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Count Basie on the Harlem Variety Review in 1955

In the classic video clip from 1955 shown above, American musical legend, Count Basie, performs in his classic Kansas City Swing style with a small band of young, talented musicians. This clip demonstrates many of the reasons Basie became a musical icon and an enduring American cultural personality.

It has been said of Basie that, although he played piano, his instrument was his band. Basie’s use his musicians to produce his sound, a sound to which he makes small, often sparse contributions. His piano notes compliment and highlight his band members as he gives them a space of their own to explore. He knows that to lead artists, you must give them room to make their own contribution. Unlike many big band contemporaries, Basie preferred giving players ample room to solo within his arrangements.

This classic TV clip from the Apollo Theater also shows the respect that Basie has for youth. Basie, himself, had overshadowed a well-known musician/bandleader in his youth. In 1929 Basie joined the Bennie Moten Band as a second piano behind Moten and an arranger for the band. Moten quickly recognized Basie’s style and connection with the band and audiences and allowed him to grow, a lesson Basie never forgot. In 1955, Basie’s place in musical history has been well established, he knows his greatest strength is the artists around him.

Basie, himself, is a picture of suave sophistication and composure. When he plays, he uses his characteristic light swing, heavy on rhythm. He frames the musicians behind him, introducing the song and its structure, but then quickly stepping back and allowing his musicians to take over. Clearly in control, he provides a forum for each artist to take over, then slides his next pieces onstage to create a complex collage of musicians all focused on the Basie style. Although Basie has helped define an American piano playing sound, the musicians are clearly his instrument, not the piano, and he seems to take great delight in that.

 

 

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