This week Barnhart, 48, a 20-year veteran with the band, was appointed the director, just in time to play a gig in his hometown when the 18-member group plays Wednesday at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre. The evening is called “A Tribute to Ella, Joe, Basie,” and honors William “Count” Basie, who died in 1984. It features vocalists Janis Siegel and Kevin Mahogany reprising some of the songs that Ella Fitzgerald and Joe Williams made famous as featured singers with the Basie group.
Barnhart, a protege’ of Wynton Marsalis, has served the Basie orchestra in various capacities while holding down the lead chair in the trumpet section and directing his own small group. Now living in Tallahassee, he also teaches jazz at Florida State University. Ascending to the directorship is, to Barnhart, akin to picking up the baton at the New York Philharmonic after Toscanini has set it down.
“I’ve been given a great opportunity,” Barnhart said by phone during a Basie band tour stop in Tokyo, “and it’s humbling, because of the history of the organization.”
William “Count” Basie, from Red Bank, New Jersey, formed his first jazz orchestra in 1936. It became known for its irresistible swing, wild dynamics (from thunderous to pin-drop), blues sensibility and “head-charts” created on the spot.
Barnhart wants to bring back that improvisatory legacy. “These young folks, everybody wants to have sheet music in front of them, but that’s not the way it used to be,” he said. He said his musicians — and his audiences — can expect to take some more chances in the future.
“We can’t wait to be on stage to show people what we can do.”