© - Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
“The Basie orchestra of the late 'thirties was praised for its wonderful spirit, and certainly the relaxed power of the ensemble was compelling enough to make one overlook—virtually forget—many things including a manifest lack of polish, of unity, even of good intonation.”
- Martin Williams
“Basie could form solo after solo out of a handful of phrases that quickly became familiar but were always somehow fresh because they were always struck, shaded, enunciated and pronounced differently; he discovered the superbly individual piano touch which defies imitation, and which can cause subtle percussive and accentual nuances in the most apparently repetitive ideas.”
- Martin Williams
“An account of Lester Young's historical importance has often been given, but it is an account always worth giving again. He created a new aesthetic, not only for the tenor saxophone but for all jazz. One compares him usually with Coleman Hawkins, and the comparison is handy and instructive, but one might compare him with everyone who had preceded him. Like any original talent, Lester Young reinterpreted tradition....”
- Martin Williams
Over the years, I have had the privilege of listening to many versions [today’s term would be “iterations”] of the Count Basie Orchestra in clubs, concerts and Jazz festivals. On a number of occasions in the 1960’s, 1970’s and 1980’s, the Count’s brilliant big band even appeared at Disneyland at the Plaza Gardens just off of Main Street and in Tomorrowland.
But for reasons of chronology - it was “before my time” - I never heard the landmark version of the band that featured the late great tenor saxophonist Lester Young in person.
Whenever I caught Bill Basie’s Big Band in action, it always impressed me as a “well-oiled machine;” a hip, slick and cool Groove Machine.
But after reading this piece by the late Martin Williams - who The Washington Post once described as “... the most knowledgeable, open-minded and perceptive American Jazz critic today” - I gather that this was not always the case with the Basie crew.
Count Basie and Lester Young: Style Beyond Swing
Since the mid-'fifties, the Count Basie orchestra has been a superb precision ensemble, and perhaps the greatest brass ensemble o£ the century. And that fact adds an irony to a distinguished career, for it was not always such.
The Basie orchestra of the late 'thirties was praised for its wonderful spirit, and certainly the relaxed power of the ensemble was compelling enough to make one overlook—virtually forget—many things including a manifest lack of polish, of unity, even of good intonation. It had perfected ensemble swing, some said. There is no question that the ensemble did swing. But it seems to me that the Basic orchestra had discovered that it could do more than swing, that there were more things to be done in jazz than had been done before, and that its collective joy came from such discoveries.
The year 1932 was probably the key year for big band swing. By then the Fletcher Henderson orchestra had learned how a large jazz ensemble could perform with something of the supple rhythmic momentum of Louis Armstrong. Also by 1932 there were enough Ellington performances that manifest an Armstrong-inspired ensemble swing to underline the point. But in that same year, the midwestern orchestra of Benny Moten made some recordings which not only showed a developed ensemble swing but a basically simple style on which something else might be built.
The Moten orchestra was an unlikely one to make such a discovery. Some of its earlier scores owed an obvious debt to Jelly Roll Morton, but it took the Moten band until 1929 and a performance like Jones Law Blues for it to be able to play a Morton-derived style with sureness and accomplishment. Otherwise its arrangements were overstuffed affairs, full of effects that were at once simple and pretentious, and some of its soloists were apt to be embarrassingly indebted to the likes of Red Nichols or Frankie Trumbauer—when they were not simply faking.
Yet in December 1932 this orchestra, after the merest hints in its early records, had a marathon recording date on which it revealed a four-square swing so nearly perfect that some of its passages are classic—the final riffing on Blue Room for example.
The transformation came about less abruptly than the recordings make it seem, and it came about because the Moten band gradually borrowed the members of another band, the Blue Devils of bass player Walter Page. No matter how much credit one gives where it is due—to trumpeter "Hot Lips" Page, to trombonist Dan Miner, to trombonist-guitarist-arranger Eddie Durham, to clarinetist-saxophonist-arranger Eddie Barefield, to tenor saxophonist Ben Webster, to singer Jimmy Rushing, to pianist William (later Count) Basie—the crux of the matter on the 1932 Moten recordings is Walter Page and the firm, strong, and sometimes joyous four beats to a bar that his bass provided. Around its virtues all other things seem to have gathered.
Even the style had developed in Page's Blue Devils orchestra, and at its best it was simplicity itself. The most effective ensembles on the 1932 Moten records are simple riff figures, shouted out by the brass or saxes or tossed back and forth from one section to another in antiphonal call-and-response figures. Thus the finale of Blue Room. Thus the finale of Moten's Swing. Thus older-style pieces like Milenberg Joys and Prince of Wails could be reinterpreted in a new rhythmic manner. And thus the group could play a more elaborate piece like Toby and play it well. But the Moten band was to drop the style that Toby represents, leaving it to powerhouse orchestras like Jimmie Lunceford's.
Therefore the best Moten ensembles were simple and direct, and the more complex passages in the music were up to the soloists. And so it was not that the Basie band could swing in 1937; the Moten band had had such things in hand five years before.
The story is fairly well known that Basie's orchestra did not begin as a big band but as a smaller one of nine pieces which the pianist led after Moten's commercial potential had collapsed. But many of the stylistic virtues of that small ensemble were evidently borrowed from those of the Blue Devils and the later Moten band. So it is perhaps not quite miraculous that Basie was able to expand his small group to a large one, while retaining its informality, spontaneity, and verve.
The early Basie book was casual and frequently borrowed, either in bits and pieces or, sometimes, whole. The ultimate source was often Fletcher Henderson's orchestra. Basie's arrangement of Honeysuckle Rose is a slight simplification of Henderson's. Basie's Swinging the Blues comes from Henderson's Hot and Anxious and Comin' and Goin'.** Jumpin' at the Woodside (as Dan Morgenstern points out) comes from the Mills' Blue Rhythm Band's Jammin' For the Jackpot, with perhaps a glance at the arrangement of Honeysuckle Rose that Benny Carter did for Coleman Hawkins and Django Reinhardt. Jive at Five from the same ensemble's Barrelhouse. The Mills' Blue Rhythm Band was a Henderson-style orchestra.
[** A more complete history of this piece is interesting and revealing. The 1929 Ellington-Miley Doin' the Voom Voom, in AABA song form (an obvious Cotton Club specialty), became the 1931 Horace Henderson-Fletcher Henderson pair of pieces called Hot and Anxious (a blues) and Comin' and Goin' (partly a blues). Those pieces also added the riff later called In the Mood. These, in turn, became Count Basie's Swinging the Blues. Meanwhile, Doin' 'The Voom Voom had also obviously inspired the Lunceford-Will Hudson specialties White Heat and Jazznocracy, and these in turn prompted the Harry James-Benny Goodman Life Goes to a Party. In the last piece, the background figure (an up-and-down scalar motive) to one of the trumpet solos on Voom room had been slightly changed and elevated into a main theme.]
On One O'Clock Jump, one hears a riff lifted from one piece, and then another riff lifted from another piece. Or, one hears a simple ensemble figure that reflects the style of one Basie soloist, and then another figure that comes from the vocabulary of another Basie soloist. The understructures are also simple, often borrowed from Tea for Two, Digga Digga Do, I Got Rhythm, Lady Be Good, Shoe Shine Boy, and the like. And everywhere and always one hears the blues, often in medium tempo and with a kind of joy unheard in the blues before.
A history of the jazz rhythm section is virtually a history of the music. In the early 'twenties one might find a pianist's left hand, a string bass or tuba, a guitar or banjo, a drummer's two hands, and perhaps his two feet, all clomping away, keeping 4/4 time, or two beats out of the four. It was partly a matter of necessity; keeping time was difficult for some of the players individually, swinging more difficult, and consequently both keeping steady time and making it swing were difficult for many of the groups as well. When such elementary time-keeping became less needed by the hornmen, it began to drop away, to be sure, but not only because the musicians didn't need it any more. It dropped away also because the rhythm section men found something to put in its place.
It is another of the Basie miracles that the pianist, Count Basie, the bassist, Walter Page, and the drummer, Jo Jones, came together. Jones not only played lightly and differently, he gave jazz drumming a different role in the music. He pedalled his bass drum more quietly and he moved his hands away from his snare drum to keep his basic rhythm on his double, high-hat cymbal. Unlike some of his imitators, he achieved a momentum, a kind of discreet urgency in his cymbal sound by barely opening the high-hat as he struck it. All of which is to say that Jo Jones discovered he could play the flow of the rhythm and not its demarcation. And he perceived that the rhythmic lead was passing to the bass, which he could complement with his cymbals.
From one point of view, the styles of the members of the Basie rhythm section were built on simplifications of previous styles. Walter Page had heard Wellman Braud, but (right notes or wrong) counted off four even beats, and infrequently used the syncopations that were sometimes so charming in Braud's playing. Guitarist Freddie Green struck chords on the beats evenly, quietly. Jones played his ching-de-ching differently, in a sense much more simply, than, say, Baby Dodds played his drums. And Basie, more often than not, neither strides nor walks with his left hand. But the simplifications, the cutting back to essentials, also involved rebuildings.
Basie's melodic vocabulary came from Fats Waller, with flashes of Earl Hines, and some soon-to-be-acquired bits from Teddy Wilson. He could stride skillfully and joyously, as he did on Prince of Wails with Moten. But when he dropped the oom-pa of stride bass, Basie's right hand accents were no longer heavy or light, but all equal, and, with Page taking care of the basic beats, the pianist's rather limited melodic vocabulary was suddenly released. Basie could form solo after solo out of a handful of phrases that quickly became familiar but were always somehow fresh because they were always struck, shaded, enunciated and pronounced differently; he discovered the superbly individual piano touch which defies imitation, and which can cause subtle percussive and accentual nuances in the most apparently repetitive ideas.
Similarly he shifted the very function of jazz ensemble piano. He no longer accompanied in the old way: he commented, encouraged, propelled, and interplayed. And in his own solos, his left hand commented, encouraged, propelled, and interplayed with his right. One need only listen to those moments when Basie did revert to a heavy stride bass (as when he did behind Lester Young on You Can Depend on Me) to hear what a sluggish effect it could have in the new context, or listen even to those moments when Basie's left-hand stride was so light and discontinuous as to be almost an abstraction of the style (as on Time Out or Twelfth Street Rag) to realize how brilliant were his discoveries about jazz piano.
Basie's playing on Lester Leaps In seems perfect, perhaps (one is tempted to believe) because he is in the company of a select group from his own orchestra, men whom he understood and who understood him. But when he sits in with the Goodman sextet on Till Tom Special and Gone with 'What’ Wind, every piano animation and comment is precisely right in timing, in touch, in sound, in rhythm. If there is anything left in Basie of the oldest tradition of jazz piano, that of imitating an orchestra, it is an imitation of an orchestra somehow made spontaneous and flexible and never redundant. Probably the greatest moment for Basie the accompanist comes during the two vocal choruses on Sent for You Yesterday, in a delicate balance involving Rushing's voice, Harry Edison's trumpet obbligato, the saxophone figures, and Basie's discreet feeds, interjections, punctuations, and encouragements.
Perhaps the best introduction to Basie both as soloist and accompanist is the alert exchange of two-bar phrases between him and the horns on Shoe Shine Boy and of four-bar phrases on its variant, Roseland Shuffle, on You Can Depend on Me, and Lester Leaps In. In those moments, his piano is discreet enough to dramatize the phrases of the hornmen, yet too personal and firm to be self-effacing.
Basie's solo on One O'Clock Jump shows how rhythmically self-assured he had become, for it is clearly he who leads the rest of the rhythm section. And John's Idea, the second piano solo, shows what personal humor he had discovered within the broader genialities of Fats Waller's style.
Basie's opening solo on Texas Shuffle is a good example of spontaneous logic of phrase and sound. His solo on Doggin' Around is a classic of linking and occasionally contrasting melodic ideas, and is probably his masterpiece.
Basie does not wail the blues, to be sure, but he has an obviously respectful concern for the blues tradition, and on a slow piece like 'Way Back Blues he shows what concentrated introspection he achieved in the style. Here is stride piano (and touches of Hines piano) cut back to its essentials, and almost ready to "play the blues," as stride piano can with latter-day stride men like Monk and Bud Powell.
Many of the best early Basie arrangements were casually worked out by the band's members in the act of playing, and many others were revised by them in the act of replaying. But when scores were written for the band, Basie himself would frequently cut and simplify them, and one can well imagine that this happened to Eddie Durham's Time Out. Durham seems to have profited from, and improved on, Edgar Sampson's Blue Lou,, and his structure encouraged a fine effect of suspense during Lester Young's solo. The resultant Time Out is an exemplary Basie arrangement: its ideas are sturdy and it is flexible; it might be expanded almost indefinitely—by more solos, longer solos, and by repeats of its written portions—without losing its casual, high effectiveness. (And incidentally, the performance of that piece shows how much technical polish the band could achieve by 1937.)
The great moments from drummer Jo Jones are the moments when he rises to the music most subtly. One is apt to sense his splashing cymbal in its response to Lester Young's arrival on One O'Clock Jump without really noticing it. That response or the way he shifts and varies his cymbal sound behind Young on Shorty George or on Exactly Like You. His cymbal and bass drum accents propel Young during his fine, rolling solo on Broadway, particularly at the end of the bridge. (Was Jo Jones the first drummer to use a bass drum for such accents?)
My examples all come from accompaniments to Lester Young, and that is as it should be. On Basie's records we listen to the group spirit and to the soloists. We hear what a highly personal style Basie made of Waller. We may note that Buck Clayton formed a personal approach within outlines suggested by Armstrong. That Harry Edison built a more complex trumpet style with less obvious use of Armstrong. That Herschel Evans knew the Hawkins of the early 'thirties. But when we discuss Lester Young we enter his own musical world.
An account of Lester Young's historical importance has often been given, but it is an account always worth giving again. He created a new aesthetic, not only for the tenor saxophone but for all jazz. One compares him usually with Coleman Hawkins, and the comparison is handy and instructive, but one might compare him with everyone who had preceded him.
Like any original talent, Lester Young reinterpreted tradition, and we may hear in him touches of King Oliver, of Armstrong (even of the most advanced Armstrong), of Trumbauer, and Beiderbecke. But in pointing them out, we only acknowledge a part of the foundation on which he built his own airy structures.
There seems to me no question that Lester Young was the most gifted and original improviser between Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker. He simply defied the rules and made new ones by example. His sound was light, almost vibratoless. He showed that such a sound could carry the most compelling ideas, that one could swing quietly and with a minimum of notes, and that one could command a whole orchestra by understatement. His style depended on an original and flexible use of the even, four beats which Armstrong's work made the norm. The beats were not inflexibly heavy or light in Young—indeed an occasional accent might even fall a shade ahead of the beat or behind it. And he did not phrase four measures at a time. (If he had any important precursor in the matter of flexible phrasing besides Armstrong, by the way, it was trumpeter Henry "Red" Allen, Jr.)
Lester Young's solo on Count Basie's Doggin' Around is a handy example, and one of the best. He begins, actually, by phrasing under the final two bars of Basie's piano chorus (thus does "Lester leap in"). His own chorus starts with a single note in a full bar of music—many a reed player and many a horn player at the time would have used at least four notes. His second musical phrase begins at the second bar and dances gracefully through the seventh, unbroken. His eighth bar is silent—balancing the opening perhaps. In nine he begins his third phrase, which links logically with his second. But the basic impulse here is not breaking through the four and eight-bar phrases, nor in the daring symmetry of balancing one casual note at the beginning against a silence eight bars later. It is in his accents, in a sort of freely dancing rhythmic impulse, which seem almost to dictate how his melodies shall move. Then in his bridge, he consumes the first half with a series of one-measure spurts and the second with a single phrase spun out of them.
With a marvelous ear, and a refusal to allow a literal reading of chords to detain him, he might freely, casually, and tantalizingly phrase several beats ahead of a coming chord change. Similarly, he might phrase behind an already departed chord. His opening chorus on Taxi War Dance contains a bold enough use of such horizontal, linear phrases to have captivated a whole generation of players, and to seem bold still.
Thus one might say that his originality was not harmonic, but a-harmonic. He announced it on his very first recording date in the dense and ultimately self-justifying dissonances of Shoe Shine Boy,, rather different from the simple harmonic ignorance of some of his predecessors. And he affirmed it with a fine harmonic high-handedness in solos like I Never Knew. In general what he did was hit the tonic chords, and read through the others as his ear and sense of melody dictated.**
[** A recorded rehearsal from 1940 (released on an unauthorized LP in the 'seventies) with Benny Goodman and guitarist Charlie Christian, finds Lester Young being more careful about his chord changes, and a challenging soloist results.]
He was an exceptional sketch artist and a master of a kind of melodic ellipsis. As Louis Gottlieb has said, he could make one hear a scale by playing only a couple of notes, as on his introduction to Every Tub.
Sometimes one even suspects a perverseness perhaps born of a defensive introversion. He leaves out beats other players would accent. He offers an ascending phrase where one expects a descent. He turns a cliche inside out. He uses melodic intervals no one else would use, in places where one would not expect to hear them, even from him.
But he was no mere phrase-monger. However original his phrases might be, his sense of order was sometimes exceptional. We are apt to think that the best of his solos delight us because they are so eventful that they maintain themselves only out of a kind of sustained unexpectedness and energetic surprise that somehow satisfies us. But on One O'Clock Jump, he begins with a light parody of the brass riff which accompanies him, and develops that parody into a melody. His first recording of Lady Be Good has a motific logic that is announced by his opening phrase. And a classic performance like Lester Leaps In is full of ideas that link melodically, one to the next. Perhaps the great example of this is his playing on Jive at Five. Every phrase of that beautiful solo has been imitated and fed back to us a hundred times in other contexts by Lester's followers, but that knowledge only helps us to affirm the commendable decorum and the originality of the master's work, whenever we return to it.
Lester Young could directly reinterpret a simple, traditional idea, as he does in his clarinet solos on Pagin' the Devil and Blues for Helen. And he could play jazz counterpoint—as with Buck Clayton on Way Down Yonder in New Orleans and Them There Eyes, or with Billie Holiday on Me, Myself and I and He's Funny That Way—in such a way as to make one reassess all New Orleans and Dixieland jazz one has ever heard. He is—or he should be—the despair of his imitators as much as Basie the pianist should be.
We have few examples of Lester Young's slow blues playing from the years with Basie, and almost every one of them makes us wish we had more. Besides Pagin' the Devil and Blues for Helen there is a beautifully simple chorus on a never re-released Sammy Price pick-up date, Things About Coming My Way; and the accompaniments to Jimmy Rushing on both Blues in the Dark (before Ed Lewis takes over to reproduce Armstrong's Gully Low Blues solo) and on I Left My Baby. The last is especially remarkable because Lester Young imitates a man in tears almost literally, yet aesthetically.
In 1939 Lester Young contributed a beautiful saxophone theme on the slow blues Nobody Knows, and under his guidance the sax section plays it, curving and bending its notes with the plaintive depth of Lester himself. And in 1940 he provided the Basie orchestra with an original theme called, with typical innocence, Tickle Toe, on which he had the group play a melodic line in eighth-notes. On this basis, one might have hoped for even further changes in style within the large jazz ensemble itself, with Lester Young showing the way.
His temperament was not universal. Indeed one sometimes feels he was gaily gentle to the point of deliberate innocence and innocent to the point of self-delusion. Yet his musical personality is so strong that, while one is in its presence, little else exists. He did create a world in which one can believe fully, but when his personal world came in touch with the real one, we know that the results might be tragic. The Lester Young of 1943, after he left Basie briefly and returned, was a somewhat different player, for some of the leaping energy was gone. And the Lester Young who returned from Army service in late 1945 was a very different player and man.
Young once indicated that he spent his early days with Basie exploring the upper range of his horn, "alto tenor," as he put it. His middle days on "tenor tenor." And his last years, on the low notes of "baritone tenor." Beyond question, his creative energy descended as he descended the range of his horn, and his rhythmic sense gradually became that of a tired and finally exhausted man. But there are compensations, as perhaps there were bound to be from a soloist of his brilliance. Slow balladry was seldom allowed him in the years with the Basie orchestra, but his post-Basic years produced the superb musings of These Foolish Things. And, perhaps inevitably, they also produced a further extension of his blues language with the profoundly ironic, melancholy joy of Jumpin' with Symphony Sid, with its touches of bebop phrasing, and the resignation of No Eyes Blues.
I suppose that any man who loves Lester's music will have favorite recordings from his later years in which something of his youthful energy was recaptured. Mine are from a 1949 session which produced Ding Dong and Blues 'n' Bells. Incidentally, the "cool" tenor players seem to have liked the latter piece too, for it contains almost the only phrases from Young's later career which they borrowed.
Lester Young created a new aesthetic for jazz but, whatever one says about his rhythmic originality, about his expansion of the very sound of jazz music, about his elusive sense of solo structure, he was a great original melodist, like all great jazzmen. Great Lester Young solos—When You're Smiling with Teddy Wilson, or You Can Depend on Me, or Way Down Yonder in New Orleans—are self-contained. They seem to make their own rules of order and be their own excuse for being.”