Count Basie always looked for two key elements in his music: One, keep it simple, and two, keep the beat.
Bill Hughes, who will conduct the Count Basie Orchestra in concert Sunday in the Franciscan Theatre & Conference Center of Lourdes Collge, never forgot Basie's own description.
"Somebody once asked him how he describes his music and he said, 'I call it foot-patting music. If I look out in the audience and see people patting their feet, then I know I'm doing my job,' " Hughes recalled in an interview last week from his home in Brooklyn, N.Y.
"Whatever we play, it's swing," Hughes said. "It's mostly danceable stuff, although we get into some very fast tempos that, unless you can jitterbug, you can't dance to it."
The current 18-piece Count Basie Orchestra features five musicians who were in the band at the time of Basie's death in 1984 - trombonist Clarence Banks, saxophonist John Williams, drummer Butch Miles, bassist James Leary, and Hughes, conductor and trombonist with the Basie band since 1953.
"I never thought about being the leader till it happened," said Hughes. "I was named to lead the band in 1993 when my good friend and fellow trombone player Grover Mitchell died. In order to direct the music, you have to be very familiar with it. Having been in the band nearly 40 years at the time, I was the next logical connection to Basie."
William "Count" Basie was a pianist from Red Bank, N.J., born in 1904, who had inherited the band from Benny Moten when that pianist died after a botched tonsillectomy in 1935.
Under Basie, the orchestra helped lead the way into the swing era of the 1930s and '40s with such hits as "One O'Clock Jump," "Jumpin' at the Woodside," "Taxi War Dance," and "Tickle Toe."
Basie's lineup in those days included such powerhouse players as Lester Young, Ben Webster, Jo Jones, and Jimmy Rushing. In the 1950s, after many of his star soloists had left the orchestra, Basie began to focus more on a group sound with tight arrangements that did not rely on individual artists.
"I try to give solos as much as possible, but with 18 pieces it's hard to give everybody a turn," Hughes said. "And then again, you have some soloists who are much more capable than others, who stand out when they stand up to take a solo."
The artists who feel more comfortable blending in with their instrumental sections rather than stepping into the spotlight for solos have an important role even if they're not getting a lot of attention from audiences, he added.
"If they do their parts good, it becomes a statement in itself. I can hear it from where I'm standing and I'm happy with that," Hughes said.
Basie had a way of letting his musicians know what he expected from them and could keep them in line without sounding harsh or angry, Hughes said.
"He was a beautiful guy. You would have enjoyed meeting him. He was nice to almost everybody he met," Hughes said. "He would socialize with the people in the depths, and he would socialize with royalty, and he would get along with everybody."
When Hughes joined Count Basie's group, jazz trombone was a night job while he was finishing his pharmacy degree from Harvard University.
"[Pharmacist work] was a solid job but I had experienced working behind the counter and it could be boring," he said.
A friend recommended Hughes to Basie and the trombonist never looked back at the pharmacy career he had abandoned.
He did, however, get another interesting job offer.
"After I agreed to go with Basie, a friend of mine called and said, 'Duke Ellington wanted me to call you and see if you were available to come and sit in with us.' I couldn't believe it, that these two guys were after me," Hughes said. "It was like a dream to me."
Hughes obviously stuck with Count Basie and was part of a world-renowned big band that has earned 17 Grammy Awards and circled the globe.
Basie's music remains vibrant and fun, even though spending 30 to 40 weeks a year on the road can get tiring, Hughes said.
"I'm 75 and it's hard to do when you get up to my age. When you're 75, you feel aches and pains where nobody else feels it," Hughes said with a laugh. "But getting up there and conducting, that's the easy part. We have a great bunch of guys."
The Count Basie Orchestra will be in concert at 7 p.m. Sunday in the Franciscan Theatre & Conference Center of Lourdes College, 6832 Convent Blvd., Sylvania. Tickets are $25 from the Toledo Jazz Society, 419-241-5299.
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