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Music

“Where is that no count rascal?”: The life and times of the beloved jazz master Count Basie

@TomTaylorFO

The word jazz is often exclusively followed by the word aficionado. It is not a descriptive that you find in the lower brow circles of the music world. For instance, you don’t really get pop or folk aficionado’s; you simply get fans. This was a case in point seized upon by the Coen Brothers in their fictional folk biopic Inside Llewyn Davis, as a jazz pianist meets with the folk playing lead and condescendingly asks: “Folk? What’s that? Four chords on a ukulele?” 

In many ways, this is how the golden age of jazz is remembered. The scene was awash with masters reinventing the vocabulary of music. Stars like Thelonious Monk could sit down at the piano and play it as though he was summoning assistance from the underworld in a slurry of notes that would only seem fathomable on a piano a half-mile long. And to a lot of laymen out there, they weren’t fathomable at all. The raucous grandiloquence of such an unfettered display of talent was difficult to comprehend for those casually trying to grasp something so gargantuan, hence why you needed the keen interest of an aficionado to get to grips with it. Or at least for the most part.

Count Basie was the necessary ‘on the contrary’ that the golden age needed. As he poetically said himself, “I think the band can really swing when it swings easy, when it can just play along like you are cutting butter.”

When it comes to Count Basie, this butter-cutting big band propagation was music that flowed on emotion. The jazz he gleefully orchestrated with the ease of a bird whistling its half notes had more swing than a baseball playing octopus and more emotional exuberance than an Oscars afterparty.

That is not to say that the likes of Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker and other players who went the way of be-bop were reticent technicians — their playing is as soulful as any — it’s just that Count Basie and his band exhibited all the ambiguity of a clear blue sky in July and offered up a musical boon with all that same vitamin dosed goodness. For this reason, he was adored by ardent aficionados and the casual ukulele loving crowd alike, helping to bring jazz to the masses without stripping the swinging horizon of any of the genres’ inherent picturesque moody clouds. This marriage of technical brilliance tempered by the simple expression of emotion was seeded at the confluence where an individualistic character meets with fated happenstance. As he once said himself, “the real innovators did their innovating by just being themselves.”

Born William J. Basie, the man who would pick up awards at the first-ever Grammys was always surrounded by music. His family owned an old beat-up piano, and, following the sad passing of his brother James in childhood, his mother, Lilly Ann Basie, was determined to have the balm of music fill the family home. Lilly Ann would pay a hard-earned 25 cents per lesson to teach William to play. 

In order to help out with the family needs, William took up a job at Red Bank’s now-defunct Palace Theatre. And in a tale akin to something from a black & white movie, the piano player failed to show up one day. Thus there was no music to accompany that afternoon’s reel of vaudeville footage. Basie offered up his services as a stand-in but was shooed away like every young whippersnapper who gets above his station always is in the movies. Staying true to his role, young William snuck away from his post in the projection room. He perched himself defiantly behind the piano, and his fated start in the music industry met its prognosticated first chapter. Naturally, he did such a good job that he was asked back for the evening slot. 

This near-fictional sounding genesis would actually be an introduction to performing that seemed central to what followed when viewed in the light of retrospect. The Palace Theatre was a humble abode to house a debut jazz-upstart. Far from the dog-eat-dog world of a dingey jazz bar where ego had its rightful place in ensuring the miasma of the performer was perfunctory amidst the cacophonous cloister of the clambering club, contrastingly, the theatre provided a faceless platform where entertainment and entertainment alone was king. 

Following this early performance, however, Basie decided that he wanted to be a jazz drummer. Then he heard Sonny Greer play the sticks and found him so obviously superior to himself that he not only seemed willing to fall on his sword and get back on the piano stool. Moreover, he even seemed relieved. This acceptance of his own limitations, recognising the brilliance in others, and a c’est la vie attitude to whatever shortcomings should befall him primed him perfectly to become the beloved bandleader that he eventually was. And as fate would have it, he would go to perform with Sonny Greer in a duo from time to time. 

In his early years in the industry, Basie secured himself work travelling with a vaudeville circuit, recorded reels of which would make their way back to the picture house where he worked as a boy. As he departed his teens for his twenties, he slowly segued into the world of big band jazz. After one tour was cancelled midway through the run, he found himself stranded, but with his ever-present sunny disposition, he was able to gladly reconcile this bump in the road with the happy happenstance that he was stranded in the jazz capital of the world at the time, Kansas City. 

Therein he would join various bands in various roles until he found himself as the leader of Count Basie and his Cherry Blossom Orchestra, having usurped his friend Bennie Moten as the group’s leader. And, according to Basie, it was Moten who gave him his nickname to boot. Basie recalled it was bestowed on him by Moten in tribute to his cheeky habit of slipping off mid-practice session. As soon as they got a few bars into the run-through, Basie would sneak away, leaving Moten to yell, “Where is that no count rascal!”

Even this pithy tale behind his nickname serves as a vignette of how his smiling sanguine singularity stood him in good stead to pioneer the breeze-brisked beauty of swinging jazz. He was simply too loveable and full of life not to admire and too brilliant to begrudge. 

In 1937 a young music writer named John Hammond discovered Count Basie playing with His Barons of Rhythm in a Chicago nightclub, and the rest, as they say, is ancient history. The pair formed a lifelong friendship, and Hammond put him on the bill at the iconic Spirituals of Spring concert at Carnegie Hall, and Count Basie’s name would reside amid the big band greats forevermore.

In his career, he not only worked with legendary names like Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra, but he also made a marked influence on jazz as a whole. The simple beauty of his work opened the door with a come hither endearment of sonic emotional majesty in motion that welcomed people to explore the wonders of jazz that lay beyond. 

In short, his music and life were a swinging declaration of the simple joys of being alive that invoke the following piece of prose from the soul and swing loving writer James Baldwin: “All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it. And even then, on the rare occasions when something opens within, and the music enters, what we mainly hear, or hear corroborated, are personal, private, vanishing evocations. But the man who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air. What is evoked in him, then, is of another order, more terrible because it has no words, and triumphant, too, for that same reason. And his triumph, when he triumphs, is ours.”