By JOHN T. WARD
The T. Thomas Fortune Cultural Center, built to honor a pioneering African-American journalist with Red Bank ties, plans to spotlight the borough-born musical giant William ‘Count’ Basie through 2020.
The occasion is the 85th anniversary of the formation of the Count Basie Orchestra, which is still touring 36 years after its founder’s death.
There, orchestra second trombonist Clarence Banks, who joined the band shortly before Basie’s death in 1984, shared recollections of his interactions with the bandleader and composer.
Actor Brandon J. Dirden, who’s directing August Wilson’s ‘Radio Golf‘ at the Two River Theater later this month, and other thespians read “love letters’ written to Basie’s memory by jazz musicians.
Gilda Rogers, vice president of the T. Thomas Fortune Foundation, which runs the center as place to celebrate social justice and cultural differences, told the audience that Basie’s music “brought people together at a time when this country was socially segregated.
“Count Basie was aware of the turbulent times he was growing up in,” she said, but he did not allow it to define him.
Basie won nine Grammy Awards during his career, and was the first African-American man to win one, Rogers said.
The discrimination Fortune had to overcome to pursue journalism “Basie went through, too,” as a touring musician, Mark Fitzsimmons, a member of the foundation, told redbankgreen. “He had to find a way to express himself, to overcome that color line to make a living.”
The coming year will feature mural paintings around town, jazz events, and a cocktail named “Down for the Count,” along with a map that will point out different locations throughout the town that in some way are connected to Count Basie.
Also slated is an an exhibit, at the Fortune center, featuring some of the 1,000 or so Basie artifacts held by the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University in Newark.
The Fortune Foundation is asking local businesses, nonprofits, schools and galleries, as well as senior citizens and jazz fans, to participate in the events.
Among those already on board are the Count Basie Center for the Arts, the Two River Theater and Detour Gallery.