JERUSALEM — It was, not surprisingly, while taking a walk — when most realizations occur — that I finally understood something about Count Basie that I’d been trying to understand for close to thirty years: his playing was pure nuance. How, I’d long wondered, was it possible to do more than almost anyone else by doing so little? How could a little be a lot? How could repetition and predictability be varied and unpredictable?
And now — taking my morning constitutional in the north-Jerusalem neighborhood of Givat Hamivtar, very far both in space and time from Count Basie, Kansas City and all that, but pursued by it in spirit — I had it: Count Basie dispensed with everything else and resided only in nuance. Very, very fine nuance.
It was a rare achievement especially in jazz, a vital, propulsive music that encourages effusiveness. Among the giants of jazz, Louis Armstrong’s trumpet playing came closest to the Count in economy and precision. But the extroverted Satchmo was somewhat more talkative on his instrument, more willing to expand and flow freely. Count Basie was the most pared-down jazz master ever — bare bones, aphorism. He was like a writer who writes only proverbs — great ones at that.
William “Count” Basie was born in Red Bank, New Jersey, in 1904, and by the 1920s he was a professional pianist in New York City, learning from another mythic figure, Fats Waller. In 1927 he seems to have wound up in Kansas City almost by accident, passing through there with a traveling revue, joining up with “territory bands” that toured the Midwest. It was in 1936 that the Kansas City-based Count Basie Band emerged; and over the next almost half-century until his death in 1984 it established itself, with the Duke Ellington Band, as one of the two greatest big bands in jazz history.
My own first encounter with the Count came, I believe, in 1970 when I was fifteen. I was heavily into rock then, not jazz, but I’d heard snatches of jazz going back to childhood and was always affected. It was probably The Tonight Show, and it was definitely a summer night — otherwise I wouldn’t have been up watching so late with my parents. The Count’s playing impressed me that night, but even more so — his face. It was an extraordinary face with its large eyes and wide jowls, its look of absolute refractory stillness. It was the face of someone who played the piano differently than any human being who ever lived.
LIKE ELLINGTON’S, BASIE’S BAND featured musicians of astonishing originality and expressiveness, yet retained the stamp of its leader at every moment. When Billie Holliday sang, Lester Young played the tenor saxophone, or Buck Clayton played the trumpet in the Basie Band, they remained Billie Holliday, Lester Young, and Buck Clayton — yet at the same time, every note they produced was Basie, part of the Basie phenomenon. If Ellington was a tempestuous poet, searching restlessly for truth in esoteric terrain, Basie had the truth, his sound cool, clean, and knowing, his Kansas City rhythm section chugging along assured and steady as a train.
Some of Basie’s later big-band recordings are, to my ear, slick and formulaic; but it doesn’t matter, there being a wealth of recordings from which to pick what suits one. With due regard for the greatness of the larger ensembles at their best, especially in the early period when they laid down classics like “One O’Clock Jump,” “Jumpin’ at the Woodside,” and “Every Tub,” I’m most partial to the small-group recordings the Count made sporadically over the decades, their intimate settings most “friendly” to his own superfine playing. Count Basie and His Small Groups: “The Fives” on the Cedar Giants of Jazz series (UK) offers twenty-four numbers dating from 1936-1942, about half of them twelve-bar blues, many of them with only Basie and his rhythm section, that best epitomize the enigma of the Count, who did so much by doing so little, whose playing contains, perhaps, secrets about how to live, how to slough off all that is even faintly false, excess, and contingent and keep only what is true, valuable, and essential. Almost as wonderful in this regard is the 1961 recording Count Basie and the Kansas City Seven.
Count Basie belonged to a race of titans, a set of figures with names like Count, Fats, Satchmo, and Lady Day, the color and uniqueness of whose musicianship and personalities is the stuff of myth and legend. Jazz is today an art music that is played for small, ardent followings in places as diverse as America, Poland, and Japan, and may it go on forever; but it can never recover the era of its progenitors, who came into the world like a primal force before jazz began to think about itself and define itself. Among the titans, Count Basie was the most humble and reticent, the most committed to his band and fellow musicians even at the expense of his own prominence. But he could not escape his greatness. His striking, impassive, inscrutable face will stare at us down the ages — a gnomic counterpoint to his playing, jazz’s finest distillation of knowledge and truth.