Here I sit. At the back of the bus.
Happy to be here.
Last night the Count Basie Orchestra performed a dance at the Cincinnati Music Hall. It was my first performance with the band. I’ll tell you more about the night later, but I’ll say right now it sure felt good to swing.
Today we’re on the bus to Illinois for tonight’s performance at Eastern Illinois University. On the interstate, passing snowy plains, I’ve got time to think about this bus and the many busses that the Basie Band has used over the years. As we pass barren trees on this cold Black History Month morning I’m reflecting on the importance of the band over the years. This year is the band’s 80th. Few things, and virtually no bands, have continuously operated for 80 years. This feels special. It feels like black history.
William Basie began his career playing for silent movies in the 20’s. Finding himself stranded in Kansas City in 1935 he formulated the band that, along with Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson and Benny Goodman, would define the sound of an era: An era characterized by many busses, like this morning’s bus, traversing frozen roads of America.
However, unlike this morning’s bus which boarded the band from the Hilton, busses for much of the band’s history couldn’t pull up to a luxury hotel; or any hotel for that matter. Despite enjoying the popular music created by Count Basie, for a long time America just wasn’t ready for pigment on a downtown pillow. I’m struck by how hard it must have been to perform for the enjoyment of those who thought the most of you while you were on the bandstand and the least of you when the music stopped. With the bus shearing a path through the billowing snow would you hope for better or protect yourself with an expectation of the same callous bigotry in the next city?
Bands like Basie’s were the soundtrack for the equalization of rights and privileges in a changing America. Their busses had to steer past white hoods of racism, snow white fields of Strange Fruit, and white coals of hatred to finally reach today’s White House where a rainbow legion serve Black leadership without regard for color.
The bus has seen a lot. The bus and the band feel like black history.
So, as a newcomer to the band, following protocol, here I sit at the back of the bus.
Happy to be here.