Basie’s Band Jams in Elkhart

One of the many things I admire about jazz is its variety. I’ve had folks tell me they didn’t care for jazz and my usual response is simply “which kind?” When I start reciting the kinds, the person asks how many kinds are there? I suggest they check Wiki under “Jazz Genres.” It lists over 50 genres! Back in the late ’40’s I only found time for swing and trad, the two more popular types then, and perhaps now.

I could write several pages concerning the bands I really like; however, when it comes to big bands, I’ve been a Basie fan for close to 80 years. I remember very well the days I spent in my grandfather’s rocking chair listening to his radio (we didn’t have electricity at our home…yet). Gramps loved big band. That’s when I became a big fan! I like a lot of bands but one I truly love is the Basie band.

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Back in the early ‘90’s I managed to get a hold of the Count Basie agent who told me the band was in Japan but would return near the end of June. About 3 a.m. in the morning the next day, I received a long distance call from Frank Foster, the director of the band since Bill Basie passed a few years earlier from pancreatic cancer.

Count Basie Orchestra 1990
The Count Basie Orchestra in the early 1990s under Frank Foster. (Photo

Frank agreed to bring the band to Elkhart’s Lerner Theatre, telling me the band would want to know where the instrument companies are located in Elkhart. They flew to Chicago from Japan and then bused to Elkhart. I greeted them at the entrance of the Lerner and suggested the driver take the band around to the back of the theater and I received immediate negative response…and then laughter.

The band arrived on Saturday (1993) and were featured at the Lerner to a packed house. When the gig ended, the bus returned them to their hotel where most of them changed clothing, grabbed their instruments and looked for a ride back to downtown Elkhart.

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I had scheduled a jam session at the Holiday Inn that year and it was very well received. Starting around 10:00 pm we thought we’d end it at midnight. It lasted til after 3 a.m.! When the Basie band heard about the jam, the majority of the band wanted to participate. The group playing for the jam included Eddie Higgins (piano), John Bany (bass), Red Holloway (reeds).

When I brought several of the Basie band to the fest in my pickup truck, Frank Foster jumped in beside me with his tenor sax. Early in the evening, Glenn Zotola showed up with his trumpet. The Basie guys lined up for their opportunity to play. Over the five hours, I don’t recall any break. Meanwhile the crowd was huge right up to 3 a.m. With great players playing great jazz I think they could have played all night. Now that’s what I call a real jam!

Van Young has helped keep the Elkhart Jazz Festival a swinging proposition for the past three decades. He also hosts Patterns in Jazz, Sundays at noon (Central) at WGCS-FM 91.1, Goshen, IN. Listen online at

He is currently writing a series of short memories from his interactions with jazz folk over the years. These don't count against your monthly article limit.

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