Whether he took the name himself or had the title bestowed on him, the late Count Basie will always be high on the lists of the American musical aristocracy.
The city of Annapolis will be able to enjoy his legacy at 8 tomorrow night at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts, when the celebrated Count Basie Orchestra performs as part of the annual Kunta Kinte High Heritage Day Celebrations. The visit is part of a tour that also included stops in Japan.
Although Basie died in 1984, the band continues to record and perform internationally under the direction of Frank Foster, a saxophonist. Typically, they are on the road between 40 and 42 weeks a year.
The citywide celebration marks the arrival in 1745 in Annapolis of African slave Kunta Kinte. His descendant, author Alex Haley, later researched his life during the writing of his book "Roots," an epic genealogical detective story that became an acclaimed TV series.
The theme of this year's celebration is "We Are Family," a sentiment that might truly be said to include the Count Basie band, which has been performing for 55 years. More than half of its current 19 members, including Foster, were recruited by the Count himself.
They recently released an album, "The Legend, The Legacy," recorded on the Denon label. It has already garnered three 1990 Grammy nominations: best instrumental album, best instrumental arrangement and best arrangement accompanying a vocal. Another album, "Big Boss Band," in collaboration with jazz guitarist George Benson, was released this month by Warner Bros.
Born as William, Basie played with the Bennie Moten Band until he formed his own in 1935, at a time when Duke Ellington, Earl "Fatha" Hines, and Benny Goodman, "the King of Swing," ruled their own musical domains.
Foster offered two theories as to how Basie became the Count. "One story is that a (disk jockey) put the moniker on him," he said, "Another story is that Basie picked it himself. But it was well deserved, because he certainly belonged with that royalty of musical innovators."
The band will perform a program of Basie standards as well as new material by band members and other composers.
One of the newest members of the Count's kingdom is tenor sax and alto flute player Doug Miller, who has been with the band for less than a year. No stranger to the style, his credits include time with the Lionel Hampton Orchestra, McCoy Tyner and Art Blakey.
Educated at the Berklee School of Music and the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, Miller also maintains that "big band is alive and well, especially the Count Basie band.
"There are some bands around that are basically doing nostalgia," he said. "Of course we do play our hits, like 'April in Paris,' and 'Silk Stockings.' The people wouldn't let us go if we didn't."
Veteran band member and fellow New Yorker Bill Hughes agrees that the Basie band is not stuck in the past: "Not this band. Keeping new music in front of the guys is probably what has kept us going. We're always either working on something new, or we have something new that we need to rehearse, although we still play the hits."
Hughes, a saxophonist, has been part of the band on and off for nearly 35 years.
"I joined the band in 1953," he said. "I stayed until 1957 and left for about six years. I came back in 1963 and I've been here ever since. Sonny Cohen, the band manager, is the only one who's been here longer, since 1960 or 1961."
Hughes, a professional musician since 1949, left the orchestra to spend more time with his family. But, he recalled, "I was approached several times by Basie to come back. I resisted at first, but I had a long talk with my wife and she agreed I should return."
Hughes recalls Basie as being "very wise, almost deceptively wise. He come over as being very simple, but was really very perceptive. He could tell any time what a guy was thinking about, before you opened your mouth."
Foster first played for Basie between 1953 and 1964 before moving on to other things. He rejoined the Basie band four years ago and has been in charge for the past three months.
Foster admits that nostalgia is a part of what draws audiences, but adds, "The big band tradition will be maintained throughout history, just like the symphony orchestra. It's an institution that goes on and on, constantly developing and creating new material."
He added that the public's response "from all generations lets me know that the big band's appeal is not just nostalgic. People who grew up listening to the Grateful Dead, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones are listening to us, and enjoy us, even if we don't generate huge crowds or make platinum records the way pop and rock groups do."
He remembers the Count as "soft-spoken, easy to work for, not overly demanding but exacting in what he wanted -- which was to keep the arrangements simple and swinging -- without being a despot. If he rejected something you wanted to do, he did it in a nice way."
But far from making the band his exclusive mouthpiece, Basie "often asked members for contributions to the band's repertoire, and he was very complimentary when it was good. He was a wonderful person to work for," Foster said.
Tickets for the Count Basie Orchestra are $25 for the performance, or $50 for both the performance and a special "Salute to Jazz" reception afterward.
Information: 841-6504, or 841-6281 after 5 p.m.