“The Way of the World Is Collaboration, Not Competition,” Scotty Barnhart on Basie, His Recent Grammy, and the MMEA All-State Jazz Band

Jazz88’s Peter Solomon speaks with trumpeter Scotty Barnhart, the leader of the Basie Orchestra for the past twenty years. Barnhart discusses his early exposure to music at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, how he came to play the trumpet, how he felt the first time he heard the Basie Orchestra, the background behind his Grammy-winning album “Basie Swings the Blues,” and what to expect from the MMEA All-State Jazz Band which he will be leading in two sets at the Dakota Friday night.


PETER SOLOMON: I’m Peter Solomon and you’re listening to Jazz88. I am very excited to be speaking with Scotty Barnhart today. he has directed the Count Basie Orchestra and played trumpet with that ensemble for two decades now. He’s directing the Minnesota Music Educators All-State Jazz Band at the Dakota for two sets tonight.

Welcome, Scotty. It’s so nice to have you here.

SCOTTY BARNHART: Well, thanks very much for having me.

SOLOMON: My pleasure. I wanted to get you to talk a little bit about your own background. Can you tell me about how you came to play the trumpet?

BARNHART: Yeah, well, I mean, I was born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia, and my mother was a musician. She played piano and she sang in the church choir. And sometimes, you know, she would go on tour a little bit. So basically, I got my musical genetics, I guess you could say, from her. And when I got to fifth grade, exactly 50 years ago, it was 1974. At that time, in the DeKalb, county public schools, which were part of Atlanta, they asked every- all the students –  if you want to be in a band, just choose an instrument, whatever you want. But take this permission slip home, get your parents to sign it, buy whatever instrument you want to get, and come back to school with it. And whatever you come back with, we will place you in the proper group. I asked for a violin, because I had seen one of the students in school with the violin and I thought, “Oh, that looks cool. Let me see if I can get one of those.” So I asked my parents to get a violin.

SOLOMON: Barnart’s mother took a trip to the music store to go pick up her son’s new instrument.

BARNHART: The day came, I’m waiting outside, you know, in our patio area. And she drives down in the car. And I’m thinking violin, you know, it’s in the car, as you open the trunk, and there’s a black case sitting in the trunk. And she opened this case, and man, and it was a silver trumpet in it. And I’ve never looked back. I’ve been playing trumpet 50 years now.

That’s how I got started. My mother simply didn’t get the violin, she got the trumpet instead. And I never even questioned it. You know, but years later, I was giving another interview. And I had to finally ask my mom, why did you get a trumpet? And she said really simply, “Well, when I got to the store, along with the other parents there too, and the line to get the violins was too long. The line was too long, and there was nobody in the other line to go get the brass stuff. So I went to the brass part of the store and picked up the trumpet.” That’s it, man.

SOLOMON: So what Eventually led you to focus on jazz?

BARNHART: Well, you know, I grew up in Ebenezer Baptist Church with daddy King, Dr. King Sr. My family has been at the church for 120 years. In fact, I was baptized by him and christened by Dr. King, Jr. So, my family and the King family have been very close for over 120 years. But the reason I bring it up is that Ebenezer to this day has four choirs. One of them was a church choir that my mother was in. It did Handel and Bach and things like that with the big pipe organ, you know, then there was a male chorus, children’s choir that I was in for a little bit. And then what we call the ML King choir, Dr. King had his own choir that he would take with him whenever he would go places. And that quiet one was the only one that used the Hammond B3 organ which is prevalent in jazz. You know, Jimmy Smith, Dr. Lonnie Smith, we have all these people. So I grew up listening to that one Sunday out of the month that the organist, you know, walking the bass lines with his left foot, you know, so by the time I heard Basie I said, “Oh, that’s the same thing I have in church. Same exact thing.” And I just told the students the other day when I was in Texas, the Jazz Orchestra is simply an extension of the Gospel Choir. That’s all it is. It’s just more sophisticated. You know, so when I heard Basie, I was hearing the same thing I heard in church, so I understood it. I could gravitate toward it easily. I loved it since I heard it. So that’s how I got into jazz. And then from there, I think I heard a Freddie Hubbard record when I was 12. I was at the home of a late friend of ours, Congressman John Lewis. I was at his house, and he had a great album collection. And I put on his record and was Freddie Hubbard.

That changed my life as far as the trumpet was concerned, because I’ve never heard the trumpet played like that. Right? And I was 12 years old man. So we just always had music in the house and I had great teachers and band directors in high school, Gordon Barkin, my late band director in high school. He always had something playing when students walked in when we will come in the band room. I was always surrounded by music always in the marching band just doing stuff all the time. And then Basie came to Atlanta when I was 14, I think my high school band director walked up to me one day out of the clear blue and said “look man, Count Basie’s in town and you’re going to see him” and he walked off. The rest is history.


SOLOMON: So can you talk can you talk about what that initial encounter with Count Basie and his orchestra was like?

BARNART: Oh, man, that was insane. I mean, I’m sitting in the front row, and I just remember a wall of sound, flushing over me. It was this big wall of sound and the feeling of again, it was like, I’m listening to a gospel choir again. But more sophisticated with instruments, you know, some of the feeling – that innate feeling that gets into the core of your bones, like in your spine, that makes you, you know, move, you know, and feel good all over and feel great about life. That’s what I felt. And I said to myself, “you know, man, this is just incredible.” So I saw them again, a second time, probably two years later, maybe three, we were back in Atlanta. And that time, I met the entire orchestra, except Mr. Basie, and I knew then I will be in the orchestra someday. I just knew it wasn’t even a question. I was the I wasn’t even nervous about it. I just knew deep down “Oh, yeah, this is me. I’m gonna be here one day”, and I was like, 17 at the time, but I knew it. Sure enough, ten years later, they called me.

SOLOMON: You’ve been directing the band for some time now. And so I was kind of curious, your most recent album, “Basie Swings the Blues.” I mean, this is part and parcel what Basie has done since the 1930s. The blues has always been essentiall with Basie’s band. So when you’re leading the Basie orchestra and kind of picking repertoire for the group, how much liberty do you have to kind of go in a slightly different direction than the Count himself might have gone?  Do you feel like there’s room for experimentation? Or do you consider yourself responsible for preserving the legacy of Basie?

BARNHART: Yes to both of those questions. And the reason is, Basie didn’t mind the music, just like if you go back and listen to the history of the orchestra. I mean, really listen to all the recordings. When bebop came in play came into play in the early 50s and late 40s. There are some compositions that Basie started playing that sounded they were basically bebop oriented and bebop based, but his only request was of the arranger and composer – as long as the people can feel the beat, it’s okay. Basie knew the limitations of what he really wanted his band to be doing. So he, he kept it in a certain realm, so to speak. And I know exactly what that realm is, I know exactly how far we can go. And people have sent me arrangements and I can listen to the first two or three bars, and almost know this is not going to work or it’s going to work. So I’m very careful to make sure we don’t stray far at all, from what Mr. Basie sat down and laid down for 50 years in a row. I have a whole history in front of me. So it’s not difficult. All I must do is pay attention to it and study it. And the other thing I would say, this is still Mr. Basie’s orchestra. This is not my orchestra. It’ll never be anybody else’s orchestra. So, whatever he was doing, that’s what we need to be doing. And I just happen to love that, I don’t have my you know, something, well, maybe let me play what I want. No, no, I wouldn’t be here if I was thinking like that. So I understand that this is his orchestra. It will always be his focus even after I’m gone. And as long as the person who comes after me understands that this orchestra can be here for 2 or 300 years.

SOLOMON: Can you talk a little bit about the the album that just was awarded a Grammy? What was the idea of behind Basie Swings the Blues? because I know you brought on a lot of guest artists for this record.

BARNHART: Well what happened in 2019, Count Basie was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in Memphis, Tennessee by the Blues Foundation. So I had to go there and accept the award on his behalf and make a little speech. You know, thank everybody. But while I was there, the Blues awards were going on. It’s like the Grammys for the blues, you know. And they asked me while I was if I would mind being a presenter, somebody couldn’t make it or something. For sure. You know, I could do that. So you just read the teleprompter, when you walk on stage, give the award. So, I did that for like five or six people. Then I went back to my table. And as I’m sitting at this big table, there’s had to be like 10 of us. I’m sitting next to Bobby Rush, the legendary Bobby Rush, right? And, and then it just dawned on me I was like, man, you know, this needs to be our next album when we record. Next, we need to do an album with these musicians, these blues musicians because it’s never been done before. Which is still shocking to me. I thought somebody like Quincy, or somebody would have at least had the idea to pick the top blues musicians of that day and the top Jazz Orchestra and put them together and nobody had done that. So that presented a problem because then I didn’t have a reference point why didn’t have something in my mind or concrete or that I could go to on iTunes or YouTube or wherever and pull it up and study it and check it out. So for a year, I just had this had this idea I just couldn’t – I don’t know how to make it sound. So finally on the very day, that COVID shut everything down. It was March 20, 2020. That same week, that same weekend, we had a function that we had to do with the Basie orchestra for a private wedding reception. For a very successful businessman. And so we played just one song that they had requested for the groom and bride to dance to, which is “Fly Me to The Moon,” the Sinatra version, you know, so we played that. And after we were done, the groom, he walks up to the stage and says, “Do you mind if I sit in with the band?” So now any band leader will tell you when somebody comes up and ask you that either one, they can really play or two, they have no idea what they’re doing. They just want to show off in front of their friends because it’s their party, right? So I thought for a quick second, I said, okay, sure. Because it’s his house. It is private. Nobody’s gonna film it. Sure, man. Well he goes to get his guitar and comes back. And I said, Well, what do you want to play? He said, Well, how about the blues? I said, Alright, so I counted the a blues in G, you know? And I said, Okay, guys, here we go. One, two, and I just had the band start there, start playing first and setting it up. And let me tell you, man, when this guy came in and started playing electric guitar, and I write about this in the liner notes, too. He sounded like every blues guitarist ever, all rolled into one. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing or seeing. I couldn’t believe it. It wast that exact second that I said, I this is what I’ve been hearing in my mind for years. This is it. This is it. This is the sound.

SOLOMON: It worked out for you.

EBARNHART: Absolutely. It was great, because I knew I knew how it could sound. And even when we got to the studio and started recording, it blew me away even more, I’m like, Oh, my goodness, I can’t believe nobody ever thought of it. That’s the thing that kills me. Nobody ever thought of that. And see, this also cements the fact, my belief that this is the way of the world man – is collaboration, not competition. All of this competition, people want to stay in their lane, only play classical music. Only play rock and roll, only play country. Man, collaborate with people! And you’d be shocked at the great results that you could get. You have to study it and not do it just to be doing it. I would love to collaborate with a great country singer, a great rapper or something, man. I really would love to do that. Because it can be done. It can be done. So this album from that little idea that I had in my mind to a Grammy man, that’s crazy. You can’t predict that kind of stuff. And my only concern was to make sure that musically, it was done the right way. And that’s what I did.

SOLOMON: Now turning to the all-state jazz orchestra that you’re going to be directing at the Dakota on the night of the 16th, can you tell me what kind of repertoire that you’re going to be performing? Are you guys going to be doing some Basie stuff?

BARNHART: We will do Basie, I have to remember what charts, but we will do some Basie stuff. We’re doing the blues, the main thing about that band is that everybody will have a chance to play a solo, everyone, you know who wants one. And that’s pretty much everybody in the band. I gave them some challenging music to work with. And they stepped up to the challenge. And so we got to get together Friday rehearsing, and just have a good time playing man. It’s all about making the audience feel good. At the end of the day, the audience is what the goal is to make the audience feel welcome and feel good about life when we’re done is the goal. And that starts on the stage with us. So that’s why I always make sure that they’re having a good time to feel comfortable. And I’m a disciplinarian I don’t let things slide. If somebody is missing something, messing something up in a rehearsal and missing a note or phrase, I’ll fix it, you know, and get it straight, make sure we’re together and having a good time. And then it’ll translate to the audience. So by the time we played, Friday night will be loose and ready to go, man,

SOLOMON: Scotty it’s been a pleasure talking to you. Thank you so much, Scotty. I hope you have a wonderful day. I really appreciate it.

BARNHART: Okay, you too.

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