Volume II, Issue II Summer 2003

Low-key hip
Basie provides a tonic to fill that hole in your soul

This article originally published in Fahrenheit San Diego.

BasieSome music critic or another – the name has slipped my mind – once wrote that the late New Orleans piano player Professor Longhair was the hippest dude the critic had ever met. The critic admitted that 'Fess wasn't so much up on the latest trends as some of the younger set – but pointed out that he remained open to new ideas throughout his life, never getting stuck in his ways.

By that standard, no one was ever hipper than Count Basie, not even the good Professor.

It may seem odd to hold up a dead big band leader as a paragon of hip, but the brash, aggressive nature of Basie's bands provide such a delicious counterpoint to his own low-key personality that you just know the man had a sense of humor to go with his unerring sense of taste and timing.

Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. may have been the public persona of the Cocktail Generation – but Basie and his men provided much of the soundtrack.

As early as the late 1940s, Basie recognized that the times were changing – and began occasionally recording with a smaller combo, creating an intentionally relaxed but even more swinging sound that would lead to both the cool sounds of the post-Bogie Rat Pack and the youthfully energetic rock 'n' roll. Listen to Basie's small combos from that period, and you can hear everything Louis Jordan would do with his jump blues, the driving rhythms that Chuck Berry would rechannel, and the smart, sophisticated blues-based groove that would re-launch Sinatra's career in the mid-'50s.

Nobody could out-nonchalant Basie. James Dean? A snot-nosed punk. The young Marlon Brando? A regular motor-mouth compared to the smiling "who me?" of Basie. Dean Martin and Robert Mitchum? Sure, they were relaxed – but not nearly so much as Basie. He always had that look, that impish grin, as if he knew exactly what you were thinking, exactly what you wanted to hear.

And damned if he didn't.

The Count was simply the coolest of the cool, a man who led the hottest of the big bands yet was able to direct this group of firebrands with as little as a raised eyebrow from his seat at the piano, or a drawn-out "plink plink plink" with his right hand on the keyboard.

Through the half-century Basie directed his band, all the best singers came to him. Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, Sinatra and Tony Bennett and Sammy Davis Jr. and Sarah Vaughan and Arthur Prysock. The greatest drummers sat behind his piano – Buddy Rich and Jo Jones and Louis Bellson. Cats with egos as big as their chops would return again and again to the Basie band, if only for a night or two to rejuvenate their spirits – Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis and Snooky Young, Harry "Sweets" Edison and Lester Young.

If you considered yourself one of the best at what you did in music, the only way to measure that was against or with the best.

And that meant Basie.

Even Duke Ellington, a band leader of no small ego himself, would tell anyone who would listen that Basie's band was tighter. Swung more.

On the eve of World War II, Bill Basie had the most popular band in the nation – bigger than Glenn Miller or Benny Goodman or Ellington. That a black man could have topped the charts in Jim Crow times is a testament not only to his talent, but his ability to put folks at ease – even white folks uncomfortable in their own skin.

But even more than any of that, Basie remains so cherished two decades after his passing because like so many before me and so many who will follow, I carry this knowledge with me: In my own darkest moments, those lonely nights when our fears and terrors start slipping through our staunchest defenses, there has always been, will always be (thanks to Mr. Edison) Count Basie to see me through.

A few simple chord changes, a horn chorus or two, and the clouds begin to lift. If you're not tapping your toe to "April in Paris," if you aren't smiling halfway through "Shiny Stockings" or "Jumpin' at the Woodside" – well, perhaps you best have your pulse checked.

I saw Basie at his last San Diego appearance in the early '80s – the only time I ever saw him play; within a year or so, he was gone.

My mom gave my roommate, Big Dan, and I three passes to the Zoo – they were having their then-annual big band summer series at Wegeforth Bowl, and my mom said we should go see Basie while he was still alive, that it was something we'd tell our grandkids about some day.

Big Dan and I rolled our eyes, but our buddy Don was a jazz nut and freaked when he found out we were going – he quickly snapped up that third pass.

We arrived early to get good seats – when you're 21, 22 years old, the front row seems somehow more important.

Good thing we did arrive early, because by the time band started heading out to their seats on the tiny stage behind the water at Wegeforth, the audience seats were full – with folks crowding the entryways at back for a chance to see the show. And the crowd was white, black and brown – folks of every stripe and accent gathered to listen to this man and band that Dan and I had never heard of.

Basie as an old man When Basie finally came out on stage – in his scooter, because a series of strokes had robbed him of his balance – the audience rose as one around us, cheering and hollering like the Padres had just won the World Series. Old ladies were bawling at the sight of this equally old man – and their husbands were fighting back the tears, too. Even Don, who'd just as soon kick your ass as say hello, was looking pretty choked up.

Dan and I had no idea what was going on – just looked at each other as if, "What the hell?" The man hadn't played a note and he's getting an ovation?


Then Basie and his men began playing, and music changed for me forever. Oh, I still dug rock 'n' roll – always will. But Basie opened my ears and mind that afternoon at the Zoo – made me see that 12 men swinging could possess an energy and edge no stack of Marshall amps could ever provide. Let me view sophistication and grace as something even the cool could possess. Showed me what real hip was all about.

When the show was over, and the old ladies bawling again – and my own newly opened eyes a bit misty from both the music and love for this man we'd just witnessed from those around us – Don leaned over and said, "I told you motherfuckers this shit was hot."

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