Almost 80 years after its debut in 1936, the legendary Count Basie Orchestra continues to delight music halls worldwide and returns to Penn State for a very special performance with the New York Voices at the Eisenhower Auditorium April 3.
Original bandleader, pianist, and founder William “Count” Basie died in 1984, but 30 years later the big band still carries his name and continues to uphold his legacy of Kansas City-style swing. Now directed by Scotty Barnhart, the band returns to State College for the first time since 2007. A trumpet soloist with the orchestra for 20 years, Barnhart leads a big band that’s garnered 18 Grammy Awards, the most of any jazz orchestra.
In 2013, New York Voices celebrated a quarter century of elegant group singing rooted in jazz but with branches into Brazilian, R&B, classical and pop. The vocal quartet, which hasn’t performed at Penn State since 1996, has appeared worldwide in venues such as Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, The Blue Note (New York City, Tokyo and Milan), and the Zurich Opera House.
Barnhart is an American jazz trumpeter, a two-time Grammy Award winner, a featured soloist since 1993, and now in his first year as conductor for the Count Basie Orchestra. He has made multiple recordings with a who’s who in the world of jazz, including Tony Bennett, Diana Krall, Ray Charles, Wynton Marsalis, Marcus Roberts, Clark Terry, and Tito Puente. Barnhart has also authored “The World of Jazz Trumpet: A Comprehensive History and Practical Philosophy” and is a professor in the College of Music at Florida State University.
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Born in 1964 and raised in Atlanta, Barnhart was exposed to music from an early age, with his mother and grandmother singing in their church choir and playing piano and organ. At age 9, he started playing trumpet and sang in the choir.
“I had a very good high school band director who saw that I had some talent and started making sure that I did what I needed to do,” he said. “This was around 8th or 9th grade, and right around that same time is when I first heard Basie.”
After receiving a scholarship to Florida A&M, Barnhart began studying music, getting deeper and deeper into jazz as the years went on. In 1989, he got his first major gig with Marcus Roberts, who had been playing piano in Wynton Marsalis’ band. Roberts then started his own band, adding Barnhart on trumpet at the recommendation of Marsalis. It wasn’t long until Barnhart got a call from the Count Basie Orchestra in 1993, asking him if he’d like to join them as a trumpet soloist, a position he has held for 20 years.
In Barnhart’s case though, it was a forgone conclusion that he would eventually be leading the orchestra as conductor.
“I knew it was going to happen, I just didn’t know when it was going to happen; so I was always preparing for it, I guess,” he said. “I was always extremely dedicated to the orchestra from the first moment I stepped on the bandstand with them — doing things that weren’t even asked of me. I knew what was going on with the orchestra; the entire history of it. I knew what happened in each section and how the guys played a certain way. So all of those things just came together.”
An American vocal quartet, New York Voices originally formed in 1987 from an Ithaca College alumni group. The original group consisted of Darmon Meader, Peter Eldridge, Kim Nazarian, Caprice Fox, and Sara Krieger, and they released their first, self-titled album on GRP Records in 1989. In 1997, they won a Grammy Award for their collaboration with the Count Basie Orchestra, “Count Basie with New York Voices Live at Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild.” With the departures of Fox and Krieger and the addition of singer Lauren Kinhan, New York Voices is now a quartet, who, aside from performing, give jazz clinics at schools and universities as well as individually having their own solo careers. New York Voices has released seven studio albums, all blends of classical, pop, R&B, Brazilian and American jazz.
In 1996, the big band and vocal quartet came together in Pittsburgh to record a live album, a collaboration that won them a 1997 Grammy Award. This magical combination has been extremely successful, one that the Basie Orchestra always looks forward to. “Basically what we do is just split the show up,” Barnhart said. “We’ll do five or six songs right up front, and then they come out and do five or so, and that’s how we do both sets. It’s just a nice time to work with them. They’re great musicians, and we always have fun together.”
“We think our music is very fun to listen to and entertaining,” Meader said. “You don’t have to necessarily be a huge jazz fan and know all of the history of jazz, and all the theoretical subtleties of what’s going on to still enjoy what we do. We also think our music is quite sophisticated in a lot of ways.”
Growing up in a small town in Maine, Meader had a lot of music and art in his family, which led to his interest in classical music, playing the saxophone and singing in choirs. While at Ithaca College, he developed a particular love for jazz singing, which eventually led to forming New York Voices, which is now in its 26th college and I sang in the vocal jazz ensemble,” he said. “I just loved the way that sound worked with using instrumental jazz sensibility. Then I got the bug to do that on a larger scale.”
Though all four singers have diverse musical backgrounds and interests, Meader said they all contribute something to the overall sound, whether it be influences from jazz, Brazilian, or even the pop music they grew up with. “We always enjoy incorporating that music, but really the connecting thread is the sound of four voices singing together in usually close harmony type of voicing and sensibilities,” he said. “Individually we have diverse interests and a wide variety of interests musically, but there’s a lot of common ground as well.” year. “I got introduced to vocal jazz my senior year in
Though Barnhart now serves primarily as conductor, he is by no means ready to put away his instrument. “I’m still a jazz trumpeter and still play my same solos; so I love playing first and foremost,” he said. “But when I’m not playing I also enjoy the conducting and giving the guys the cues in the band and making sure everybody solos, making sure the set list is a balanced set list, making sure we give the audience as much of our 79 year history as possible.”
In 1994, Barnhart had the pleasure of working in New York with Frank Sinatra, who among numerous artists, collaborated with Count Basie in the 1950s and ‘60s. “Frank loved Basie and Basie loved Frank,” he said. “Everybody wanted to play and record with the Count Basie Orchestra: Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan. There’s always been such an infectious feeling of swing to it that makes you want to dance. It’s sophisticated but it’s accessible at the same time. You can’t say that about too many orchestras.”
When not performing solo or with the New York Voices, Meader is always excited to have the opportunity to appear with the Count Basie Orchestra. “We’ve had a chance to play with them numerous times starting in the mid ‘90s and it never grows old. We really enjoy that experience,” he said. “We hear them do their stuff and then they support us during our part of the show. It’s a very cool experience. I think people who enjoy the big band sound will really get a kick out of that as well.”
When people come to hear the Count Basie Orchestra perform they want to be entertained, and Barnhart considers himself lucky that Basie set things in place for a span of nearly 50 years, and in a way that makes it easy for him. “My job is to make sure that when people come to see the Count Basie Orchestra, they want to see the orchestra as it was when Basie was alive. To think that he’s on that stage,” Barnhart said. It’s still his orchestra; it’s not my orchestra. It will never be anybody else’s. So that’s the approach I take.