A Gentle Soul, Count Basie Ruled Swing with a Shake of His Finger

updated 05/14/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/14/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

When Neal Hefti joined the Count Basie band as composer-arranger in the mid-'50s, he brought with him a tune called Li'l Darlin'. Basie liked the nimble, staccato melody, but not the tempo, a mid-speed "businessman's bounce." As if lowering an overhigh flame, he slowed it down, below boiling, below simmer, to a luxuriant steep that unlocked the song's charming, tender and even humorous vapors. Li'l Darlin' became a hit and one of the band's trademarks.

Basie, who died of cancer on April 26, had a genius for the way music should feel. "We like the simple things that are swinging," he told PEOPLE in his last major interview, in 1982. He was not a sophisticated composer or arranger, but he could take other people's work and with a few shrewd strokes, usually paring away frills, make it his own. With his sheer presence onstage and a few gently emphatic notes, he could snap the band into an irresistible groove. Says Joe Williams, the great blues singer, with the band from 1954-61: "He was the ignition and the machine could not get started without him."

Basie's leadership of his players was always the quiet kind. "If one of these superb musicians made a mistake," Williams recalls, "Mr. Basie just always happened to be looking in another direction. He knew, but more important, he knew that you knew." Yet the atmosphere on the road, Williams says, "was always relaxing and tension free. It emanated from the top and we were able to really feast on it." Basie said he regarded the band as "family," and, indeed, performances were usually what they appeared to be—as Williams puts it, "a celebration every night."

William Basie, born in Red Bank, N.J. in 1904, the son of a gardener and a domestic, arrived in rollicking Kansas City, Mo. in 1927 and fell in love with the town. He never abandoned the friends he made there ("his back-of-the-pool-room buddies," as one intimate calls them) or the music he first heard there: the blues. In fact, one of Basie's key contributions, as Grover Mitchell, his trombonist and longtime confidant, says, "was to formalize the big-band playing of blues. He took Southwestern blues, swing and sophistication and pulled it all together. Yet he never quite understood just how important a figure he was in American music."

Basie's humility was genuine. "I've always been, and still am," he asserted, "in the rhythm section." There will not be another like it soon.

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