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Jazz Man

Touted trumpeter Scotty Barnhart swings into his role as Director of the Count Basie Orchestra.

In 1982, a teenaged Scotty Barnhart went to The Fox Theatre to hear the Count Basie Orchestra.

Afterward he hovered outside, and Sonny Cohn, one of the big band’s veteran horn players, invited the young fan to share a meal at the Georgian Terrace Hotel. “We talked trumpets, and he gave me pointers,” Barnhart, now 48, fondly recalls. “I knew at that very moment [that]someday I would play in the orchestra.”

Some 10 years, paying of dues and hundreds of practice hours later, Barnhart got the call to join his heroes in touring the world, playing behind legends such as Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Aretha Franklin. Earlier this year, Barnhart, now regarded as one of the country’s top trumpet players and scholars, was named director of the Count Basie Orchestra, a role that is unusual in the jazz world because it emphasizes note-for-note preservation—and a certain amount of “channeling” the genius of William James “Count” Basie, who died in 1984—over free-form improvisation.

“My job is to protect his legacy as accurately as possible so that Basie’s distinctive sound will stay recognizably the same 50 or 300 years from now,” says Barnhart, who is known for his dapper style and old-school manners.

That responsibility involves tempo—“Basie was an uncanny master of tempos and liked a clean, uncluttered sound,” Barnhart says—and answering that all-important question: Does it swing?

The new bandleader, an Atlanta native, absorbed some music fundamentals at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where he was christened by Martin Luther King Jr. “I was mesmerized by the walking bass lines that the organist would play while the choir literally rocked the foundation of the church,” Barnhart recalls. “That music became part of me early on. Now, keeping Basie’s legacy alive feels like a sacred calling.”