The Greatness of Count Basie

by Michael Palmer and Alan Shapiro

One of America’s most important and loved musicians was William “Count” Basie.  He was born August 21, 1904 and, beginning in Kansas City in the 1930s, the “Count” led one of the most swinging, bluesy and popular bands, setting bodies dancing and feet tapping all across the US and overseas.  Writes George T. Simon in his book The Big Bands:

“Blasting ensembles taking over from a light piano solo; big brass explosions behind a moving, murmuring sax solo; a bit of light piano tinkling after a brilliant brass barrage—these dynamic devices have always been part of the excitement that the Basie band has brewed.”

We can hear the thrill of that band in Simon’s enthusiastic description.  And he points to what we’re grateful to have learned from the education Aesthetic Realism, founded by the great American poet and critic Eli Siegel: when a thing is good or beautiful, it’s because it puts opposites together.  Mr. Siegel stated: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”  This principle, true about music of any style and period, makes it possible for people everywhere to see through the music we love what we’re most hoping for in our lives.

1. SADNESS AND CHEERFULNESS

The Count Basie Orchestra is known for its presentation of the blues in the big band style, featuring, over the years, such outstanding blues singers as Jimmy Rushing, Billie Holiday and Joe Williams.  At its best, the Basie band takes that feeling of the blues—which most everyone has felt—and gives it form, energy and liveliness.  In a lecture titled Poetry and Cheerfulness, Eli Siegel said:

“One of the important things about art is that it can take something sad and sincerely put it into a swift rhythm.”

A great example of this is one of the band’s signature recordings of the 1950s, “Every Day (I Have the Blues),” featuring Joe Williams.  From the introduction, with Basie’s distinctive piano followed by the full band, we feel immediately something sad has been given a cheerful, jaunty form.  Then Williams comes in singing:

Every day, every day I have the blues
Every day, every day I have the blues
Well you see me worry, baby, because it’s you I hate to lose.

Nobody loves me, nobody seems to care.
Nobody loves me, nobody seems to care.
Speaking of bad luck and trouble, well, you know I’ve had my share

The words are sad, but Williams sings with tremendous energy and a smile in his voice.  And the band backs him up.  While we hear saxophones wail, trombones moan, and trumpets shout, the music has great drive and vigor.

This is very different from the way a person can complain when that person feels blue.  Aesthetic Realism explains this exciting fact: that a man can actually like complaining—both of us did—because then he can feel superior to a world he sees as not good enough for him.  This is contempt, defined by Mr. Siegel as a “false importance or glory from the lessening of things not [one]self.”  We’re grateful to have learned that contempt is the beginning of all injustice; and also it’s the thing that saps a person’s life and has him dislike himself.  In today’s America, there are real injustices that people are forced to endure, as there were years ago when Basie recorded this song.  We should complain about injustice—but in a way that is beautiful, efficient and energetic.  One of the important things about the music of the Count Basie Orchestra is that it can present the blues with great energy and precision.  We hear an exciting composition of sadness and joy, of complaint and good nature.  Opposites are not fighting; they are beautifully one, and we feel we’re in a world that makes sense and can honestly be liked.  Justice wins, not contempt!

2. PRIDE AND MODESTY, ASSERTION AND RESTRAINT

A formidable pianist, William Basie could tear up the keys in the stride and boogie-woogie styles.  In the early days, the band’s blues singer, Jimmy Rushing, and Basie went many times to jazz clubs where there were piano contests.  “If Basie decided to go somewhere and break up the place, he’d just sit down and play,” remembered Rushing.  “Then, watch out! Nobody could do anything after that.”  Yet, as band leader, Basie became famous for his sparse solos.  He seemed to leave out more than he played.  Said Basie, “I’m a pace-setter, but really I’m only part of the rhythm section.  I figure that my job is to sort of feed the soloists and the band.”  And did he ever!  The list of men whose expression he encouraged in his band reads like a Who’s Who of jazz: saxophonists Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Illinois Jacquet, trumpeters Harry “Sweets” Edison, Buck Clayton, Clark Terry, guitarist Freddie Green, bassist Walter Page, and drummer Jo Jones, to name only a few.  So this man, through musical modesty and restraint, and support of other musicians, earned such respect he was given a royal nickname.

The way Basie as pianist and bandleader puts together assertion and restraint, pride and modesty is a lesson for every person.   In “The Aesthetic Method in Self-Conflict,” a chapter from his book Self and World, Eli Siegel writes about a representative person:

“Look at Jamison.  He is shy and he is arrogant; in fact he is like most people.  Sometimes, Jamison looks at himself and finds a person who is timid, wants to evade people, thinks people don’t like him; is unassertive and inferior.  At other times, Jamison is raring to go, feels like an excited regiment, and like a dozen energetic lions up to something.”

This describes something we felt.  In our own ways, each of us have gone from arrogantly asserting ourselves one moment, to feeling painfully timid the next.  Mr. Siegel continues:

“The question Jamison and other people face is:  Can, in one mind, feelings represented by superiority exist with feelings represented by inferiority?  Can we be both humble and bold at 3:30 P.M., Tuesday?—Only art shows that the answer is, Yes.”

At its best—and this is quite often!—Count Basie’s music is both assertive and restrained, proud and modest.  Isn’t that how we want to be all the time?

Count Basie’s music has been loved for nearly 70 years and is a lasting contribution the world of jazz and the culture of America.  It puts opposites together, including pride and modesty, cheerfulness and sadness, also freedom and order, surprise and continuity, and more, opposites all people want to make sense of in themselves.  Knowing this adds greatly to the enjoyment of Basie’s music and enables it to be truly useful to our lives—even beyond the dance floor or concert hall.  The education of Aesthetic Realism makes for a true celebration of the meaning and value of William “Count” Basie’s life work.

 

About the authors:

Michael Palmer is a writer and long time aficionado of the big bands.  Alan Shapiro is a jazz pianist and music educator.  Both are Aesthetic Realism Associates.