Martin Luther King Jr.’s oratory adhered to down-to-earth guidelines even as it soared toward the sky, recalls Scotty Barnhart.
“My mother told me that Daddy King was always telling Martin, ‘Keep it simple, and say it plain,’” Barnhart says, referring to the Civil Rights dynasty that reigned over his upbringing in the pews of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church before he became a featured trumpet soloist in the Count Basie Orchestra.
“I was mesmerized by the walking bass lines that the organist would play while the choir literally rocked the foundation of the church,” Barnhart says. “That music became part of me early on.”
That clarion spirit animates Barnhart’s first solo project, Say It Plain, released in May by Unity Music. Its titular song is dedicated to MLK, the minister who christened him, and like the rest of album, it swings from note to note with an ease that renders many of the improvisations unusually danceable. “I didn’t want to get too rhetorical,” Barnhart says. “I envisioned this CD as uplifting and accessible, with something in it to move everybody. I wanted it to be … happy.”
However, with glinting contributions from Wynton and Ellis Marsalis, Clark Terry and Marcus Roberts, and many of their trusty sidemen, the sound may be straight-ahead, but it is anything but plain.
“They all create what some call ‘tall smoke,’ heat reaching up to the sky,” writes critic Stanley Crouch in the album’s liner notes. “Scotty Barnhart understands that art is never really about style; it is about vitality … It is rather glorious that such a sound can be gotten from a cold tube of brass shaped into a three-valved horn. Here too is the most outstanding achievement and the one that denotes a great trumpet player: his tone is free of the presence of metal, which is one of the secrets of its warmth.”
Barnhart, a cheerful and dapper 44-year-old who enjoys making his instrument “laugh and shout,” joined the Count Basie Orchestra in 1993, and critics since have praised his “silvery, singing tone” and pronounced him “a young Walt Whitman of the trumpet.” He’s considered a contender to lead the seminal big band, which formed in the late 1930s and has continued performing—and racking up Grammys—as a “ghost band” since the death of founder William “Count” Basie in 1984.
“Protecting Basie’s legacy is one of the most important callings of my career,” Barnhart says.
Barnhart has recorded and performed with a constellation of stars, including Frank Sinatra, Aretha Franklin, Lou Rawls, Natalie Cole, Tony Bennett, Cab Calloway, Rosemary Clooney and his buddy Wynton Marsalis. (Marsalis initially refused to accept any compensation for his work on Say It Plain. One of those gentlemanly tussles ensued, and finally Marsalis took the money and donated it to charity.)
As a professor of jazz trumpet at Florida State University and the author of The World of Trumpet: A Comprehensive History & Practical Philosophy, he’s regarded as a hepcat scholar who honors the old-school fundamentals of his art. He notes that he and his band members “do not wear the baggy pants that some young men do. We’re gentlemen—we wear suits.”
Ever present past
In a blurb for the CD, comedian Bill Cosby observes, “Scotty Barnhart’s work combines a mastery of tradition with vibrant originality.” (Joe Williams, another Georgia native who often sang with the Count Basie Orchestra, had a recurring role on The Cosby Show.) Adds Crouch, “Scotty Barnhart well understands what T.S. Eliot meant when he referred to the ‘present moment of the past.’”
In fact, Barnhart loves to reminisce about his first trumpet, a gift from his mother when he was nine: “I’ll never forget the first time I saw it,” he says. “The light hit it just as I looked at it, and it was so silver and shiny that it actually looked like a star.”
While in high school, he was named first trumpet and soloist for the NFL’s Atlanta Falcon Band and the Atlanta Community Orchestra. The King family and the estate of Count Basie awarded him scholarships, and he earned a degree in music education at Florida A&M University. “The trumpet kept me off drugs and out of trouble,” he says.
On Say It Plain, Barnhart shows his appreciation for his forebears by invoking the Second Line tradition of New Orleans jazz funerals, and pays polyphonic tribute to the author of
Roots in “Haley’s Passage.” Vocalist Jamie Davis gives a warm rendition of “Young At Heart,” and Leon Anderson blows an authoritative whistle for Barnhart’s melodic take on John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps.” Marsalis’ horn can be discerned in “Con Alma,” and his father, Ellis, plays piano on two tracks. Barnhart always comes home, though, to the exultant call-and-response cadences of Ebenezer, noticeably in the song, which was recorded in “one take, and one take only,” he
“I was trying to evoke what takes place after a sermon, the opening of the doors of the church, when the music turns upbeat,” Barnhart says. “So I got Herlin Riley [a Marsalis percussionist] to play tambourine to give it that old Baptist feeling. Oh, goodness! Everybody in the room was dancing, trying not to knock over microphones in these gyrations that were like some African ritual. It’s a real spiritual thing when something goes that easy.”
In that moment, his trumpet was talking, it seems, with a rousing eloquence worthy of Dr. King.