Paradise, 1940: Count Basie, Freddie Green, Walter Page, Jo Jones, Charlie Christian, Lester Young, Buck Clayton, Benny Goodman at Columbia Records
I am not Miniver Cheevy, nor do I long for pay phones, Donna Reed, and the nickel subway ride. If you offered me time-travel to 1940, I would insist on a round-trip ticket, because I’d miss my friends too much. But this century seems hard, for all its vaunted technological strides. Modern “edginess” and self-absorption make me cringe.
Two examples from the main street in suburban New York on which I live.
One is that as I drive slowly and attentively through congested areas, people with earbuds on, staring into their screens, looking down, walk directly in front of my car. Of course I slow down, I do not roll down my window and shout at them. But I think, in the words of Big Joe Turner, “You so beautiful, but you got to die someday,” or in my own words, “Your arrogance is horrible, and your defiance of common sense is stupid. Will having the iPhone 93 make you immortal, or the fact that you have just had a perfect ‘mani and pedi’ protect you from my very slow-moving car?” Their behavior is the complete expression of “ME, only ME,” and I think it sad.
Yesterday I was walking to the local train station to go to New York City to dine with friends. Ahead of me was a man some years my senior who had an aluminum cane and moved with some difficulty. He, his wife, and I arrived at a section of recently laid cement — like a small rivulet — that we had to step over. His wife went first, then the construction workers looked at him, as he was slightly hesitant, and said, laughing, “JUMP!” Jumping was not in this gentleman’s repertoire, but he managed to extend himself across the cement and make it to the other side, hailed by mocking laughter from the workers. (I got across without disaster.) That’s another kind of ME: “I am in good physical shape, so if you’re not, I have the right or perhaps the obligation to mock you.”
So, self-absorption, selfishness, small cruelties, unkindness, the absence of generosity, the individual held above the community.
What does all this have to do with Count Basie?
I owe these ruminations to my admired friend Nick Rossi, who posted this music on Facebook in honor of Count Basie’s birthday, August 21:
and I, having the two experiences above in my head, wrote this:
I wish this century allowed us to live our lives the way that rhythm section played — joyously, gently, precisely, modestly making room for everyone else, graciously creating beautiful spaces. LIVE THE BASIE WAY is a motto I imagine, although perhaps too much explaining would be needed.
The Basie rhythm section was a loving, spiritually aligned community, where even though Basie got his name on the music stands, he and everyone else knew that he was merely the figurehead who had the deep wisdom to let everyone hear Walter Page, Freddie Green, and Jo Jones. Basie modestly let his “sidemen” shine; although he could have played solo forever and been his own orchestra, he created a little republic of generous interdependence. Kindness and equalities rather than ego and mastery, generosity rather than selfishness. And ease.
Even though 1942 was not an easy year for the world, Basie seemed to know, without making much of it, that we could mesh with the cosmos, keep it afloat and have it keep us afloat, if we picked the right medium-tempo. Thus, love with open arms enacted in swinging 4/4. Brother-and-sisterhood rather than a parade of egos in the spotlight, jostling for attention.
Taking it easy, stepping on no one’s feelings, finding the gracious way, without strain. Cooperation rather than isolation, an unstated understanding that we are all aimed in the same direction and will reach the happy goal only if we help each other get there.
Imagine a world that moved this way, an irresistible perpetual motion machine:
Basie would have been embarrassed or aghast to read this philosophical praise. When Whitney Balliett asked him where his piano style came from, his response was, “Honest truth, I don’t know.” So he might have been very leery of being celebrated as someone whose laconic perfections were a spiritual path to follow. But Basie’s is an honest truth, one we could all live and live by.
And a postscript: as I write this, there is a small jazz group called the New Blue Devils working towards playing the Basie way. You could check them out.
May your Basie-ness increase!