You might as well say swing began with Count Basie, 'cause if it didn't, I'm not sure it much matters otherwise. This documentary on the man doesn't quite put it that way but sure makes the fact quite evident. Besides his own unbelievable dexterity and consummate artistry, Basie was the first Miles / Mayall / Korner, the genius who created superstars because, when you played with him, you were terminally infected, and there was no hope save for greatness. Thus, Don Byas, Jo Jones, Billie Holiday, Joe Williams, especially Lester "Prez" Young, and many many others as the consequent proof of just how affective the piano playing gent was.
Amid a welter of direct takes of TV broadcasts and pre-video televised fantasias on songs, Jimmy Rushing particularly humorous in one, a history of Basie is given, beginning in the bootlegging days (liquor, not LPs) and his membership in speakeasy bands, recognized as a young man who could arrange as well as play. While so occupied, his style went from stride to swing, carrying 'blue devil' sensibilities forward no matter where he decided to go. Roscoe Lee Browne narrates the documentary in that smoky voice of his but the counterpoint to him is a fascinating round table of stellar musicians reminiscing on the old days: Illinois Jacquet, Al Grey, 'Sweets' Edison, the inimitably erudite Albert Murray, and others. Their memories alone make for riveting listening.
One of the silent keys to Basie's highly unusual success was his deeply felt working-man ethos. He didn't consider himself a 'boss', as is well attested by those who played in the band, and would take weeks, if that was needed, to get a tempo just right, working with the rhythm section and soloists. He was loved by those around him, gave all kinds of space for members to create on a personal level, and developed his own direction where spaces were as important as notes. He knew that no one better understood their part in the job to hand than the individual player (Hey!, is that Karl Marx I hear playing sax from the Great Beyond?). Miles went the same route in his ensembles, to the same effect on a whole new level, creating fusion.
Ahhhh, but, man, seeing the Count in action, you can't help but tap your feet, bop yer head, and seat dance while watching this hour-long testament to a giant whose work has never been either duplicated or equaled. Ellington and Hampton were marvels unto themselves, their music the two other parts of the Swing Triumvirate, but Basie was The Man. so much so that, by the time the whole gig winds down and the credits roll, you'll have zero reason to argue the point, smiling from ear to ear.
This DVD is one of four issued in a second wave by Naxos / Euroarts, an agglomerate in an ongoing series, all of which are the zenith of such documentaries. For the remainder of this "set" (they're available separately), see the critiques of John Coltrane (here), Bluesland, a blues history (here), and Sarah Vaughn (here).
Edited by: David N. Pyles
Copyright 2010, Peterborough Folk Music Society.
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