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Seventy years later, Basie Orchestra still has that swing.

Byline: Scott McLennan

COLUMN: SCOTT MCLENNAN

During its recent trip through Washington, D.C., The Count Basie Orchestra had a couple of gigs. One was at Blues Alley, a well-known jazz hotspot. And the other was at a retirement home.

"If you want to make a dollar, you don't say, `I only play this kind of show,'" said trombonist Bill Hughes, who now leads The Count Basie Orchestra.

The unusual retirement home show came about through a connection between the band and the director of the home. More in line with the sorts of places one expects to see The Count Basie Orchestra, the Newport Jazz Festival last week announced that the orchestra and singer Nnenna Freelon are teaming for the fest's opening night.

And on Thursday the Count Basie Orchestra will be turning Mechanics Hall in Worcester into a swing palace as the next event in Music Worcester Inc.'s Mass Jazz concert series. The show starts at 8 p.m. and tickets are $39, $36, and, for students, $20. Tickets are at the Mechanics Hall box office, 321 Main St., Worcester. For more info, call Music Worcester at (508) 754-3231 or go online to www.musicworcester.org.

The Basie Orchestra's adaptability is nothing new. Founded in the mid-'30s by William "Count" Basie, the piano player's namesake big band rose to prominence with its swing style, a sound that sustained the group's popularity, weathering every rough patch in modern jazz that snared other big bands.

After Basie's death in 1984, the orchestra endured under the direction of Frank Foster and later Grover Mitchell, earning continued critical praise and industry recognition via perennial placement in Downbeat magazine polls (a national barometer for all things jazz) and the occasional Grammy award, the last coming in 1999 for "Count Plays Duke."

Hughes first joined the Basie orchestra in 1953, when the band was full of such monster players as guitarist Freddie Green and fellow trombonists Henry Coker and Benny Powell.

Hughes chalked up his first tenure with the Basie band, a four-year run that overlapped with the recording of such signature tunes as "April in Paris" and "Shiny Stockings," as the most intense of his career.

"I'm very protective of the original band. That was a very hot band," he said.

He rejoined in 1963 and upon taking the reins of leadership after Grover Mitchell died, Hughes had both the sense of history and understanding of integrity necessary to maintain and foster the Basie brand name.

The 19-member Count Basie Orchestra of today features five members who worked directly with Basie. And the orchestra has a good record of retaining talent.

"Most of the guys now have been here at least seven or eight years," Hughes said. "There's something about the band that has a family attitude. Everyone wants to hold on to the music."

And the Basie Orchestra still records, most recently cutting a live album in Japan called "Basie is Back" and "Ray Sings, Basie Swings," which paired new orchestra recordings with Ray Charles vocals taken from a 1970s concert featuring Charles and Basie. In 1992, the Basie Orchestra secured its place in local music lore with the release of "The Count Basie Orchestra Live at El Moroco," which was made during a stop into the fabled jazz spot on Worcester's Wall Street.

When asked how often he freshens up the hard-touring band's material, Hughes said, "Every night."

"Every night I feel we take a fresh look at the repertoire," he said.

Yet given the cost and practicality of transporting Basie's sheet music, which is stored in two warehouses in the New York area, and the desire among audience members to hear "April in Paris" and other Basie staples at all costs, the freshening doesn't always happen by changing song selections. Often it simply comes in the way the band plays.

"Many musicians don't think about history," he said. "Playing is a day to day thing. As it's occurring, you just want it to go over."

Yet the way the Basie band has been putting over for roughly 70 years has certainly secured this group's place in history.

Scott McLennan can be reached at tgmusic1@yahoo.com.

The Count Basie Orchestra

Where: Mechanics Hall, 321 Main St., Worcester

When: 8 p.m. Thursday

How much: $39, $36, and $20 for students

ART: PHOTO

CUTLINE: Bill Hughes leads The Count Basie Orchestra, which performs Thursday at Mechanics Hall in Worcester.
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Title Annotation:ENTERTAINMENT
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:May 1, 2007
Words:739
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