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Roger Levesque
Edmonton Journal, December 2010

MASTERS OF AMERICAN MUSIC: Bluesland – A Portrait in American Music (NTSC) 2057168
MASTERS OF AMERICAN MUSIC: The Story of Jazz (NTSC) 2057158
MASTERS OF AMERICAN MUSIC: Lady Day – The Many Faces of Billie Holiday (NTSC) 2057098
MASTERS OF AMERICAN MUSIC: Sarah Vaughan – The Divine One (NTSC) 2057128
MASTERS OF AMERICAN MUSIC: Celebrating Bird – The Triumph of Charlie Parker (NTSC) 2057078
MASTERS OF AMERICAN MUSIC: Thelonious Monk – American Composer (NTSC) 2057118
MASTERS OF AMERICAN MUSIC: Count Basie – Swingin’ the Blues (NTSC) 2057148
MASTERS OF AMERICAN MUSIC: The World According to John Coltrane (NTSC) 2057108

Thanks to the folks at EuroArts and Naxos Canada, eight fine jazz and blues documentaries made in the early 1990s have been remastered and issued in the DVD format, titled Masters Of American Music (all sold separately). The two introductory surveys Bluesland and The Story Of Jazz run about 90 minutes, bringing across the essence and evolution of the music using a mix of vintage clips and expert commentary. Six more titles take a specific hour-long focus on singers Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan, and innovators Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Count Basie and John Coltrane, alternating between concert footage and interviews with their collaborators and contemporaries. The Monk and Parker films were especially memorable. © 2010 Edmonton Journal

Lynn René Bayley
Fanfare, September 2010

There’s not much one can say about Count Basie that hasn’t already been said a thousand times before. Even his former band mates who appear in this video—Harry “Sweets” Edison, Al Grey, Illinois Jacquet, Buddy Tate, Earle Warren, Claude Williams, and Joe Williams—don’t have a lot to add. But that was because, as reiterated time and again, Basie and his big bands were a distillation of jazz elements ranging from stomps to swing, and anything reduced to essentials is always considered simple. Although he started out as a stride pianist and in fact took lessons from Fats Waller, Basie reduced even his own playing to basics by the time he hit New York in 1937. By seldom deviating from a simplified style, he represented the apogee of swing.

The creativity that emanated from his band always had its roots in the soloists, who had complete freedom, and although the First Edition band was more noted for its irresistible beat and its free-wheeling solos than the later “Atomic” band, it, too, always had outstanding players who swung and were inventive. When he was with Bennie Moten, Basie played a fuller piano style and the great arrangements of Eddie Durham were more complex if no less swinging, but with his own band both Basie’s pianism and Durham’s arrangements were pared down to essentials. Some musicians, particularly those of the post-bop era, looked down on Basie as a poor pianist who played the same licks over and over, but they missed the point. He wasn’t trying to impress his listeners with his digital dexterity at the keyboard, though even late in life he could still rip his way through Waller’s Handful of Keys as the composer himself played it. He laid the foundation for what the others in the band did, and even unlike Duke Ellington, he was always—from first to last—one of the guys in addition to being leader.

This warm and wonderful documentary, then, is more a celebration of the blithe musical spirit Basie brought to music and was able to maintain for a half-century than the biography of a great musical mind. It’s no accident that the Basie “ghost band” led after his death by former tenor sax star Frank Foster had all the qualities of the original. Foster simply kept going the musical approach and good vibes that Basie instilled in his musicians.

Clarinetist Buddy DeFranco is not identified as a member of the “small band” that Basie led around 1950, of which we see a clip in the film, but that’s a very small caveat indeed compared to the feast of music one hears on this disc. Perhaps there is no greater example of how Basie could invigorate musicians who normally didn’t swing than to hear Judy Garland, of all people, sing with the band and swing almost as hard as Anita O’Day.

Basie fans don’t need to be encouraged to get this disc. More than half the footage, and reminiscences, are devoted to the great 1937–42 band.

Jeff Carter
PopMatters, July 2010

William “Count” Basie was born early in the century in which his musical conceptions would prove to be so very influential. While he hadn’t initially planned a career as a musician (more modestly looking towards a position within show business in general), he did exhibit natural talents at the piano and a heartfelt love of the blues. By the end of the ‘20s Basie was in Kansas City as a member of Bennie Moten’s big band. On Moten’s death in 1935, Basie became the leader of a reformed edition of that band, and one version or another of a Count Basie Band would be part of the musical landscape for the following almost 50 years.

This documentary—Count Basie – Swingin’ The Blues—initially broadcast in 1991 as part of the Masters of American Music series, downplays the strictly biographical elements of Basie’s story in favor of providing context to his immense professional accomplishments. Basie played a key role in establishing the rhythm of the 20th century, an insistent propulsion which would flourish (in a different manner) in the century’s second half.

The mid-western city of Kansas City, Missouri was by all accounts, through the ‘20s and ‘30s, home to a vibrant music culture. A transportation and shipping hub, it was known as an “open town”, where certain laws were just not enforced. Prohibition, for example, was effectively ignored, resulting in a dynamic night-life scene, with music, drinking, and dancing extending to dawn most every night. Basie is featured in the film recounting his introduction: “I got a chance to wander over on 18th Street, (which) at that time was blazing, I mean everything was happening and beautiful. You could hear the blues from any window or door.”

In this milieu, Count Basie and his astonishing band (which included, at various times, Lester Young, Herschel Evans, Billie Holliday, Jimmy Rushing, Walter Page, Jo Jones, and on and on) incubated and thrived, combining the jazz innovations of Louis Armstrong with a local music dialect called stomp into something fresh and exciting. Stomp, an appropriate term, is characterized by one of the interview subjects thusly: “It was a way of playing the blues at uptempo, on a beat which Duke Ellington once described as ‘the velocity of celebration’”. (One can’t help but note that similar energies and sources would underpin rock and roll music a few decades later, a similarity which, while not noted in the film, is also recognizable in the archive footage of dancers who attended Basie’s shows.)

Basie himself became a master of tempo and that ineffable sense of “feel”. While he could play the piano as a virtuoso, he preferred to create space within arrangements for others to find moments to contribute individually. His piano playing is thus described allusively: “He put the right note in the right place at the right time” or “he left out more than most people play”.

The choices made by the filmmakers, whether visual, aural, or both, highlight a precise articulation of time, place, and result which serves to match the qualities of its subject. The interview subjects—including luminaries such as Illinois Jacquet, Harry “Sweets” Edison, Jay McShann, and Joe Williams—can explain not only that something was good, but why it was good. The carefully selected music excerpts are artfully placed and complement the observations.

Early in the program, as Basie’s career is receiving an introduction, there is a wonderful sequence featuring a bisected bandstand and the original Basie band working through the signature piece “One-o-Clock Jump”. By means of player choreography and editing, the relationships between the instruments within the arrangement are foregrounded, illustrating the interplay and mighty propulsion of the band as a whole, punctuated by the bopping heads of the musicians.

The original Kansas City Basie orchestra was, to graft a not entirely appropriate analogy, like a dynastic championship sports team packed with young future hall-of-fame players, all together at the right place, right time, and with the right supporting personnel. The interview subjects consistently express an awe that they were not only in the band, but had a front row seat listening to their peers rip it up night after night.

Basie’s bemused smile was the visage of a good-natured man who enjoyed life and saw that those around him enjoyed it, too. The energy and easy laughter of the then old men gathered for the film’s interviews is a fitting tribute to Basie’s legacy: the infectious rhythm and joy contained in his music was the result of an understanding of human nature at odds with task-masters and ego kings. Says a later band member: “He was probably on the road sixty years, and all the situations and all the adversities and all the successes there, you won’t find too many people with too many bad things to say about him. Now that’s some doing.”

Near the end of the film, Jacquet sums up eloquently what has already been neatly established by interview selections and placement of archival material: “Count Basie’s status as a great musician is based not on his extension and elaboration of particulars, as is the case of Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. His status is based on the refinement of the particulars that made blues music swing.”

Count Basie – Swinging The Blues manages to both show and tell what refinement means in this context, and that too is some doing. This may be the best of the Masters of American Music series and should be considered highly recommended for all music lovers.

Amy Longsdorf, May 2010

Count Basie is associated with Kansas City swing but of course he was a Jersey boy. Born in Red Bank, the Count—aka William James Basie—led a big band for more than 50 years, nurturing the talents of Harry “Sweets” Edison, Lester Young, Jay McShann, Joe Williams and Buddy Tate, among others. This fine documentary, originally broadcast on PBS, focuses on Basie as bandleader, jazz pianist and all-around nice guy. At 56 minutes, it’s short but sweet.

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