Count down for Basie

Count Basie makes a Personal Appearance

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From the TVTimes for week commencing 3 June 1962

SAID Count Basie: “So many jazzmen were being called King that I decided it was time I had a nickname”

We had just entered the Granada studio for a rehearsal of his hour-long Personal Appearance, which viewers will see on Wednesday.

The Basie group will be the first American big band to be starred in a British television show.

As the Count eased himself on to the piano stool, he told me his first name is really William.

He got it 58 years ago when he was born in Red Bank, New Jersey.

The Count rippled some fast single notes, stabbed the air with an index finger — and the entire 16 piece band swung into climactic sound.

The impact is as solid as the Rockies.

It has been that way for a quarter of a century. No matter how many musicians come and go within the orchestra — and many of the greatest names in jazz have worked under him at one time or another — the stirring Basie beat never wavers.

What kind of man is this thick-set maestro soon to be seen by ITV’s millions?

In a business which is often tough and always demanding, the Count moves around with a smiling affability and a built-in calm which few things, if any, seem able to disrupt.

Dave Lambert, the red-bearded leader of the Lambert-Hendricks-Ross singing team — you’ll see them, too, in the Basie show — told me:

“The Count is marvellous to work with. Mind you. he’s the boss all right, but he never becomes excited. If anybody gets out of line he just jerks his head sideways … and glares. I guess that’s always enough!”

There’s a story among musicians who have known him for years. Once a saxophonist, tickled by a hurriedly whispered private joke, laughed out loud during a performance, instantly, the Count slammed out a weird chord on the piano — and the saxman shot bolt upright as if his chair had suddenly become red hot.

For his television show the Count brings in a new singer whom he recently discovered in an obscure New York club.

She is Irene Reid, from Savannah, Georgia, a vivacious 31-year-old and the mother of four sons and a daughter.

Irene, who started singing at high school, is enthusiastic about working with the Basie band.

“It’s all so wonderful I can hardly believe it,” she said. “Hearing that tremendous rhythm section behind is just about the biggest thrill of my life.”

The Count learned piano from his mother. When he grew up he went on tour with a vaudeville group, finally landing in Kansas City.

“I was just a kind of honky-tonk piano player with the show and we didn’t have any big names in the cast and we didn’t do much business,” he recalled.

“When, inevitably, the show folded, I knew I couldn’t do any good sitting around feeling sorry for myself and wishing I’d never left home, so I started making the rounds to see if there might be a spot in town for a piano player.”

He found one — playing accompaniments to silent films. “I played for everything and anything, from horse operas to passionate romance films — great experience.” he said.

Four people singing
Ocie Smith joins the Lambert-Hendricks-Ross singers for a song. From left: Dave Lambert, Ocie Smith, Annie Ross and John Hendricks

Then he joined the almost legendary Benny Moten band. When Moten died in 1935 the Count formed his own group — and a radio broadcast from a small Kansas City station shot him to the stardom which has never left him down all the changing years.

Unlike some musicians, he doesn’t look down on all contemporary trends. The Twist, for instance.

“I like it,” declared the Count. “It’s good, swinging music for dancing — and basically, jazz is music for dancing. Yeah, you can tell everybody I’m for it.”

British bandleader Ray Ellington had dropped in to listen to the television rehearsal. Peering down like a friendly cliff, he said suddenly: “This is gilt-edged jazz.”

It was almost time for the show to go into another full rehearsal. Cameras were re-positioned, microphones regrouped. The subdued chatter of technicians and visiting musicians faded.

There was a tense hush. Then once again the rippled single-note introduction. A split second in which time seemed to hang suspended in the hot, still air.

Then the whole band was surging, like a vast, throbbing powerhouse, into One O’Clock Jump — the number most closely linked with Basie’s name.

I predict that in addition to the band, the Lambert-Hendricks-Ross singers will make a sensational impact on viewers. Perhaps the more appropriate word is unique!

The fetching Annie Ross who appeared several years back in the London West End revue, Cranks, has lived in America on and off for many years.

The Count, by the way, is happily married and has an 18-year-old daughter. She isn’t a musician.

I suggested that perhaps one in the family was enough.

The Count chuckled.

“Sometimes,” he said amiably, “sometimes it gets to be almost too much!”

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