Basie & Beyond! The Atomic Era Explored
In this brand-new series of performances for 2022, Mark Armstrong leads a NYJO 18-piece ensemble through a programme built to explore the impact on contemporary music made by Basie and some of the incredible twentieth-century Black American artists that followed, such as Frank Foster, Dizzy Gillespie, Tadd Dameron, Oliver Nelson, Quincy Jones, and Thad Jones.
I have been in love with swing since playing ‘Splanky’ for the first time as a teenage trumpet player. As I have explored this music I have drawn constant inspiration from the combination of a great groove and the variety of colours that skilled writers create, from raw excitement to subtle, expressive textures.
Mark Armstrong, Music Director
What makes this era of Basie so pertinent to the ethos of NYJO is that Basie brought forth the talents of the younger generations to help him re-imagine and re-energise classic styles – emphatically reminding audiences that jazz is about feeling alive, and constantly renewing and re-inventing oneself. The youthful energy that was injected into the work by collaborators such as Neal Hefti, allowed this album to become music of youth, vigour, and joy.
Due to the vibrancy of the players and the social complexities of the time, The Atomic Mr. Basie had no choice but to become the soundtrack for a generation beset by world war, global economic collapse, and callous, deeply rooted racial segregation. This music unabashedly celebrates life through hardship, and although having just passed its 64th anniversary, it has never been more relevant
The Atomic Era
What better time than now to delve in to Count Basie himself and his spirit for re-imagining, revolutionising and reviving the jazz artform via his hugely influential album, The Atomic Mr. Basie.
The Atomic Mr. Basie is said to mark the zenith of Basie’s creative exploration. The album showcases Basie and his players blasting big band swing at its most exciting, but it was Basie’s faith in the younger generations that brought about this shining masterpiece and subsequently a renaissance in his career.
By the late forties, the swing band craze that had the American youth in a tight grasp for the best part of 20 years, began to dwindle. In the mid-fifties, both Count Basie and Duke Ellington’s bands were somewhat quiet, with Basie even dis-banding his full group to concentrate on smaller ensembles. Basie’s initial solution to this was to work with some of the hottest singers of the moment: Ella Fitzgerald, Sammy Davis Jr, Frank Sinatra. But secondly, and perhaps more poignantly, he called upon the younger generation of composers and arrangers to reinvent his band’s sound. One of those burgeoning composers was trumpet player, Neal Hefti.
Already a part of Woody Herman’s band as trumpeter, Hefti was heavily involved in the initial innovations of bebop which in turn made his arrangements notably exciting, and exactly what Basie needed. The album boasts a very bold, progressive structure – paying homage to Basie’s roots whilst also unflinchingly embracing change. The first half is fast-paced and full of energy, recalling the forties heyday of Count Basie’s Orchestra. Then starting with “Midnite Blue,” the album slows down for a hazy stroll to the finish, with daring solos from Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis and Eddie Jones woven throughout. The real takeaway is the seamless blending of players, old and new, as a complete unit, which ultimately serves to uphold Basie’s title as one of the greatest band leaders in history.
To work out how to take the music forward, it’s important that we take the time to celebrate its past. Although we may not have had the same experiences of the musicians who inspire us, we can learn something of their lives through the music and demonstrate its importance and vitality to modern audiences. This becomes especially interesting when being performed by musicians of the same kind of age as the members of these bands were back in the day.
Mark Armstrong, Music Director