Jeremy Marre made so many great documentaries about music and musicians that a full retrospective would probably fill a 24-hour TV channel for the rest of the year, from Roots Rock Reggae in 1977 and Rhythm of Resistance (which inspired Paul Simon to write and record Graceland) two years later to profiles of Roy Orbison, Otis Redding, the Grateful Dead, Youssou N’Dour and countless others, plus Soul Britannia, Reggae Britannia and episodes of the Classic Albums series, including the one dedicated to Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black. When he died in March, aged 76, Marre left us a parting gift: a film on the life of the enigmatic Count Basie, shown on BBC4 last week and now available on iPlayer.
Bill Basie’s music was anything but enigmatic. Rooted in the cadences of the blues and the imperatives of 4/4 swing, it avoided the sophistication found in the work of Duke Ellington and Jimmie Lunceford and demanded nothing of those looking for straightforward enjoyment, as I found when I was lucky enough to see a late edition of the band at the Roseland Ballroom in New York City almost 50 years ago. Nevertheless it invited study that was always rewarded.
In 1930s recordings like “One O’Clock Jump” and “Taxi War Dance”, the Basie band brought the concept of riffing — as an armature for soloists and a lure for dancers — to a peak. And by pairing the contrasting elemental approaches of the tenor saxophonists Lester Young (air) and Herschel Evans (earth), the leader created one of the great stylistic juxtapositions. His own piano-playing, a minimalist reduction of his entire orchestral concept, epitomised the creative use of economy.
In public, however, Basie wore a mask. A genial, gracious mask, but still a mask. His greatest contemporary wore one, too, but Ellington’s relative effusiveness conveyed the illusion of intimacy with his audience. Basie was never aloof, but he gave away nothing of his own feelings.
The masterstroke of Marre’s film is to give us an insight, through the use of letters, autobiographical notes and home movies, into Basie’s existence offstage, and in particular with his family. He was, of course, out on the road almost all his adult life, but the revelation of the close relationship he and his second wife, Catherine, shared with their daughter Diane, who was born severely handicapped by what would now be diagnosed as cerebral palsy, is extraordinarily moving.
Count Basie Through His Own Eyes concentrates on the man rather than the music, which is lightly sketched through an excellent selection of clips and interviews with associates, including the drummer Harold Jones and the arranger Quincy Jones, and the critics Gary Giddins and Will Friedwald. The man himself comes alive in his own words and in those of surviving relatives.
Ten months a year on the road for 30 years took the man once billed as the Sepia Swing Sensation from the grind of touring the kind of towns where hotels turned blacks away to the sort of acclaim that enabled him to buy a retirement home in the Bahamas. He died in 1984, almost exactly a year after Catherine, whom he had met soon after his arrival in New York in the late ’30s, when she was a 15-year-old exotic dancer (her active involvement in the civil rights movement led her to take part in the March on Washington in 1963).
Marre takes us behind the imperturbable half-smile Basie wore while sharing the stage with Frank Sinatra or becoming the first African American to receive a Grammy (for The Atomic Mr Basie in 1958), showing us a man whose 42-year marriage had its ups and downs and who, as Jones puts it, “loved anything he could gamble with.” If I don’t quite buy Friedwald’s claim that Basie’s band was the favourite of the Luftwaffe’s wartime fighter aces, that’s a small hiccup in a valuable piece of work.
* Jeremy Marre’s Count Basie Through His Own Eyes can be seen until late December on BBC iPlayer: https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m000nnyq/count-basie-through-his-own-eyes