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Monday, 27 June 2016 16:42

Getting Down with the Count

Getting Down with the Count
SARATOGA SPRINGS – It was July 3, 1982. I had moved to Saratoga a year before, became a SPAC member that summer. When it came time to buy tickets for the 1982 programs – there was no doubt where I wanted to be. I was always a ‘front row balcony’ guy – I always requested, and usually got that location. Recently, they wised up and made that seating area premium boxes. Smart move. I still think it’s the best spot for both listening and viewing. No one could stand up in the way and block your view. Particularly when you are trying to see a legend. For me, Count Basie and his Orchestra had a special meaning. As a very young boy, New Years Eve was the night I got to be an ‘adult’ and stay up late. And every New Years, that meant watching the ball drop and the Count swing – on my B/W TV – Channel 9 in New York City. Broadcasting live from the Rainbow Room in Rockefeller Center. It looked smoky – and super swanky. That was the Count. And now I would be seeing him live. These were the days when it was known as the Kool Jazz Festival for the record, and it was a jazz purist’s lineup. Barely any R&B or pop. Just the best in the biz at the top of their game. Consider just a few of the names that performed during that 2-day affair (July 3 and 4): - Ella Fitzgerald - Spyro Gyra - The Buddy Rich Orchestra - Ray Brown - Maynard Ferguson and his Orchestra - Oscar Peterson Legends and Hall-of-Famers all. But only one member of Royalty for me. Though I had my reserved front-row balcony seat, most of the daytime was spent out on the lawn. I don’t remember if they even had a gazebo stage then, but something tells me no. From that lawn standpoint on that July 3 afternoon, I remember being particularly impressed with Oscar Peterson and his small trio or quartet. I guess I’m a piano guy. “O.P.” delivered a fast paced, precise set – flying over the 88 keys with elegance. I recall hearing that Oscar wasn’t too thrilled with his afternoon placement on that day, yet he stood and bowed after each number, asked his band-mates to do the same, and sat back down and really ripped it up to the wild applause of the audience. Bravo. New fan, right here. But when the sun went down – I was in my seat. Like the name of one of the Count’s many hit songs – it was “Meetin’ Time.” And I was ready. I had to refer to a Library of Congress playlist of the Count’s set - it has been awhile. But for me, music in whatever form has always been about absorbing the qualitative – I can barely read music, don’t really play an instrument. So here’s what I remember, in addition to my jaw dropping – often. Like many big bands, the Orchestra starts out with a few numbers, without the leader, to get the party started. The third song – April in Paris – was a particular standout in this early segment. A couple of other numbers. And then… from stage right – there he was! As befitting royalty, the Count, age 77 that day, was being rolled to his piano by two fine maidens – maybe his granddaughters? Not sure, but they looked elegant and beautiful. It took a bit of time to make the trip – The Count’s appearance brought about the thunderclap roar and Standing O you might expect, and he took a moment to soak it in and acknowledge the subjects of his kingdom. But there was something else. On the journey across the SPAC stage, the Count had his hands at keyboard level – his fingers playing along with the band. The song, I believe was Bootsie’s Blues – and as he was getting closer, he looked at that piano with a “let me at ‘em” look – mock threatening to bolt the wheelchair. Five feet away now – maybe. And the maidens let him glide the rest of the way… The Count picked up the song in mid-measure – and they didn’t stop until he said so – with their trademark encore – Jumpin’ at the Woodside. Side note: that song was given a whole new generation of fans due to it’s usage on, of all things, The Gong Show – where it presaged the arrival of “Gene, Gene the Dancing Machine.” Ask your father. But for me, the Count’s set – 1 hour, 3 minutes and 21 seconds according to the Library, was transformative. It changed my life on several levels: - I became a jazz fan on that day. Yes, I still loved my rock, etc., but from that day forward – jazz was king. - It led to a (volunteer) radio career of 10+ years; broadcasting a show on Skidmore’s WSPN on Saturday afternoons – a mix of Jazz and R&B – following the modern Jazz Festival formula. And every show - every one – signed off with me saying thanks and goodbye with “Jumpin” in the background. - Most of all, it was the greatest musical day of my life. And it happened at SPAC. Coming July 8: Official 50th Anniversary with Alvin Ailey/ SPAC Behind the Scenes (at a high level) / and ‘The Photo of Her Life’
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