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A Generation's Music Lessons

Saxophonists Influenced by Count Basie Are a Tribute to Legendary Bandleader's Enduring Innovations and Timeless Tunes

March 21, 2001|BILL KOHLHAASE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Count Basie's influence on the world of jazz has not waned since his death in 1984, especially among saxophonists in the Frank Capp Juggernaut big band. The ensemble will play its 12th annual "Tribute to Count Basie" on Sunday at the Irvine Marriott.

Alto saxophonist Lanny Morgan sat in with Basie's band during a 1955 rehearsal at New York City's Birdland. He later joined the band at an outdoor performance atop a 60-story skyscraper under the stars during the same period.

Baritone saxophonist Jack Nimitz saw Basie in Kansas City in the early '50s and joined the band in 1959 for an appearance at Los Angeles' Whisky a Go Go.

A generation later, tenor saxophonist Danny House, at the age of 19, joined Basie's orchestra on the strength of a recommendation from trumpeter Clark Terry just weeks before Basie died April 26, 1984.

"I was so very sad that I never got to play a date with Basie," said House, who claims he could talk for days about his seven-year run with the Basie orchestra under the direction of Frank Foster. "But I had great experiences working with the remaining Basie [band members], especially [composer and guitarist] Freddie Green during the last three years of his life."

When thinking of the Basie band, one automatically thinks of the rhythm section first and the swinging beat it originated in the 1930s. Today, that beat is recognized around the globe as "Basie swing."

But the saxophonists who came through the group over the course of a half-century also influenced the Basie sound and the direction of jazz as well. Basie's saxophonists contributed enduring improvisations and many of the band's arrangements.

The history traces through such tenor legends as Lester Young, Buddy Tate and Herschel Evans. It continued with such giants as Frank Foster, Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis, Marshall Royal, Ernie Wilkins and Frank Wess.

Altoist Morgan, a member of trumpeter Maynard Ferguson's ensemble at the time, remembers getting to Birdland early for a rehearsal one day in 1955 just to hear Basie's band.

"Both bands rehearsed at Birdland and I knew a lot of the guys with Basie," Morgan recalled. "Frank Wess wasn't able to show so Basie asked me if I'd like to sit in since I was there. Marshall was the straw boss of the band; Basie just kind of sat there and let Marshall run the show."

Morgan said one day they were working on some new music that Ernie Wilkins had brought. One of the pieces really wasn't very good.

"Marshall was the kind of guy who was very outspoken. And he asked Ernie, 'Who wrote this [expletive]?' And Ernie said, 'I did.' And Marshall said, 'Don't lie to me now, who wrote this?'

"I think that Marshall couldn't believe that Ernie had written it and thought he'd farmed it out to someone else. But Ernie wouldn't admit it if he did."

Baritonist Nimitz also substituted in the Basie orchestra.

"I was working the old Della Reese television show when [trumpeter Harry] Sweets Edison asked me, 'How'd you like to play with Basie tonight at the Whisky?' [Baritone saxophonist] Charlie Fowlkes had to go back East because of an illness in the family.

"I got to the gig and thought no drinks or anything because I'd be reading my parts out of the book. And no sooner do I get there than Basie's road manager comes up and offers to buy me a drink."

"I sat next to Eddie 'Lockjaw' Davis and every time Basie would start some introduction on the piano he'd call over 242 or 175 or whatever the number of the tune was. I don't know how he knew which was which. The intros all sounded the same. I only made one mistake, on 'One O'Clock Jump,' in a place where the baritone was supposed to come in and fill in for Basie. So there was this big hole in the music. But afterward, Sweets came up and said that Basie heard some things he'd never heard before from the baritone and wanted to know if I could join the band. But I wasn't ready to do that."

Tenor saxophonist House was 22 and playing alongside saxophonist Branford Marsalis in trumpeter Terry's band when he was asked to join the Basie organization. The Count's band had come to House's hometown of Santa Barbara when he was 11 and the performance changed his life.

"These guys were my heroes," House said. "They were bigger than life. I just knew I had to be like them."

Though he never got to play with Basie himself, House struck up friendships with the veterans still in the band, especially guitarist Green, who had been with Basie since the 1930s and wrote "Corner Pocket, " one of the best-loved tunes in the repertoire.

"I treasure every moment I had with Freddie," House said. "He had such great stories going back to the early days with Basie. And Frank Foster, who eventually took over the band, he was my ultimate hero and I was his puppy dog. He kept the band evolving. When I traveled with the band, the theory of relativity took over. I didn't get any older, just wiser."

House, the youngest member of the Juggernaut's sax section, sees the Basie legacy extending forever.

"All those songs, 'Corner Pocket,' 'Little Darlin,' 'Shiny Stockings,' songs that swung so hard like 'One O'Clock Jump,' those songs will live forever. They'll always be standards of the repertoire."

SHOW TIME

The 12th annual "Tribute to Count Basie," with the Frank Capp Juggernaut, featuring vocalist Barbara Morrison, Irvine Marriott, 18000 Von Karman Ave. Sunday, 5-9 p.m. $25. (949) 553-9449.

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