Judge Adam Arseneau jumps at one o'clock.
Part of the Masters of American Music television series in 1995, Count Basie: Swingin' the Blues is a short documentary about the life and musical history of the legendary bandleader Count Basie, an introductory course in the man and his musical legacy. The documentary is full of loving testimony by aged former band mates, dozens of interviews, and plenty of archival footage. Followers of the Count may find this treatment a bit introductory.
A master of simplicity and straightforward jazz piano, Count Basie's approach was minimalist and direct. He was a master of note conservation, never cluttering up his sound with two notes when one would do. This stripped-down, "one note" style of composition soon became his hallmark: an upbeat swinging sound that lead to outstanding levels of commercial success for Basie and his ever-changing orchestra. Although best known during the big band era, after the war, Basie stayed musically relevant by incorporating bebop—albeit in a more controlled and measured fashion than some musical experimentalists like Dizzy Gillespie or Charlie Parker did—personally leading the band all the way into the 1970s.
As documentaries go, this isn't the most exhaustive or authoritative take on the musician, especially not Basie as an individual or providing any insight into his personal life. Audiences can expect a showcase of talent through black-and-white performance clips of Basie and his orchestra, some brief biographical tidbits here and there, and a whole lot of old men reminiscing. A sizable hunk of the film is devoted to round table footage between surviving elderly members of Basie's orchestra, fondly discussing the band leader and his musical talent. I enjoyed the old television footage reels with Basie smoking in interviews towards the later years in his career. The man had a magnetic personality; he sat and tickled the keys casually, almost idly, sporting an ear-to-ear grin. This is a man who loved his job.
Narrated by a raspy Roscoe Lee Browne, Count Basie: Swingin' the Blues may be too short to be considered the definitive treatment of Basie. Still, the film does the best it can with the format, packing in a breakneck summary of the man's professional career spanning five decades. Basie had an amazing stable of musicians playing under his direction over the years: Harry "Sweets" Edison, Buck Clayton, Lester Young, Herschel Evans, Jimmy Rushing, Joe Williams, even the legendary Billie Holiday (for a short time).
Audio and video are relatively straightforward. It becomes immediately clear that this film aired on television; the image is soft and hazy, with washed-out black levels and grain subject to the quality of the archival footage being shown on-screen. The PCM stereo soundtrack gets the job done, with clear dialogue and a straightforward presentation. Bass response is nonexistent, but this kind of music and the recordings of the day never lent themselves very well to the low end. In all other regards this is a barebones presentation—no extras.
As good as a 60-minute documentary made for European television in the mid-nineties can reasonably be expected to be, Count Basie: Swingin' the Blues works best as a high-level overview into the successful bandleader's career and musical influence. Look elsewhere for a deeper treatment.
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