Basie box set filled with enduring gifts

By KEN FRANCKLING, United Press International  |  Oct. 23, 2003 at 6:25 PM
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The Count Basie Orchestra was the hardest swinging big band in American jazz history, arguably even the most swinging band of any size and context.

It survived long after the Big Band Era, which peaked in the 1930s, '40s and '50s. And it kept its essence even after the death of its leader some 20 years ago, thanks to the savvy leadership of Thad Jones, Eric Dixon, Frank Foster, and most recently, trombonist Grover Mitchell, who died this year. Each kept it from turning into an "in name only" ghost band as so many big bands have become in the past five decades.

The band never lost its swinging soul -- or the ability to make every listener tap his or her feet. It thrived on live performance, and the sheer volume of its recordings was impressive as it made its way from Kansas City to Carnegie Hall and around the world.

The most ardent Basie Band audiophiles want it all - and think they have it all.

So how does a record company keep putting out material by one of the most recorded big bands in jazz history -- 20 years after the leader's death? In the case of the Count Basie Orchestra, it is by delivering a thorough compilation of 15 years worth of material -- including 19 previously released live radio performance airchecks.

Columbia Legacy is out this month with "Count Basie and his Orchestra: America's #1 Band," a 90-song, 4-CD boxed set that spans all of the recordings the band and some of his smaller combos (such as Jones-Smith Inc., Basie's Bad Boys and the Count Basie Octet) made for the Vocalion, Okeh and Columbia labels between 1936 and 1951).

Much of the original material was produced by the legendary John Hammond, who discovered the band in 1936.

Significant musicians who worked with pianist-bandleader Basie during this period included Lester Young, Walter Page, Freddie Green, Jo Jones, Clark Terry, Buck Clayton and Harry "Sweets" Edison, Coleman Hawkins, Buddy Tate, Illinois Jacquet, Wardell Gray, Buddy Rich, Buddy DeFranco and singers Jimmy Rushing, Helen Humes and Billie Holiday.

"In almost every way, this group was far more creative and 'modern' than any of the later Basie Bands," said Loren Schoenberg, bandleader and executive director of The Jazz Museum in Harlem. "The soloists were superior, the arrangements far more original and perhaps most significantly, the band's rhythm section (notably Page on bass and Jones on drums) was simply one of the best in the entire history of jazz."

Most of the material here has been remastered and sonically improved from scattered, previously released recordings. The most notable exception - to the glee of completists -- is Disc 4. It contains 22 airchecks from broadcasts the band made live from several restaurants, clubs and ballrooms. They were New York City's Savoy Ballroom in 1937, Famous Door in 1939 and Café Society Uptown in 1941; Boston's Southland Theatre Restaurant in 1940, Chicago's Panther Room in 1939, and Cedar Grove, N.J.'s, Meadowbrook Lounge in 1937.

Only three of the aircheck tunes were previously authorized for release. They were 1937 tracks of the Basie band with singer Billie Holiday - "They Can't Take That Away From Me," "Swing, Brother Swing" and "I Can't Get Started." All were released on a 1964 Holiday album.

"Although Billie Holiday sang with the band for a year, they never recorded together (in studio) due to her contract with a rival recording company. Luckily, John Hammond preserved a couple of airchecks that give us the only examples of this magical union," Schoenberg said.

Airchecks come as close as possible to what fortunate Basie Band fans saw, felt and heard in live settings.

"These broadcasts perfectly complement the famous studio recordings," Schoenberg said. "Here is the band as it sounded on the job. As you delve into the first broadcast, it should not be too hard to imagine that you are in New York City, in a tiny room on West 52nd Street called the Famous Door."

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