Films: Count Basie: Then as Now, Count's the King

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Count Basie: Then as Now, Count's the King

Count Basie: Then as Now, Count's the King

USA, 2008, 71 Minute Running Time
Genre/Subjects: Documentary, Music
Program: Documentary Films
Language: English

DIRECTOR: Gary Keys
Producer: Gary Keys, (executive) Douglas Durst and The School of the Arts, Columbia University
Editor: David Himmelstein and Gary Keys
Cinematographer: Bradley Crumb
Principal Cast: Count Basie, Jerry Lewis, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Lester Young, Billy Eckstien, the CBO, Benny Powell, Frank Foster, George Lewis, Frank West, Joe Wilder, Ira Gittler

Jazz great William “Count” Basie comes back to life in this rich documentary, which traces the history of the pianist, composer, and bandleader over several decades. Filmmaker Gary Keys juxtaposes a roundtable discussion among old (indeed octogenerian) cats from the Count Basie Orchestra with recorded performances, including a cameo appearance in Blazing Saddles. In archival clips, we see Basie skittering his hands over the keys. He holds a single finger up in the air, ready to unleash the band’s energy. A gallery of portraits and snapshots shows the ever-smiling face of a man as vivacious as the grooves he delivers—his good humor suffusing the music and the players going at it all around him, from Lester Young to Ella Fitzgerald.

As the former members of the iconic big band reminisce, the music backs up their anecdotes with its driving tempo and virtuoso improvisation. The rhythm section is like a blank wall, says one veteran; take it away, and you can’t hang any paintings. Another recalls a new kid who made no sound for twenty-four bars of a solo, filling the time with gestures instead. They were all sure he’d be fired, but the next day Basie told him: “I like your experimentation. That’s what we’re about.”

Jazz buffs will revel in the strains of old favorites, from “One O’Clock Jump” to Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child.” Keys, a festival regular who also produced and directed Memories of Duke (SDFF 4)—a tribute to Duke Ellington and his 1968 tour—brings more than filmmaking credits to the project: He has staged concerts for Basie, Stevie Wonder, and others as well.

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