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Jazz orchestra plans swingin’ tribute to Count Basie

Count Basie and his orchestra playing to a packed house at Carnegie Hall on July 1, 1977 at the Newport Jazz Festival.  (AP Photo/Rene Perez)

Count Basie and his orchestra playing to a packed house at Carnegie Hall on July 1, 1977 at the Newport Jazz Festival. (AP Photo/Rene Perez)

The Capitol Center Jazz Orchestra is back with the latest installment in its “Moment in Time” series, this time performing the music of legendary big band leader Count Basie. A fantastic program of swinging Basie classics is on deck for the Sunday concert.

Basie hits like “Swinging the Blues,” “One O’Clock Jump” and “April in Paris” will be featured at the Capitol Center show. And to kick the band into overdrive, world-renown drummer and Basie alumnus Butch Miles will take over the drum chair.

William “Count” Basie was one of the pre-eminent bandleaders to emerge from the 1930s swing era. Along with Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Stan Kenton and Paul Whiteman, Basie was instrumental in the development of big band jazz.

But Basie’s music was different than the rest. With his emphasis on hard-driving swing, Basie developed an exciting brand of jazz all his own. Ellington’s band focused on elegance and refinement, Whiteman on classical orchestra styling. Goodman built his band around his own clarinet virtuosity, and Kenton focused on orchestration and tonal colors. With Basie it was all about swinging the blues.

In the early 1930s, Basie developed his band in the fertile musical environment of Kansas City. The city was a wide-open red light district that simply ignored liquor laws. People went out every night looking to dance, drink and have a good time.

There were honky-tonks scattered across the city and hundreds of jazz musicians played in them all night long. Bands would wail into the early morning hours in a nonstop party. The general atmosphere of the jazz scene was raucously free and open. The music of that era (called the Kansas City Stomp style) made Basie famous.

The Kansas City style has

a few features that make it different from other styles of jazz.

∎ First was the hard driving “swing” that Basie’s band was known for. Swing, that hard-to-define lilting way in which jazz is interpreted, is the primary element of jazz and, nobody swung like Basie.

∎ Second, Kansas City style features a strong accent on every single beat, a “four-to-the–bar pulse” that drives the rhythm section forward.

∎ Also, since Kansas City clubs were open late, bands often had to “stretch” their tunes in order to keep the music going all night long. Soloists were allowed to play extended solos, as long as they wanted. A song could go on for hours.

∎ Finally, during those long jam sessions, spontaneous “riffing” (a repeated, improvised melody) became common. Riffing became such a perfected art amongst Kansas City musicians that the best bands could collectively improvise an entire arrangement live onstage in front of an audience. This became knows as a “head arrangement.” The Basie musicians were masters at head arrangements. “One O’clock Jump” and “Swinging the Blues” are examples of well-know Basie tunes that were originally head arrangements.

Great musicians

In 1937 Basie left Kansas City and moved the band to New York. By then the swing era was sweeping the country and big bands were taking off. Now based out of Harlem, Basie had access to the greatest musicians in the country and brought many superstars into his band.

Key players in his group were tenor sax titan Lester Young, who along with vocalist Billie Holiday contributed to the laid-back relaxed swing style of the band. Drummer Jo Jones kept the band swinging hard through the war years until he was drafted in 1944 and replaced by Buddy Rich. The vocalists who performed with Basie were a “who’s who” of jazz singers: Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Joe Williams, Billy Eckstein, and many more.

In the 1970s, Count Basie hired a young upcoming drummer named Butch Miles to substitute for his band’s drummer.

“I was out of work, didn’t have a job playing anywhere and nothing was happening.” Miles said in a recent interview. “I was pretty down so to take my mind of everything I went to the movies to see that new Mel Brooks Blazing Saddles. I’m watching the movie, and there’s a famous scene where the Basie band is just sitting there in the desert playing ‘April in Paris.’ ”

Miles continued, “That was a Monday night. Tuesday morning my phone rang and it was the Basie band calling me to join them.”

There had been a car accident, and Basie’s drummer was injured. With a recommendation from Buddy Rich, Basie called Miles to fill in. The only catch was Miles had to be in Chicago that night.

“So I grabbed my drums and my suit and flew to Chicago that day. I got to the club, set up my drums, had diner and waited for the band to arrive.” Eventually the band showed up right before the start time. Miles, who hadn’t rehearsed with the band before, was about to get his initiation.

“Suddenly Basie finally walked onstage and started playing the intro, and we hit . . . and that was it.”

Miles would stay with the band for the next four years, touring the world, and play with jazz greats such as Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Benny Goodman, and Dave Brubeck. In 1976 Miles even played a Royal Command Performance for Britain’s Queen Elizabeth.

On Sunday, Miles will be featured on several tunes selected to display his bombastic and visually exciting style. And, as part of the CCJO’s new Education Outreach Program, Miles will hold a 3 p.m. pre-concert lecture and clinic to discuss jazz drumming and his life with the Count Basie Orchestra. He will also attend a post show meet-and greet reception in the Governor’s Hall.

Both the clinic and reception are free for ticket holders. The orchestra will also offer younger music students a significantly reduced ticket rate for the concert. For each adult ticket purchased at the $45 level, a student ticket may be purchased for $20.

(“A Moment in Time: A Tribute to Count Basie Featuring Drummer & Basie Alumnus Butch Miles” will be Sunday 4 p.m. Tickets are available at the Capitol Center box office, by phone 225-1111 or online at ccanh.com.)

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