Count Basie Orchestra still has that swing almost 80 years later

PUBLISHED : Monday, 01 December, 2014, 5:28pm
UPDATED : Monday, 01 December, 2014, 5:28pm

Much attention has been lavished recently on vintage rock bands such as The Who and The Rolling Stones reaching their 50th anniversaries. But for sheer longevity, none can compare with the Count Basie Orchestra.

Next year the ensemble will reach 80, although unsurprisingly, no member of the original line-up survives.

Pianist William James "Count" Basie - who founded the orchestra in 1935 - died in 1984 at the age of 80, and there are now only two musicians left in the band who he personally hired. Vocalist Carmen Bradford joined in 1983, and trombonist Clarence Banks joined in 1984.

Nevertheless, since 1984, a succession of leaders has ensured that the band, with its periodically changing personnel, has kept the swinging spirit of its heyday alive.

The current leader, trumpeter William "Scotty" Barnhart, joined the orchestra in 1993 and is the first leader not to have played with the band during Basie's lifetime.

Barnhart took over last year from drummer Dennis Mackrel, assuming responsibility for one of the greatest legacies in jazz.

The Count Basie Band has at one time or another featured some of the most important soloists and rhythm players in the genre. Among them are trumpeter Buck Clayton, saxophonists Lester Young, Herschel Evans and Wardell Gray, drummers Jo Jones, Buddy Rich and Sonny Payne, bassist Walter Page and guitarist Freddie Green.

Vocalists who have fronted the band include Billie Holiday, Jimmy Rushing, Joe Williams, Billy Eckstine, Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra.

The band had two classic eras. The "First Testament" group of the 1930s and '40s had Kansas City blues roots and thrived on arrangements worked out by the band.

The '50s line-up moved the swing-era big band sound into new territory, with classic albums such as The Atomic Mr Basie and April In Paris, using arrangements by Neal Hefti, Sammy Nestico and Quincy Jones, among others.

A succession of leaders has ensured that the band, with its changing personnel, has kept the spirit of its heyday alive

April in Paris by Vernon Duke and Yip Harburg became the signature tune of the "Second Testament" band, as Basie's 1937 composition One O'Clock Jump was for the first.

The weight of the heritage fortunately does not impede the Swing, and the tradition of star vocalists is maintained with the presence of Carmen Bradford.

She appeared on two Grammy Award-winning albums with the orchestra in the '80s and later collaborated on a third, Big Boss Band, which featured George Benson singing How Do You Keep The Music Playing? Alexander Stewart will also be singing.

Notwithstanding the importance of soloists and singers, the appeal of the Count Basie Orchestra has always rested in its collective punch.

In Eminent Hipsters, Steely Dan's Donald Fagen wrote of "seeing the mighty Count Basie band at a matinee at Birdland, with the great Sonny Payne on drums. When the whole band pumped out one of those 13th chords, you could feel the breeze on your face".

This should be a swinging night.

Count Basie Orchestra, Sun, Dec 7, 7.45pm, The Venetian Macao, HK$200. Inquiries 6333 6660 (HK) or (+853) 2882 8818 (Macau)