Count Basie Orchestra

In the 1930s and 1940s, Count Basie became one of the singular names of American musical civilization. There was no mistaking Basie or what the name stood for: a cool, shining zephyr of a rhythm section and a coterie of once-in-a-lifetime solo voices fanning out from its core. But if the original Basie formulation of the 1930s seemed gloriously original and spontaneous, it was also perilously vulnerable and mortal; dependent, as it was, on men with minds of their own.

And sure enough, by the late 1940s, Basie had lost most of those solo voices. But he soon came upon something that would prove far more enduring: the notion that the Basie sound could be distilled to a few fundamental essences, reconstituted in set ensemble structures, then permanently rebuilt on a scaffolding of written scores that are true to the essences, yet invulnerable to mortality.

Today, under the leadership of Grover Mitchell, that building process continues with the Basie essence still intact. Soloists such as Lester Young, Buck Clayton, Jo Jones, Joe Newman, Thad Jones and Eddie Lockjaw Davis have moved on. But the scaffolding is immutable in the arrangements of Neal Hefti, Ernie Wilkins, Quincy Jones, Bill Holman, Sammy Nestico, Allyn Ferguson, Frank Foster and others, custodians whose blue prints have institutionalized the Basie essence so that it will be experienced in performance for generations to come.

This is precisely the mission that has driven Count Basie Enterprises, the administrative operation behind the Basie Orchestra which has guided its growth and protected its integrity since Count Basie's death in 1984. "Our role has been to keep the Basie band a living, breathing, growing orchestra," says Aaron Woodward III, CEO of Basie Enterprises since 1984 and an uncompromising purist regarding all matters concerning Count Basie. "Above all, we want to keep the music true to the Basie way."

Considering this proud lineage, it is eminently appropriate that the Count Basie Orchestra should join forces in its latest CD, Count Plays Duke, with another eternal American presence, Duke Ellington. Basie and Ellington encountered each other directly in the celebrated 1961 meeting for Columbia Records called "Battle Royal." Today the Basie Band (joined by Frank Wess, who took part in the 1961 sessions) takes on a crop of Ellington standards fashioned in the Basie style by veteran arranger Allyn Ferguson.

Ferguson penned arrangements for the Basie Orchestra on an album with Sarah Vaughan in 1981. On Count Plays Duke, he demonstrates a deep affinity for, and understanding of, the Basie sound. Rather than undertaking the dubious task of "out-Duking Duke," he interprets the Ellington oeuvre in a distinctly Basie style. The result is an immaculately conceived melding of two classic jazz traditions: Ellington distilled through the style and sensibilities of Count Basie.

The current Basie ensemble is uniquely equipped to render this distillation. One reason is the remarkable continuity of personnel that continues to connect the past to the present in the band. There are five permanent members in the current Basie Band who played under Count Basie's personal leadership, starting with trombonist Bill Hughes, who joined in 1956, and proceeding through John Williams, Butch Miles, Kenny Hing and Clarence Banks. They are part of the musical DNA that is replicating the Basie spirit for present and future members who never played under Basie himself.

Add to this mix Grover Mitchell, a leader with deep roots in the Orchestra's history and long associations with its founder. A lyrical lead trombonist and soloist in the matrix of Tommy Dorsey, Lawrence Brown and Jack Teagarden, Mitchell worked with Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton briefly before joining Basie's Band in 1962. He left in 1970 and then returned in 1980 and remained until Basie's death in 1984. The Basie Orchestra has played under three directors since that time: Thad Jones, Frank Foster and Mitchell. All played under Basie, and learned his nuances firsthand, but none as closely as Mitchell. "I knew from the moment I joined this band, I was going to lead it someday," says Mitchell. "I can't tell you why, but I knew it was my destiny."

Mitchell's return to the Basie organization as director in 1995 began auspiciously with a new album, The Count Basie Orchestra with the New York Voices, Live at Manchester Craftsmen's Guild - and a Grammy Award, the 16th in the band's history. The CD, which included new versions of several long-dormant originals by Foster, Hefti, Wilkins and Eric Dixon, also served notice of Mitchell's long-term intent: to return the Basie sound to its roots. For while Frank Foster was a gifted arranger and soloist, it is acknowledged that as a leader he steered the band somewhat away from the center of the Basie tradition.

Under Mitchell, the band has returned to its hallmarks: swing, precision, and above all, a focus on the ensemble. The current aggregation has its share of great soloists, but Mitchell has stressed the totality of sound and the interplay among musicians. Says Mitchell, "A real good musician will reduce the way he plays in order to make a great group sound. Not everybody can handle that."

Another focus under Mitchell has been to play to the Basie Orchestra's greatest asset: its library. "There are treasures in the Basie book that haven't been played in years," says Mitchell, "brilliant things by Neal Hefti, Ernie Wilkins and all the others that are a joy to hear and play. We could play a different program every night and never repeat a tune. The library is that deep."

This is no exercise in nostalgia, however. Over its history, the Basie Orchestra rarely associated itself with the sort of passing fads that dominate the air briefly, imprint themselves on a certain moment, then vanish. It lived outside the hot house of mass culture. It played to its own traditions and aspirations at its own pace, because Basie was in it for the long haul. It took its time, accrued wisdom, and exerted growing influence. The Basie Band moved through time so smoothly and seamlessly, it became timeless.

This is why the huge body of work that is the Basie "book" looms so large in Mitchell's plans for the band. It is a treasure chest of music; seasoned, yet still fresh because so much of it has been unheard or under-heard for so long. To younger contemporary audiences, it is a bright, unexplored universe of big band experience. To veteran Basie listeners, it is part of a creative continuum that has been a classic presence in American music longer than most can remember. Nostalgia is simply not an issue. One cannot reminisce over things one has either never discovered or never been without.

Today, the Count Basie Orchestra continues to build new fans for itself the old fashioned way ­ by hitting the road, meeting its audiences and playing its music, night after night. It has managed to fuse contemporary sensibilities with its own traditions, in part because it is a genuine "working band" with the esprit de corps that comes from facing its listeners nightly, not a rehearsal unit playing for the recreation of its members or a studio unit that comes together occasionally to make a record. The Basie Band is that rarest of all musical ensembles today: a full-time touring jazz orchestra. Night in and night out, they let audiences experience firsthand that miraculous combination of power and grace that only exists when 19 jazz musicians stand shoulder to shoulder and call themselves a big band.

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