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Count Basie at 100 and 20: Footpatting To Pianissimo

By Mike Zwerin

PARIS, 22 June 2004—This year is the double anniversary of Count Basie's birth - August 21, 1904 - and death - April 26, 1984. Although there are concerts dedicated to the memories of Fats Waller (also his 100th birthday), Edith Piaf and Glenn Miller, the list of over 100 of the most important summer jazz festivals in Europe and the US in Down Beat magazine does not include one major testimonial to Basie.

Record companies have not announced any memorial boxed set reissues, and when asked about any special recording plans, Bill Hughes, the current leader of the Count Basie Orchestra, which appeared at the Lionel Hampton Room of the Meridien Etoile Hotel in Paris last month and is touring southeast Asia later in the year, said: "We may have a recording date in Malaysia."

Such peripheral appreciation belies the importance of the big band to the history of 20th century music, as well as Basie's founding-father role. There is as much musical and cultural relevance on a Count Basie recording such as the 1958 "Chairman of the Board" (Roulette) as on a recording of a Beethoven symphony. Not more, not instead of—as much. But, as we all know by now, big bands are dead.

The big jazz band was a 20th century outgrowth of the symphony orchestra made possible to a large degree by Adolphe Sax's invention of the saxophone family—instruments that were easier to learn, cheaper to buy, and projected further than clarinets and oboes and flutes. Saxophones basically replaced the string section. Many African American instrumentalists did not read music in the early 20th century. The first black big bands were a collection of musicians inventing riffs, putting them together and remembering them. Their lack of reading helped them to hear better. Swing, the creation of a groove, the African contribution, came first. Basie called it "footpatting."

White musicians could read but they couldn't swing. Black musicians could swing but they played out of tune (an element that would come to be called funk). Such discriminations were certainly over-simplifications but they were not totally inaccurate in the early days. With more education and the gradual integration of the bands of Benny Goodman, Woody Herman, Artie Shaw, Charlie Barnet and Basie himself, it became harder to tell the difference.

Duke Ellington was a case apart. He cast his musicians to play themselves rather than their instruments. His role resembled a film director more than a bandleader. His orchestra was his instrument. In addition, he was a composer and Basie wasn't and the dapper Duke looked sexier than the pudgy Count. Either way, Ellington seems to be better wearing the test of time.

But Basie's legacy deserves more attention. His band stood above the other so-called "riff bands" of the 1930s thanks to his minimal piano and to his principal soloist Lester Young, the "Mozart of the tenor saxophone." "Taxi War Dance," for example, starts with Young's floating, lyrical, still undated improvisation, and then there are riffs and more solos and more riffs and Young takes it out. There's no "tune." It was as much Young's band as Basie's.

After Young left in the 1940s, he could only afford smaller groups and he was fading away until the 1950s, when he formed a subtle and soulful wind machine, the essence of finesse, that put to rest the myth that it was not possible to play in tune and swing at the same time; as well as the myth that black bands could not play pianissimo. And for that matter, the myth that pianissimo was not commercial.

Basie's guitarist Freddie Green, who only knew how to play pianissimo, was now leading the Basie band from the middle. Although he never soloed, he was the power in the vacuum behind the throne of a bandleader who was known as "the little man who isn't there." Although it was the foundation, the listener felt his rhythm guitar but did not really hear it. You were not supposed to hear it. He would leave out half the notes of the chord to keep you from hearing it. It could sound as though there were two cellos walking with the bass. A delicate footpat.

Once, after Green told a new drummer to play something one way and Basie told him another, the drummer asked which of them was actually the leader. Without hesitation, Basie pointed to Green. It was also, to a large degree, the band of arrangers such as Ernie Wilkins, Thad Jones and Frank Foster, who knew how to use dynamics with sophistication. Neil Hefti's laid-back "Li'l Darlin'" was a commercial hit; as was the shouting "April In Paris." The album "Frank Sinatra At the Sands" (Reprise) accompanied by Basie playing Quincy Jones's arrangements in Las Vegas in 1966 was a marriage of people born to make music together and is a classic.

In a club, Basie would start a set with that minimal medium-tempo strum he was famous for while the audience went on talking and clanking their glasses, barely aware that the music had begun. Until a sudden fortissimo tutti chord in their faces blew their ears back. Then the audience would laugh and, after an instant drop back to pianissimo, applaud. A pianissimo being applauded is a miracle that deserves to be recalled.

Mike Zwerin has been jazz and rock critic for the International Herald Tribune for the last twenty years. He is currently writing a book called "Parisian Jazz Affair" for Yale University Press and he is the jazz editor of Culturekiosque.com. Zwerin who has lived in France for 33 years, was promoted recently from 'Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres' to 'Officier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres" by the French Minister of Culture.

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