Among the nobility of jazz musicians two names stand out — the Duke and the Count. And while most faced with choosing between them would be likely to place the Duke at the pinnacle, and the Count himself gives place to the Duke, there would still always be those who would opt for the swinging blues of the Count as the top of the heap. And this is only right, because though both men led big bands, their musical genius pushed them in different directions with different sounds. The Duke moved from the dance hall to the concert hall; the Count stayed true to his dance hall roots. Dance hall, concert hall: in each neither man has his peer.
Nothing demonstrates Count Basie's eminence in the dance hall like the newly remastered documentary DVD, Count Basie — Swingin' the Blues, part of the Masters of American Music series from Naxos and EuroArts. The focus of the documentary, narrated by Roscoe Lee Browne, is on the music. There is some discussion of the man's life, but this is not a biography. The bulk of the hour long DVD is devoted to commentary by musicians that played with the Basie band — Harry 'Sweets' Edison, Earl Warren, Buddy Tate, and many others — and archival musical performances by some of the most respected names in jazz.
Basie was known among his fellow musicians as a band leader who gave his band members plenty of opportunity for solo work within the ensemble. Illinois Jacquet says the Basie orchestra was really a little band in a big band, everyone gets a shot at a solo, and there is a wealth of this solo work captured in the performances on this DVD. The 'Prez,' Lester Young and Herschel Evans battle on the tenor sax. Buck Clayton and 'Sweets' Edison swing on the trumpet. The work of what many call the greatest rhythm section in big band music — Freddie Greene, Joe Jones, and Walter Page — is highlighted. Basie band blues singers, Jimmy Rushing from the thirties and Joe Williams from the fifties are featured in characteristic performances.
Still, while these individual talents were given the opportunity to shine, this opportunity was always contingent on remaining true to the Basie sound. Band members interviewed make clear that the Count was a leader who knew what he wanted musically and knew the kind of men who could deliver the sound he was after. Al Grey, for example, tells how Basie critiqued one of his solos, telling him it wasn't necessary to play all his notes in one solo. Indeed the Count's piano playing was the essence of minimalism. He was the most economical of pianists, master of what is sometimes called the "one note style." According to Joe Williams, he "left out more than a lot of people play." Clean, sharp, and simple: these are the hallmarks of the Basie band's swinging sound.
Basie began in Kansas City with a local band which rose to national attention in the thirties. Famed promoter, John Hammond brought the band to New York and while they struggled early on, their stint at the Famous Door, a small club with a large reach made their name. Iconic records like "One o'Clock Jump" and "Jumping at the Woodside" cemented the band's popularity with the jitterbugging crazed public. The DVD includes plenty of footage of dancers old and young swinging to the Basie band. In the early fifties when the big band was falling out of favor, Basie turned to a six man combo for awhile, but soon returned to a new incarnation of his beloved big band.
Not only was his band one of the few to survive in the second half of the century, in some ways it became even more popular than ever. His band backed up some of the great singers of the day both on records and in performance. He recorded with the likes of Sinatra and Tony Bennett. He did television with Judy Garland. The DVD includes a clip of her singing "Strike Up the Band" with the Basie orchestra on one of her TV specials.
Like other DVD's in the Masters of American Music series, the best thing about this documentary is the emphasis on the music. There is nothing like extended performance footage to illustrate the greatness of a musician. All the talking heads in the world, whether they be critics or musicians themselves, can rarely account for genius with the clarity embodied in a performance. If you want to understand the greatness of the Count and his band, you have to hear the music, and there is plenty to hear on this DVD.