September 12, 2020
by Carla Hay
Directed by Jeremy Marre
Culture Representation: The documentary “Count Basie: Through His Own Eyes” features a group of African Americans and white people discussing the life and legacy of jazz/swing legend Count Basie.
Culture Clash: Count Basie experienced racism and other discrimination but overcame a lot of barriers to become one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century.
Culture Audience: “Count Basie” will appeal primarily to jazz fans, but other people who like biographies about famous entertainers can appreciate this documentary.
Many people know jazz legend Count Basie when it comes to his music, but few people know what type of person he was off-stage. (Basie died in 1984, at the age of 79.) The well-made documentary “Count Basie: Through His Own Eyes” (directed by Jeremy Marre) takes a fascinating look inside Basie’s private thoughts and his personal life by revealing for the first time several of his letters, family photos and home movie footage. Basie and his wife Catherine preserved these archives that were made available to the documentary through the William J. Basie Trust.
The movie has voiceover narration by actor Clarke Peters portraying Count Basie reading Basie’s letters and other writings, many of which sound like they could have been excerpts from an unpublished memoir. Because of the voiceover narration of what Basie wrote in his own words, the documentary brings more of his personality to life than if it had been a conventional biographical documentary. Several of Basie’s former colleagues are interviewed, and they describe him as ambitious, good-natured, a strong leader and a devoted family man.
Basie Band saxophonist John Williams comments about Basie in the documentary: “He had this saying: ‘I like my band to think of me as just one of the guys.’ Don’t you ever believe that he was just one of the guys in the band … He was the boss!”
William James Basie (who was born on August 21, 1904 in Red Bank, New Jersey) became interested in showbiz as a child, when he fell in love with going to carnivals. An avid piano player, he got his first real taste of performing as a teenager, on a fateful day when he attended a movie at the Palace Theater in Red Bank. The movie’s accompanying piano player was absent due to illness, so Basie filled in and learned to improvise his own music while playing the piano according to what was on screen.
Although being a cinema piano player was his first big break, Basie knew that he didn’t want to keep doing this as a job in entertainment. As his wrote in one of his letters: “It was time to get out of Red Bank. And music was the ticket.” (And it’s a good thing that Basie didn’t stick with being a piano player in a movie theater, since that type of job would become outdated when movies began to have sound.)
In 1920, Basie’s journey to fame and fortune took him to New York City, where he befriended Fats Domino and idolized Fats Waller. It was during his stint playing in Harlem nightclubs and hobnobbing with some of jazz’s greatest musicians that he took on the nickname Count, as a way to distinguish himself and bring an air of “royalty” to his stage name.
In 1929, Basie relocated to Kansas City, Missouri, where he further honed his craft as a jazz pianist and a swing band leader. In a letter, Basie wrote about his Kansas City experience: “It’s where I learned you don’t have to kill yourself to swing. Play like you play. Play like you think. And then, it’s you.” The Count Basie Orchestra was formed in 1935.
Basie eventually made his way back to New York City in 1937, but he found that the nightclub scene had become much more competitive than when he first arrived in the city. In an interview in the documentary, saxophonist Williams remembers: “They tried everything when Basie first came on the scene to destroy his band, and he was never bitter about it … And he succeeded.”
Basie was a regular performer at New York City’s Savoy Hotel, which had the rare distinction at the time of being a racially integrated hotel. However, racism was inescapable. As a traveling musician, Basie (just like other people of color) had to be mindful of the dangers of going in certain areas where people of color could be attacked or killed just because of the color of their skin.
In a letter revealed in the documentary, Basie wrote: “I can’t remember when I did not experience discrimination … And I didn’t let it bug me.” Some of his former colleagues confirm in the documentary that although Basie didn’t like racism, he wasn’t the type of person to get overtly angry about it.
It’s mentioned in the documentary that one of the ironies of Basie’s worldwide fame is that he was a favorite musician of German Nazis. In addition, Basie broke racial barriers in the music industry. In 1958, he was the first African American to win a Grammy Award. He went on to win nine Grammys in his lifetime.
Grammy-winning music legend Quincy Jones, who was a Basie Band arranger early in his career, reveals how Basie and his band would deal with racists: “Every day, we used to say, ‘Not one drop of my self-worth depends on your acceptance of me.'” Jones says of the racism that he, Basie and many other people of color experienced back then: “It was horrible. It ain’t much better now.”
Jones still gets rankled when he remembers when the band traveled in racially segregated areas (which were usually in Southern states), they often had to drive for hours before they could find a hotel that would accommodate them. According to Jones, things got so bad one night that they had no choice but to stay in a funeral parlor with dead bodies in caskets because all the nearest hotels were for white people only. “It was ridiculous,” Jones comments.
Despite the damaging effects of racism, Jones says that Basie remained humble. “He was a a very simple man … He was a very positive person.” After he became famous, Basie settled in Addisleigh Park, an upscale, predominantly African American neighborhood in New York City’s St. Albans, Queens. Addisleigh Park residents at the time included boxer Joe Louis, actress/singer Lena Horne and baseball player Babe Ruth.
Pamela Jackson, a Basie family friend, says in the documentary that Basie didn’t act like he was a celebrity when he wasn’t on stage. Although he spent a lot of time touring, when Basie was off the road, he spent as much time as he could with his wife Catherine and their daughter Diane, who was born in 1944.
According to Jackson, this family of three had a tight bond with each other, but “everything centered on Diane.” Diane was born with a disability that Jackson and Aaron Woodward III (another Basie family friend) describe in the documentary as probably cerebral palsy. However, they and other people say in the movie that Basie and his wife always treated Diane as if she were a “normal” child and it was unthinkable for them to send her away to an institution.
In Basie’s letters that are read in the movie, he describes his courtship with Catherine, whose maiden name was Morgan. She was a dancer when they met, and their relationship started out as an uneasy flirtation. She resisted dating him at first because she told him that she heard he had a bad reputation.
However, he eventually won her over, and they got married in 1940. (The documentary does not mention Basie’s first wife Vivian, whom he married in 1930 and divorced about three years later.) Catherine is described in the documentary as his soul mate and equal partner, including when she and Basie began getting involved in the civil-rights movement of the 1960s.
Other people who are interviewed in the documentary include Count Basie Orchestra director Scotty Barnhart, plus former members of the Basie Band teams, such as dancer Norma Miller, drummer Harold Jones, singer Carmen Bradford and manager Dee Askew. On the journalism side, Basie essayist/jazz critic Gary Giddins and jazz critic/biographer Will Friedwald also offer their thoughts on Basie.
The documentary includes a very good selection of archival footage of Basie throughout the years. There’s some classic performance of Basie doing “I Needs to Bee’d” accompanied by Jones (who is not seen on camera during the performance.) Billie Holiday is featured in two separate archival clips: She seen bopping around in the background during a performance of “Dickie’s Dream,” and she sings lead vocals on “God Bless the Child.”
“Count Basie: Through His Own Eyes” clocks in at a brisk 74 minutes and tells Basie’s story in an unfussy and straightforward manner—just the way that Basie would have wanted it, based on the way his personality is described by people who knew him. The previously unreleased archival footage and letters enrich the movie (Peters does a great job with the narration), which gives people more appreciation for Basie not just as a legendary musician but also as an inspirational human being.
Eagle Rock Entertainment released “Count Basie: Through His Own Eyes” on digital on September 11, 2020.