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Keeping 'Count'

Jack Bowers BY

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When entrepreneur John Hammond heard the ensemble on a radio broadcast, he went to Kansas City and invited Basie and the band to perform at NYC's Roseland Ballroom.
This month marks the one hundredth anniversary of the birth of William "Count" Basie who was born August 21, 1904, in Red Bank, New Jersey. Basie was a big-band leader for nearly half a century, which is quite a record, even considering that big bands once were so popular that leaders like him, not to mention the sidemen, could actually make a fairly decent living criss-crossing the country and performing in music halls, theatres, nightclubs and other venues. Few people know that Bill Basie started his career in vaudeville as a piano accompanist for acts large and small before he was stranded in Kansas City in 1927 and decided to stay there, playing in silent film theatres until he landed a job the following year with bassist Walter Page's Blue Devils. In 1929, Basie joined Bennie Moten's prominent Kansas City Orchestra, remaining until shortly after Moten's early death in 1935. Basie then organized a smaller group, the Barons of Rhythm, whose members included drummer Jo Jones and, a bit later, tenor saxophonist Lester Young, who would help comprise the nucleus of the Count's first big band, formed in 1936.

When entrepreneur John Hammond heard the ensemble on a radio broadcast, he went to Kansas City and invited Basie and the band to perform at NYC's Roseland Ballroom. That led to a contract with Decca Records, and the rest is largely history as the band quickly developed the "Basie sound," loose and swinging with a driving rhythm section that complemented roaring brass and reeds while reinforcing the band's succession of memorable soloists. Except for a brief period in 1950-51, when he fronted a septet, Count Basie led his own big band until his passing in April 1984. Many people believe, and for good reason, that Basie's earliest band was also his best, and may never be equaled. Its incomparable rhythm section was comprised of Basie, Jones, Page and guitarist Freddie Green, and it boasted such renowned soloists as Young, Herschel Evans, Earle Warren, Buck Clayton, Harry Edison, Benny Morton and Dickie Wells. In the '40s, the Count added such stalwarts as saxophonists Buddy Tate, Don Byas, Lucky Thompson, Illinois Jacquet and Paul Gonsalves; trumpeters Al Killian, Joe Newman and Emmett Berry; trombonists J.J. Johnson and Vic Dickenson; and vocalists Billie Holiday and Helen Humes to succeed blues singer Jimmy Rushing.

After Basie regrouped in '52, his "New Testament" band included saxophonists Paul Quinichette (the "vice pres"), Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis and Marshall Royal, trumpeter Joe Newman and drummer Gus Johnson. Those who came on board later included trumpeters Thad Jones and Joe Wilder, trombonists Bennie Powell and Henry Coker, tenor saxophonists Frank Foster and Frank Wess, drummer Sonny Payne and singer Joe Williams, with outstanding charts by Foster, Ernie Wilkins, Neal Hefti, Johnny Mandel, Sammy Nestico, Bill Holman and others. Basie's was the first U.S. band to play a command performance for the Queen of England, and the first black band to play in the ballroom of NY's Waldorf Astoria Hotel. In the '60s, Basie formed a mutually beneficial alliance with singer Frank Sinatra, and also performed with Tony Bennett and Sammy Davis Jr., among others, while continuing to tour and record.

The Count suffered a heart attack in the summer of '76 and was replaced for a time by pianist Nat Pierce. He returned in January '77 but was struck by severe arthritis in the early '80s, which necessitated his having to use a motorized scooter to carry him on and off stage. After his death in '84, Thad Jones led the band for a year. When Jones died in February '86, Frank Foster took the reins, handing them to trombonist Grover Mitchell in '95. Mitchell died last year but the band continues on, touring the country and recording the occasional album, its popularity weakened in today's rock- and rap-oriented culture but not enough to extinguish its light.

So far I've not heard anything about what is being planned to commemorate suitably the Count's centenary, but I'm sure something must be in the wind. Perhaps folks are still recovering from the hoopla associated with Ellington's hundredth anniversary in '99 and former President Ronald Reagan's passing earlier this year. But Bill Basie's hundredth anniversary mustn't be overlooked, as he was clearly one of the most celebrated and influential big-band leaders (and Jazz musicians) of the twentieth century, an esteemed member of a select group that includes Ellington, Herman, Kenton, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey and a handful of others.

Coming Events
Summertime is always a good time for Jazz (well, anytime is a good time, really), and the summer Jazz from the Mansion series at the Pasadena (CA) Museum of History continues through September 24 with a sterling lineup of big bands and small groups starting August 13 with "The Roar of '04" featuring trumpeter Buddy Childers and his powerful seventeen-member big band. Another Stan Kenton alumnus, saxophonist Steve Wilkerson, and his quartet with vocalist Andrea Baker are the headliners on August 27, followed on September 24 by "Trumpets No End" featuring a quartet of the West Coast's finest horn men — Ron Stout, Marc Lewis, Kye Palmer and Ron King — backed by a rhythm section and playing new arrangements created especially for the PMH series. The Friday evening programs start at 8 o'clock. Admission is $25 except for August 13, which is $30 (with $10 discounts for Museum members and students with I.D.). For information, phone 626-577-1660, ext. 10, or e-mail [email protected]

On September 30-October 3, the Los Angeles Jazz Institute is presenting "Stratospheric," an all-star big-band tribute to trumpeter Maynard Ferguson, at the Los Angeles airport's Four Points Sheraton hotel, 9750 Airport Blvd.

Besides films and panel discussions devoted to various aspects of Ferguson's career, the program will include performances by a number of outstanding big bands and smaller groups. Maynard himself will be on hand all four days to take part in this once-in-a-lifetime gathering of those who have played with and for him for more than fifty years. Highlights? They could fill a book. Concerts from the Stan Kenton years, from the Birdland Dream Band era, the Roulette Years, the British years, the MF Horn era, and a Sunday night concert featuring Maynard's current group, Big Bop Nouveau — seventeen concerts in all, showcasing fourteen big bands including those led by Ferguson alumni Bill Holman, Wayne Bergeron and Don Menza, and college ensembles from Cal State-Fullerton, L.A. Valley College, Fullerton College and Cal State-Northridge.

Names? Well, besides those already mentioned, try these: Herb Geller, Buddy Childers, Pete Rugolo, Dick Hafer, Eddie Bert, Russ Garcia, Lanny Morgan, Bobby Shew, Don Rader, Christian Jacob, Trey Henry, Tony Ortega, Denis DiBlasio, Jimmy Cleveland, Slide Hampton, Alex Iles, Stan Mark, Bob Summers, Dennis Noday, Jerry Pinter, Bill Reichenbach, Ray Brinker, Ernie Garside, John Chudoba and Matt Harris (that's a partial list). The registration package, which includes reserved seating to all events, is $325 ($300 for Institute members). The phone number for registration is 562-985-7065. Checks or money orders may be sent to the Los Angeles Jazz Institute, P.O. Box 8038, Long Beach, CA 90808-0038. The hotel convention rate is $79-$89 per night (phone 800-529-4683 to reserve a room). Sounds like a great blowout! Wish I could afford to go.

There's one more event to mention, this one ongoing. Vince Giordano and his Nighthawks Orchestra are playing each Monday and Tuesday evening (three sets, 8:30-11:30) at the Times Square Grill, 1611 Broadway at W. 49th St. in the Big Apple. If you've not heard the band (which has appeared from time to time on Garrison Keillor's popular radio program, A Prairie Home Companion ), it's a good one, drawing its inspiration and repertoire from the Swing Era and sometimes even earlier with emphasis on Ellington, Bix, Fletcher Henderson, Luis Russell and others. Vince would love to see those seats filled so he can "keep this gig alive." The TSG's phone number is 212-246-1960. There's a $25 minimum for each show.

In Other News . . .
The International Association for Jazz Education (IAJE) and Jazz Alliance International (JAI) have joined forces in an alliance under which JAI will become a wholly owned subsidiary of IAJE. JAI is dedicated to expanding the global Jazz audience through education, leadership and advocacy, goals that go hand in glove with IAJE's worldwide efforts to nurture understanding and appreciation for Jazz and its heritage through education and leadership. JAI, under IAJE's stewardship, will develop educational and awareness programs to enhance the growth and development of Jazz and ensure that the music is adequately represented to the public and funded by various local, regional, national and international government sources. Together, the two organizations will develop a consolidated marketing plan for Jazz that includes greater media exposure, participation in various awards programs, an annual research report, and the coordination of professional development, mentoring and training for the Jazz community. Sounds like a tall order, but one that is vital to the future of Jazz. For more information, visit the JAI web site, www,, or IAJE, at

And that's it for now. Until next time, keep swingin'!

New and Noteworthy

1. Mark Masters Jazz Ensemble, One Day with Lee (Capri)
2. University of Colorado, 'Round Midnight (UCJE)
3. University of North Texas One O'Clock Band, Lab 2003 (NT Jazz)
4. Bob Brookmeyer New Art Orchestra, Get Well Soon (Challenge)
5. University of North Florida, Through His Eyes (UNF)
6. George Gee Orchestra, Swingin' at Swing City Zurich (Zort Music)
7. Janne Ersson Big Band, Live at the Stockholm Jazz Festival (Sittel)
8. Cal State University Long Beach, Studio One (CSULB)
9. Kit McClure Band, The Sweethearts Project (RedHot Records)
10. Howard University Jazz Ensemble, HUJE '03 (HUJE)
11. Gordon Lee and the Gleeful Big Band, Flying Dream (OA2)
12. Temple University Jazz Ensemble, Mean What You Say! (Sea Breeze Vista)
13. Beijbom / Kroner Big Band, Tango for Bad People (SSRC Jazz)
14. University of Kentucky Jazz Ensemble, Self-Contained (Sea Breeze Vista)
15. Ed Vezinho / Jim Ward Big Band, Blue Haired Mama (V-WBB)

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