Niagara Gazette

September 1, 2013

SINGER: Plunking along like Mr. Basie

By B.B. Singer
Niagara Gazette

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 ...)

Thence he went to Kansas City, worming his way into Benny Moten’s ensemble–and now really learning how to use his limitations and accentuate what he would one day become: a talent-nurturing, flexible, but disciplined band leader. On the way up he assimilated more in Chicago, St. Louis, and even in a then heavily-segregated South.

You sank or swam, and Basie more than did the latter, which is why he got where he did with Sinatra et al. He hung in, doing what was best for him, and eventually became a unique producer of American music. (You still hear his classic version of “April in Paris” on radio, and might also check out his “Shiny Stockings” or “L’il Darlin’.”)

Speaking of plunking along, when I played youthful hockey, I often felt that other guys out there were doing more, skating faster. Same with other efforts in various domains ... But again, you have to persist and ignore this horrid environment we have today of grading virtually everything — you know, of sportswriters going after top golfers for not winning majors each time out (easy for those who don’t try it for a living), etc.

People even do numbers on themselves physically just because such and such a person looks this or that way in mass magazines or on TV. But hey, apples are beautiful, and so are peaches, pears, artichokes. Put another way, mountains are nice, but so are beaches, woods, oceans, lakes, and yes, tumbling falls!

Sure you have to respect masters in your discipline and learn from them, no question; but at the same time you also have to find out–as Basie did–what’s right for you, providing a useful service thereby. Sometimes you take unforeseen detours, and “find before searching,” as one philosopher put it, locating destinations en route that weren’t what you initially aimed for in life.

That’s of course the theme of a fine movie featuring Richard Dreyfuss as a music teacher in “Mr. Holland’s Opus.” The sooner you get to that “you,” the better.

What repulses, however, is too many who now feel they ought to be doing something, when they really aren’t right for it. Plenty of this phenomenon about — too darned much ...

In sum, if you’re going to plunk along, do so at what suits you best.

B.B. Singer has taught at several colleges in the area, including Niagara University.

B.B. Singer has taught at several colleges in the area, including Niagara University.