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The Role of the Guitar in the Count Basie Orchestra with Jazz Trumpeter Scotty Barnhart



JGT contributor Wayne Goins talks to jazz trumpeter and bandleader about the role of guitar in the Count Basie Orchestra.

JGT: In your opinion, what role does the guitar player play in the Count Basie Orchestra? As bandleader, how do you define what function it serves, and how has that evolved over the years from your unique perspective?

BARNHART: Well, the role of the guitar in the Count Basie Orchestra—as defined by Freddie Green, and continuing by [current Basie guitarist] Will Matthews—is to lock the rhythm section into a steady, unbreakable pulse and rhythm and tempo. Keep it still loose and everything, but really lay it down, which will allow the band to play in front of the time and behind the time as necessary by a particular arrangement. It lets us play laid back when we do that. Or we can choose to play directly on the beat—we do that too.  The rhythm section is what allows the horns to play the way we play, and no other band in the world plays the way we play. And it’s because the rhythm section is so solid in the tempo and the time that we were able to do what we do.

Will Matthews

So the guitar is at the root of that. And then the bass is what I would say comes after that. The guitar and the bass to me are really almost equal in what they do, but because the guitar is on top of the bass, it really just kind of solidifies everything, man. So that’s why when Freddie Green missed a gig one time—for some reason or other—they asked Mr. Basie, ‘how was it playing without Freddie Green?’ And he half-way jokingly said, ‘Now I can finally play my owntempo!’ 

Will Matthews is an essential part of what we do and how we sound. And so we’ve been very lucky to have somebody that, 1), really digs Freddie Green and understands him, and 2) just loves laying down that rhythm blanket, or canvas, so to speak, so that the orchestra—the horns—can do what we do.

JGT: So the entire band goes “as the crow flies” in a manner of speaking—the crow being the guitar in this particular case?

BARNHART: Yeah, exactly! Exactly right. And so the other thing that I make sure of when we’re playing is that I made sure everybody can hear the guitar. Now, he’s playing without an amp. So that means you really gotta listen. That means you really gotta play at a volume where you really could hear him. And Will has a nice big sound anyway, but we always make sure that we can hear that guitar.

JGT: So Will, is literally not playing with an amp?

BARNHART: Nope, no, no, no, no, no. He never uses it. The only time he uses an amp is when he’ll do a solo piece like “Li’l Darlin,’” or in a ballad where I might I have Will play solo guitar. That’s the only time he uses an amp, period. When the band is playing regularly, he does not use an amp—only a microphone and a monitor so he can hear back when he’s playing… but it’s not an amp. When he does a solo, he uses a direct input (DI) with the same microphone. When he’s just comping with the band, he doesn’t go through any other monitor on stage—the only other monitors would be for the soloists and vocal mic.

JGT: Wow. So is there a particular guitar that he uses that amplifies it that well? Because I think, you know, if you had a solid body, you wouldn’t be able to do that, I don’t think. [author’s note: After doing some digging, I later learned that Freddie regularly used a couple of different guitars, but they all had large frames—archtops that ranged between 18-19” in size. Freddie used an Epiphone Emperor and Stromberg Master 300, then the 400 model, and then later a Gretsch 18-inch Eldorado.]

BARNHART: I don’t know about the guitar. Will can definitely answer that better than I can, but yeah, probably so.

JGT: Freddie, back in the day, had this huge jazz guitar box. The body was really resonant, so he could do that. Plus, Freddie’s strings were so high up off the neck of the guitar, that the thing almost…it sounded amplified even when it wasn’t.

BARNHART: Exactly. I heard about that too. But Will, he’s just the perfect cat. Here’s the other good thing about Will: he’s been there, he’s the Dean of the Rhythm Section. He’s been there twice as long as the other guys. And so he really knows how to lay it down and set the tempo. When we start playing and the band is swingin’, Will Matthews is driving—along with our bass player, Trevor Ware. 

Again, I can’t emphasize enough how important the role of the bass is with the Count Basie Orchestra, because if we didn’t have the bass player that understood how to ‘walk’ and use the right note choices, it wouldn’t sound like Basie. A lot of people forget that, [they] don’t think about that. But when I’m working with college bands or even professional bands that have me come out and conduct them on some Basie music, the first thing I tell them is the bass is the most important sound in that orchestra—period, end of story! Because the note choices—everything else is on top of that.

BARNHART: So when you study the records, the band from the fifties onwards with Eddie Jones on the bass, all the way up to Cleve Eaton—especially Cleve Eaton—that’s a culmination of how Mr. Basie wanted the bass to sound like. So much so that I finally asked Cleve; I said, ‘Hey man, how in the world do you know what notes to play? …’cuz you’re not walking like you would be in a Miles Davis quintet, or walking like you would with John Coltrane—you walk in a very specific way…’ And he said, ‘Oh, I’ll tell you why I know. Because when I first joined the band, Mr. Basie made me set up the bass and my position on stage so I could see his left hand. And whenever I started walking a certain way—but he didn’t agree with, he would literally start playing the bass line for me so I could hear him and see him so I can stay with what he wanted. Not go on my own tangent, but to play exactly how he wanted it.’

BARNHART: And that’s how Cleve to me became the most important bass player in the history of this orchestra—because he played with and without Basie; and when Basie left, he knew exactly how to still keep walking! You know, he just didn’t go all willy-nilly and play, you know, on a C7, start playing a flat five on a C7 chord on beat one, you know? So he knew how to walk those lines. So I actually transcribed one of his bass lines just to see what he was doing! So with Trevor Ware, before I hired him—before I offered him the gig—I made sure that I sent him two or three CDs full of the most important bass lines of the bass players of this orchestra:  Eddie Jones, John Clayton, Cleve Eaton, Norman Keenan—all of these bassists—so that he could really study them. That’s why when we play now, there’s no question that we’re the Count Basie Orchestra, there’s no question. When you put on All About The Basie,  our latest release—when  you put on that blues (the last track of the album) or any of those tunes, that’s the Count Basie Orchestra, man. And it has to do with the bass player. And the guitar helps to lock that in. So I don’t mean to take the emphasis off the guitar, but as far as how we sound and the movement of the band, that comes from the bass.

JGT: So then, so would you say that the guitar basically sits on top of the bass? Is the guitar actually harmonizing the lines of the bass or is he just playing sort of a line that is—

BARNHART: [interrupts] I think every chord that Will plays has three notes in it, if I’m not mistaken. So he is harmonizing the bass notes. And, of course, they’re all improvising too. So it’s nothing that is set out in motion, as far as even an arrangement. If they got Ab7, Will can play that chord two or three different ways. As well as Trevor—he could be on C, he could be on a Bb, or he could be on an Eb, you know? So it’s always, always in a spirit of improvisation, which makes it all the more genius when you think about how they can really improvise almost identically. That’s what people don’t really think about sometimes when they talk about what jazz musicians do.

Like how in great jazz bands like Miles Davis’ quintet, how Herbie [Hancock]and Ron [Carter],  when they were improvising, they were damn near improvising in the same exact way, man. With the same thought process. 

BARNHART: So Will, to me, is so important because he knows how to compliment what Trevor is playing. And he doesn’t have to work that hard, because Trevor knows how to walk the right way [chuckles]. Now, if Trevor were walking in a different way—if he were in a different band—then Will’s job might be harder because he would have to pull Trevor harmonically more inward to what he’s doing. But because Trevor knows and understands Freddie Green and knows how to walk and knows the Basie sound and how we play, then this harmony is heaven for the both of them…they just sit there and eat it up—just lap it up like a hungry dog getting a piece of meat! 

JGT: Wow… 

BARNHART: It’s such a good thing to hear and watch, especially when I’m watching them on the stage. I mean, I’m right in front of the band. So I’m watching him and, you know, they always have a smile on their faces. Even with our drummer, Robert Boone, our pianist, Glenn Pearson, they all have a smile on their face because they know: what they’re doing, nobody else is doing that on the planet. No other rhythm section on the planet Earth is doing what they are doing the way that they’re doing it. No other rhythm section—period. That’s just a fact.

JGT: That’s incredible…

BARNHART: It is, man. It really is, man. And the only reason they can do that is because, number one, they have the same sensibility of where they are. Number two, they know what their job is and what their role is. Again, they don’t play it just like any other band. We don’t play like any other band. We don’t do that. Even when we get a new chart, we don’t interpret two eighth notes like any other band. We kind of play those—usually depending on the piece—as staggered quarter-note triplets! That’s just what we do, you know? So the rhythm section where they get a piece and they got a C7 for one bar and a second bar is F7, Trevor knows how he’s going to walk into that F7 from C7: usually two C’s, two E naturals, and bam!— he’s right at the root of that F7 chord in beat 1 of the second measure. That’s just how he’s going to usually walk. 

‘Cuz that’s usually how the Basie band bassists walked! He’s not going to walk too much of a different way from that. And so the sensibility of the Count Basie Orchestra—harmonically—is something that sometimes gets overlooked, because they’re so focused on the rhythm section and just the rhythm of it or the swing of it. And that’s all great and fine. But it’s the harmonic sensibilities too, that continued to allow us to sound how we sound. And that’s just as important as the rhythm. Because again, if we didn’t have the right harmonic sensibility and understanding, we’d just sound like just any other band put together just to do a tour or something. And that’s not how we sound.

It’s amazing that we can be off, because when we go back to work, whenever it’s going to be—the next month or two, I think it’s coming up soon in April—as soon as we get to rehearsal on stage, it’s gonna sound like the Basie Orchestra. It’s the same guys in it, the same guys are there…

JGT: Right! 

BARNHART: Now, that’s a real trip! To be off that long, and still know when you come back to work and I count that tempo off, they know exactly what they got to play? That’s a hell of a feeling, man. And every time—when we were touring regularly, when would we have a month off or a couple of months, even—as soon as we come back to work, that first tune on the first sound check is right back to where it was where we left off the last time. And that’s…that’s a testament to the fact that these guys just don’t come to work, they ARE the work, 24-7. It stays with them. 

And that’s what the Basie Orchestra does. We just don’t leave everything on the bandstand. When I’m home driving around, or teaching [at Florida State University], I’m always thinking about something when it comes to that, you know. And I’m sure Trevor is doing the same, Will is doing the same, Boone is, Pearson is…

The Basie Orchestra’s music and the spirit of Basie—once you get it and feel it—it never leaves you. And so that’s why it’s not difficult when we come back to work. I mean, if we had to start a tour tomorrow, we’d be smoking. It might take us a day to get kind of warmed up to get the cobwebs out. But we still would be the Count Basie Orchestra from beat one. It wouldn’t sound like some rehearsal band in some studio somewhere. It would be Basie, period. And always tell them that. I tell them that the older that the orchestra gets, the more of that responsibility we have. 

JGT: Right. 

BARNHART: Because then we keep getting further and further removed from the source. So a hundred years from now, they still could sound as good as we sound today—if they have the right people in place. If everybody understands their role and the chair that they’re playing, you ain’t gonna have no problems. 

I always use the analogy of the New York Philharmonic. When Toscanini left, and they got the next conductor, they didn’t drop in the ability of how they were playing. As long as they kept the right people in place and got the right conductor, they were fine. So when Bernstein came on the case, they were fine. When Bernstein left, everybody didn’t say, ‘oh shit—that’s the end of the New York Philharmonic!’ They didn’t say that. They just kept getting the people who understood the history of that orchestra and the level they were always going to attain to. That’s why with the LA Philharmonic, with Dudamel, they didn’t lose anything. They gained, if anything. Because they got the right person in place. So it’s the same with Basie, man. As long as we have the right people in place—especially in the rhythm section—we’re going to be fine. And Will Matthews is the dean of that rhythm section. And along with everybody—Trevor on the bass and Glen and Robert—their jobs are 25% each when it comes to holding all that stuff together, the four of them.

BARNHART: Because Will’s been there the longest, you know, I look to him to make sure that, you know, they kind of keep that stuff together…I don’t ever have to say anything. I really haven’t had to say anything—they know what the job is. And if the tempo gets off a little bit, you know, everybody’s human, and may get off sometimes. I’ll just give a little signal—I might tap on my chest and get it back where it needs to be, But that’s it. And I trust those guys, man. You know, when they go into a masterclass, I don’t have to worry about , ‘damn, are they gonna talk about the right thing?’, you know what I mean? I know that they know the truth. 

BARNHART: And they got to tell it exactly how it needs to be. And if any youngsters wanna learn how to play in the Basie style, I’m confident that Will and Trevor, Robert and Glen—they’ll know exactly what to tell them, but not only that, they’ll know what to show them. 

We did a master class one time—it was in Peru, and I’ll never forget this, man. I taped it on my phone. They [the Basie rhythm section] had all of the students right in front of them. They just started playing a blues, man. And you would’ve thought it was 1955 with Basie and Freddie Green right then, man. It was ridiculous—I’m serious man!! [laughs heartily.]

The Count Basie OrchestraScotty Barnhart Director (with trumpet in center)

BARNHART: And I remember thinking as I’m standing there, I’m sayin’ to myself,  God damn, these cats—they reallyhave absorbed this music and this sound! God, I was so glad to hear that; it just brought tears to the eyes. As a matter of fact, our new recording, Live at Birdland, is coming out—either May or the first week of June. And I got it here on my phone. I’m listening to it, and every time I listen to it I get tears, man. It’s going to be a two CD set. We recorded for a week straight at Birdland—every single night, we recorded. And we just finished mixing it. And when you hear this, man,…look, I’m telling you—it’s ridiculous! In fact, this is the first time in the history of the orchestra that I can think of where the rhythm section gets to stretch out. 

This very seldom it happens. There’s one tune Basie would play—the Quincy Jones tune, “I Need To Be Be’d With,” which is a tune we also play. Well, Basie stretches out and takes about five to six choruses. Well, I let them do that on three or four tunes for this album. I just let them stretch and swing and play, man—indefinitely—and then I bring the band in when I think they’ve had enough. So you really get to hear these guys stretch out in a live setting, making the audience stand on their chairs damn near, and they are swinging and tight at any tempo. We go from the slowest ballad to –one of the other tunes is up to about 450 [metronome marking]—it’s that fast—it’s ridiculous! And they don’t drop that tempo at all

So that’s why I can’t wait for this recording to come out because it’s really gonna give a great example of what Will Matthews and the rhythm section cats have been doing, and what we do every night. And there’s no overdubbing. I didn’t do any of that. I ain’t go back and fix nothin’. Nope. We played what we played and I just chose the best takes. And we just mixed them. Everybody in the band is featured at least once. It’s a 2-CD set, with two 75-minute CDs. With regard to the rhythm section, there’s really nobody else on the planet doing what they’re doing. It’s going to be evident when people hear this. 

JGT: Does Will get to solo on this new album?

BARNHART: I don’t think he does on this upcoming release, but guess what? We do have enough material for a third CD, and I think Will may have done some solo material one night, and it probably will come out on that one.

JGT: Well, you have, you have a really wonderful position to be at the head of literal history.

BARNHART: Yeah, man, I’m very fortunate—I know, trust me. I’m just trying to do the right thing. And now our nextrecording is going to be a blues recording, a flat out blues recording of the likes of which has never been done before. We’ve never taken the music of the Count Basie Orchestra and put it with the music of Robert Johnson. That’s neverbeen done. So what I’m trying to do next is this: As soon as we can get the studio, it’s gonna mess some people up. And Will Matthews will obviously have some good solo space there, because I’m gonna have Buddy Guy on it, Bonnie Raitt, a few other people…it’s still in the planning stages, but that’s gonna really be happening. 

JGT: Wow. 

BARNHART: Yeah…we’re gonna do tunes like “Green Onions” and maybe even “The Thrill Is Gone.” We’re right in the planning stages right now. But that—combining traditional blues of Muddy Waters, B.B. King, and Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Johnson—combining all that kind of stuff with what we do, the way we do it? That ain’t never been done before, man.

JGT: No, you’re right. You’re right. I can’t wait to see that. Yeah.

BARNHART: Yeah, we’re workin’ on it! And the key—like I told Trevor—the key is going to be the bass player; because the bass player in a blues band walks way differently for a bass player in the jazz world. So he’s going to have to figure out how to do the both of those together—he’s working on it. But I’ve been planning it now for over a year. We’re gonna to do it at Capitol [recording studio] in LA and it’s just a matter of us being able to do it, and I’ll have my choice of people that I want to get on it. And we’ve got the label set. We’ve got everything set. It’s just a matter of this COVID thing, allowing us to get into the studio to do it. But on this new project, there’d be one, maybe two tunes, where the only soloist will be electric guitar…and Will Matthews will play one of those. 

JGT: I’m so excited. Well, man, listen—thank you so much for chiming in on this. You’ve given our readers an entire wealth of knowledge about the legacy of the Basie Band. They’re gonna love it.

BARNHART: Pleased to hear this. Always happy to help, anytime—always.

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