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Masters of American Music: Count Basie — Swingin’ the Blues (DVD Review)

5 Apr, 2010 By: Mike Clark

$19.99 DVD
Not rated.

I remember him in his later years, always stylishly dressed and sporting the twilight trademark muttonchops. And I remember him tuxedoed and in one of those motorized carts that the walking-impaired use, accompanied by his wife Catherine when he was getting a 1981 Kennedy Center Honor along with Cary Grant, Helen Hayes, Rudolf Serkin and Jerome Robbins (I was Grant’s chaperone, but that’s another story — albeit among the best of my life).

It was a little less than 2.5-years before Basie’s death, but the eyes twinkled. After the taping, Joe Williams was out in the KC Grand Foyer authoritatively singing with the Basie band, I thought, “well, this is as good as it gets.”

This is just one reason (personal) why it’s nice to see the Masters of American Music jazz series — which looked especially nice on laser disc in the early 1990s — getting a DVD re-issue. Also just out are the equally self-descriptive Sarah Vaughan: The Divine One; The World According to John Coltrane; and Bluesland: A Portrait in American Music. But I’m especially happy about the Basie document because, well, he just always seemed to be around.

I first heard some of his World War II Columbia recordings courtesy of my parents’ and aunt’s 78 collections I was a very young child. But before that, there’d been the great 1937 Decca recording of Basie’s own "One O’Clock Jump," which slightly pre-dated the Benny Goodman version on Victor and at the latter’s landmark Carnegie Hall Concert. And before that, the days in Kansas City chronicled in 1980’s documentary Last of the Blue Devils — and after that, the Tony Bennett and classic Frank Sinatra albums. And in the movies: 1943’s Reveille with Beverly (which always seemed to be on TV in the ‘60s – and still is a lot); Jerry Lewis’s Basie homage in 1962’s The Errand Boy; and, of course, the raucously anachronistic appearance of his orchestra in Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles.

Buoyed by archival footage and then fresh interviews with the likes of Williams, Jay McShann and Harry “Sweets” Edison, this portrait makes the points that even though Basie always swung, he was always doing some variation on the blues; that he went for a relaxed atmosphere and was just about the only big band leader who didn’t change (the inference being for the worse) with success; and that he got more music out of the sparest piano playing than anyone else. I don’t think the quote pops up in this documentary, but I love what someone said of his style — that he played between the keys.

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