Milestones: May 7, 1984

Milestones: May 7, 1984
William Basie: 1904-1984The rotund man with the barrel chest and impeccable mustache would sit
down at the piano, pop his fingers a couple of times to get the rhythm
just right and, boom, his band would take off. Reeds and brasses would
blast out in an ensemble sharp enough to shave with, trombones
explosively punctuating the seductive murmurs of the saxophones. As the
smoke cleared, there would be the piano, light and airy in the right
hand, gentle in the left, keeping the whole thing together. “I'm only
part of the rhythm section,” William Basie would say. “I'm a
pacesetter.” When he died last week of pancreatic cancer at 79, the man
from Red Bank, N.J., Kansas City, Mo., and the swing clubs of New York
had indeed set the pace for one of the century's most accomplished jazz
bands.Basie was not the compositional innovator that another of jazz's crowned
heads, Duke Ellington, was, nor an instrumental virtuoso on the order
of the Earl, “Fatha” Hines. Rather, the Count's talent lay in his knack
for organizing the tightest, swingingest bands in the land; populating
them with some of the best sidemen ever to grace a dance floor or a
recording studio, including Tenor Sax Player Lester Young, Trumpeter
Buck Clayton, Drummer Jo Jones and Blues Singer Jimmy Rushing; and
later backing the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra. Although
his elliptically eloquent, spare style of playing, influenced by Fats
Waller, gave his band its characteristic texture, Basie slyly
soft-pedaled his technique. “I just play my one or two notes and don't
worry about keeping up,” he said a couple of years ago.The first of the great Basie bands was formed in 1935 in Kansas City, a
wide-open town where the beat went on 24 hours a day. Basie, who had
been stranded there seven years earlier after the breakup of a
vaudeville show he had been traveling with, put together a nine-piece
combo. Discovered by Jazz Critic and Record Producer John Hammond
shortly thereafter, the Basie band went to New
York in 1936. The next year the release of the bouncy One O'clock Jump
made the Count a celebrity.Although Basie employed talented arrangers in later years, many of his
early hits, including One O'clock Jump and Jumpin 'at the Woodside,
began as improvised “head arrangements.” “We were
fooling around at the Reno Club, and Basie was playing along in
F,” recalled one of his men. “He hollered at me that he was
going to switch to D-flat and for me to 'set something.' I started
playing that opening reed riff on alto. Hot Lips Page jumped in with
the trumpet part without any trouble, and Dan Minor thought up the
trombone part. That was it.” That was One O'Clock Jump.Throughout his career, Basie was constantly being compared to Ellington.
Typically, his modesty precluded such notions. Once, when the Basie and
Ellington orchestras combined for a recording, the Duke asked Basie to
solo in Take the “A” Train. “You know what I did? I ran
for the door,” said Basie. But he could always look back with
pride at one night in Kansas City in 1936, when the two bands battled
for the first time. As Rushing recalled, the Count outswung the Duke.