Wednesday, August 09, 2006

100 Greats in 100 Days # 043: Count Basie Orchestra: 1937-1943

Jim Crow was a twisted shadowy backwater. Whites (North and South) pretended they were gentle and Christian, blacks (North and South) pretended there was nothing but good humor and comfort in their dealings with whites. Neither Ellington nor his band ever appeared in public in anything other than smiles and the height of uptown fashion; Louis Armstrong grinned and let Joe Glaser take half his royalties (saying, famously and notoriously “Always keep a white man behind you that'll put his hand on you and say 'That's my nigger'"), and Basie was the most understated and urbanely-charming bandleader imaginable, beaming at the piano as he laid down the subtlest, most minimalist arabesque possible.

It would take another jazz generation before the beboppers of the mid-‘40s and the hard-boppers of the ‘50s would break that mold—would issue a musical proclamation that was openly defiant of Jim Crow (Monk said “we’re gonna make a music that’s so hard they can’t steal it”)—but in the ‘30s the grins stayed in place. The ‘30s jazzman’s defiance was epitomized in Lester Young’s elliptical, gnomic words, and the elaborate handles he bestowed on peers (he famously gave Billie Holliday the moniker “Lady Day”) and his absolute refusal to kowtow to the era’s expectations for a tenor sax player—a big, booting, hyper-masculine sound exemplified by his alter ego in the Basie band, Herschel Evans. But Prez (from “The President,” Lady’s nickname for him) refused: he played smooth, eccentric phrases across the bar-line; he built a whole harmonic language out of the possibilities of chord substitutions; he played with a light, focused, straight tone. And, of course, he would turn out to be the most influential tenor player of them all, because Prez is where Bird learned to play (double-time Prez’s lines, play them in the mid-range of the alto instead of the upper range of the tenor, play upper-structures as well as chord subs, and you’ve got Bird).

But there was ferocity behind those grins. The Basie band was built out of the nucleus of two great ‘20s territory bands: Walter Page’s Blue Devils, who Basie, a Jersey native, had joined in ’28, just before they disbanded to go out with Bennie Moten, who had a bigger budget and better gigs.

The territory bands were the most important live music phenomenon in the ‘20s, barnstorming across the West and Southwest in converted school-buses, playing strings of one-nighters (pull into town, set up the music stands, put on the uniform, play four hours for the jitter-buggers, break down, sleep on the bus, drive to the next gig) that were the incubator for swing, and for the virtuosity of the beboppers who cut their teeth there. And they were fierce: no PA (or a minimal one), huge halls full of expert dancers who’d brook no bullshit, and they did this 300 nights a year. A good territory band wasn’t afraid of anybody—they knew how bad they were, grins or not.

And the Basie band were the baddest of them all. Honed in the ‘20s in the Blue Devils and Moten’s Orchestra, hanging tough together in the new cooperative they started under Bill Basie’s name, they backed the greatest vocalists in American music: Billie, Jimmy Rushing (“Mr Five-by-Five”—five feet wide and five feet tall), Big Joe Turner (the granddaddy of rock ‘n’ roll), and Joe Williams. They had the scariest gunslinging horn players: Prez, Herschel, and the great trumpeter Buck Clayton. And they had the baddest motherfuckin’ rhythm section there was before bebop: Basie, Big Walter Page on bass, the great guitarist Freddie Green (“4-to-the-bar” chords that nobody outside the band could hear—and nobody within the bandcould do without) and the master, Papa Jo Jones, the drummer who made bebop possible.

The first hint anybody east of the Mississippi had of the territory bands were the charts Benny Goodman purchased from Fletcher Henderson—Fletcher was a genius musician/arranger but a terrible businessman (sort of the opposite of Goodman, in fact) and it was Goodman who became the “King of Swing” on Henderson’s charts. And Goodman had John Hammond behind him, and Hammond had impeccable taste, and insisted that Goodman take on Teddy Wilson (piano), Lionel Hampton (vibes), and eventually Charlie Christian (guitar)—all black—for his sextet, which made Goodman’s music infinitely better.

But almost nobody, east of the Mississippi, had ever heard the actual bands. And—as ever—nobody on either coast could imagine the way these guys could play. 300 nights a year, playing with section-mates you’d sat next to for 10 or 12 or 15 years, 4 hours a night for the greatest dancers American music had ever produced, putting together “head” arrangements on the fly, and you knew you and your band were badder than anybody’s.

Basie finally got the money together to bring the band east in 1936, first for a long residency in Chicago, and eventually for an even longer residency in ’38 at the Famous Door, a 52nd Street club so small that Basie’s piano sat off the bandstand on the dance-floor.

It didn’t matter—they were better than anybody else, they knew it, and nobody had ever heard anything like. The band was a powerhouse, with not one but two killin’ tenor soloists, Prez and Herschel, who could not have been more different but who between them covered virtually the entire spectrum of what was then thought possible on the instrument (the other unclaimed tenor territory belonged to huge-toned Ben Webster, who at the same period was about to begin a legendary, if brief, tenure with the Ellington Orchestra). They had the absolutely astounding rhythm section, who played with an authoritative ease and relaxed virtuosity that buried any East Coast band. They had a succession of great singers, and they had just about every jazz musician not on a gig in the house listening. More than anything else, they had that telepathic swing: they had 10 or 12 or 15 years of playing together, night after night after night, and they could read each other’s minds. One O’Clock Jump, which became their theme song, had come out of one such “head” arrangement:

Buster Smith remembered: “We were fooling around at the club and Basie was playing along in F. That was his favorite key. He hollered that he was going to switch to D-flat and for me to set something from [another tune called ‘Six or Seven Times’] on alto. Lips Page jumped in with the trumpet part without any trouble and Dan Minor thought up the trombone part. That was it–a ‘head.’ ”

The tunes on this compilation of Basie’s greatest years feature the vocals and instrumentals, blues and “Rhythm” changes, head charts and beautiful arrangements, the full band and various small groups, the horn players and the rhythm section. Some of them, like Jump and Jumpin’ at the Woodside, epitomize the head arrangements; others became incredibly influential on small group players (notably the Prez vehicles Tickle Toe and Lester Leaps In); some allow Basie to unleash his own formidable but typically under-employed boogie-woogie skills (Red Bank Boogie); some—really all—are features for the springy levitation of the rhythm section; some just rock harder than anything before Louis Jordan (Yeah Man). They all, even in the low-fidelity and brief duration of the 78, provide a little taste of what those nights at the Famous Door in ’38 must have felt like.

The Second War killed the big bands: white players were encouraged to enlist en masse (and usually whiled away their tours playing for the troops), black players were usually unable to get work, while the rationing of rubber (for tires) and gasoline (for buses) destroyed the touring circuits. An awful lot of people wound up working overtime or the swing-shift in the defense industry, while the government levied a nightclub tax that made dancing a costly proposition for club owners—who put in more tables and encouraged listening music instead. Bebop would be the result.

But that was in the future. Basie himself was reduced, in the early ‘50s, to touring with a small group, but he boogied just as hard and just as charmingly. Eventually, when he was able to revive the big band in the Eisenhower ‘50s, it became a very different—but still great—band, now relying not on swing and head arrangements, but on the seminal charts of great arrangers like Frank Foster and Sammy Nestico. I played a lot of those charts for Dominic Spera in Bloomington, and I played head charts for Dave Baker—but before that, I knew Basie’s music.

I knew it because, though a conflagration of circumstances I can barely remember, Dharmonia and I scored some tickets to see the Basie band at Harvard around ’81. He was old, and sick, by then, and the band was full of young turks, the masters having long since retired or passed on, but the grin, the captain’s cap, and the style were still there. And when we walked into that little banquet room in Harvard, paneled just the way you’d think the Ivy League would be, the aura of that band’s history was palpable even to us who didn’t know much about them. And when they hit, in that paneled Cantabridgian room full of Harvard students and a few stray hipsters like us, it was absolutely overwhelmingly: smooth, powerful, confident, understated, and like a 16-cylinder engine. It was absolutely incredible. By then, they'd been playing together sixty years, some of them--and the ferocity was still there. They weren't taking shit from anybody.

Years after that, we went to school on Basie at Indiana. Years after that, the guys who played on my Master’s recital went to work on the Basie band. Years after that, I wound up teaching that music as history.

But I was lucky enough to know it as experience first.

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