Big-band love affair launched here

Saturday, September 15, 2012 12:00
Posted in category LIVE MUSIC, Upcoming Shows

Ex-Crawford High student Dennis Mackrel honored to keep Count Basie’s music alive

By Beth Wood| Special to the U-T

Dennis Mackrel spent barely a year or so attendingCrawford High School in San Diego, but it was there that the leader of the internationally acclaimed Count Basie Orchestra experienced a musical epiphany — one that spurred him on to a very successful career as a drummer, arranger and composer for big bands.

“I can’t express how grateful I am that I lived in San Diego. When I first went to high school, I didn’t like big bands at all. They sounded old,” said Mackrel from his home office in Woodstock, N.Y., where he lives with his wife, Annette, and their two teenagers.

“I didn’t understand big bands, although I liked them on records. I remember the first time I played in Crawford’s big band, it flipped a switch for me — ‘This is cool’ — and I started seriously thinking about writing for big bands.”

Mackrel’s military family moved to San Diego when he was in middle school, where he attended Horace Mann. He spent his 11th- and part of his 12th-grade years at Crawford, in the El Cerrito neighborhood. The family then moved to Las Vegas, where he completed high school and college.

He and the Count Basie Orchestra, which typically features between 16 and 18 musicians, will perform here at downtown’s all-ages Anthology Friday and Saturday.

Count Basie, the legendary bandleader and pianist, played a key role in the popularity of swing after starting his orchestra in 1935. Except for a brief hiatus in the 1950s, the group has thrived until, and beyond, his passing in 1984. Yet, for a band as steeped in tradition as the Count Basie Orchestra, the music never gets old.

“Even if you’re playing a very old piece, you are playing it for people who may be hearing it for the first time. Tapping into that connection is a great feeling and creates a good energy,” said Mackrel, who also conducts The WDR Big Band in Koln, Germany, and Finland’s UMO Jazz Orchestra.

“What I enjoy most about working with the Count Basie Orchestra is that we’re in a post-big-band age. In most of the established big bands, the leaders have been gone for a generation. Our band has a good mix of older musicians and younger musicians. They range in age from early 20s to late 70s. It creates a great environment — a good exchange.

“Basie really liked younger players. He believed there was always something to learn. Basie kept the standard high; he had discriminating taste and kept the arrangements top-notch.”

Mackrel turned 50 in April — “I’m newly old,” he said with a chuckle. In 1983, at age 20, he became the Count Basie Orchestra’s drummer and stayed for four years. He returned to lead the group in 2010.

It’s not surprising that Mackrel was asked to lead the Count Basie Orchestra. He has been featured on nearly 100 recordings by other artists, as drummer, leader or arranger. His arrangements were on two Grammy-winning albums by pianist McCoy Tyner. Mackrel readily admits that a drummer who composes and arranges music for a big band is a rarity.


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