time; a legend of spacing, timing, precision, all of which represent.....simplicity of the "Basie Kind." All his musicians loved him, and he loved them; like a team of artists, playing what the chart calls for, but at the same time, giving the chart something special.....craftsmanship, leading the path to cohesiveness; a composite sound they can all be proud of.....they were! ...so was the boss! Basie's big band philosophy originated back in the 1930's; he integrated the bounce of the blues into sophisticated ensemble playing. With his piano style, Basie showed that rhythm and space were more important than technical virtuosity; his style of composing gave to his eminent soloists, some of their most rewarding moments.
There are more than one theory about how Basie acquired the name, "Count." While in Kansas City in 1935, he was fronting a nine-piece group composed of former musicians from the Walter Page and Benny Moten orchestras. They were broadcasting one night and the announcer asked Basie if he would mind being called "Count." Basie thought he was kidding.....he said okay! I think the real reason Basie acquired the name "Count" was by personal choice. He liked the name because it was in harmony with other dignitaries in the same business. A healthy ego goes a long way to getting what you want.....Basie had what he wanted.....a swingin' band!.....which was to continue swingin' throughout his five decade career as a band leader; if he experienced any vicissitudes, it didn't seem to slow down his passionate and swingin' locomotive!
The skillful architect of the arranging world, Sammy Nestico, scored many charts for the Basie band; some originals, and some standards; one of the best originals was..... "Basie Staight Ahead." Allow me to give you a personal account of my exposure to Sammy Nestico's charts:
"From 1965 through 1985, I had several big bands; from 10 pieces to a 20 piece jazz orchestra. Sammy's charts were in the book, numbering in excess of about 15. They were easy to read, they laid good, and there were ample solos to go around. In one concert at El Camino College, I had 17 pieces; we opened with, "Basie Straight Ahead." The tenor soloist was Bruce Escovitz-he blew the solo inside out-great tenor player.
On April 20, 1972, I was at "Lococo's Manhattan" in Manhattan Beach, with a 20 piece jazz orchestra. Among the many notables, "Ernie Watts" was playing lead tenor. I had a reel to reel recorder running and during the play back, I heard a brief exchange between Ernie and my good friend, baritone player, Steve Kravitz. Ernie responded to a question from Steve, "Yeah, I know Sammy.....he's a funny dude."
One more for the road, and we'll get back to Basie. It was in 1971, I went to a big band rehearsal in the San Fernando Valley; I went to have some of my new charts played down. I took a seat, the charts on my lap. Several of the musicians there had worked in my big band and new my charts. While waiting, the guy sitting next to me asked to look at one of my charts. He browsed through it and seamed pleased. "Looks like you've done some studying." By that time, one of my buddies from the band walked up and said, "Richard, this is Sammy Nestico." When I heard that, I got excited and my charts fell to the floor. So yes, like Ernie said, Sammy is a funny dude.
After recording for many labels, in 1975, Basie finally found a home with Pablo Records; owned by Norman Granz, organizer of the "Jazz At The Philharmonic" showcases. In this association, unlike previous producers, Granz gave Basie the freedom and latitude to do what he did best.....swing and stomp out the blues!
In 1983, Basie's wife, Catherine, whom he married forty years prior, while with the Benny Moten Orchestra, passed away. This was quite a blow to the "Count" as he was quite ill himself. However, in early1984, I had the ordained pleasure of seeing the Count Basie Orchestra in concert in Los Angeles. It was sad when Basie arrived on stage on a little electric cart; he was helped out of the cart and on to the piano bench. After a few notes on the piano, the Basie band became....."Count Basie and His Orchestra." His illustrious music began echoing off the very walls of that auditorium. Then in April of that year, Basie took his leave; he went on to that 'big gig in the sky,' where many of his great sidemen were waiting. It is my educated guess that, Basie put together a big band and is still....."Swingin' The Blues!"
Count Basie had personality, he was abode with charisma, he loved his musicians, but above all else, Basie's work is celebratory and earthy; his hallmark was simplicity. There is no better example of timing, precision, in the work any artist in any medium. Nor has any other musician been more completely committed to the composition of 'swingin' the blues.' With his few-notes-at-a-time keyboard style, Basie could make any music swing because he.....put the right note.....in the right place.....at the right time!
Count Basie's come-back band.....it's still here!
Conducted by trombonist, Grover Mitchell.
Prior to 1975, the Count Basie band was under the direction of Frank Foster-tenor saxophone, and Thad Jones-trumpet. Then, in 1975, the Basie-estate organization appointed the fine trombonist, a musician I knew around 1970, Grover Mitchell as the director. With Mitchell at the helm of the Basie band, no matter where they go, be it in concert, or playing for dancers, the "Count Basie Orchestra" will always be..................... "Swingin' The Blues."
In light of his greatness, the following is dedicated to Count Basie: As we look out to the cosmos, we look back in time; and let time be timing, which leads to spacing, and spacing to precision; from here, is the pathway to his elegant keyboard style, as he adorns the stage with a plethora of architects who loved him so much; as he gave unto them, from the passionate locomotive of his desires, to be the greatest jazz band existent; he produces the effervescence of joy to the beautiful world that surrounds him.....Thank you "Count Basie" for your love.....represented by your music....."Swingin' The Blues."