People tend to forget that jazz was once a frightening thing.
Jazz was originally of places that straights and squares didn’t go. It was illicit — feared and judged worthy of passing laws against. By the beginning of the ’30s, dozens of communities across the nation had passed laws barring the performance of jazz in public dance halls. And yet at some point, jazz went from the frenetic trembling of the outcast to the slow, knowing nodding of the head — a universal symbol of agreement.
You get to a point in your life where you just want to hear beautiful music.
You get to a point where you want no flaw in your Matrix; the point at which you know what you want and you know what you like, and by God you are not going to pay a lot for this muffler.
There is, however one echo of jazz’s status as outsider music: jazz heard literally from the outside. Outside the concert hall and heard while walking past and going down the block. It is a music that touches on the human desire to be part of something, a communal experience in all its grandeur. There is the sense that there is another kind of life happening somewhere near, life being savored and enjoyed, and it could all be yours if only a door were opened. And so it is that the doors of the Ventura Theater swing wide on this overcast Sunday afternoon, unveiling the jazz extravaganza of the Count Basie Orchestra at the 19th Ventura Music Festival.
Photo by Matthew Hill
Jazz should also be considered a story of survival.
All the old people here in the audience have survived as well. They have persevered, in their own ways, by hook or by crook, through war and loss and triumph and so the Count Basie Orchestra, now entering its eighth decade, becomes emblematic of that struggle to survive, a struggle that doubtless was fierce and full of peril, no matter how calm and polite the thought of jazz heard on a Sunday at 3 p.m. might outwardly seem.
The orchestra has not only survived but thrived, having taken jazz from terror to tradition, riding out those lean years as the public’s tastes changed. Its musicians have carried the torch, in some cases for decades. The orchestra has survived on this steady latter-day diet of beauty — music as beautiful as anyone here can remember — and in that beauty it has found refuge. It is a refuge from the advent of the noise and fusion of Albert Ayler or Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, and transcendently, the death of Count Basie himself, a count more impervious to the passing of time than possibly even Dracula.
“We have what we like to think is the best rhythm section in the world,” says director Dennis Mackrel, and there is enthusiastic applause at this, just before the band launches into Ernie Wilkins’ “Kansas City Shout.” He congratulates a 4-year-old girl in the audience for being so hip, just before the orchestra plays, suitably enough, “Li’l Darlin’ ” by Neal Hefti, he of TV’s Batman theme. The musicians run through “Basie,” a speedier song, as well as “One O’Clock Jump,” a song they’ve been playing for more than 80 years. There’s “Basie Power,” again by Wilkins, with its sensation of fast travel and jazz flute, and onward to Frank Foster’s “Shiny Stockings” and two Thad Jones compositions, “To You” and “From One to Another,” coming on soft like martinis at twilight, slow-dancing in the promise of a lazy weekend with nothing at all to do. Carmen Bradford, the last singer signed by Basie to sing with the orchestra, takes the stage; and there is a measured pause before she announces, “I’m having a senior moment!” She promptly sings with great ebullience, among others, “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” “All of Me” and “You Don’t Know Me,” gamely battling high-pitched feedback that threatens to derail the concert until it’s brought under control.
Various critics lately are fond of writing off jazz as an antiquated, self-indulgent art form — one that no longer belongs in the now. The point of art is to defy the ravages of time so that the future will not forget those boundless struggles man undertook to reach eternity through his art. And that’s rather the point, here and now. The Count Basie Orchestra belongs to forever.
Ventura Music Festival continues through May 11. For a schedule of performers and tickets, visit venturamusicfestival.org.