BY BENSON IDONIJE
Following last week’s story on the composer, pianist, big band header Duke Ellington, I have received SMS texts saying that after the Duke, the most logical follow-up is Count Basie. These jazz devotees and aficionados are making this request against the obvious fact that Basie was, in their opinion, the next in line of popularity, in terms of big band instrumentation.
These devotees have made several other valid points in their text messages which qualify Count Basie for this story. One of them is the fact that Count Basie was even more popular than Duke Ellington.
While disagreeing with them in this regard, I cannot dismiss their claims as being entirely baseless and untrue. In fact, I have no right to do that. It is the fact that people have divergent views about what they hear and about the artists themselves that gives jazz the elusive but limitless possibilities that it has today. It is the fact that the music is unpredictable and cannot be pigeon-holed that makes it the enduring musical culture that it is.
Having said that, I must say that everybody has his own views, which must be respected if expressed from a position of knowledge. And one of them definitely sustained the argument with proof of listening to several Count Basie albums and even the experience of live performance.
Another tends to reduce the Count Basie orchestra to a semi– jazz, and soul band because of the various singers that the orchestra featured over the years. This, certainly is not a fair judgement, and it is clear that he does not like jazz singing.
As a matter of fact, one of the features that made the Count Basie Orchestra perhaps more likeable than the Duke Ellington Orchestra was the fact that Basie enlisted the services of vocalists at every turn.
Perhaps the first singer to make great impart with the band was Jimmy Rushing, a ganging African– American whose massive frame earned him the nick name, “Mr Five by Five”. One would have though that his frame would elicit an equally massive vocal sound, but his was a middle weight’ kind of voice the way Leonard Feather referred to Hank Mobley, the tenor saxophone sensation. Feather called him the middle weight champion of the tenor saxophone because Mobley came up with a tonal conception and intensity that fell between Lester young and Sonny Rollins.
The Count Basie orchestra seemed to excel with the element of blues and swing and the regular feature of vocalists as part of the orchestral line-up and configuration. After the exit of Jimmy Rushing came Helen Humes, a lady who had a unique voice and singing style.
Humes might have been influenced initially by Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith but at the time she was singing with the Count Basie orchestra, she had come totally into her own and was individualistic.
Perhaps the greatest singer with Basie was Joe Williams. It might be unfair however, to refer to Joe Williams as the greatest singer with the Basie orchestra. Various listeners to the orchestra have their different opinions, which are divided between Jimmy Rushing and Joe Williams.
The preference for Joe Williams is informed by the popularity he gave the band with the blues composition, Everyday, I have the blues, which in fact became an anthem for every jazz player in those days. The song and its entire interpretation placed the Count Basie orchestra above the others in that it attracted lovers of the blues to the jazz fold. On Count Basie’s night stands, you found mixed audiences who were attracted to the band obviously by Joe Williams, the great blues singer.
On the other hand, Jimmy Rushing was liked by many people for his vocal range which moved with ease through all the registers with no bias for any particular type of song. Joe Williams sang every thing whether they were designed as blues materials or they were just plain songs of the 32 bar structure.
In Blues by Basie for example, an album recorded in the 50’s with the orchestra, featuring twenty-nine star musicians, Rushing sang six different songs with the same artistic capability. He was heard on How long blues, I still think of her, Harvard blues, Take me back baby, Nobody knows and I’m gonna move to the outskirts of town.
Count Basie and the blues have long been an inseparable combination, and as a pianist, big band leader, he saw swing as an element which gives jazz its true meaning. As a matter of fact, throughout his career, his name was synompnous with swing.
Basie, whose influence remained huge over a decade after his death not only led two of the finest jazz orchestras ever but he redefined the role of the piano in the rhythm section. Originally a stride pianist in the vein of his idol, Fats Waller, Basie had such a strong rhythm section in the mid-thirties that he pared down his style drastically, eliminating the oom-pah time-keeping function of his left hand.
With bassist Walter page, rhythm guitarist Freddie Green and drummer Jo Jones filling in the spaces, Basie stuck to simple phrases that were strategically placed to add momentum to the ensemble, and he unwittingly acted as a transitional figure toward the bop of Bud Powell.
Basie formed his own group in 1935 after the premature death of Bennie Moten. His band started gathering momentum by 1937 with an expanded orchestra that had great soloists.
Big band instrumentation and the knack for complex arrangements fascinated big band jazz devotees. But the greatest attraction for them was individual performance which involved solos. The Basie band boasted some of the greatest soloists of that period, including the cool-toned tenor player, Lester Young whose sound endeared people to the band. With a tonal conception emphasising the low registers of Coleman Hawkins, the use of vibratos and slurs, which registered memorable impressions on their hearers, Lester Young became one of the finest soloists of the mainstream jazz era. Basie also had such early stalwarts as Buck Clayton and Harry ‘Sweets’ Edison on trumpets; Dicky Wells, trombone, and of course Jimmy Rushing who was on hand at this period for vocal delivery.
Billy Holiday was not a regular member of the Count Basie orchestra but it is on record that Holiday sang with the orchestra in the late 1930’s, giving the orchestra a high profile image. It was at this time that hits such as One o’clock Jump and Jumping at the wood side which became classics were initially performed.
One of Basie’s most popular reissues however is his collaboration with the singer, Joe Williams. Titled, Count Basie swings, Joe Williams sings, Joe Williams’ debut on record with Count Basic was so successful in every way that the band’s future was secure for the next few decades. Included on this essential set which is undoubtedly a collectors item, are the classic versions of Every day I have the blues, The comeback, Alright, Okay, You win, In the evening, and Teach me tonight, hits that Basie would have to perform nightly for the remainder of the 50’s.
There is however another reissue whose recording came about as a result of Joe Williams refusing to be labelled as a mere blues singer. Titled The Greatest, Count Basie Plays Joe William sings standards, the blues treatment given these popular standards transformed them from their obscure popular music nature to the swinging blues height. Songs such as Thou swell, My baby just cares for me and Singing in the rain which sounded ordinary in the hands of the jazz men of that period became contemporary blues materials with Joe Williams and the Count Basie orchestra.
Like Duke Ellington, Count Basie has numerous reissues in the market which run into thousands. Although there was a lot of turn over in the 60’s, the Basie sound never changed and the orchestra did not decline or stop travelling. Basie signed with Pablo Records in the 70’s and recorded some swinging jazz with new sidemen such as tenor saxophonist Jimmy Forrest and trombonist Al Grey.
Count Basie’s health gradually failed in the 80’s ad his death in 1984 was greatly mourned. However, his orchestra under the direction first of Thad Jones, then Frank Foster and later Grover Mitchell became the only viable ghost band in jazz history.