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Scotty Barnhart carries on the 80-year legacy of the Count Basie Orchestra

Scotty Barnhart, center, leads the Count Basie Orchestra
Scotty Barnhart, center, leads the Count Basie Orchestra
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Since its establishment in 1935, the Count Basie Orchestra has maintained its reputation as being one of the most important jazz groups of all time. William "Count" Basie founded the group after a career as a pianist in Kansas City. Aside from a brief hiatus between 1948-1952, Basie himself remained leader of the group until his death in 1984. 

One of the most recognized albums from the group was its live performance with Frank Sinatra in 1966. "Sinatra At The Sands" was recorded in Las Vegas and was the first live studio album by the iconic crooner. This year marks the 100th anniversary of Sinatra's birth and the Count Basie Orchestra pays tribute to the singer with a performance at the Hollywood Bowl on July 22. 

Sinatra at the Sands

Scotty Barnhart is the sixth leader of the orchestra since Basie's death. Barnhart started off as a trumpet player in the band in 1993 and took the position as its director in 2013. 

The Frame's John Horn spoke with Barnhart about conducting a band that's been in existence for 80 years, the style of the Count Basie Orchestra, and his love for the late bandleader.


How did you join the Count Basie Orchestra? 

I just got a phone call out of the blue. We don't have auditions — the orchestra has never had auditions and we still don't. What happens is, when someone is leaving he recommends somebody for the spot. You have to come in and be able to play on the first night because that first concert could be Carnegie Hall, it could be a recording session, or it could be anywhere. So we don't have time to bring guys in and say, Well, let's see how it goes for a week or so. 

So I got a call partly because the guy who recommended me, I think he was told that I was a huge Basie fan. Basie was always my favorite orchestra from the time I was a kid. I had the right temperament, I understood the music, and I had all of their albums. It was just really a matter of playing whatever part I had to play. I never looked back. 

At the Hollywood Bowl you'll be performing songs from "Sinatra at the Sands," a live album recorded in 1966 at the Las Vegas hotel. The Basie Orchestra was Sinatra's backing band that night. What was the special nature of the collaboration between Frank Sinatra and the Count Basie Orchestra? Why does that recording give you chills?

Well, first of all Sinatra was one of the most swinging-est vocalists that ever walked this planet. The Count Basie Orchestra, as we all know, is the most swinging-est big band to ever play. If you put those two things together it's unbelievable.

I remember I was reading the liner notes to one of the recordings called, "It Might As Well Be Swing." Freddie Greene, who was the guitarist in the orchestra for 50 years, in the liner notes they were mentioning how he, Sinatra and all of the guys in the band were in the control room and were listening back to a playback. Freddie said something that just stunned me when I read it. He said, "Working with Sinatra, he is one of the few vocalists that swings." That is a big deal. It's all about how Sinatra breathes, when he breathes and when he doesn't breathe. He doesn't let the singing get in the way of the story. 

The person conducting the orchestra that night, at the Sands Hotel, was a young musician and arranger named...

Quincy Jones. 

Have you ever spoken with Quincy about his time with the Basie orchestra and that night in particular?

Well, not that night in particular, but I've spoken with Quincy. The first time I met him was in '97. We were talking about how the band sounded and he was saying, "Yeah man, you guys were smoking." This was 1997 when we were conducted by Frank Foster. He just was telling me that the things that the band has always been known for, we were still doing. Like the saxophone section on a particular arrangement called, "In a Mellow Tone." He said, "I can still hear you guys are playing that the right way, doing this the right way, and doing that the right way." I just remembered that, so it's my job to make sure we keep doing those things that made the orchestra what it is.

A lot of people, I have to point out, when they talk about the Basie Orchestra and sometimes when I'm interviewed, they just want to focus on one particular facet of the band — from like 1938 to 1951-2. The band — this is 2015 — we're still recording. Basie died in 1984 and he was still recording. There is this huge 80-year span of the orchestra that I have to be responsible for all of. I have to remind people sometimes that you have to check out everything. Don't discount the '60s, don't discount the '70s, not even the '80s or the '90s either. There is so much stuff out there. When you really really look at it and you hear us play ... from the first second you'll know, Oh, that is the Count Basie Orchestra. That is a big deal.

What does that mean? Because you're talking about both being a contemporary band and somebody who respects the tradition of the band itself. Is there a certain style of playing? Is there an approach to music? Is there orchestration that is important to you? 

Everything you just mentioned. It's all of those things that happen to make the whole of it. Before I became director, I could hear each individual facet of what made up the band — from the tempo to the arrangements, to how the trumpets were playing together, and to how the saxophones played together. I could also put myself outside of it in the audience and hear how that was sounding.

If something is not right I'll know exactly what we need to do to fix it. I can tell somebody, You need to listen to this recording from 1971. This is what they were doing. You need to listen to what they did in '83. This is what they were doing. So it's actually more difficult now. I have a difficult job, more so than the guys ever before me. Because time keeps passing and we keep playing, we keep recording and we keep adding all these things to the music. But there are still basic fundamental things that we have to pay attention to that Basie did better than any other band.

When you become the President of the United States, the people in charge hand you a suitcase and it has the nuclear launch codes. When you take over the Basie Orchestra, is there an equivalent? Is there a Bible or a 10 commandments you have to follow? 

Yes. The entire recorded history of the orchestra, number one. Number two, all of the guys that are still alive that played in the band. If you can have a relationship with those particular facets of the orchestra ... you know, I played in the orchestra for 20 years before I became director so I played with guys, talked with guys and traveled with guys who knew [Basie], who were in the orchestra for 40-50 years. I used to ask them questions about that.

One of the main things that I learned was that Basie was a master psychologist. He never really said a whole lot. He wouldn't have to fire somebody. Somebody else would have to do that. He just had a way of knowing what to do, and in the first and foremost he treated the musicians like men first.

Frank Sinatra at the Hollywood Bowl 1943. The Music Center Archives/Otto Rothschild Collection

Count Basie died more than 30 years ago and yet I believe there are still a few members of the orchestra who were hired by Basie himself. Do they play a special role in keeping the sound of the band alive? 

Yes, they do. Clarence Banks, for example, is one of our trombonists. He was the last musician actually hired by Basie. But when we're talking about different music, different things to play, sometimes when I'm putting a set list together he'll remember something that they did. Some of the stuff that they played still isn't written down. So every once in a while we'll have something like that and he'll say, No, it needs to be this way, or It needs to be that way. In fact, he just gave me a recording a few weeks ago of Basie's last gig. The one at the Palladium here in Los Angeles like two days before he died.

When I listened to it I could hear how the band had arrived to a certain amount of weight and to a certain amount of depth — we're talking April, 1984 — how he had figured out how to let each section just progress, get deeper and more in the beat and more laid back at the same time. When I heard that I was like, Wow! There are a few things on there that they were doing that we need to make sure we are doing. It is a task that consumes me 24/7. I'm thinking about it all the time. You know, 50 years from now I should be able — whenever my days are up conducting — to pass this thing along to the next generation and have it be in great hands and in good shape, you know? I was given an orchestra that was in great shape. It's easy to mess it up, actually.   

The Count Basie Orchestra will perform at the Hollywood Bowl on July 22 for Frank Sinatra's 100th birthday celebration. 

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