Monday, October 29, 2018

Count Basie by Alun Morgan - Part 1

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

The writing of the esteemed British author and critic Alun Morgan featured earlier on these pages when we posted an interview he conducted with Stan Levey during the drummer’s 1961 stay in London as part of a quartet backing singer Peggy Lee appearance at The  Pigalle Club, a supper club and music venue in Piccadilly, St. James’ in the West End that was first published in the September 1961 edition of Jazz Monthly.

The editorial staff at JazzProfiles has been searching for a cogent and coherent treatment of Count Basie and his music; not surprisingly it found one from the pen of Alun which will be presented to you as a segmented blog feature in the coming weeks.

Born in Wales in 1928, Alun Morgan became a Jazz fan as a teenage and was an early devotee of the bebop movement. In the 1950s he began contributing articles to Melody Maker, Jazz Journal, Jazz Monthly, and Gramophone and for twenty years, beginning in 1969, he wrote a regular column for a local newspaper in Kent. From 1954 onward he contributed to BBC programs on Jazz, authored and co-authored books on modern Jazz and Jazz in England and wrote over 2,500 liner notes for Jazz recordings.

His writing style is succinct, accurate and easy to read and understand. It’s an honor to have Alun Morgan featured on these pages.

Chapter One

“'Count Basie isn't just a man, or even just a band,' remarked singer Lena Home one night at Birdland, 'he's a way of life'. Just as Duke Ellington enjoyed a number of parallel careers, so Count Basie succeeded in leading his band, playing the piano and, perhaps most important, creating an environment in which many young soloists developed into highly talented individuals. Basie referred to himself as a 'non-pianist' but he played the piano in a way which brought out the very best in all his fellow musicians.

He also had the ability to spot talent and remember the comparative unknown years later when he needed to restock his band or replace a sideman. Above all he enjoyed working. 'It's not because of the public that he's on the job before we are most nights' once remarked guitarist Freddie Green. 'It's to hear the band for his own kicks. He'll never stop playing.’ In fact he struggled on against a heart attack and a combination of debilitating illnesses until cancer finally cut him down. The end came on April 26, 1984 at his home in Hollywood, Florida.

The beginning was nearly 80 years earlier. William Basie was born in Red Bank, New Jersey, on August 21, 1904 and brought up as an only child. (A brother died young.) Bill's mother gave him his first piano tuition but it was across the Hudson River, in New York, that he picked up his most valuable lessons. He wanted to be a drummer at the outset but 'Sonny Greer cut me loose from that! He used to fill in on gigs and take over'. There were plenty of keyboard idols in New York at the time, the ragtime pianists such as James P. Johnson, Luckey Roberts and Willie 'The Lion' Smith but for Basie there was one man above all others. 'Fats Waller was my guy, right to the end' he told Charles Fox years later. And it was Waller who introduced him to the pipe organ. 'The first time I saw him, I had dropped into the old Lincoln Theatre in Harlem and heard a young fellow beating it out on the organ. From that time on, I was a daily customer, hanging on to his every note, sitting behind him all the time, fascinated by the ease with which his hands pounded the keys and his feet manipulated the pedals. He got used to seeing me, as though I were part of the show. One day, he asked me whether I played the organ. "No", I said, "but I'd give my right arm to learn". The next day he invited me to sit in the pit and start working the pedals. I sat on the floor, watching his feet, and using my hands to imitate them. Then I sat beside him and he taught me'.

New York teemed with places of entertainment providing work for pianists; cabarets, saloons, theatres, dance halls and the like to say nothing of the regular 'rent parties' put on to help those less fortunate than their fellows. On a good night Basie would earn ten dollars at such a party which helped in the payment of his own rent.

Through his friendship with Fats, Basie took Waller's place in a touring show, Katie Crippin And Her Kids, which was touring the vaudeville circuit. As Nat Shapiro has explained, such vaudeville shows 'played everything from big houses in Chicago, St. Louis, Memphis and New Orleans to store-front and tent theatres in the most rural areas of the Deep South'. Most of the shows were handled by TOBA (Theatre Owners Booking Association), known to many as Toby Time or, more impolitely, Tough On Black Asses for TOBA handled Negro entertainers while the Keith Orpheum circuit was responsible for the rest. Basie travelled hundreds of miles on circuit with shows such as 'Hippity Hop'. He also worked with blues singers such as Clara Smith and Maggie Jones and also played in trumpeter June Clark's band in a Fourteenth Street dance hall. Around 1925 he joined a road show presided over by Gonzelle White and stayed for the best part of two years until an event occurred which, though innocuous in itself, was to have a lasting effect on his subsequent career. 'I'd travelled west from New York with a touring vaudeville show' he recalled later. 'I was just a kinda honky-tonk piano player with the show and we had more than our share of troubles. We didn't have any 'names' in the cast and we didn't do much business. So about the time we reached Kansas City, the unit was in pretty bad shape and then came the inevitable folding. When we folded, I was broke and didn't have any way to get out of town'.

He took a job playing piano in a silent cinema called the Eblon Theatre. The house director was James Scott, a leading ragtime composer and performer in the previous decade. It was Scott who wrote Grace and beauty, Climax rag and Frog legs rag but it seems very doubtful that Basie had any musical connexion with Scott during the period when, as he remarked later, he played for the better part of a year, 'all sorts of pictures, anything from a Western melodrama to a crime thriller or one of those passion plays'. Then in 1928 he joined Walter Page's Blue Devils. According to Jimmy Rushing, Basie had first heard the Blue Devils a year before when the Gonzelle White show was still in being. 'Basie was playing piano in the four-piece band and even acting the part of a villain in one of the comedy skits. It was on a Saturday afternoon and both bands were "ballyhoolin" from horse-drawn wagons.

The Blue Devils were trying to entice customers to the Southern Barbecue, an open-air beer garden and Basie's band was advertising the White show. We were playing a piece called Blue Devil blues and up comes Basie and sits himself down at the piano. Man, but he played!' The precise chronology of those early days in Kansas City is difficult to determine not only because of the passage of time but also because of the hectic life lived by so many KC residents at the time. Years later Basie was still enthusing over his early days in Kansas City and referred to it as a 'wide-open city. That's where life began! You could do anything, go anywhere!' Others have described Kansas City in similar terms during what became known as the Pendergast Era. Tom Pendergast was the leader of the Democratic Party in Kansas City from 1927 until 1938, when he was eventually convicted on a charge of income-tax evasion.

Pendergast encouraged gambling and all forms of nightlife. For a time he owned a 'wide-open' hotel, the Jefferson, and arranged for it to have police protection. Whatever one may think of Pendergast's dubious role as a leading light in KC, it is true to say that all the significant musical developments, including the formative work of Basie, Jay McShann, Charlie Parker etc., took place when Pendergast ran the city his way, with dozens of excellent bands playing at the many places of entertainment.

When Basie joined the Blue Devils the band was already rated very highly in the Southwest. Bill Basie joined a band which had Hot Lips Page, Buster Smith, Eddie Durham and Jimmy Rushing in its ranks. It was Walter Page's ambition to do battle with Kansas City's leading band of the day, Bennie Moten's orchestra. Frank Driggs has reported that 'Kansas City newspapers of the time indicate that Moten did battle with Page in 1928 at the Paseo Hall, and Page is said to have blown Moten out'.

So fiercely partisan was the following for bands in those days that such a defeat could strongly affect business and it is said that Bennie Moten made an offer to take over the Blue Devils, keeping Walter Page as the leader but using Moten's name at the front. Page would not agree but after he had a run of bad luck with bookings, Moten was in a strong position to make offers to individual Blue Devils. He enticed Basie and Eddie Durham away in the early part of 1929 then, later that year, won over Rushing and Hot Lips Page. The Blue Devils broke up in 1931 when Walter Page himself joined Moten and the only factual evidence we have of what was claimed to be a band which was better than Moten's are two 78rpm sides, Blue Devil blues (with a vocal by Rushing and a trumpet solo from Lips Page) and Squabblin', a riff composer-credited to Basie and with solos from the Count himself and Buster Smith. (The discographies list these two Vocalion sides as dating from November, 1929 but Jimmy Rushing's claim that they were made the previous year is more likely to be correct.)

Basie remembered that with Moten 'I guess we played just about every jazz spot in Kansas City. The ones that are foremost in my mind are the Reno Club, the Tower and Main Street Theatres, the Fairland Park and Pla-mor Ballrooms and the Frog Hop Ballroom in St. Joseph, not far from Kansas City'. With the infusion of talent from the Blue Devils, Moten's band began to take on a new character. It now had a five-man brass section, (bigger than that of any other KC band at the time) and the written arrangements by Eddie Durham and Basie demanded a higher standard of discipline within the brass and reed sections.

During 1931 Bennie Moten took the band East on a tour, bought about 40 new arrangements from Benny Carter and Horace Henderson and at the end of the year effected more personnel changes. Walter Page (on bass now; the tuba had been rejected), Eddie Barefield, Ben Webster and, for a time, trumpeter Joe Smith came into the band. With Durham, Basie and Barefield all writing for the band and tunes such as Moten swing and Toby enriching the book, the Moten band achieved a sound which, judged from the recordings made for Victor in December, 1932, was the genesis of the later Count Basie orchestra

But, as Frank Driggs has made clear in his essay 'Kansas City And The Southwest', these changes were not to the liking of the public who wanted Moten to go on serving up the mixture as before. They looked upon the smoother sound of the band as foreign to the tenets of Kansas City music and Moten suffered a humiliating defeat when he played at the annual Musicians' Ball at Paseo Hall where he was pitted against bands such as those led by Andy Kirk and Clarence Love. But it was a new band, the Kansas City Rockets led by ex-Moten trombonist Thamon Hayes, which wiped out Bennie. Morale in the Moten ranks was at a very low ebb and in 1934 Count Basie and a group of Bennie's men actually left to play under Count's leadership in Little Rock, Arkansas. (It is rumoured that both Buddy Tate and Lester Young were in this breakaway group.) But at that time Basie's name was not sufficient of a draw and Moten had no difficulty in coaxing the renegades back into his employ. By the end of 1934 Moten's brand of music was back in favour and although a booking at Chicago's Grand Terrace failed to materialise, the band went into the Rainbow Gardens in Denver, a prestigious locale for units in the 1930s.

As Frank Driggs reports, 'Bennie himself stayed behind for a minor tonsillectomy. He was said to have had a cold at the time and he was unable to take ether, necessitating a local anaesthetic. He was a nervous person and had put off the operation for a long time, until it became necessary for his health; and he apparently moved at a crucial moment, so that the surgeon's scalpel severed his jugular vein. Bennie's surgeon was a prominent man in the Midwest, and he was forced to give up his practice and move to Chicago as a result of the accidental death. Irreparable damage was done to the morale of the men on the job in Denver, and they were unable to finish the engagement. Walter Page and 'Bus Moten each tried to rally the men and keep the band together, but it was no use; they disbanded for good in the summer of 1935'.

Basie did not 'take over' the Moten band on Bennie's death. Instead he formed a group of his own and succeeded in getting a booking at Kansas City's Reno Club, an establishment owned by 'Papa Sol' Epstein, one of Pendergast's men. The hours were incredibly long, often twelve hours at a stretch, and Count was paid twenty-one dollars a week with eighteen each for his sidemen. 'But we were all young then' said Basie years later 'and we couldn't wait to get to work. It was fun! And after work the guys went further up on 12th Street and jammed all morning. He recalled the names of the men in that first Reno Club band when talking to Leonard Feather as 'three saxes, Buster Smith and another alto player, and Slim Freeman on tenor; three trumpets - Dee "Prince" Stewart, Joe Keyes and Carl (Tatti) Smith; plus Walter Page on tuba, myself and the drummer Willie (Mac) Washington'. Hot Lips Page was also working at the Reno at the same time; he acted as Master of Ceremonies and sometimes sat in with the Basie brass. Surprisingly the Reno had broadcasting facilities over a local Kansas City station, W9XBY, which was then carrying out experimental transmissions.

Each Sunday night the Reno Club band went on the air and for those occasions, Jimmy Rushing sat in with Basie. Lester Young heard one of the broadcasts and, by all accounts, sent Count a telegram saying that the band sounded fine except for the tenor player. Basie took the hint and brought in Lester as a replacement for Slim Freeman. The Reno was not exactly an impressive establishment. The signs outside advertised domestic Scotch at ten cents, imported Scotch at fifteen cents and beer at five cents. Hot dogs were ten cents each and hamburgers fifteen. The girls lounging outside were tacitly advertising the services they could offer on the floor above the dance hall. Musicians came and went in a fairly casual manner. 'I don't mind saying that it was a mad scuffle with that band' recalled Count. 'In fact, we were in and out of the Reno Club for about a year before things even started to look up'. There is often little point in conjecture but it would be interesting to know what form Basie's career might have taken if one single event had not occured. Radio, the medium which had been instrumental in bringing Doctor Crippen* to justice, was about to play its part in altering the course of jazz.”

To be continued.

[*Born in Michigan in 1862, Hawley Crippen gained international fame in 1910 when he fled England with his lover after murdering his wife, Cora. Authorities apprehended him after learning by telegram he was on a boat to Canada, making him the first criminal to be caught with the aid of wireless communication.]

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