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 one of four tracks from 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:
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:
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!”
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!