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Week of: April 1, 2001

Count on Competition: Risk Rewarded

by F.R. Duplantier

Lessons in economics sometimes come from unexpected sources. Even the career of a famous jazz musician can teach us something about the miraculous workings of our free enterprise system.

The legendary Count Basie attributed his tremendous success as a big band leader in part to his own self-reliance, humility, and perseverance. He also gave credit to the stimulation of fierce but good-natured competition.

As a youth, Basie cared for nothing but music and show business, dropping out of school at an early age to make an unsteady, nomadic living as a vaudeville accompanist, a theater organist for silent pictures, and a piano player for a variety of small combos. In New York he had the opportunity to study and imitate such great early jazz pianists as Fats Waller. But it was in Tulsa, Oklahoma that Basie first heard a swinging band called the Blue Devils, which proved to be the inspiration, and the talent pool, for the sensational group that he would later form in Kansas City. That band was soon discovered by jazz critic and record producer John Hammond, whose personal interest led to big recording contracts and important bookings.

For the next fifty years Basie's band remained a crowd pleaser. Music critic George Simon attributed the band's appeal to "its ability to play big band jazz that almost anybody can understand." That Basie did not succumb to sophistication, as many of his contemporaries did, but instead maintained a constant respect for the listening public, is a credit both to the man and to the environment in which he served his apprenticeship. It was a humbling environment -- in which goo was never good enough, because a musician never knew when somebody better might walk into his club, challenge him to a musical duel, and take his job away. Nor did anyone waste time lamenting the unfairness of being forever subject to immediate replacement, for a musician who lost one job could always find another somewhere else or, if he had to, switch to another line of work, temporarily.

The competition was keen, and so was the spirit of independence among the musicians. Each one was a sort of independent contractor, a small businessman selling himself to a band leader or to the public. Taking risks came with the territory. Always prepared to relinquish his position to a superior musician, always eager to supplant someone above him, he was continually striving to increase his virtuosity and thereby the likelihood that, in any musical encounter, he would be the victor, not the vanquished.

"We were pretty game about taking chances," Count Basie recalled in his posthumously published autobiography, Good Morning Blues. "You expected to run into some rough going. If you knew anything at all about the kind of life entertainers led, you started out by taking that for granted." Like typical entrepreneurs, Basie and his band were driven more by the challenge of doing something exceptional than by the desire to enrich themselves. "Money," said Basie, "was not what it was about at all."

 

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