"It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing."
Duke Ellington said it, but his old friend, William "Count" Basie, is the one who has lived the adage. In a career that began in New York's Roaring Twenties and came to fruition in a wide-open Kansas City in the Prohibition Thirties, Basie has become virtually synonymous with the word "swing," a catalyst and bandleader for five uninterrupted decades. From the good times of the '40s through the hard times of the '60s and '70s, Basie-led bands offered no radical changes, but they could always be counted on to swing madly.
"We just try to keep doing what we've been doing," says the affable pianist and band leader, who picked up his nickname when a Kansas City radio announcer decided he belonged with Duke Ellington, Earl Hines and King Oliver. That was more than 50 years ago. Tonight Basie, whom many consider to be the real King of Swing, will be one of the five American artists awarded the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors. Basie, ever the team player, feels bad about only one thing: He'll be on stage alone, cut off from the most consistently swinging band in jazz history. "I think with me being up there, we're all up there. I stand for everybody."
Basie, born in Red Bank, N.J., in 1904, was deeply influenced by Harlem's stride pianists, including Fats Waller. His first work was accompanying silent movies and traveling vaudeville shows, which is how he ended up in Kansas City. By 1928, he'd joined Walter Page's Blue Devils, moving on a year later to Bennie Moten's Kansas City Orchestra, a dance band that dominated the Southwest until Moten's sudden death during a tonsillectomy in 1935. At that time, Basie put together his first band, made up of the best players from both other bands -- including drummer Jo Jones and tenor saxophonist Lester Young.
The Basie band was known from the beginning for its hard-driving, bluesy riffs and for its extended jams (some dances would start at 8 at night and run through to 8 the next morning without a break). Its classic songs said it all in their titles: "One O'Clock Jump," "Jumpin' at the Woodside," "Pannasie Stomp." What separated the Basie band from the pack was an incredible rapport and ability to swing as a group, what Basie called "the brick wall behind the solos."
At the beginning, Basie worked in his head, creating arrangements that weren't written down until years after they'd been perfected. With an aggressive left hand and surprisingly light single notes scattering from his right hand, Basie always sat bunched with his drummer, bassist and guitarist, fomenting the most impeccable -- and powerful -- rhythm section in jazz. "My boys and I got to have four heavy beats to the bar," Basie once said. "And no cheating."
Despite its robust ensemble spirit, Basie bands always had great soloists, too -- Young (fired in 1940 for refusing to record on Friday the 13th, rehired four years later), Herschel Evans, Buck Clayton, Clark Terry, Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis, Hot Lips Page, Don Byas, Illinois Jacquet. Vocalists who passed through the band included Billie Holiday, Helen Humes, Jimmy Rushing, Mildred Bailey and Joe Williams. But Basie was always the band's heart, its player-coach, keeping it afloat after World War II when big bands virtually disappeared with the closing of the large dance halls, keeping it swinging even as jazz fell under the weight of pop, folk and rock music.
There were many hard years and sad efforts at associations with the pop world (albums of James Bond themes and Beatles tunes), an era that Whitney Balliett once called "civil-service swing." Friends like Frank Sinatra, who did some of his best work in the company of the Basie band, found them shelter and a bit of security in Las Vegas. Through it all, Count Basie kept a band together.
Basie and Company have always played accessible jazz, what he defined as "some good things put together that you can really pat your foot by." And the fires apparently still burn in the 77-year-old band leader's heart. He may move more slowly to the stage, but the band still pops and kicks as it always has. "I think big bands are slipping back in," says Count Basie, the perennial optimist.