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And now, on with the show:
Being an American musical legend doesn’t entitle you to royal treatment, unfortunately. Oftentimes, it’s the legends that play to 100 people, while the here-and-gones sell out the hockey rinks.
That’s what happened in December 1975, when my grandparents sat in a high school auditorium and saw a performance by a man acclaimed as American musical royalty.
Jazz pianist, composer and bandleader William “Count” Basie, born this week in 1904, had seen his best days by the time my grandparents saw him perform at Stamford’s Westhill High School. (A comedown, surely, from the days when Basie and ensemble played network TV shows and snazzy Las Vegas hotels.)
But Basie and orchestra owed no one any apologies in 1975 for being less commercially successful than they once were. Basie had spent 40 years both defining and sustaining the genre of big-band jazz, never losing the essential pulse and groove of the music.
In addition to its own recordings, the Basie band also backed some of the finest singers of its generation on records that still sound good today. (I have my other grandfather to thank for my LP copy of Frank Sinatra’s “Sinatra at the Sands,” which features Sinatra, Basie and band working out on a version of “Fly Me To The Moon” that takes off like Gordon Cooper in Faith 7. A studio version with a similar arrangement can be heard here.)
Basie’s main male rival, as far as jazz royalty went, was his fellow pianist and bandleader Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington.
As the child of a lifelong jazz fan, I had the Duke-vs.-Count situation explained to me at an early age. It was sort of a parallel, as I understood it, to the Beatles-vs.-Stones dilemma so beloved of rock n’ roll fans.
Ellington was a more cerebral and creative composer, a more devoted seeker of new tonalities, like John and Paul. Basie broke less new ground, but he just plain swung harder, like Mick n’ Keef.
Personally, I prefer Ellington. My dad prefers Basie. It is an amenable disagreement.
(Only about a year after the Westhill High concert, Stevie Wonder registered his own opinion on the matter. One of his greatest and most joyous singles sang the praises of “Basie, Miller, Sat-chi-mo, and the king of all, Sir Duke.” While I’m pleased to hear that Stevie is a fellow Duke man, I’d say his mention of both Ellington and Basie verifies that both men were geniuses. If Stevie digs ’em, that’s all the endorsement I need.)
That night in December 1975, my grandparents would also have seen a musical figure I’ve always found fascinating — assuming he wasn’t sick that night or something.
Guitarist Freddie Green joined Basie in 1937 and, except for a brief break in the 1950s, stayed with the band the rest of his life. Green used a big hollowbody guitar and played nothing but four-to-the-bar rhythm strums — chank chank chank chank — like a percussion instrument with dimly audible chordal overtones.
He almost never soloed — and when I say “almost never,” I mean once every couple of years, not four bars per gig. His professional life was devoted to providing the subtlest of rhythmic pulses, driving the groove with no desire for fame, recognition or volume. Few musicians have had a career so long and so nearly Zen in its selflessness.
(Green is quoted in the Wiki article linked above as saying, “You should never hear the guitar by itself.” How many professional guitarists have ever said that? It’s just a shame Yngwie Malmsteen never got stuck on a slow boat to China with Freddie Green.)
As for Basie, he would gig for another eight years or so after the Westhill High show, pretty much up until his death in 1984. Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead tells a great, oft-repeated story of seeing Basie a few weeks before his death, which is captured near the end of this interview. To Weir, Basie was an inspiration — proof that a musical craftsman can keep plying his craft until the very end.
I don’t know for sure what the set list was for the Westhill High show. I imagine it featured some of Basie’s best-known tunes, though, like “April in Paris” and “One O’Clock Jump.”
And I’m sure it was executed with enough class and professionalism to bring a touch of the Sands — a flash of high-wattage Vegas neon — to a high school auditorium in the ‘burbs.
Next week on 5,478 Days: The sporting life.