While seated at the back of the Merridian Ballroom on campus yesterday where I had gone to see the legendary big band jazz of the Count Bassie Orchestra, I could not stop thinking about the power of collaboration. The event was the Arts and Issues series of the University as part of the Annual SIUE Jazz Festival. The Merridian Ballroom has played host to very many special events in the life of the University. There it was on March 29, 2005 where the then newly elected Senator Barack Obama first announced that he was going to introduce his first piece of legislation in Washington, D.C. It was in the same venue that the last Arts and Issues event at SIUE took place that I attended. That was the visit by writer and poet Maya Angelou in October 2009.

It wasn’t my first Orchestra attendance, but it was the first that I was attending without much knowledge of the players. Only a late change of mind by my adorable head of department gave me access to the tickets in the first place. And because I didn’t get there on time, I sat at the back, too far to take good pictures but not too far to enjoy the beautiful work of the orchestra. My first orchestra very many years ago at the University of Ibadan featured mostly Yoruba tunes and foreign musical instruments; a stimulating mix which was also easy to follow. The Count Basie Orchestra performance featured tunes mostly famous to Americans, and perhaps more sophisticated Jazz audience to which I obviously didn’t belong. I didn’t know exactly when to clap and when not to. I depended on the crowd which however didn’t disappoint. What the performance lacked in appeal to my expectations in familiarity to its tunes, it more than made up for in satisfaction of my appetite for good music, brilliant compositions, amazing vocals, laughter, a few theatrics, and general geniality expected of a world class orchestra of its reputation. I have now begun to look for their songs on iTunes.

William “Count” Basie is widely regarded as one of the most important jazz bandleaders of his day. He came out of the Kansas City Swing scene in the mid-1930s and assembled a sound that became an anthem for a generation. The group has won every musical award imaginable, including 17 Grammys, and has been named to every respected jazz poll in the world at least once.  Some members of the orchestra are new, as could be found on the youth of their faces. But, according to the literature inviting us to the event, “the majority of sound still swings from musicians handpicked by Count Basie himself.” He died in April 1984 after having led the band for nearly fifty years.

The SIUE Jazz Festival, presented by the SIUE Jazz Studies program in the Department of Music, is a non-competitive, educational event that celebrates jazz innovators.   This season’s festival features the music of Count Basie.  In addition to jam sessions and clinics, performances will include high school and middle school bands plus an appearance by the SIUE Concert Jazz Band.

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