Hamer Hall set to count the Basie beat

Legendary American bandleader Count Basie might have died nearly 30 years ago but his personality lives on in the 18-piece orchestra that carries his name. 

The Count Basie Orchestra was one of the most popular big bands bands of the ’30s and ’40s. Led by the elegant pianist and composer William Basie, its style was relaxed and rhythmic, drawing on the blues with simple riffs and two ‘’duelling’’ tenor saxophonists. 

Baritone saxophone John Williams calculates that, over 42 years, he has been a member of the orchestra for 37, with just two breaks for stints with singers such as Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. 

 "Lena Horne once said that Basie is not the name of a man, it is not the name of a band, it is a way of life," he says. “It was the first big band really that came to New York and played the blues,” Williams says. 

Some of the greatest soloists and singers in jazz were drawn to the illustrious orchestra, including Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Big Joe Williams, Frank Sinatra, trumpeter Buck Clayton, bassist Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen and saxophonist Frank Foster.

Williams, 67, spoke to City Weekly from New York ahead of the Count Basie Orchestra’s return Australian tour. Williams is one of only four long-term members of the orchestra who were personally hired by the great Count Basie. South Carolina-born Williams played the alto saxophone from the age of 11 and studied music at three universities. He took up baritone saxophone while stationed with the US Army in Germany and hearing the baritone played by another musician. “Here I was in 1964, early ’65, playing baritone in the Army band, not even knowing if I would be able to survive as a professional musician,’’ he says. 

Back in civilian life in Los Angeles he found he was in demand. He toured in the Ike and Tina Turner band, performed with The Four Tops and The Temptations, and in the Ray Charles Band. He became friends with saxophonist Eddie ``Lockjaw’’ Davis, then a member of the Count Basie Orchestra, after Lockjaw sat in on a band rehearsal. 

A year later, Lockjaw called him from New York saying the Count Basie Orchestra was going to do a 12-week tour with Tom Jones and Gladys Knight and The Pips and had just lost its baritone player. Was he interested? Williams borrowed $55 for a new suit and the money for an airfare to New York from his uncle.

Asked his impressions of working under the great bandleader, he says: “It was a self-discipline-type environment. If you did well, you could progress, if you didn’t, you would hang yourself."

Williams recalls one night when "Basie looked down at me on a blues number and nodded with those big eyes as if he was offering a solo and I looked back at him and nodded my head, ‘no’." Williams crept back to his motel room, hoping to avoid Basie. "I was afraid he was going to fire me.’’ Instead, when he ran into Basie, "he said, ‘it is a great pleasure to have you in the band kid’ and I knew I was working for someone who accepted me as I was.’’

The orchestra’s current director Dennis Mackrel stays faithful to Basie’s style, Williams says. While playing Basie signature tunes such as One O’Clock Jump and April in Paris the orchestra will also play several original tunes.

Where: Hamer Hall

When: Wednesday 10 October, 8pm

Tickets: from $109.90

Details: visit artscentremelbourne.com.au/whats-on/event

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