Nobody questions the nobility of those two grandmasters of big-band jazz, Duke Ellington and Count Basie. They were the best.
Ellington issued his manifesto: "It Don't Mean a Thing, If It Ain't Got That Swing." But Count Basie made "that swing" the throbbing heart of his music.
Ellngton's music rose like a cathedral from the solid foundation of Harry Carney's baritone sax. Basie's band floated like a racing yacht on the rhythm guitar of Freddie Green, the mainspring of the Basie rhythm section. In his later years Basie even affected a yachtsman's cap and a double-breasted blue blazer.
Basie, the nonpareil proponent of swinging Kansas City jazz, was born 100 years ago on Aug. 21 - far from K.C. in Red Bank, N.J. The Maryland Conservatory of Music celebrates the Basie centenary Saturday at the Dr. Samuel L. Banks Professional Development Center, 2500 E. Northern Parkway, with a series of jazz workshops and a concert at 6 p.m.
Frank Foster, a tenor sax soloist, composer, arranger and then director of the band after Basie died in April 1984, will lead Baltimore's Big Band in a performance of the Count's music. Foster, 74, who played a big-voiced, hard bop saxophone with Basie for more than a decade, wrote "Shiny Stockings," one of the classics of the Basie repertoire. He'll conduct Saturday, but a stroke a couple of years ago left him unable to play.
Antonio Hart, a brilliant alto saxophone player half Foster's age, will play. A graduate of Baltimore's School for the Arts, Hart earned his bachelor's degree at Berklee School of Music in Boston, his master's at Queens College, N.Y., and his jazz rep with his buddy, trumpeter Roy Hargrove, bassist Dave Holland's big band and his teachers, Jimmy Heath, the tenor sax player, and Donald Byrd, trumpeter. Billy Taylor, the venerable doctor of jazz, says Hart "plays with fire, sensitivity and passion."
Sheila Ford, Baltimore's "so jazzy" vocalist, will sing with the band.
Count Basie remembered starting out in the 1920s when he went to hear and see Fats Waller play theater organ, accompanying silent movies at the Lincoln theater in Harlem. Waller began teaching him his stride piano style, with its steady, rhythmic left hand beat played against the improvised melody of the right. Basie reduced the often ornamental stride piano to its simple powerful essentials. He often moved his band with a single note.
Waller got Basie vaudeville jobs, and he went west with a little road show called Gonzel White and the Big Jamboree. He was a ballyhoo man who played piano on the sidewalk and hustled folks into the show. The Big Jamboree broke up in Kansas City, stranded Basie and made jazz history. The Count joined Walter Page and the Blue Devils, a Southwest territory band devoted to K.C. blues. Page, a bass player, would become a mainstay of the rhythm section - Basie, Freddie Green, Page and Jo Jones on drums - that propelled the Basie band out of Kansas City and into the jazz pantheon.
That Basie rhythm section powered a supercharged, swinging band that showcased a couple of generations of great jazz musicians, most notably Lester Young, who reinvented the tenor saxophone sound while in the band. But also Basie had players like Buck Clayton, Harry Edison, Clark Terry and Thad Jones on trumpet; Dickie Wells, Vic Dickenson and J. J. Johnson, trombones: and Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis, Wardell Gray, Frank Wess and Frank Foster, saxophones. Billie Holiday sang briefly with Basie, and Joe Williams and Jimmy Rushing created great blues over many years with the band.
The Basie band played John F. Kennedy's inaugural ball and a White House reception for Ronald Reagan. The band's music became jazz standards: "One O'Clock Jump," "The Kid From Red Bank," "Swingin' the Blues," "Jumpin' at the Woodside," "Clap Hands Here Comes Charlie," "Lester Leaps In," "Taxi War Dance" and "April in Paris," which Basie would prolong indefinitely, when it seemed to be over, by raising a finger from his seat at the piano and calling out: "One more time."
And so it goes on: Basie's music played again Saturday evening, "One more time."
For more information about Saturday's event, visit www.musicismagic.com or call 410-399-9900.
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