Long before being nicknamed “The Count,” the easygoing, modest, N.J.-bred William “Bill” Basie spent the better part of his 80 years on this earth making a name for himself: first, as a budding keyboardist on the Vaudeville circuit; then later, as a key figure in the evolution of the Kansas City style of swing.
Before long, he’d attracted the attention of the legendary music industry man John Hammond, who helped Basie and his group sign with MCA in 1935. The band’s career took off after signing with Decca, and by 1940 they were the premiere big band in the USA. Soon, the top vocalists of the day —such as Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Joe Williams, Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra— were all cutting albums backed by the CBO.
By the 1950s, most of the big bands had become marginalized and fallen by the wayside, but the Basie Orchestra remained strong, and would persevere — ultimately epitomizing the standard of quality and artistic integrity to which most other similar groups of the past several decades have aspired to. They’ve played Royal Command Performances for heads of state the world over, earned close to 20 Grammy Awards, and recorded with everyone from Rosemary Clooney to The Manhattan Transfer.
The current 18-piece incarnation of the CBO operates under the studied direction of trombonist Bill Hughes, whose presence maintains a vital link to the heyday of the group. He first joined in the fall of 1953, and except for a short period in the late ‘50s when he left to raise his family, he’s been in the group continuously ever since.
For the last 43 years, The Count Basie Orchestra has been Bill Hughes’ job, and in a very real way, his entire life. While he’s considered leaving to do his own thing, he never did. Now, at nearly 80 years of age, he says he’s glad he stayed.
“It’s been fun all the way!” he laughs. “Although, it’s not quite as much fun leading as it is just playing. I have to watch and make sure everything’s going as it should be, and give the audience some history on the players and the material.
“Sometimes it’s fun for the crowd to learn how these arrangements arrived in the Basie book, and the impact they had on people 30 years ago.”
Hughes says all the charts this band uses come directly from Basie’s original book, except for newer material that has been written since his death. However, Hughes says that great pains are taken to make sure that any newer charts are carefully arranged in strict accordance with the Count’s wishes and views.
“We try to stay with Mr. Basie’s desires on how his music should be properly played. He adored simplicity. The simpler you can keep music, the more people seem to be attracted to it. If it becomes more complicated, it can sometimes turn into an exercise in trying to understand what’s going on, instead of just being enjoyable.”
Hughes admits that he never thought he’d have this gig for as long as he has —nor did he ever think he’d be at the helm of this organization— but, he says that besides getting to travel the world spreading joy and education, there is another wonderful benefit that comes with the territory.
“There are guys in this band who are 50 years younger than me,” he chuckles. “It keeps me young to pal around with them.”
When asked what remains the single most important facet of Basie’s legacy, Hughes answers without hesitation.
“He declared himself a man of the people, and he was going with simplicity come hell or high water. He devoted himself to what he called ‘foot-tappin’ music.’ He said if he looked out in the crowd and saw a fellow tappin’ his foot, then Basie felt like he was doin’ his job.
“That’s my intention, too. I might not always get it, but I’ll try like hell! (Laughs)”
The Count Basie Orchestra plays the Lucas Theatre Sunday at 8 pm. Tickets start at $18 and are available online at www.lucastheatre.com, or at the SCAD Box Office (call 525-5050).