Scotty Barnhart: “I can surely feel Count Basie’s spirit”

If jazz is the american classical music, then Scotty Barnhart is the genre’s Herbert Von Karajan, a musical director in charge of one of the most iconic bands that ever existed. The Count Basie Orchestra has been safeguarding and honouring the legacy of its founder, keeping the flame that was lit in 1935, and Scotty Barnhart sees it as his mission to continue this grand, hard-swinging tradition. An acclaimed trumpeter an educator in his own right, he describes his experience with the Count Basie Orchestra, as the band embarks on a tour around Australia and New Zealand. And he dismisses the ‘ghost band’ nonsense, once and for all.

Scotty Barnhart

How did you first get involved with the Count Basie Orchestra?

I was called and asked to join the orchestra by Frank Foster, then the director of the orchestra, in January 1993.

What did you expect?

I expected to enter a world of Jazz royalty, grand history, and an atmosphere that has fostered some of the greatest musicians ever to walk this planet – a world created by Count Basie that still continues to this day, 83 years after he began.

How has your experience been so far?

My experience so far has exceeded all of my wildest dreams since it has culminated with me being selected as Director. It was already a dream come true to serve in the trumpet section for 20 years as a featured soloist, but becoming Director has been just an incredible honor and experience.

What has been the highlight?

The highlight is simply taking the stage with The Count Basie Orchestra every night all over the world.

What has been the greatest challenge?

The greatest challenge perhaps has been trying to continue to stay relevant and effective in the pop music culture we live in today that seems to place very little emphasis on musical excellence.

What is the Band’s mission?

Our mission is simple: to continue the grand tradition started in 1935 of being one of the greatest jazz orchestras in history and without a doubt the most swingin.

What is your main aspiration as its leader?

My main aspiration as leader is to continue to refine and elaborate on the various particulars that are the foundation of this orchestra’s success: attention to detail when it comes to dynamics, swing, cohesiveness, drive, and a good feel, all while shouting and stomping the blues at any tempo and volume.

What would you say to someone to invite them to one of the Count Basie Orchestras concerts?

They should surely come and check it out, as they will never experience another orchestra like ours. We will make you feel good and experience 83 years (and counting) of incredible music.

What is the appeal of Count Basie’s music?

It makes people feel good and enjoy life along with others. It erases any negative vibrations and replaces them with purely joyful and positive ones.

What is its significance in the current cultural context?

Its extremely significant in that it’s a legacy that we are passing on to the next generation of young people, and especially the young musicians.

What does it take to keep it fresh and relevant?

It takes the right musicians who completely understand the music itself and its function, but also those who understand Mr. Basie’s philosophy of making people feel good and wanting to get up and dance.

Is this a challenge for you?

Its not really a challenge for me, as Mr. Basie spent 50 years himself setting things in motion that will most likely never cease. My challenge is to not mess it up by doing things that are not in keeping with what made this orchestra great.

How are you personally inspired by Basie and his legacy?

I saw Mr. Basie and the orchestra twice while in my teens and on the second occasion, I met every one of the musicians. Not only had I been a HUGE fan of the orchestra’s music, I was invited by veteran trumpeter Sonny Cohn (30 years with CBO, 1960-1990) to sit and have dinner with him after the concert. Then he invited me back the following morning to meet everyone. I arrived at their hotel and immediately felt a deep connection to them as we sat and talked. I never met Basie himself as I had to leave before he came downstairs from his room. But I ‘ve had vivid dreams about him even before I was asked to join, so I feel like I know him. I can surely feel his spirit.

What does the term “ghost band” mean to you?

The term “ghost band” is one that uninformed critics penned because they couldn’t understand how musicians such as Basie, Ellington, and others could develop and leave such an important and lasting legacy that made the musicians still want to continue to be a part of it. I actually hate the term as does every jazz musician that I know because it actually belittles the work that we do. No one belittles the New York Philharmonic or any other great orchestra in the world wherein its original leader or conductor is deceased. The NY Phil or any other decades old orchestra is never referred to as a ghost orchestra. The critics who use this term miss the point in that it is the MUSIC that counts and not any one individual. If we didn’t sound and swing like The Count Basie Orchestra has since 1935 and continues to do to this very day in 2018, then I would feel the term would be warranted, but this orchestra has not lost one beat since Basie passed in 1984. In many respects, it may even be stronger. I have been on that stage with this orchestra for 25 years and counting and I can tell you in the clearest terms possible that what he created, refined, and perfected musically is still present. It’s no ghost but the spirit of actuality that continues. Smart writers and critics avoid that term – especially if they have taken the time to sit and listen to us.

What does it take to be a good bandleader?

It takes, first and foremost, the ability and willingness to learn how to relate to fellow human beings. Before we are anything else in this world such as musicians, artists, teachers, politicians, businessmen and businesswomen, we are all human beings first. Period. Once this is understood, then the next task is making sure you are completely thorough in understand the history of the organization for which you are charged in presenting, protecting, and preserving. That allows for a full exploration and subsequent understanding of the MUSICAL particulars of the job at hand. Then it is a constant balance of managing interpersonal relationships for 18 other men and women musicians and continuing to learn musically.

How does your work with the Count Basie Orchestra fit in with your personal music projects and teaching?

It works out pretty well, as long as I know my touring schedule six months to a year in advance. For the last 20 years, I have lived in Los Angeles, and for the last 15 years I have been a professor at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida, some 2,300 miles away. I am there on a part time basis which allows for my touring and teaching to coexist well. I am actually moving back to Tallahassee full time this October 2018 and it will be easier to have one base of operations. I still find time to work with my quintet and also to update my book, The World of Jazz Trumpet. Its all just a matter of time management and sticking to a steady schedule that also includes rest and relaxation so that I never get burned out. Plus, I’m having a ton of fun. I love the travel and the honor of being the Director of this incredible institution. And I must add that Jazz music is the most exciting music ever created. I’m an educated musician and have played all types of music in my life, but no other music that is based on improvisation offers the endless possibilities that Jazz does. It is never ever boring. We can play one composition over 100 different ways! Even more than that, if we are creative enough.

What is the most important thing that you have learned through your journey in music?

That people are people. We are all the same and deserve to all be treated with dignity and respect as fellow human beings. Our job is to uplift one another and love one another. If we aren’t doing that, then we have missed the point of life entirely.

Which tune best describes your current state of mind?

It Could Happen To You.

The Count Basie Orchestra is currently on tour around Australia and New Zealand.Get tickets here.