From Rutgers University: “Count Basie Comes Home”

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From Rutgers University

The voluminous archives of Count Basie are entrusted to Rutgers–Newark’s Institute of Jazz Studies.

The Count Basie Orchestra had a breakthrough year in 1938, following a run of performances at the Famous Door, a popular club on West 52nd Street in New York City. CBS broadcast some of the shows live, giving Count Basie (seated at the piano) and his band the kind of exposure that catapulted them into the upper echelons of big band jazz, alongside Duke Ellington, Jimmie Lunceford, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, and Cab Calloway. Basie was the first bandleader to use two tenor saxophonists in his orchestra. “After that summer at the Famous Door, Basie never looked back,” wrote jazz historian Frank Driggs.
Photography: courtesy of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University–Newark

Jazz pianist, composer, and bandleader William J. “Count” Basie was born in Red Bank, New Jersey, in 1904. His father played the mellophone, his mother the piano. At 24, Basie was hired to play with Walter Page’s Blue Devils, a Kansas City-based big band that toured the small nightclubs and dance halls of the American Southwest. By the time he was 30, Basie was leading his own big band, the Barons of Rhythm, based in Kansas City and featuring the tenor saxophonist Lester Young. Over the ensuing four decades, Basie’s style of swing revolutionized jazz rhythm, and Basie himself became one of the most recognizable musicians in America.

When Wayne Winborne, the executive director of Rutgers’ Institute of Jazz Studies, first learned that Count Basie’s estate was looking for an organization to catalog, manage, maintain, and display Basie’s vast archives, he knew the institute was just the right place. Winborne says the Basie collection will enable scholars to investigate the many chapters of Basie’s musical evolution. “Studying all those things is going to be interesting,” Winborne says, “because you’re also drawing a parallel to American music in the 20th century. So, you have to look at the broader economic context in which he was making music—how all of the big bands, post-World War II, had to struggle to find a place.”

RUTGERS MAGAZINE: How did Rutgers come into possession of the Count Basie archives?
WAYNE WINBORNE: I got a call about a year ago from Branford Marsalis, saying he had a conversation with a representative of the Basie estate. They were looking for a home for the collection. The Institute of Jazz Studies is the world’s foremost archival research facility in jazz. Branford said to this person, “You need to call Wayne Winborne.” There are a number of people who would have said the same thing: “You don’t need to look around; that needs to go to Rutgers. They’re going to be good stewards.”

RM: What’s in the collection?
WW: Count Basie kept a lot of stuff. We have home recordings, newspaper clippings, correspondence, love letters to his wife and daughter, telegrams when he was ill from Duke Ellington and Oscar Peterson and Frank Sinatra—just wonderful stuff that fans of the music would be interested in. But also ledgers—the amount they paid the band—things that historians and writers will be interested in. We’ve got his home collection of books and records, suits, his signature cap, tailor-made articles of clothing that he would wear on gigs. We’ve got the piano he would play at home, his organ—just so much wonderful stuff that we plan to exhibit and possibly also develop a touring exhibit.

RM: Is this material going to be of greater importance to scholars or equally accessible to the public?
WW: Yes to both. Our intention is to make it available to the public and we’re already doing so. We have several pieces that are on loan to three Grammy museums—the one in Los Angeles, the one in Mississippi, and then the Grammy Museum Experience here in Newark. So, we’re absolutely partnering with other organizations and museums and sharing some pieces of the collection to expose the public to Count Basie’s music.

RM: How important is it that this collection is going to be in New Jersey?
WW: I think it’s extremely important. This is a son of New Jersey. People forget what a global icon he was—the first African American to win a Grammy. He has four tunes—either written by him or strongly associated with him—in the Grammy Hall of Fame. He was extremely influential and crossed over into the popular culture, from his music and his band appearing in movies in the 1940s and ’50s and ’60s, to that iconic image in the Mel Brooks film Blazing Saddles of Count Basie sitting at the piano. The fact that Mel Brooks would put that in the film, and understand that people would both recognize the musician and laugh at the juxtaposition—again, it speaks to how large he was as an icon. So that New Jersey connection is important, and that’s part of his story that needs to be highlighted.

RM: Is there a single most important item in this collection?
WW: No, there is not, and don’t make me try to think of one. There were so many aspects to his life. He was a husband. He was a father. Some of the personal things are so touching to me: letters he would write to his daughter, who has disabilities. Some of the letters he wrote to her from the road are very, very touching. I tell people of the telegrams he’d gotten from folks, either from birthday parties or from when he was sick. There’s one from Oscar Peterson. I guess Basie must’ve had a birthday party at the Waldorf Astoria. Oscar Peterson says something like: “Sorry I couldn’t be there, but you didn’t have to go through all that trouble for everybody to tell you what I need to say to you: I love you, man.”

I love the one he got from Frank Sinatra. Basie had been in the hospital at the time, and Sinatra says something like, “Hey, man, that ain’t no way for a cat to behave. Get out of there soon.” And he signed it: “Your boy singer, Francis Albert.” Oh, man, I just love that so much. The respect, you know, from Frank Sinatra—this is, again, a global icon. For him to pay that kind of respect: “Your boy singer, Francis Albert.” C’mon, is that cool?

RM: One Jersey guy to another, right?
WW: One Jersey guy to another. One icon to another. That’s beautiful. I love that.

RM: What else should we know about the Basie collection?
WW: His wife, Catherine, was a very interesting woman. They lived in Queens. They were very immersed in the community, local civic organizations, did a lot of work with the NAACP. She received a lot of awards herself. She’d been a dancer for years, and raised their daughter at home, and was his life partner in every sense of the word for almost 50 years. I really believe she’s going to be the subject of serious study.

RM: Will the collection be digitized?
WW: To the extent that we can. This is something I’ve got to raise money for. There’s a donor or three who has a particular interest in digitization, and that’s a very important piece of work with archives and libraries across the country. So, I’ve got to raise some money to do that.

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