BASIE SAYS YES

Miles Davis has often been quoted as saying, “All the musicians should get together one certain day and get down on their knees and thank Duke.”

I would never disagree with this. I don’t wish to set up any competition, but I think everyone should give thanks to Count Basie — and not just once. And not just musicians, either.

It is fashionable, still, to affect hipness, and that is not limited to people under 30. And some intriguing theoretician has suggested that the qualities we praise as hip — subtlety, originality, a wry way of perceiving the world — were exemplified by Lester Young before Kerouac and the Beats took them as their own. I like this theory, although what Pres would have made of a Williamsburg or Berkeley or Portland hipster is not known.

But I would propose Basie as the original Parent of many virtues we prize. Singularity, although a loving reverence for one’s ancestors (as in Basie’s affectionate nods to Fats Waller), an awareness that joy and sorrow are not only wedded but interdependent (that the blues are at the heart of everything), and a deep emotional commitment to swinging one’s way through life.  Swinging, as embodied by Basie, his peers and their descendants, meant the maximum of grace with the minimum of visible labor.  The style later exemplified by Astaire with a Kansas City world-view. Passion and fun, no less powerful for being streamlined to their essentials. His playing and his approach have been characterized and parodied as “minimalist,” but I think of it more as a Thoreau-inspired simplicity. Don’t need that note, do we? Let it be implied. Unheard melodies and all that. How Basie knew what he knew is beyond us, but the evidence is there for us to hear.

Here’s an audible example of what Basie did. And does:

That’s the 1939 Chicago session, issued in the Seventies as “Basie’s Bad Boys”: Buck Clayton, Shad Collins, trumpets; Dan Minor, trombone (audibly?), Lester Young, tenor saxophone; Basie, piano; Freddie Green, guitar; Walter Page; string bass; Jo Jones, drums. Yes, the studio sound is foggy and dense, but the music just flies and smiles and rocks.

These thoughts are provoked by two photographs for sale on eBay — from the Frank Driggs Collection (each one for three hundred dollars plus) — of Basie and his colleagues and friends in 1941 and 1943.  Lester had leapt out, but they seemed to be doing fine on their own.  Here’s a rehearsal session at the New York studio of Columbia Records. They are apparently listening to a playback.  Details first:

BASIE IN THE STUDIO 1941 true front

The front:

COUNT BASIE REHEARSAL 1941

What I notice first, always (this is a photograph often reproduced but also often cropped) is Basie’s dreamily unfocused expression which might be deep concentration.  Jo’s nearly angry attentiveness, his thinness (that protruding Adam’s apple), his full head of hair and tidy mustache.  Walter Page’s substantial girth. The handkerchief not quite tucked away in his back pocket.  The way his vest is strained by what’s in it.  The height of Jo’s beautiful trousers, and his suspenders.  The way Page (casually?) is listening to what handsome Buck Clayton is playing.  How beautifully everyone is dressed, in an era before jeans, t-shirts, hoodies, and knapsacks.

And a more formal pose, 1943, where cake predominates:BASIE'S BIRTHDAY 1942 back

Jimmy Rushing steals the show, and all eyes are on him (although Buck is somewhat quizzical and Basie — aware of the photographer — doesn’t turn around; Jo’s smile is world-weary).  What, I must know, is Rushing saying to that forkful? “Sent for you yesterday and here you come today,” perhaps? Or “Tell me, pretty baby, how you want your lovin’ done”?  Or perhaps the plainer, “I am going to EAT YOU ALL UP!” 

BASIE'S BIRTHDAY 1942 front

I chose to title this posting BASIE SAYS YES because I believe he always did. Although Basie spent his life “playing the blues,” his approach to them was always life-affirming.  Even on the darkest dirge, there is a slight grin. “Look how sad I can make this music sound.  Isn’t it a lot of fun to play such sad music?”

Cool, swinging, affirmative.  We could follow him, a Sage, for life-lessons.

May your happiness increase! 

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7 responses to “BASIE SAYS YES

  1. Hi Michael,

    I am very happy that you have expressed these very perceptive comments about Count Basie. Doing a comprehensive analysis of the similarities and differences between his music and that of Duke Ellington could easily fill a large book. And exploring the magical musical relationship between Basie and Lester Young could easily fill another book. Lester, as anyone who has done any study of his personality knows, lived in his own very private world. He allowed us to glimpse inside when he played jazz, and when he spoke. Lester was able to flourish and grow in Basis’e band, yet curiously, never, to my knowledge, played with Duke Ellington. One wonders why.

    I have come to the conclusion that there are many similarities between the affect Basie had on any band he played in, and the affect the great drummer Dave Tough had on any band he played in.Tough was the Count Basie of the drums.The playing of both seemed unobtrusive on the surface, yet somehow, it always energized, lifted, and inspired the playing of those around them. Great bands are like great skyscrapers: they are well-build, imposing, stylish, expressive. No skyscraper could function without electricity. Basie and Tough were both sources of incredible musical electricity. In any band they played in, the lights were definitely on.

    MICHAEL P. ZIRPOLO
    Author,
    “Mr. Trumpet…the Trials, Tribulations
    and Triumph of Bunny Berigan”

  2. I couldn’t agree more. As a working swing musician, my band really started “click” with audiences once we adopted more of a Basie approach to the music. That is, we focused more on groove, taking a more minimalist, and more generally accessible approach to music. Post-Basie musicians seem to forget that, at the end of the day, they are there to serve the audience not themselves or “the art.” Keep it simple. Keep it swingin.’ Jack Fields http://www.jackfields.net http://www.hotclubpacific.com

  3. Brother Michael, remember that Basie also revered Fatha Hines, who he called “The World’s Greatest Piano Player.” Just listen to Count’s playing on the 1932 recording of “Moten Swing!”
    I think he also dug Jess Stacy. (Check out the piano accompaniment to Earle Warren’s vocal on “You Betcha My Life” from the 1941 Cafe’ Society sessions.

  4. Yes!

  5. Completely agree about Basie, Michael. I think Bob Brookmeyer put it best in a video I put in my blog some time ago. (The relevant bit is at the very beginning).

    Best,

    F

  6. a nice reminder of how good Shad Collins was!

  7. Richard Hurych

    What a great insightful article. You hit Basie right on the nose……how to make sad, lots of fun. And he did it with swing. Saw him many times with that great band (numerous concerts in the 60′s at the Monterey JF). Then you add Rushing, or Williams later on, and it could not get better than that. Also saw him in back of Sinatra and near his end backing Bennet. Noticed you were never able to catch Webster. One of my favorites again at MJF. And, by the way, Ellington was also a joy– an understatement.

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