Friday, September 19, 2014
Count Basie gave us that "jumping" big band sound
When I think of Count Basie, I remember his steady and easy-going temperament. No volatile personality, unlike many music giants. William James "Count" Basie was a king of the big bands. He truly persevered. The apparent end of the big band era caused him to merely adjust. The great pianist tinkled the keys in combos for a time. He triumphantly re-formed the big band in 1952.
The "jukebox era" helped Basie get jump-started. Bebop came along as a wave and he made limited use. He got back into the comfortable pattern of touring and recording.
I had the pleasure of hearing the Basie band in the 1970s. I need to attach one big asterisk here. Basie was not present on the night when I heard the band. He had medical issues. He recovered and lived to age 80, passing away in 1984. I heard the Basie band at St. Cloud State University (MN), at the auditorium which is today named for Kimberly Ritsche.
Basie without Basie? It was very unfortunate we couldn't see and hear this "household name" entertainer. Oh, talented he was, but his own playing was not the kind of attraction as presented by Maynard Ferguson and Buddy Rich. To be blunt, Basie was in fact replaceable. People were pretty easy-going in accepting Basie's absence, as I recall. Surely a ticket-buyer could squawk some. Maybe some did. But it wasn't what you'd call an "issue." I remember the concert being promoted as "Count Basie swings and Joe Williams sings."
Well, the guy who was "swinging" at the keyboard was Nat Pierce. Musically I think he filled "the Count's" shoes fully adequately. I remember the audience enjoying greatly.
Interviewing keyboardist Pierce
I had a chance to visit with Mr. Pierce, a most agreeable fellow, before the concert. I had "press" status on behalf of the campus newspaper, the "Chronicle." He told me he first filled in for an ill "Count" in 1950. I suppose I should mention he was a white man. Unfortunately I use the past tense: I learn that Mr. Pierce left us for that ballroom in the sky in 1992. He died from an abdominal infection, the same affliction that caused Maynard Ferguson to depart for that grand ballroom.
Basie's band was known for being African-American in composition. Ah, but there was no hard and fast rule about this. Basie's allegiance was to music and not skin color. He came up during a time when there was a much greater sense in society that some divisions had to be acknowledged. Basie and Duke Ellington led bands that were African-American in image.
Nat Pierce was a wonderful musician who did a lot of jazz band arranging. He was closely associated with Woody Herman. He was noted for his ability to play piano in Basie style. "Jumping" is a word that comes to mind in terms of that band's style. Basie loved the blues. The band made its mark with the use of two "split" tenor saxes. Basie liked to emphasize the rhythm section. He brought the "riffing" mode to the big band format, with style and appeal.
Musicians of note refined their abilities with the band, this roster including Lester Young (sax), Freddie Green (guitar), Buck Clayton (trumpet) and Harry "Sweets" Edison (trumpet). The great Lin Biviano played trumpet with Basie on the night when I heard them at St. Cloud. Biviano would later come to our University of Minnesota-Morris as clinician for the then-young Jazz Festival.
Again I probably shouldn't mention this but Biviano is white. Let's emphasize that Count Basie had quite the open door to all great musicians regardless of such irrelevant considerations. He got started in a time when separation, whether real or "understood," was a reality. His preference I'm sure was to just rub shoulders with outstanding musicians. If only such generosity and open-mindedness had been exhibited by "the other side of the aisle."
I'm 59 years old so I remember when race was still an identifying badge of sorts. This sense hasn't been totally eradicated I'm sure. Today we have a rainbow of ethnic backgrounds amongst us, that ought to make us just shrug about such matters.
Pierce told me in my interview that Basie's piano playing had a "delicate" quality. That's a compliment, but this word would hardly be apropos for Maynard Ferguson or Buddy Rich. Yes, Basie was much more the complementary player.
Pierce told me the band rejected pressure to conform with all the new musical trends. They were quite fine with the standards they set in the '50s and '60s, he said. Let's make it clear: There would be no "disco" coming from this band!
The '70s pulled musicians in directions that never could have been imagined in the '40s. So-called "jazz-rock fusion" came at us. I say "so-called" because it never seemed to be a comfortable or natural hybrid. It seemed a band would go one way or the other. It would have a rock sound but incorporate a few improvised solos. The great Maynard Ferguson certainly embraced the hybrid model. Bill Chase, an alum of the Woody Herman band, took it further, so much so his band really could be described as just rock.
The older bandleaders incorporated the new stuff rather grudgingly, it seemed to me. When they had a choice, these guys went back to their roots. This we saw with the end of the disco era and the onset of the 1980s. Young people became more accommodating with their tastes. They were getting older! The boys who demanded the testosterone-infused "rock" sound with its intensity were mellowing, thank goodness.
Whereas "jazz" may have been considered "square" once, it was no longer so pigeon-holed. Ferguson comfortably went back to his roots, albeit less "famous" then he was for a time in the 1970s.
Making money vs. making art
I asked Mr. Pierce about the conflicting pulls of art vs. commercial appeal. "One hand washes the other," he told me. "If we don't succeed commercially, we don't eat, and if we don't achieve real artistry, we don't get a chance to do anything commercially. A band like this (Basie's) - people come to see this band for our music, not something else. We could go to Nashville and get some wah-wah pedals and do the whole thing up, but then it wouldn't be Count Basie anymore."
I recall five big bands touring in the 1970s and generating real excitement among my generation. Basie was in there. We loved Maynard, Buddy, Woody and Stan Kenton.
We played in high school "stage bands." The education system was a little averse to the term "jazz" then. Perhaps jazz suggested an underworld of sorts, consistent with how mere "blue jeans" - mere trousers, for crying out loud - somehow had a rebellious air that scared the education establishment. What "uptight" times. Come to think of it, blue jeans feel quite tight to wear. There's no connotations from so-called blue jeans anymore. Jeans and denim jackets seem rather yesterday.
Today schools proudly present "jazz bands" and "jazz programs," having tossed aside the "stage band" term. Any musical group plays on a stage.
I asked Pierce if the Basie band felt direct competitive pressure vs. those four other bands of the '70s I cited. "No," he said. "There's no other band of this type, this is it." He described the Basie band as more "mature" than some of the others, with members of longstanding membership - ten or 20 years. He talked about Don Ellis with "those freaky time signatures - 11/4, 13/12." Big band aficionados will smile with the mention of Ellis. He too has left us for that great ballroom in the sky, even though dancers would surely be stymied by his trademark unconventional time signatures.
"Some of it is interesting but no one can really feel that music," Pierce said.
I asked Pierce if the explosion of rock 'n' roll in the '50s was any sort of plague in his mind. Surely rock 'n' roll pushed aside the 'big band" in our consciousness. Pierce spoke like a true professional. He said that while the likes of Elvis Presley couldn't fit in his musical environment, he would hardly begrudge Elvis' success. "I'm happy for his success," Pierce chirped.
Professionals know how hard it is to make it by the bottom line. A musician should allow for generous respect for any artist who "makes it." Meanwhile they can all keep "doing their own thing" as Basie surely did.
"My own personal likes and dislikes are mine," Pierce said. "I don't have to go along with the tide." He did say "the tide" was a real temptation for others in his field. He said there was a trend toward mimicry. Surprise! Really, not so much. Success begets mimicry, and Pierce cited the band "Blood, Sweat and Tears" as a template-setter, as they seemed to spawn about five other like groups.
BS&T had a legacy
Bill Chase certainly developed a style that had similarities to BS&T. It would be unfair to say Chase was engaged in pure mimicry. Chase was a well-schooled and experienced musician having cut his teeth in an environment that Pierce would consider ideal. Perhaps Chase music ended up like BS&T for no other reason than the sound of the male vocalist! Actually it was Kenny Rogers who seemed to create this template for gravelly-voiced, restless-sounding male singers, reflecting the restlessness, I guess, of the 1960s.
Wasn't it Rogers who gave us "Just Stopped in to See What My Condition was in?" Bill Chase had Terry Richards and G.G. Shinn sing. Chase had the big hit "Get It On," remember? With the cascading trumpets?
The group "Chicago" seemed an outgrowth of what BS&T started. Pierce talked about the "bandwagon" effect of a new musical fashion, then said the Basie band didn't need to pay any special attention. In the '70s you occasionally heard the question of whether "the big bands could come back." For the record, Pierce said "no," there would be no true resurrection.
And today, I would assert there's a full musical plate for everyone. You like big bands? There's lots of enriching stuff out there. With the death of the "monoculture," we don't have to be so concerned with who's excelling on those commercial "charts." The charts can be considered a mere curiosity. The digital revolution with all its offshoots has enabled us to consume our own "thing" musically. Maybe we take it for granted.
In the '70s we had to worry about cultural trends burying us, disco being at the top of the list (and, "Smokey and the Bandit" movies high up there too). Ah, the '70s! We loved it and hated it.
The audience loved the Basie band's performance at Kimberly Ritsche Auditorium. Basie without Basie himself! It really didn't matter but it would have been wonderful seeing the iconic leader. He probably would have worn his trademark yachting cap - so in line with his breezy, easy-going nature. He is remembered as being considerate of musicians and their opinions. He was modest, relaxed, fun-loving, dryly witty and so enthusiastic about music.
Ah, the "Blazing Saddles" appearance!
Was there any better scene in the 1974 movie "Blazing Saddles" than where Basie's band appears in the desert? Along comes hero character "Sheriff Bart" (Cleavon Little) on his horse. Cleavon and the Count exchange a high-five. "Blazing Saddles" was the epitome of entertainment appealing to my boomer generation when young. Basie got a terrific career push being in this movie.
"Blazing Saddles" satirized the racism obscured by the myth-making Hollywood accounts of the American west. The townsfolk demand that the governor appoint a new sheriff. The rest is history. Cleavon Little plays the new African-American sheriff. Remember that guy on the rooftop trying to shout about how the new sheriff was a (insert objectionable racist term)? Remember how a ringing bell obscured that last word? A guy down below misheard and thought the guy said "the sheriff is near." We all have our favorite "Blazing Saddles" scenes. I consider "Blazing Saddles" to be a rather overrated Mel Brooks movie, while "Silent Movie" was underrated.
Way back in 1942, Basie did a spot in the movie "Reveille with Beverly," the patriotic musical film starring Ann Miller. In 1960 we saw Basie appear in the Jerry Lewis film "Cinderfella."
Count Basie had so many endearing qualities. His sheer longevity was impressive. On the piano keyboard he had an understated yet captivating style. He composed the band's signature tune "One O'clock Jump."
It was a radio announcer who, in an impromptu moment, called him "Count," a name that stuck. Honorary but most deserved royalty to be sure, so we can understand ol' Bugs Bunny calling him "The Count of Basie." I haven't been able to learn if there was a particular reason why the radio guy coined the name. Was it that royal angle - an aura of royal class?
Addendum: Have you ever felt humbled or powerless when at a bank or in the presence of financial services professionals? Bernie Woods told a story about Count Basie that would appeal to you. This was in his book "When the Music Stopped." Woods was enraptured by the big band era and bemoaned its end. He shared anecdotes about his experiences with many of the big band leaders. He was a music critic for Variety. "The music stopped," in his view, with the downturn for the big bands. Here's his little story about Count Basie:
I banked at the Chase Manhattan Radio City branch. On occasion when I went in to put or take I'd see Bill standing near the door. Each time he had a check issued by the Willard Alexander Agency, which handled his bookings. Whether the agency anticipated he would deposit the check elsewhere or had other ways of turning it into cash, I have no idea. Chase officials (squares) didn't know him and would not cash the check. "Base" would just stand near the door and wait for anyone he knew. On a number of occasions I OK'd it and he got his money. I cannot fathom the whole thing to this day. It would have been simple for Alexander to "okay for cash," since the agency must have banked at the same branch. Its offices were across the street.
I remember writing a letter in the "old days" (before electronic communications) to the Willard Alexander Agency, thanking them for getting Maynard Ferguson periodically booked in St. Paul. I got a nice little answer, thanking me and saying in effect, "keep the faith." How quaint. A pen-on-paper letter with stamp affixed, going out to a New York City office and prompting a like reply. Today everyone is so snowed under with e-mails, it's nigh impossible to get attention outside your personal circle of friends.
A further note re. Bernie Woods: the critic would not be so indifferent about the wave of new popular music of the '50s, not like Nat Pierce who was inclined to simply respect fellow professionals. It's hard work making money in music or with any art form. Woods saw the new stuff as intrusive and rather an abomination, but let me just quote from the final chapter of his book:
90 percent of rock music is a crime against the word "music," and 90 percent of the "performers" who feature it commit crimes against the word "talent." Performers and purveyors of this blight on music and song call it entertainment. What sort of entertainment can it be when a member of Blind Melon, a group with a hit record, injects into its performance the "art" of stripping to the skin onstage and urinating, as happened during a recent concert in Vancouver, British Columbia?
And how about that great "performing artist" Madonna?
Or, the world-renowned Michael Jackson, part of whose onstage entertainment is repeatedly stroking his crotch as he works.( His sister, La Toya, does the same thing.)
At this point the modern music world might invent a new word to describe what it puts before the public in the guise of "entertainment." It certainly isn't that. Whatever it is, it is at least partially responsible for the habits and violence of the younger generation.
Author Robert Weaver once wrote that nostalgia isn't when you want to go back. Rather it's when you want to go back and know you can't.
Time, oh time, turn backward in your flight!
In the '70s we didn't really have to "go back." We had Count Basie!
Count Basie, RIP. Nat Pierce, RIP. In my dreams I'm a "sideman" with those guys. Buddy Rich is the drummer up there in heaven. Buddy would sometimes say in front of his band "give me an 'A'." And the band was ready with the instant rejoinder "Ayyyye. . ." Jazz band artists have a sense of humor that would be therapeutic for us all.
- Brian Williams - morris mn Minnesota - firstname.lastname@example.org