“The only count I know is Basie.”
I heard Frankie Manning say that at a workshop a while ago. He was talking about when he first started teaching again, after retiring from the postal service in 1987. People would ask “What's the count of that move?” and rather than try to break down the beats and bars of the step, he'd simply invoke his favorite band leader, and the writer of his favorite dance song – Shiny Stockings.
Frankie's not the only one who loves Count Basie. I'm a huge fan too. The Count, with his Kansas City influence was instrumental in bringing in the new smoother style of Jazz that I love, a style that would eventually lead to Bebop. He also gave many influential musicians their starts, including another personal favorite – Lester Young.
Because he ushered in the new Kansas Citystyle, because he began featuring more solos and riffs that would lead to bebop, because he played longer, more jam style pieces, and because he brought along so many virtuosic performers that would define the new styles, I've always thought that purists would have issues with him. I've always thought that they would blame Basie for starting things down the road that would lead to Jazz becoming more for listening and less for dancing. Or as Norma Miller says “...in the ensuing years they have taken the beat out of the music, and that's why music isn't danceable”. Nothing could be further from the truth though. In fact, Norma herself has said “I base all my rhythms on the Basie rhythms”.
Literally there's no single artist that I have heard praised by the original Lindy Hoppers more than Count Basie. He's the ONLY band leader I recall being consistently singled out by Norma and Frankie as THE beat to dance to. And I think that's because he did have all the skill and style and talent that would lead to smooth Jazz and Bebop right there in his band, and yet he kept it all firmly in a Swing framework. He explained it himself like this -
“The main thing a lot of people were wondering about was how much bop we were going to be playing. But as far as I was concerned, I didn't have any objections to new things as long as it all made sense, so there was little bop figures and also some bop solos, but we also had those shout licks and choruses and the rhythm had to be right. Because it wasn't a matter of trying to do something just to try to have a new sound; it all had to have a feeling.”
As much as I've come to love his music, the first time I ever heard of Basie wasn't about music at all. It was an old story that I heard before I even knew who he was, a story that I've always loved.
'I'm not returning until you fix it' band leader Count Basie told a club owner whose piano was always out of tune, and he walked out. Some time later the club owner called him to day the piano was fixed and asked if he would return. Count Basie did but the piano still sounded awful. 'You told me it was fixed,' he said. “It is,' said the club owner. 'Can't you see I've had it painted?'”
Count Basie was a regular competitor in Band battles and is known as one of the few who could beat Chic Webb. News clippings from the time portray a perpetually cool Basie riling Webb into exciting but ineffectual drumming frenzies like a Jazz version of Rope a Dope. If you want to relive a bit of that big band battle excitement from years of yore, you'll have your chance on the 26th of August at Hip Expressions in St. Pete when DJ Dominic does a whole evening of Count Basie vs Django Reinhardt. More information can be found here: http://www.thatdanceguy.org/node/1 .
And I leave you with this...