I saw Bill Basie in a moribund airfield
near Worcester, Mass. He was 70 then.
I’d seen him in his younger days on film,
a frenetic pianist, all the energy of youth,
your eyes could hardly keep up with his hands.
A half century on the road had slowed him down,
you thought at first, but after a while it became
clear it was a matter of choice, and estate planning.
He’d fathered a generation of sons who relieved
him of the burden of the beat. All he had
to do anymore was lift a single little finger
and let it fall, that was all, and squadrons
of horns and a rhythm section responded.
I recall I wore a sport coat, in the middle
of summer. It was, I thought, the decorum
he was due after so many long years on the road.
First, stranded in Kansas City, rescuing
Bennie Moten’s Orchestra, playing at the
Reno Club as the Barons of Rhythm until
one night John Hammond heard them
on his car radio in the night air and so raved
about them that talent scouts from Decca beat him
to the scene. Hammond didn’t even know who
he was listening to when he wrote his reviews.
Most of what he heard were “head” arrangements,
musical folklore, products of a nomadic tribe and
not one artiste, concocted on the bandstand
as the mood and the muse struck.
Lester Young passed through, as did Don Byas
and Sweets Edison, Billie Holiday, Frank Wess.
Out of luck in ‘49, Basie broke the band up,
then brought it back to life in 1952, the New
Testament replacing the Old. I got Al Grey
and Buck Clayton to sign an album but that
was it. One doesn’t ask a Count for an autograph.