The legendary William James “Count” Basie enjoyed a keen eye for talent and greatness.
Over the years, the New Jersey-born icon enlisted legends like Billie Holiday, Joe Jones, and Sweets Edison to perform in The Count Basie Orchestra.
Formed in 1935, The Count Basie Orchestra has proven the benchmark for jazz bands and musicians, performing in movies, television shows, and before kings and queens. The group’s 19 Grammy Awards is the most earned by any orchestra. Since 2013, Scotty Barnhart, a graduate of the historically black Florida A&M University, has directed The Count Basie Orchestra and has continued the legacy of his hero, who died in 1984 at the age of 79.
“Mr. Basie was a great human being and the greatest bandleader in history,” Barnhart told the Black Press during a live interview.
“I was in the trumpet section as a soloist for 20 years, so by the time I got to be director, things lined itself so that it was an easy transition.”
Barnhart, a professor of Jazz Trumpet at Florida State University, qualifies as a legend himself.
With two Grammy Awards as a solo artist, Barnhart has performed with Cab Calloway, Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, and many other icons.
He has lectured at universities in South Africa, Japan, Europe, and the United States.
With the pandemic halting much activity, The Count Basie Orchestra finally heads back on the road.
The group’s first concert since the shutdown takes place on Thursday, May 13 at the Jay and Susie Gogue Performing Arts Center at Auburn University in Georgia.
“It’s finally settled,” Barnhart sighed. “We’ll do a clinic for K-12 and take questions and demonstrate some things, and then we’ll have a concert at night.”
The orchestra also hopes to fulfill its commitments for a summer European tour and a fall U.S. schedule.
“We are raring to get back to work,” Barnhart declared. “I get messages on Facebook and other places all of the time asking when we are touring again.”
Barnhart also reminisced about Basie.
He said Basie didn’t hesitate to advocate for civil rights and justice.
“Mr. Basie was not above doing what was necessary to help make things better. He was a very supportive person,” Barnhart noted.
“He knew by lending his name, his orchestra, and his talents he could help things. He was not at all blind to what was going on. Mr. Basie was such a professional, such a nice guy, that he handled things in a way that he knew it would allow him to continue.”
The greatest lesson Barnhart learned from Basie was how to pay attention to detail, he remarked.
“When I first saw Mr. Basie, it was at a high school in Atlanta when I was 12. I saw him again at the Fox Theater when I was 17,” Barnhart recalled. “I went out a bought everything Count Basie, and at an early age, I was paying attention to detail and memorizing everything.
“By the time I got to the orchestra in 1993, I knew what was going on. By the time I became the orchestra leader, anything that was going on, I would hear it.
“If they played the wrong note, I could hear that. Attention to detail is my first job, and I learned that from Mr. Basie.”