Count Basie in 2004

Count BasieCentennial Celebration Notes
Count Basie in 2004
by Mark Ruffin

As jazz music moves firmly into its second century, there will be more centennial celebrations, to be sure. In case you missed it, America is supposedly spending 2001 honoring the 100th birthday of Louis Armstrong. The jazz community is doing an admirable job memorializing one of the founding fathers of the music. But does the rest of the nation, or even the general African-American community even care about Armstrong?

Two years ago, it seemed different with the celebration of Duke Ellington’s centennial. The mainstream media took more to the Duke, it seems, with bigger stories, and more of his music being played in surprising places.

Schoolteachers had time to explain Ellington to children, and even some pop musicians were giving his music a try. That kind of spark doesn’t seem to be happening this year for Armstrong, a man who really paved the way for Blacks crossing over into mainstream White media.

Maybe the intensity will pick up as Armstrong’s actual birthday, August 4th, approaches. The Duke’s birthday is in April, and Ellingtonia began early in ‘99 and steamrolled through that summer.

Not that the Armstrong estate isn’t having a banner year with records sales 30 years after the trumpeter death. However, that is due mostly to the incredible impact the Ken Burns PBS series, “Jazz,” had on vintage jazz record sales during the first half of this year.

The next really big centennial celebration won’t happen in jazz again until 2004, when this writer predicts the 100th birthday party for William “Count” Basie, will be on par with the Ellington year-long love-fest two years ago.

The chief reason for this bold assessment is that the Count is still here and vital in spirit. Proof is plainly evident as the Count Basie Orchestra is currently on its world tour.

There’s an old joke about Basie’s late guitarist Freddie Green, who never missed a beat. During a song, he went out for a cigarette and the guitar kept strumming. Well, after Basie died in 1984, his band kept on humming. Led first by Thad Junes, and then Frank Foster, the incredibly strong Basie band is now led by Grover Mitchell, who seemed to have been born for the job.

This is not some ghost band out milking the name of a great man with a bunch of young musicians with no link to the leader. There are five permanent members in the current band that played under Count Basie’s personal leadership, including trombonist Bill Hughes, who joined the band in 1956.

Mitchell played with both the Ellington orchestra and that of Lionel Hampton’s, before first joining Basie in 1962, (Hampton, by the way, might still be around when we celebrate his centennial in 2008. ) Mitchell left in the 70’s, and returned to the group in 1980, four years before the leader died.

Out of the 17 Grammy awards, the Basie band has one, astoundingly; eight have come after he passed away in ’84, including the award two years ago for Best Big Band Performance. Not only is the band still highly creative and true to the Basie sound, but they’re still active with a touring schedule on par with that of a big name pop group.

The band was legendary for it’s resiliency when the leader was alive, having weathered, rock & roll, Motown, and jazz/fusion. That trait continues through the 21st century as they’re still recording and major record companies are signing young White swing bands heavily influenced by the Count.

This new movement, that some call neo-swing, is sure to continue to grow. If any of those bands crossover with a pop hit in the next three years, that will surely fuel the fire for a Basie celebration in 2004, which is also the 20th anniversary of his death.

Because of these recent celebrations, the new swing movement and Burns film, among other factors, the profit margin in marketing dead jazz players, rather than signing those still with us, has increased at least ten-fold in the last few years. Jazz departments at record companies actually compete with their old catalog.

Sony and the Universal Music Group, two of the largest international record companies and owners of most of the original Basie band recordings, are certainly circling 2004 on the calendar. This time though, they’ll have some live competition, and the Basie band is sure to come out swinging.