Thursday, December 29, 2016

Good Morning Blues: The Autobiography of Count Basie

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Regardless of any preferences as to style or performer, if you are a Jazz fan, then you are a fan of Count Basie’s music. It really is as simple as that. In the over 60 years of my association with this music, I’ve never met anyone who claimed otherwise regarding this equation.”  
- The Editorial Staff at JazzProfiles

The full title of this work is Good Morning Blues: The Autobiography of Count Basie As Told To Albert Murray - and therein lies the conundrum because if you know anything at all about the personality of Bill [never William] Basie and Albert [never Al] Murray, you, like me, are scratching your head in wonder at the pairing.

You can take solace from the fact that we are not alone in musing about these two working in concert to produce this volume as Dan Morgenstern, the distinguished Jazz critic and Director Emeritus of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University, also emphasized this “odd couple” in his Introduction to the book.

However, he also goes on to reconcile this enigma by explaining how the two built on their strengths and offset their weaknesses to produce an autobiography of a Jazz Master that was long in coming and almost didn’t arrive.


When Albeit Murray told me that he was going to be, as he put it, Count Basie's co-writer on the great man's autobiography, I was both baffled and elated. Elated because Basie, a notoriously difficult interview subject at best, had for years been stalling journalists and scholars with the excuse that he was saving anything worth talking about for a (hypothetical) book; baffled not so much because I knew that Murray had other literary irons in the fire, but because these two, on the face of it, made such an odd couple.

Basie was laid back, laconic, taciturn, the incarnation of the man-of-few-words, while Murray was intense, animated, a brilliant and enthusiastic talker, a veritable verbalist. What I should have known is what this wonderful book made obvious: that Albert Murray is also a brilliant listener, and that these two remarkable men shared a gift for editing — Basie of music, Murray of speech. By the time he sat down with his co-writer, Basie was a master of the art of artistic economy, of knowing what to leave out — both when it came to playing the piano and to editing and enhancing arrangements — and exactly what to leave in. That was something Murray understood and accepted from the start, and that understanding created the climate of trust that made the relationship, almost from the start, like one between old friends.

Which, in a way, they were, these two masters of the blues idiom. Murray was far from a stranger to Basie's realm of swinging and stomping the blues, and I cannot, in all honesty, think of another writer who could have made Basie come to life so fully on the printed page, in what throughout sounds like Count's own true voice. Such a minor miracle could only have been wrought by a writer able to combine the very different requirements of reporter and poet — the former to sort out and render the many facts of a rich and long professional life; the latter to capture every nuance and rhythm of the speech and thought of a man who, while often disarmingly straightforward and self-deprecating, was as complex and mysterious as any artist worthy of the name.

What Basie clearly didn't want his book to be was any kind of expose, as he makes crystal clear near the end of Good Morning Blues: "I know you can get away with putting almost anything in a book these days. But I don't want any more outhouses in mine than I have already put in here."

That's putting it plain enough, and Basie-Murray do adhere to it. Not that the Count makes himself out to be some kind of saint; the narrative is full of good times recalled without regret. Basie makes clear that he liked to take a drink, loved the company of pretty women, and was far from averse to playing the horses. He is frank about scheming to further his career, as in how he managed to become a member of Bennie Moten's band though Moten was a fellow piano player: "I have always been a conniver and began saying to myself, I got to see how I can connive my way into that band." But that, of course, is nothing dishonest, and Basie does not shy away from telling it like it was when it comes to unfair dealings he encountered. But he does not tattle or smirk.

Nor does he dwell on the many injustices, big and small, that he inevitably encountered in his many years on the road during (and after) the official reign of Jim Crow. He doesn't gloss over the negatives, but, as he explains, "If I haven't spent a lot of time complaining about all of these things, it's not because I want anybody to get the impression that all that was not also a part of it. It was [but] you don't let that stop you if [you know] what you really want to be."

One of the finest moments in this book is when Basie discovers that what he really wants to be is a jazz musician. Prior to his discovery (one morning in Oklahoma) of the great Blue Devils band (which is to say, the blues as transformed to instrumental jazz, and with that unique 4/4 beat that he did so much to bring out into full hearing of the world), he merely wanted to be a part of show business, but now he is about to find his calling. It was a storyteller's masterstroke to depart from chronology and begin the narrative with this epiphanic moment and its emblematic slogan, Once a Blue Devil, always a Blue Devil.

There is much to learn from this plainspoken, non tendentious book, which, alas, Count Basie did not live to see published — though he read and approved a first draft that essentially was what we find here — and which is the fruit of a seven-year-plus labor of love. It involved, for the co-author, frequent visits to the Basie home in Freeport, Bahamas, many trips to spots where the Basie band was in residence for more than a night or two, and countless hours of researching transcribing, and editing, resulting in one of the best and most authentic of all jazz autobiographies and biographies.

What was Basie's secret as a leader of two of the greatest bands in jazz history — the old and new testament ones? As it emerges from his own story, there is the key element of the band as an extension of family life—of a very special kind of togetherness. Thad Jones, speaking with Royal W. Stokes, put it so very well: "There was a roundness and a togetherness about everything we did that was very exceptional . . . coming from that strong and binding family circle. It was incredible that a man could organize people to form this strong bond of friendship and generate such a warm, human feeling toward one another, concern for each other's welfare, and consistently maintain it, as Mr. Basie did. That's true genius."

And then there was Basie's time. As another great Basie trumpeter, Harry Sweets Edison, that one from the old testament band, told Stanley Dance (for The World of Count Basie, which makes a fitting counterpoint to this book): "[Basie] was and is the greatest for stomping off the tempo. He noodles around on the piano until he gets it just right."

That incomparable noodling set the tempo just right for more than five decades of the swingingest music this side of heaven. There were times when the band would get to swing so hard that Basie, having set that tempo (and kept it there) just right, would lift his hands from the keyboard, and just sit there with the most blissful expression on his benign countenance. That, an onlooker felt, was a man fulfilled—one of the lucky ones. As long as there's recorded music, Count Basie will keep us tapping our feet, and with Al Murray as an added starter to that incomparable All-American Rhythm Section, he tells us how.”

One of the most revealing aspects of Good Morning Blues: The Autobiography of Count Basie As Told To Albert Murray is how much thought or, if you will, forethought that Count Basie put into everything he did over the course of a career that spanned a half century.

Because he was a man of few words and preferred a blues-based, straight-ahead approach to Jazz, one gets the impressions that there’s not very much to it and that Basie fifty year evolution as a bandleader just happened.

But after reading the 16 chapters that make up Basie’s autobiography, I came to the realization that it was well-thought out and planned every step of the way.

Basie’s career developed as it did because The Count wanted it to happen that way.

Of course, he fell under the sway of other musicians he respected. As a case in point, the following excerpt indicated how important Billy Eckstine was in convincing Basie to re-establish a big band in the early 1950’s at a time when many considered them to be a thing of the past.

Part Two
THE COMEBACK, 1950-1954

“The main one who was really responsible for me deciding to get a full band back together again when I did was Billy Eckstine. I have to give him a whole lot of credit for that. And no matter how much I give him, it will never really be enough. Because he was the one who just kept on after me and kept on after me and wouldn't let me alone until finally I just said, hell, Fd go along with it.

My co-writer has reminded me that a lot of people who were around during that time still like to think of the band that I began to work with that next year as the Birdland Band, and they have a point. Because Bird-land, near the corner of the east side of Broadway at Fifty-second Street, was known as the jazz corner of the world in those days, and that was where things finally began happening for the new band, just as the Famous Door was where the first band really broke into the big time about fourteen years earlier.

So I'm not forgetting Birdland, and I'm not forgetting Norman Granz either. Because without all of those fantastic gigs in Birdland, it would not have been the same story for us, at least I don't think so; and I also have to say that all those records that Norman began bringing out on Mercury and then Clef and then Verve labels were also very, very important. That was the main way the new band got nationwide exposure.

Those first records were not big hits or anything like that, but there were disc jockeys playing them, and they were on the jukeboxes; and when we were out on those early tours, everywhere we went there were almost always some people waiting for us, mainly because they were already familiar with how the new band sounded on tunes like "Bleep Bleep Blues," "Sure Thing," "Why Not?," "Fancy Meeting You," "Cash Box," and "Tom Whaley" from those Mercury and Clef LP's that Norman was distributing all over the country, along with his Jazz at the Philharmonic releases that were so popular at that time. Because I really didn't give a damn about going back into the big-band thing at that time. I'm not saying that I didn't miss it.

Some people insist that all during that time with the combo I was always talking about how much I missed that bigger sound of the full band. Even my wife claims that I used to mope around the house grumbling and complaining about not being able to hear my music the way I was used to.

But the combo was doing all right [Basie led a septet for a few years in the late 1940’s following the demise of his big band]. There was no problem about getting bookings for it, and those guys were burning it up every set, every night. It worked me a little bit hard, but I was getting used to it, and I was having a ball. I really was. But Billy came by to see us one night. I forget exactly when it was, but it was while we were working in the Capitol Lounge in, Chicago. Whenever it was, he started in on me and that was just the beginning.

"Man," he said, "what you doing messing around out here with this stuff for?" Of course, all of Billy's close friends know damn well that he didn't really use nice little words like "crap," "stuff," "fooling around," "messing around," but we'll just pretend he did, because he really wasn't talking dirty to be nasty. That was just his way of showing how much he liked you. Instead of coming somewhere and telling how much he loved you, he would come in and cuss you out, just like some people show you how glad they are to see you by slapping you and pushing and carrying on like that.

"Man, goddamn, we don't need you out here with this old crap. We need you out here with a big band again."

And every time I saw him from then on, it was the same thing.

"Man, what you keep fooling around with little old one- and two-piece stuff for? Get your goddamn big band back together. Man, hell, you look funny up there messing around with that little old two- and three-piece crap. Stop kidding yourself. This is small garbage for you, Base. This ain't your goddamn thing. Hell, your goddamn thing is a goddamn big band, man." Now, he might have said, "your thing," but
what he actually said was a word that begins with the letter s.

The thing about Billy was that he was really sitting on top of the world of show business at that time. He had a whole gang of hit records out, and he was getting top billing at some of the biggest theaters from coast

to coast, beginning with the Paramount in Times Square. And that's the way it had been for a couple of years or so. Of course, he had already become one of the top band singers back when he was with Earl Hines's great band. And for a few years at the end and right after the war, he had also led his own wonderful band that had all of those great stars like Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Fats Navarro, Sarah Vaughan, Budd Johnson, Gene Ammons, Art Blakey, and I don't know how many others in it. But at the time I'm talking about now, he was working as a single and he was the top male vocalist in the country, and everybody was talking about the great Mr. B. and everywhere you went you could hear that big, wonderful voice on the radio and the jukeboxes.”

Serendipity [or “fate”] also played a role in the direction that the Basie band took, witness the following excerpt about how drummer Sonny Payne became a member of what became referred to at the “New Testament” Band:

“By this time, that current band was really getting there. But before the year was out, we found ourselves with a hell of an emergency on our hands, Shortly after we opened in Birdland for the Christmas holidays, Gus Johnson had an attack of appendicitis and had to go into the hospital for an operation. That was just two days before Christmas. But that just shows how fate works sometimes.

Because the guy we brought in to pinch-hit for Gus was Sonny Payne, and he came in and hit a home run with the bases loaded. That was not any reflection on Gus at all. Absolutely not, because Gus, even up to this very minute, is still one of the great drummers. He's got a great sense of timing, and he can hold things together. Everybody speaks of him as being a great man for backing a band. He can set things behind a big band or any kind of band or any kind of group. It doesn't make any difference. He's a great drummer even if he's just playing by himself. He can do it from one and two on up. He's just an all-around great guy to have in your organization.

But fate is a funny thing. Sonny Payne came in there, and right away he touched off a new spark in that band, and we had to keep him as much as we all loved Gus. Naturally people noticed that Sonny was more of a showman than Gus was, but I wouldn't say that showmanship was what made the difference. It was not that easy. You can't see any stick twirling and trickerlating on those next records, but you can hear and feel a difference in the band.”

But one thing remains clear throughout a reading of Good Morning Blues: The Autobiography of Count Basie As Told To Albert Murray and that is Bill Basie’s unswerving devotion to how he wanted to play Jazz. Of course, as he puts it, he was very accommodating of fate along the way and was always “game” - willing to take a chance.

So to wrap things up for the time being, I'll just say whatever happens from here on in I can't complain. I've had my breaks, and I really can't squawk. Whatever else happens, I'm still going to have to say I've been blessed. I've been very lucky. Fate has been very good to me. It really has, and I'm thankful. That's why I never sit down to a meal without first pausing to give thanks. Every time I think about how many years I've been able to do what I enjoy doing and make a pretty good living and also make a name for myself and a reputation that stands for something, I realize how much I have to be thankful for.

And of course, I was also game. I was always game. I have to put that in here, too. If something came up, I was willing to try it. That doesn't mean that I was always changing what I was doing because I was out there trying to latch onto the latest thing to come along. Some people are like that. Not me. Naturally there are things that come up over the course of the years, and you have to adjust to them because that is the way life is. But I've seen people get away from who they are and what they can do—something they are just wonderful at—just because they think they have to try to be something else. You don't have to do that. You don't have to leave from where you are. I've never forgotten that. You can still be yourself and grow and keep up with the times. If you are going to grow.

When I say I was always game, I mean being willing to take a big chance on yourself because you want to do what you want to do, because when I say that I'm thinking about how I jumped at the offer to go out on the Columbia Wheel with Katie Krippen, and the things I did out on the TOBA* with Gonzelle White's Jamboree, and how I got my job playing organ at the Eblon Theatre in Kansas City, and how I left the Eblon the first time to join the Blue Devils and the second time just to see if there was any way to get with Bennie Moten. And so on to how I did what I did to take over that job at the Reno and start that Three, Three, and Three outfit that got me the attention that brought me back to New York and into the big time. [*TOBA = Theater Owners Booking Association, a circuit of theater owners who booked talent into a string of 80 theaters extending from the East Coast across the South and back across the Midwest with Kansas City being the farthest stop west.]

I was always willing to say, "Let's see what happens," when something came up that looked like it might help me get a little closer to where I wanted to be, and since that's the way I still am, that really is old Count Basie right on up to date, motor scooter and all. As my co-writer says, autobiographies don't have endings. It's like when I segue into the out-chorus of "One O'Clock Jump" to wrap up a dance set or a concert or a stage or nightclub show. I'm not saying this is the end. I'm just saying that's all for now. I'm saying: to be continued, until we meet again. Meanwhile, keep on listening and tapping your feet.”

Good Morning Blues: The Autobiography of Count Basie As Told To Albert Murray is a joy to read not only because it is choc-a-block with details about all aspects of Count Basie’s career, but also because the narrative flows so easily.

I suspect that the latter has a lot to do with Albert Murray’s skills as a writer. Although it’s Basie telling his story, it’s Murray writing and editing it in such as way as to make the process of reading it similar to the excitement one feels while reading an enthralling novel or an exciting mystery.

It’s also an interesting documentary on the development of Jazz in Kansas City which complements the many studies of the evolution of the music in New Orleans, Chicago, New York and Los Angeles. This book goes a long way toward rectifying the fact that Kansas City Jazz is often overlooked as a major wellspring for the music.

Lastly, it is a delightful read about a world-gone-by, never to come again. But you can visit it vicariously through a reading of this marvelous autobiography which was a longtime in coming, but well worth the wait.

The following video montage features the New Testament Basie Band performing Neal Hefti’s composition and arrangement of The Flight of the Foo Birds.

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