In the early 1980s Carmen Bradford walked right up to legendary band leader Count Basie and said, “if you hire me I’ll make you a million dollars”. The young jazz vocalist had been booked to open a show in Texas for the celebrated band leader’s famous swing orchestra. Dubious, Basie responded with “reeeeally – one million?”
But several months later he did. And she did.
Basie passed in 1984 but his legacy lives on. This year marks the 80th birthday of his 18-time Grammy award-winning orchestra and on May 14 under the care of current band leader Scotty Barnhart they took to the stage in the Sydney Opera House to pay homage to Sinatra, Bennett, Ellington, Holiday and of course, the late great William James ‘Count’ Basie.
The night’s set was a goldmine of classics including “April in Paris” and “Come Fly With Me”, all delivered with the utmost class and craftsmanship. Ms Bradford was here too, one of the few remaining members personally hired by Basie himself. Resplendent in gold sequins, she joined the orchestra on stage to weave her magic on “My Shining Hour”, “Honeysuckle Rose” and “I Love Being Here with You”. Fame has so far largely eluded Bradford despite her talent and considerable achievements. She tells the story of visiting the house of Ella Fitzgerald after her death to find her own recordings in Fitzgerald’s player.
Speaking with trumpeter and band leader Barnhart after the gig he recalled the most poignant moment in his own career so far: “Working with Frank Sinatra in Radio City Music Hall in New York, 1994. My parents had flown up from Atlanta and it truly was the big time. I was Sinatra’s trumpet soloist for the entire week playing the solos made legendary by former Basie trumpeter Harry ‘Sweets’ Edison.”
The charming Barnhart first came across the music of the Count Basie Orchestra while looking through his great aunt’s record collection. “I put it on and it changed my life,” he told me.
“The first thing I recognised was that it sounded almost identical to the gospel choirs I was hearing in church at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia where I grew up under Dr Martin Luther King, Sr.”
Barnhart, who has led the orchestra since September 2013, sees his role first and foremost as a protector. “I understand that it is still Basie’s orchestra and will always be,” he said. “It will never be mine or anyone else’s who may come after me.”
The band leader shared his most treasured anecdote about the big man himself: “One of the favourites is when these ladies thought Basie was a doorman at the hotel, since he used to wear a little captain’s hat, and they proceeded to drop their luggage in front of him and said, ‘please bring our bags to our rooms, sonny’. While the guys looked on in disbelief, Mr Basie simply picked their bags up, followed them to the elevator and up to their rooms. When he came back down on the elevator he showed the guys a shiny new quarter the ladies had given him.”
Barnhart’s proudest achievement as band leader is the recording of the orchestra’s first ever Christmas album due for release in November this year and featuring such legendary musicians as Johnny Mathis and Ellis Marsalis, an experience Barnhart assured me was a thrill. “The world will love it and I really believe it will turn out to be one of the best Christmas recordings ever. Definitely, and without a doubt, it will be the most swingin’.”
Since its very beginnings the Count Basie Orchestra has been all about one thing and that thing is swing. Whether playing boozy blues or bright, big band numbers, swing is at the very heart of everything the Count Basie Orchestra does. Barnhart believes that “it’s only jazz if you can dance to it”. He is talking about that intangible, elusive quality that makes people tap their toes and forget their troubles, if only for the night.
I asked Barnhart what he imagined Mr Basie would be doing to celebrate the 80th birthday of his beloved orchestra. “I think he would be sitting right at the piano doing what he did better than all others, and that is swing so effortlessly and wonderfully, and leading the greatest jazz orchestra on the planet.”
The Legendary Count Basie Orchestra is touring Australia and New Zealand until May 28.