Remembering the late, great Count Basie - the swinging never stopped
COUNT BASIE had a shy little smile that began as a roguish twinkle in the eye and ended up as a rather sweet shaping of the corners of the mouth. It constituted his mildly embarrassed, slightly astonished response to the applause he never seemed to get used to.
A Basie fan can imagine the man smiling that little-boy Buddha smile upon reading the grandiloquent obituaries written about him - then ducking his head toward the keyboard and getting on, as usual, with the business at hand.
To the end, Basie lived in the musical moment - made up in his case of lots of staccato notes, interspersed with some of jazz's most superbly syncopated rests. He gave no indication of thinking of himself, as others did, as a Giant of Jazz, the last and, next to Duke Ellington, the greatest of the big-band leaders. He swung much too hard to be confused with a living monument.
As a person, as a musician, Basie's motto read: Make no fuss. With soloists like Lester Young, Buck Clayton, and Dicky Wells in his orchestra, the Count seemed content to kick things off and then allow the stars to take over. He even acted as if his own all-too-brief prefatory solos were coming, to his surprise, from mischievous imps inhabiting his fingers. Thus, when he played the celebrated opening bars of ''One O'Clock Jump,'' he would cock his head to one side and listen with dreamy suspense for what unpredictable chord or cluster might come forth next.
Basie had the marvelously urgent left hand of a stride pianist, and nobody could ''walk the bass'' better, this side of his friend ''Fats'' Waller. But a Basie introduction did more than serve as the world's snappiest metronome. Despite the terseness of his style, despite the brevity of his solos, the Count set the mood, as well as the beat, for every group he played in. The sheer energy, the rollicking exuberance that characterized Basie bands came like a call-and-response from the piano of the leader.
Basie had a subtlety to match his power. His humor was irrepressible. A Basie solo in the middle of a piece often took on the character of a family joke, played back and forth with bassist Walter Page or guitarist Freddie Green or drummer Jo Jones, to name three old hands. Modest to the point of deference in these dialogues, Basie nonetheless had a way of getting in the final witty topper.
Everything he played possessed a kind of joy so central to his being as to be beyond his power to suppress. Even his blues came out happy.
In a letter to Thomas Wolfe, Scott Fitzgerald once divided writers into the putters-in - like his correspondent, the sprawling author of ''Look Homeward, Angel'' - and the leavers-out, like himself. Technically, Basie was one of jazz's mightiest leavers-out. Economical to the point of stinginess, playing as if he were down to his last two fingers, he clipped stark solos like miniature silhouettes.
But what, in fact, did the Count leave out? Nothing much that had to do with the heart.
After all the skipping exhilaration of his beginnings, after the saucy little jokes of his middles, Basie had a habit of ending his pieces with a dainty handful of tinkling little notes, gentle as a harpsichord. It is this prancing exit of softest delight that the ear hears now.