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Count Basie band to mentor Anchorage students prior to concert

Mike Dunham
Dennis Mackrel, who was drumming in Anchorage bars as a 10-year-old, now leads the Count Basie Orchestra, performing at West High Auditorium on Saturday, Sept. 29.
Will Austin Photography
The Count Basie Orchestra performing at the Benaroya Hall in Seattle, Washington, USA March 31st, 2012.
Will Austin Photography

Not a lot of musicians have performed at both the Montreal Jazz Festival and the long-gone Matador Lounge in Spenard. Maybe only one -- Dennis Mackrel.

The youngest director in the history of the Count Basie Orchestra, which begins a series of Anchorage workshops culminating in a performance at West High Auditorium this week, attended Chester Valley Elementary School and Begich Jr. High when it was part of Bartlett in the 1970s.

"My mother and father were both in the Air Force," he said in a phone call from Woodstock, N.Y. "We were stationed at Elmendorf for about four years. I was 10 years old when I did my first gig and it was in Anchorage."

The Mackrels were a jazz-loving family. "Whenever we got reassigned, the last thing that got packed up and the first thing unpacked was always the records and the stereo," Mackrel said.

When the young man developed an interest in drums, his mother got him a set and started taking him to local jam sessions -- including the Matador, near the current intersection of Fireweed and A St.

"I learned how to play drums by watching," he said. "The older musicians saw that I was really into it and they let me sit in with them."

He recited a list of pre-pipeline Anchorage musicians, including jazz guitarist Clon von Fitz. "They were always really nice to me."

Fast forward 40 years and Mackrel is making his first trip back to Anchorage since his Matador days -- and he's paying pack some of the encouragement he received by working with young musicians in Anchorage. While the concert at West will be the most prominent part of the orchestra's visit, band members will take part in a number of sessions with Anchorage school students.

"We're kind of the prototype for bands in schools," Mackrel said. "School band directors

often start with Basie and Ellington arrangements. We travel all over the world and do clinics and workshops along with the concerts. But in Anchorage we'll have several days to integrate with the schools. It's very rare that we get to work with students for this long."


One reason why Basie is an evergreen pick for school bands is that so much of his music -- "One O'Clock Jump," "Boogie Woogie" and "Swingin' the Blues" are sort of the tip of the iceberg -- has been part of the standard repertoire, almost from the moment it was first performed.

Born in 1904, pianist William Basie was playing piano at silent movie theaters as a teenager.

He began working in Harlem in the 1920s and moved on to the red hot jazz venues of Chicago, St. Louis and Kansas City. By the mid-1930s he had his own band playing a raw, blues-flavored swing. "Rough-hewn music, unsuccessful at first," says the Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music. "(The) men were not good readers, did not play in tune (and were) too poor to buy decent horns."

Basie pushed them to improve, but without dulling their intensity.

He brought in new players and eventually had an all-star lineup of winds and brass and what the Penguin Encyclopedia calls the "most famous rhythm section in the history of jazz."

The band was at the top of the charts through the 1940s. But as the big band era faded, Basie had to adjust to the times. He cut back to small ensembles, but only briefly.

"He re-formed the band as soon as he could," Mackrel said. "And that band has never disbanded since then. We've been consistently working and touring since the 1950s. We've been around longer than the Rolling Stones!"

Basie spearheaded the revival of big band music, building on the fundamentals he had pioneered in the '30s and bringing in contemporary arrangers like Quincy Jones.

The band had always been noted for its "modern" sound and, in some ways, created that sound. The pulse and architecture of the most successful contemporary large jazz ensembles remains, in no small part, the invention of Basie and his team.

The longevity and stature of the band made it a good fit for promoter Rick Goodfellow, whose day jobs include running classical music radio station KLEF and, in the summer, conducting the "Ghost Tours of Anchorage."

Goodfellow recounted what triggered him to contact the Basie ensemble. He brought the Duke Ellington Orchestra to town and, after hearing them, told a young trombonist, "You're the best band I've ever heard."

"He looked at me with a paternalistic smile," Goodfellow recounted, "and said, 'You ain't heard Basie, have ya?' "


The Count Basie Orchestra is remarkable for its continuity. Guitarist Freddie Green, part of that "most famous in history" rhythm section, recorded with the band until 1987. Basie himself was still leading the group when Mackrel, a 20-year-old fresh out of college, joined.

"He was like a grandfather to me," Mackrel said. "The thing that impressed me most about him was that he was somebody who, though obviously such a major figure, was very down to earth and centered as a person. I think his greatest talent was an ability to have a personal relationship with everyone. He was a master psychologist who could get into your head and give you what you needed to be the best your could be. Some players needed a strong leader, others were like his buddies.

"I was so young and he was so larger than life. But he was never intimidating. He was very gentle with me. If he heard me sneeze, he'd call up and ask, 'Are you O.K. Are you getting a cold?'

"But if he had to talk to me about a musical matter, he'd do it in a firm way."

Other of the veteran players also took the kid drummer under their wing, particularly the brilliant arranger Thad Jones, who took over leading the orchestra after Basie's death in 1984.

Thanks to Jones, Mackrel said, he became an arranger himself.

"You can't underestimate the mentoring process you get by working with an older, seasoned musician, listening to his wisdom or watching how he plays," Mackrel said. "I know first hand how important that is. The time I spent working with Thad changed my life."

Now he hopes the Basie band members may change the life of some young Alaskan.

The setting here is conducive to music study, he suggested.

"The thing I remember about Anchorage is that the winters were long and there was a lot of time we were inside -- and I was practising."

He also remembers attending concerts by visiting musicians at West High, the same auditorium where he will lead the band Saturday night.

It was the main venue for major acts for many years, from Van Cliburn to the Bee Gees to the Doobie Brothers. At intermissions it could seem like the whole city was crammed into the lobby.

"I'm anxious to go back to that place," he said. "Everybody won't be so tall this time."

Reach Mike Dunham at or 257-4332.

Anchorage Daily News