When Discussing Musical Royalty and That Foot-Tapping Thing Called Swing, Always Count Basie

updated 03/22/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/22/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

He rides to the bandstand now in a motorized cart and climbs the few steps to the piano supported by a cane and two of his musicians. Yet, despite arthritis in his spine and a 1976 heart attack, Count Basie, 77, is still on the road, cranking out the one-nighters as he has done almost continuously since founding his orchestra 47 years ago. His trademark right-hand flourishes are softer now, but as beguiling as ever. His musicians say his sheer presence makes them play better. To honor Basie while he is still active, the Black Music Association last week brought him to New York's Radio City Music Hall for a tribute starring Stevie Wonder, Dionne Warwick, Wayne Newton and others. The son of a gardener and a domestic, William Basie grew up in Red Bank, N.J., immersed himself in Harlem's jazz scene in the '20s and moved on to Kansas City. A radio announcer there, deciding that Basie was on a par with "Duke" Ellington and Benny "The King of Swing" Goodman, dubbed him "Count." These days Basie and his wife, Catherine, steal away every few months to visit their daughter, Diane, 38, at their home on Grand Bahama Island. The Basies also have three children whom they adopted as teenagers in the 1960s: two sons who live in the New York area and a daughter in Philadelphia. During a recent engagement at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, Basie talked with Eric Levin of PEOPLE.

Did you ever think you'd still be on the road leading a band at 77?

Didn't think about it at all. If I had, I probably would have blown my top trying to make it. I just keep on going.

How would you describe your sound?

We like the simple things that are swinging. We don't think about swinging hard, you know. We just like to swing the blues and get along with it.

What do you think of rock?

Some of it's great: Earth, Wind and Fire, the Jacksons, Gladys Knight and the Pips, the Bee Gees and the Brothers Johnson. In the '60s one of my adopted sons, Lamont, was always after me to do something "neat." So eventually we did two albums of Beatles tunes. Lot of talent there. They knew how to write.

Some people considered Ellington's music more sophisticated than yours. Does that bother you?

Why? There's room out there. Everybody can't be like the Duke. You don't have to compose those beautiful flowery things that he did, but you can still be a composer of the blues. W.C. Handy was. Others are doing it. Me, for example. We play the Duke's music. It may be the poor man's version, the way we do it, but we like it.

Fellow musicians have always urged you to solo more. Why haven't you?

I like to spot myself where I think I fit. Nowadays, with my fingers kind of stiff and slow, I'm glad I styled myself the way I did. Because, I tell you, there are cats around today who can play an awful lot of box—that's what I call a piano. I just play my one or two notes and don't worry about keeping up.

What made you want to be a musician?

I hadn't thought any too much about being an actual musician. I just wanted to be in show business. I first started liking it from the carnivals that used to come to the empty lot near our house in Red Bank. I liked the dancers and singers—the comedians not too much because the jokes were a little ahead of me. I'd go by myself and get home when I was supposed to.

Were you a good kid?

I wouldn't say that. Good as I could be, I guess. My parents figured, "He's going to do it anyway." They didn't chop me down at all, even though my father wasn't interested in show business. He bought Caruso records. That was the first thing I heard.

What music made you want to play the piano?

That's a heck of a question. I didn't hear any music that made me want to play the piano. I just played it. Seemed like mostly everyone had a piano in the parlor in those days. Every time I walked past our piano I had to hit it. But what I really wanted to play was the drums. The original Dixieland Jazz Band came to one of the lodges in Red Bank once, and they let me play the drums.

Did you sound all right?

I thought so. But you know what they thought. They asked me for the sticks back.

Did racial prejudice affect you personally when you were growing up?

Never paid it any attention. Hell, I saw it in Asbury Park and Atlantic City. But it didn't bother me at all because everything I wanted was over in the black clubs where it was jumpin'. Wasn't everything happening on the beach, you know. Matter of fact, the Boardwalk people used to come over to see what was doing. What did they used to call it? Slumming.

Didn't that anger you?

I keep telling you I never thought about that. But there were people who did, and they worked on it. It took years, but they turned things around.

What were your first impressions of New York as a teenager?

It was the Big Apple, man—greatest thing there ever was. I'd go to the Lincoln Theater in Harlem and sit in the first row, behind the orchestra pit, to hear Fats Waller play organ for the silent films. Fats played all melody. You knew what tune it was from start to finish. I fell in love with him right away.

How did you get to Kansas City in 1927?

I was with Gonzell White and the Big Jamboree, a traveling show. The band wasn't but five pieces, and sometimes it was just piano and drums. I played many a show like that. I was perfectly satisfied, too, until that show broke up and we got stranded in Kansas City.

Weren't you worried?

Nope. You don't panic when you're in a town where there ain't nothing but action going on. You ain't going to find no town nowhere that's going to jump no more than Kansas City did. It was wide open. Music everywhere, 24 hours. Everything was just beautiful. But I love Kansas City for what I first heard there, and that was the blues.

You were known as a carouser. What were some of your escapades?

Fast and fiery! I'm going to tell those stories? Are you crazy?

How about your days as a horseplayer? You spent a lot of time at the track.

You bet your life I did. What a thrill. When I was home and we lived in New York, I'd go every day. I remember one time I needed some fast cash, I tossed Katy's mink coat out the bedroom window. I was going to run outside, pick it up and hock it. But my mother-in-law was coming up the walk and it fell right in her arms. Oh, Lord. She saw me and she said, "Not my daughter's mink! How much do you need?"

Why do you and Oscar Peterson call each other "Josh" and "Satch"?

He used to strike me out all the time—I mean he can really outplay me. So I call him "Satch," for the great pitcher Satchel Paige, and he calls me "Josh," for Josh Gibson, the great hitter. They were on two famous teams in the Negro Leagues. I also call Oscar "the Tacker," because of the way he attacks the piano. Yes, sir, his piano feels pretty warm. It can really breathe after he gets done. I don't see how a person can think that fast. Because you got to plan ahead a little bit, you know. People don't realize that.

Why do you wear a yachting cap?

I kept seeing them on Lennie Hayton, Lena Home's late husband, about 40 years ago. I tried his on, and I liked it. So I went to an Army-Navy store and got me one. Cost me a dollar and a quarter. For years that's all I wore. Katy bought me a couple of real good ones but I finally left them in the closet. The cheap ones just hang on me a little better. It confuses certain people, though.

How do you mean?

Oh, one time a lady grabbed me in an airport and said, "Are you going to do anything about my bags?" I said, "No." "Well, why not?" I said, "Because I'm not working right now." Well, she grabbed this skycap and complained to him. He said, "Why, that's Count Basie." She said, "Who?" And she just stared at me, real puzzled. We were all breaking up laughing. Another time some woman said, "Boy, will you take my bags?" So I did. And she tipped me 50¢. Never knew it was me.

You gave up cigarettes and alcohol quite suddenly about 20 years ago. How were you able to do that?

Easy. The doctor tells you to stop, it's stop. I said to myself, "I'll stop smoking for a week." Then, "I'll stop for two weeks," then "three weeks." And I had it. Anytime you can stop smoking for a week, you've got it.

How were you able to avoid hard drugs? A lot of musicians succumbed.

Well, that's putting an awful lot of weight on the musicians. There are a whole lot of other people out there who are involved in drugs besides musicians. It's not fair.

But in jazz, especially, it seems many talented people have died young.

Yes, but their time was gone. Whether they were drinking or died from this or that—to me, their number hit.

Does the traveling tire you now?

Sometimes, especially the way the-agents throw the ink at the map. I miss traveling on the train. It was plenty relaxing. You could walk around, look out the window, go to the diner, be comfortable. I used to lay in bed at night and watch the stars and listen to the train—the whistles blowing, the track clicking. Just marvelous.

What does retirement mean to you?

Just settling down to take care of my health, doing anything I feel like doing anytime I wake up—if I'm lucky enough to wake up. It sounds good to some people, and maybe it should mean something to me. But it doesn't. I will cut down a little more on the traveling, but I don't have any intentions of throwing in the towel.

Isn't it a hard life?

It's not such a hard life, not if you like it. I've lived the life I wanted to live. Musicians just want to play. That's me from the word go.

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