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Years Later, Still Up for the Count : Jazz: Basie's influence best lives on in musicians, such as those in the Frank Capp Juggernaut ensemble, who worked with him.

November 05, 1994|BILL KOHLHAASE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In the world of jazz royalty, Count Basie is king. From his Kansas City days in the '30s until his death in 1984, Basie's trademark rhythm section pulse, contrasting brass soloists and his own spare, well-placed piano style were, for many, the very definition of the word "jazz."

Ten years after his death, William (Count) Basie's influence is still strongly felt. Indeed, a reawakening of interest in the Basie sound is in full swing, and scores of Basie's recordings from all periods are being reissued as young musicians look to copy his trademark sounds, both in small groups and in orchestras.

But the Basie influence best lives on with the musicians who worked with him. "Anybody who played with Mr. Basie when he was alive feels the results of their time with him," said vocalist Dennis Rowland, who spent seven years with the Count's last band. "His impact on all musicians is tremendous."

Rowland will be among those paying tribute to Basie on Sunday at the Irvine Marriott when the Frank Capp Juggernaut, an ensemble with numerous ties to the Basie legend, strikes up in a program of music made famous by the Count. (The Four Freshmen also will appear to pay tribute to one of its founding members, Ross Barbour.)

"I'm often asked why we're still playing the same arrangements that the Basie band played," said drummer Capp, who formed the Capp-Pierce Juggernaut in 1975 with his late friend, pianist Nat Pierce.

"Look at the classics: Every orchestra in the world still plays Beethoven's Fifth. The conductor is different; the players are different, it's a different interpretation. But it's the same notes. I like to refer to the (jazz) greats like the classical composers. And Basie is the Beethoven of jazz."

*

Alto saxophonist Marshall Royal, a regular member of the Juggernaut, knew Basie better than most. (Because of a prior engagement, Royal will not appear with the Juggernaut on Sunday.) Royal replaced Buddy DeFranco in Basie's seven-piece ensemble in 1951, joining saxophonist Wardell Gray and trumpeter Clark Terry in the front line, then helped Basie re-form his big band that same year. He served as Basie's musical director for 20 years.

"We took the arrangements he used in the early days, which were mostly flag raisers, and changed the tempos to a lot of the tunes, made them more danceable and listenable," Royal said by phone recently from his Los Angeles home.

By that time, Basie, who was then in his 50s, was delegating most of the musical work to his band members, according to Royal:

"He liked to take things easy and just play the piano, so he just sort of turned the musical thing over to me. He was very easy to work with."

Basie's genius, Royal said, was his feel for his audience. "He knew how to get to people and was very likable and well-respected. He had a knack for pulling out music--knew what to choose for his dance set, knew what to choose for his listening set. He knew the business and got along well with his band."

Recalled Rowland: "He was like one of the guys. Everybody had respect for him, and he had respect for all of the guys. That's why people played with him so long. He was very sensitive, very warm and very aware of musical trends. I loved every minute I had with him."

Capp never worked in the Basie orchestra--though he did appear with the pianist as a member of both the old Steve Allen and Joey Bishop show bands--but Basie's influence on the Juggernaut is undeniable.

"I never had much personal contact with him. But Nat was very close to him. When we recorded our first album, we took it for the Count to hear. He just sat there with a grin on his face from ear to ear. That was our stamp of approval."

Much of the Juggernaut's music comes from the Basie book, with many of the tunes written for the Count by composer-trumpeter Neal Hefti, for whom Capp played in 1953.

It was Hefti who wrote many of the arrangements for the Basie band in the late '50s, most notably for the 1958 Roulette recording "Basie Plays Hefti."

"That album with Neal's tunes brought the Basie band back onto the scene, after a period when he wasn't quite as visible," Capp said.

When Pierce and Capp formed their Juggernaut, Hefti gave them many of the charts he wrote for the Count, and they've become staples with the band. Capp and the Juggernaut just finished recording a new album of Hefti's music, titled "The Juggernaut in a Hefti Bag."

Pierce, who sat in for an ailing Basie during the Count's 1976 tour, also contributed to the Basie library, notably "Mr. Softey," a tune that Capp said the band will play Sunday.

"We'll also play 'Moten Swing,' which is our theme song, 'Shiney Stockings,' 'Whirley-bird'--all those Basie tunes," he said.

No doubt, with the Count's music in the air and some of his associates, including Rowland and trumpeter Snooky Young, on the bandstand, Basie's spirit will be present as well. Rowland said that spirit permeates his every performance.

"Every time I reflect back, every time I tell someone who I am, I get a flashback of those days," Rowland said. "That experience makes a difference in my career; it will always give me respect with the music community. And it's all because I sang with Count Basie."

* "A Tribute to Count Basie" featuring the Frank Capp Juggernaut with vocalists Dennis Rowland and Barbara Morrison, and the Four Freshmen "Salute to Ross Barbour" with Bobby Troup, will be Sunday at the Irvine Marriott, 18000 Von Karman Ave., Irvine. 6 p.m. $25. (714) 553-9449.

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