Doc Wendell’s Prescription For Big Band Swing: “Count Basie At Newport” (Verve)

By Devon (Doc) Wendell

There is no genre in jazz that has become as disrespected, forgotten, and dismissed as big band jazz. Generations of brainwashed lazy music dabblers often come to this warped and naïve conclusion that the entire history of jazz is made up exclusively by the likes of John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Dave Brubeck. Even bebop gets its share of shit from pretend novices of the avant-garde and rock journalists who poorly and reluctantly attempt to cover any jazz pre-1959. The rock establishment often refers to people who cherish big band jazz and bebop as being “jazbos”; a derogatory term used to try to discredit the music’s beautiful history. This ugly term is rarely used in reference to Sam “Jazbo” Collins. They assume that it’s “old people’s music” without even giving it an honest listen.

Count Basie and His Orchestra
Count Basie and His Orchestra

When I see the blank look on some unsuspecting fool’s face when I mention a piece by Ellington, Basie, or Kenton, I think back on the sad and pitiful days of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, before most jazz recordings were even issued on CD and vinyl and cassette tapes were fading into the background. You only had “A Love Supreme,” “Kind Of Blue,” “Take Five” and some milk-toast attempt at “fusion” by Dave Sanborn to choose from in the dusty back room of some god awful Sam Goody’s store. That’s if you were lucky. Those were indeed Bleak times. And forget about finding everyday Joes to talk about this music with. For many of us who truly love pre-War jazz, we have learned to be alone quite a lot of the time. And that’s more than okay.

When I listen to Count Basie and his mighty orchestra performing at The Newport Jazz Festival on July 7, 1957, the sheer ecstasy and excitement is very hard to put into mere words. The music on this live recording represents everything fantastic, beautiful, and honest about American culture.

Just look at this band: Count Basie, piano, Joe Newman, Thad Jones, Wendell Culley, and Reunald Jones, trumpets, Henry Coker, Benny Powell, Bill Hughes, trombones, Bill Graham, alto saxophone, Marshal Royal, clarinet and alto saxophone, Frank Foster, Frank Wess, Lester Young, Illinois Jacquet, tenor saxophones, Charlie Fowlkes, baritone saxophone, Freddie Greene, guitar, Eddie Jones, bass, Sonny Payne and Jo Jones, drums, Jimmy Rushing and Joe Williams, vocals. Several generations of Basie’s greatest players are all fired up to show the Newport crowd what swinging is truly all about.

After a gushing introduction by John Hammond, Basie and the boys kick off the festivities with a new original composed just for the event: “Swingin’ At Newport,” written and arranged by Ernie Wilkins.

Count Basie
Count Basie

Count Basie plays a masterful and funky piano intro that is a not so subtle reminder of what a brilliant and underrated pianist the Count truly was and still is, long after his passing. His sound is the true essence of Swing piano.

The great Frank Wess takes a burning solo. Wess was so cool and bad. You can see him just looking totally relaxed, his eyes rolled in the back of his head as he cooks up a tenor sax solo that could fit in any genre of jazz. There were very few tenor players better and he must have known it on this hot July evening. The blues is the essential root of all of this music here and it is played with love and pride. Joe Newman’s trumpet solo is fierce, melodic, and perfect. And then Frank Foster blows. Foster had already established himself as one of Basie’s most modern soloists of the tenor sax. Whenever the two Franks (Frank Wess and Frank Foster) would play together, magic would inevitably happen.

Lester Young
Lester Young

After the opening number, one of the most incredible moments in the entire history of the Newport Jazz Festival takes place. Lester Young and Jo Jones reunite with Basie and the band. Young was Basie’s first tenor sax star, one of the fathers of the instrument in the history of jazz, and arguably the greatest. Jo Jones, the daddy of that big band beat also goes back to Basie’s band of the 1930s. Young has never sounded more energetic and powerful as he sits in on “Polka Dots And Moonbeams,” “Lester Leaps In” and the numbers with Jimmy Rushing: “Sent For You Yesterday (And Here You Come Today),” “Boogie Woogie (I May Be Wrong)” and the Basie blues standard “Evenin’.”

You’ll never hear blues swing like this as Rushing’s thick and rich vocal tone and perfect phrasing pushes Lester “Pres” Young to reach even farther beyond the stratosphere. As great as Rushing and the rest of the band are, “Pres” steals the show here and there is no rhythm guitarist in history as skilled and punctual as Freddie Greene. It sounds as if these guys never missed a single day of swinging together in the last 26 years.

The up-tempo “Blee Blop Blues” blasts off at a ridiculous pace. The horn arrangement by A.K. Salim dances, jumps, and shouts with the kind of love that makes jazz so special and an essential part of life.

The sly, smooth, and poignant blues vocals of Joe Williams on “All Right, Okay, You Win,” Memphis Slim’s “The Comeback,” “Roll ‘Em Pete”and “Smack Dab In The Middle” makes this the most perfectly rounded live Basie album of that period.

The band closes with the timeless “One O’Clock Jump.” Lester Young and the great Illinois Jacquet engage in a spirited cutting contest. Jacquet’s style is harder, more brash, and flashier than Young’s but both men are victorious winners here. Roy Eldrige steps in on trumpet and blows everyone away like only he could. The crowd is now cheering ecstatically. The energy just keeps building and building until this giant and blissful climax.

Count Basie At Newport is the perfect live album of big band jazz. When you hear this record, you’ll wonder why this music isn’t played in concert halls and festivals all over the world. No record collection is complete without this masterpiece.

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To read more posts, reviews and columns by Devon Wendell click HERE.

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