Review: ‘Count Basie: Through His Own Eyes,’ starring Quincy Jones, John Williams, Scotty Barnhart, Norma Miller, Will Friedwald, Gary Giddins and Carmen Bradford

September 12, 2020

by Carla Hay

Count Basie in “Count Basie: Through His Own Eyes” (Photo courtesy of Eagle Rock Entertainment)

“Count Basie: Through His Own Eyes”

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.

Count Basie (second from left) with his daughter Diane (second from right) and his wife Catherine (far right) (Photo courtesy of William J. Basie Trust)

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Count Basie reading Basie’s letters and other writings, many of which sound like they could have been excerpts from an unpublished memoir.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.

Review: ‘Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things,’ starring Ray Brown Jr., Tony Bennett, Smokey Robinson, Margo Jefferson, Judith Tick, Kenny Barron and Jim Blackman

June 26, 2020

by Carla Hay

Ella Fitzgerald in “Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things” (Photo courtesy of Eagle Rock Entertainment)

“Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things” 

Directed by Leslie Woodhead

Culture Representation: The documentary “Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things” features a racially diverse (mostly African American and white) group of people (mostly music artists and writers) discussing the life and legacy of singer Ella Fitzgerald.

Culture Clash: Fitzgerald experienced damaging racism, and her love of touring took a toll on her personal life.

Culture Audience: “Ella Fitzgerald: One of Those Things” will appeal mostly to people who are fans of jazz and biographies of legendary singers.

Ella Fitzgerald in “Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things” (Photo courtesy of Eagle Rock Entertainment)

Ella Fitzgerald left a unique legacy in music that can be compared to very few artists. She mastered the genres of swing, bebop, American standards and, of course, jazz. The well-made documentary “Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things” (directed by Leslie Woodhead and narrated by Sharon D. Clarke) is perhaps the definitive biography film of Fitzgerald, who died in 1996 at the age of 79. Although the film does not reveal anything new about her, it does have some great archival material and a well-rounded group of people who are interviewed.

Fitzgerald was born in Newport News, Virginia, but she was raised primarily in New York state. Her family moved to Yonkers, New York, in 1919, when she was 2 years old. Although she grew up in poverty, she discovered a love of the arts at an early age, and she helped earn money for her family as a dancer and as a singer.

Her teenage years were very turbulent. When Fitzgerald was 13, her beloved mother Tempie died. Ella Fitzgerald biographer Judith Tick says in the documentary the death of Ella’s Fitzgerald’s mother was “a devastating blow, because her mother had been the continuity in her life, and Ella was lost.”

Fitzgerald was sent to reform school in 1933, where she was beaten and experienced other forms of abuse, which people in the documentary say was doled out the harshest to the black kids in the reform school, compared children of other races. Her experiences at the reform school were so traumatic for her, that Fitzgerald never spoke publicly about what happened. However, the documentary shows records from the school with hand-written notes by school authorities that describe Fitzgerald as “ungovernable”—an indication that, despite any abuse she suffered there, her spirit could not be broken.

Yonkers is in close-enough in proximity to New York City that Fitzgerald was able to go to the big city and experience the culture of New York City’s Harlem neighborhood, which was the epicenter for African American music in the Northeast. In November 1934, Fitzgerald made her Apollo Theater singing debut on Amateur Night. And, as the famous story goes, she was was initially booed by the audience, but then she won them over with her voice.

The documentary includes an interview with dancer Norma Miller, who was in the audience for Fitzgerald’s fateful Apollo Theater debut, which was the first time that a very nervous Fitzgerald had ever sung in public. “We booed her,” remembers Miller. “They were introducing somebody we didn’t know. We were a bunch of rowdy teenagers in the balcony … Can you imagine? We booed Ella Fitzgerald!”

Fitzgerald’s son Ray Brown Jr. adds, “It was one of those defining moments, like ‘I’m here. I have to do something. Something has to be accomplished.’ And to be able to pull something out of yourself that’s so magical, that’s pretty amazing.”

Miller remembers the turning point when the audience’s reaction went from jeers to cheers: “We heard a sound [her voice]. It was so perfect. She shut us up so quick, you could hear a rat piss on cotton!”

From that Apollo stage debut, Fitzgerald then began hanging out in New York City even more. She would meet two of the people who would have a major impact on her  early music career: Louis Armstrong (who was a big inspiration for her) and drummer/band leader Chick Webb, a dwarf-sized hunchback who didn’t let his unusual physical appearance deter him from being a larger-than-life force in the music business.

Webb had an all-male band and was very reluctant at first to let Fitzgerald in the group. He had two concerns over including her in the band: Her safety and her sex appeal. On the one hand, Webb wasn’t sure if Fitzgerald would be the target of sexual misconduct  as the only woman in a group of randy men. On the other hand, Webb thought that Fitzgerald wasn’t attractive enough to appeal to the band’s audience. It’s mentioned in the documentary that Webb cruelly called her “ugly,” and he and other people would sometimes taunt her over her weight.

In the end, talent won out, and Fitzgerald became part of Webb’s band. It was the big break that led to her first mainstream hit “Mr. Paganini.” She experienced even bigger success with the classic “A Tisket A Tasket,” one of her signature songs.

Smokey Robinson says that “A Tisket A Tasket” was the first Ella Fitzgerald song her remembers hearing: “My sisters used to play that all day long, every day.” The massive crossover success of the song led to Fitzgerald making her film debut in the 1942 movie “Ride ‘Em Cowboy.” In the film,  she sang “A Tisket A Tasket” on a bus where all the people on the bus except for Fitzgerald were white. The irony is that in real life in that era, she would’ve been relegated to the back of the bus in many places in the U.S., where racial segregation was legal at the time.

This segregation affected Fitzgerald’s life in many different ways. In terms of her career, she (like other black entertainers) could not perform in certain venues that refused to have black performers. She also wasn’t allowed on certain TV programs and radio shows. And even the music she performed early in her career (swing and bebop) was considered “race” music at the time.

Her physical appearance was also harshly judged in other ways. Female entertainers were expected to be thin, glamorous and sexy (not much has changed since those days), and “Ella did not fulfill those expectations,” says writer Margo Jefferson. Her success is testament to how Fitzgerald was a groundbreaking nonconformist in her field, Jefferson adds.

Fitzgerald was also a trailblazer when, after Webb died at the age 30, she took over his band and became the leader, and the band was renamed Ella and Her Famous Orchestra. The documentary mentions that some of the band members resented having a woman as their leader, so there was some inevitable friction. After the group disbanded during World War II, Fitzgerald’s popularity waned.

But she was a master reinvention, so Fitzgerald transitioned from swing to bebop music. It was by performing bebop that she was able to showcase her brilliant ability to have her singing voice do solos on the same level as musical instrument solos. Jazz pianist Kenny Barron comments, “She had a great ear [for music].”

She started hanging out with Dizzy Gillespie and eventually toured with Gillespie and his band. It was while touring with Gillespie that Fitzgerald fell in love with Gillespie’s bass player Ray Brown. Fitzgerald and Brown married in 1947, and adopted the son of Fitzgerald’s half-sister and named him Ray Brown Jr.  (The documentary does not mention Fitzgerald’s first husband, Benny Kornegay. Their 1941 to 1943 marriage ended in an annulment.)

Fitzgerald’s marriage to Brown ended in divorce in 1953, but the former couple still worked together for many years afterward. It’s mentioned several times in the documentary that Fitzgerald was a workaholic who loved to perform and travel. That heavy touring schedule, which she kept up for several decades, took a toll on her personal life. By her own admission, she could never be the type of wife and mother than many people expected her to be, so it was difficult to find a love partner who could understand how devoted was to music.

Another transitional period in Fitzgerald’s life and career was when Norman Ganz became her manager in the mid-1940s. He wanted Fitzgerald to cross over to an even broader audience, so it was his idea to have Fitzgerald perform standards from the Great American Songbook. Ganz also launched Verve Records, as a showcase for Fitzgerald. It allowed her to appeal to a more affluent and sophisticated audience, which opened the doors for her to perform at venues that were traditionally off-limits to black performers.

And sometimes those doors could only be opened because the venues were shamed into doing so. The Mocambo nightclub refused to book Fitzgerald, until Marilyn Monroe, who as a big fan of Fitzgerald, famously said that she and other celebrities would boycott the club unless Fitzgerald was allowed to perform there.

Granz was also a tireless advocate in pushing for desegregation not only for Fitzgerald but also for other people of color. Granz’s biographer Tad Hershon comments on Granz: “He saw the evils of segregation, and was determined to campaign against segregation in jazz music.” When Fitzgerald moved to Beverly Hills in California, she couldn’t buy a home there, due to racial discrimination, so Granz had to buy the home and put it in his name.

Although Granz was undoubtedly a loyal champion for Fitzgerald, he’s also described in the documentary as “nasty” and “controlling.” Not only did he want a tight grip on Fitzgerald by dictating what she could and could not do, he also alienated other artists (such as Gillespie and Sinatra) because of his bossy ways. When Sinatra refused to take Granz’s orders, Granz spitefully told Fitzgerald that she couldn’t work with Sinatra anymore.

Granz stood by Fitzgerald when she and members of her entourage were arrested in Houston in 1955, just because some members of the entourage were shooting dice in her dressing room. The documentary includes a snippet of an audio interview from Fitzgerald where she said that even though the arrest was an obviously racist set-up and a humiliating experience, the irony is that people at the police department still asked for her autograph. Granz later sued the Houston police department for reimbursement of the bail money.

One of the rare gems in the documentary is a never-broadcast clip from a radio interview that Fitzgerald did in the 1960s, when civil-rights protests were very much at the forefront of African American struggles for equality. In the interview, Fitzgerald talked about how it bothered her that when she traveled outside the U.S., particularly in Europe, people couldn’t understand why the U.S. was so segregated and that even someone as famous as Fitzgerald would be treated like a second-class citizen in certain parts of the U.S.

In the interview, Fitzgerald also said that die-hard racists probably won’t change their minds, but younger generations might have different beliefs about race. And  Fitzgerald mentioned that she had to speak out about these issues, because she felt it was the right thing to do, even though some people think that entertainers shouldn’t talk about politics.

At the end of the interview, Fitzgerald asks where the interview will be heard. When the interviewer tells her it will be heard across many states, she replies that she might get in trouble for what she said, but she needed to say it. Perhaps her comments were considered too “radical” at the time, and maybe that’s why the interview never aired.

Tony Bennett comments in the documentary about Fitzgerald: “She never made a political statement, except when I heard her say three words. And it was the most complete definition of the complete ignorance of the world and the way they treat African Americans. She said, ‘Tony, we’re all here.’ In three words, she said the whole thing.”

In addition to her problems with racism, Fitzgerald was experiencing issues as a mother who was frequently away from home. Her relationship with her son Ray suffered, especially during his rebellious teen years, when he was shipped off to Catholic military school. When Ray moved out of the family home in the 1970s, he was estranged from his mother for about 10 years afterward. Fortunately, they reconciled, and he speaks of his mother in very loving ways in the documentary.

Other people interviewed in the film (who all predictably praise Fitzgerald) include music artists Patti Austin, Johnny Mathis, Jamie Cullum, Laura Mvula, Cleo Laine, Andre Previn (who died in 2019), Itzhak Perlman and drummer Gregg Field. Also weighing in with their thoughts are jazz writer Will Friedland, Newport Jazz festival founder George Wein and Jim Blackman, a longtime Fitzgerald fan who was her last tour manager.

During the course of her influential career, Fitzgerald won almost every possible prestigious award for music. She earned the nicknames First Lady of Song, Queen of Jazz and Lady Ella. But this documentary also beautifully shows that her greatest accomplishment is how she paved the way for so many other artists and created a legacy that will continue to influence countless generations.

Eagle Rock Entertainment released “Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things” in select U.S. virtual cinemas on June 26, 2020.

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