Niagara Gazette

Columns

September 1, 2013

SINGER: Plunking along like Mr. Basie

Niagara Gazette — One secret to mattering in life? Plunking along at your preferdropred pursuit (and not by the way, daddy’s or mommy’s). In other words, if there’s a fabulous jockey or welder, cook or lawyer in your vicinity, and if that’s what you feel right for, you have to simply persist at what might feel to you like more pedestrian efforts.

I thought about this remembering the economical, “plunka-plunka” piano of Count Basie at the helm of his well-honed, powerful bands, which I saw a few times, and heard on records, including the famed LP of him and Sinatra at the Sands. Seated at his piano the stocky Basie seemed so simple, anything but a virtuoso, and I think he knew it himself and made it work — with a fine series of bands he led adeptly, letting other high-flyers shine, but demanding ensemble togetherness as the organizations’ undoubted boss.

Leaving school in his teens, Basie had started out playing piano in his native New Jersey just to eat. But then some hotshot player would come and “cut” him, as he put it, grabbing his spot. En route to locating other gigs, Basie would work at jobs like parking cars for inebriated club patrons, making money on tips, dusting himself off and continuing to move forward in music. That “cutting” just happens, he’d say; so what? You keep plunking away ...

The understated tone of his spoken-to autobiography was pure Bill Basie. He talks about reaching the musical mecca of Harlem in the Roaring Twenties, encountering the cream of jazz pianists there–unique players like Willie “the Lion” Smith, Fats Waller, and so on. Instead of being blown away by their verve, he learned what would work for him, and in return, they fed him, got him gigs, etc. (The good ones at a trade so often generous ...)

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