WORLD-FAMOUS COUNT BASIE ORCHESTRA PLAYS JAZZ DEPOT SUNDAY
Eighty-seven years ago this past summer, a piano player from New Jersey named William “Count” Basie stirred in his bed at Tulsa’s Red Wing Hotel, awakened by what he first thought was a phonograph record. It turned out to be a big jazz band called the Oklahoma City Blue Devils, playing off the back of a flatbed truck in order to drum up business for a dance that night. Basie was in town playing the Dreamland Theatre on Greenwood Avenue with a touring vaudeville act, and he hurriedly dressed and went out to see the group for himself.
In his autobiography, Good Morning Blues (written with Albert Murray), Basie described the unforgettable impression the Blue Devils first made on him. “I just stood there listening and looking, because I had never heard anything like that band in my life. . . There was such a team spirit among those guys, and it came out in the music, and as you stood there looking and listening you just couldn’t help wishing that you were a part of it.
“Everything about them really got to me,” he added, “and as things worked out, hearing them that day was probably the most important point in my musical career so far as my notion about what kind of music I really wanted to play was concerned.”
Basie went on to join the Blue Devils, and, later, Bennie Moten’s outfit in Kansas City, which eventually metamorphosed into the Count Basie Orchestra – the big band that epitomized Kansas City jazz. And some 79 years after Basie started his own group, it’s still an active and vibrant part of American’s pop-music scene. Currently on a national tour, the Basie Orchestra stops off Sunday at the Jazz Depot, playing a show only a few blocks south of the street where Basie first heard the band that changed his life.
“Count Basie’s sound wouldn’t be the same without the Oklahoma roots,” says Jason McIntosh, Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame CEO. “We are thrilled to have the Count Basie Orchestra back in Tulsa for the show, where it all started.”
Basie’s music is the only thing that’s returning, as the Count himself died in 1984. But it’s in the hands of people who know and appreciate its creator’s history. That includes the orchestra’s current leader, trumpeter Scotty Barnhart. He knows how important Tulsa was to Count Basie, and so do the rest of the members. Or, at least, they’d better.
“Everybody in this orchestra has a responsibility to know the whole 79-year history of the Basie band,” Barnhart says. “When people come in and don’t have that awareness, they end up leaving, or being asked to leave, because it’s too much of a problem.
“What it really comes down to is that you’ve got to have the right musicians who understand the history of the music. You have to have the right bass player, who knows how all the other bass players played. You have to have the right drummer, who knows how the other drummers played. It’s the same thing with the horn players in each section. For example, our lead alto, Marshall McDonald, knows exactly how the lead players in the orchestra played up until the time he became the lead player. If he didn’t know that, he wouldn’t know when to bend notes. He wouldn’t know when to hold notes a certain way, or do vibrato, or whatever. We’ve got to hold onto those things. We’ve got to keep doing the right thing.”
And the right thing – the Basie thing – has a lot to do with the blues.
“No matter what Basie played, you could still hear the blues in it,” explains Barnhart. “That’s the key. Basically, it’s all about the blues. No other orchestra in history can play the blues the way we play it. Basie had a very distinct way of playing – sophisticated and precise. It was never sloppy. It was never haphazardly put together. The orchestra kept playing the right music, and that’s part of my job today, to see that we keep playing the right things the right way.
“The older I get,” he adds, “the more I see that Basie was a genius. When you think about it, about what he was able to do, and the fact that his orchestra is still on the earth 30 years after he left – I mean, that’s incredible. When you close your eyes and hear us play for two seconds, you know it’s us. You don’t say, `Well, they kind of sound like . . .’ No, that’s us. And it’s a testament to him. He knew exactly what to do.”
Publicity for the group separates the Basie Orchestra into two periods: The “Old Testament” band, which existed between 1935 and 1955, and the “New Testament band,” beginning in the 1950s. One of the biggest differences in the two was the fact that the older group relied on “head” arrangements rather than written charts. And while the current band follows the New Testament style, Barnhart says he thinks it’s time to mix in a little of that Old Testament approach as well.
“I thought when I first became leader, and even before, we ought to go back [to head arrangements] on special occasions,” he notes. “Just start a riff going – it’s easy to do when you’ve got the right musicians, and we’ve got the musicians to do it. I think we can work it out well enough to make it a part of our regular concerts. And we just might be doing that in Tulsa.”
The Count Basie Orchestra is set to begin at 5:00 p.m. Sunday, October 19, at the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame, located in downtown Tulsa’s Jazz Depot, 111 E. First Street.
Tickets can be purchased at the Depot, from www.eventbrite.com, or by calling Bettie Downing at 918-928-JAZZ. General admission is $15, reserved table seating $25, or VIP table seating tickets can be purchased for $45.
The show is a part of the Jazz Hall’s 2014 Autumn Concert Series.
The Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame is a 501(c)(3) non-profit cultural and educational organization, with a mission to inspire creativity and improve the quality of life for all Oklahomans through the preservation, education, and performance of jazz, our uniquely American art form.