Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Count Basie by Alun Morgan - Part 2

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

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 Two

“Towards the end of 1935 Benny Goodman brought his orchestra to Chicago for a triumphal return booking at the Congress Hotel, triumphal in the sense that in between its two Congress bookings, it had made history at the Palomar Ballroom across in Los Angeles. Benny was the 'King Of Swing" and the nation wanted to see and hear this vital and alive band. On hand was John Hammond, then 24 years of age and a keen, enthusiastic jazz fan. But Hammond was more than that; he was a Vanderbilt on his mother's side and had 'dropped out' of Yale in 1931 in order to promote jazz. He wrote for the British Melody Maker and had a contract to produce records for the British market. Despite his youth, Hammond was an influential figure in jazz circles. His friendship with Benny Goodman developed and the family relationship was completed in 1941 when Goodman married Hammond's sister Alice. But in the last week of November, 1935, when Benny's band was floating on the crest of a wave, John was out in the car park of the Congress hotel, sitting in his car which was fitted with a powerful radio. 'I had a twelve-tube Motorola with a large speaker, unlike any other car radio in those days' Hammond wrote in his autobiography. 'I spent so much time on the road that I wanted a superior instrument to keep me in touch with music around the country. It was one o'clock in the morning. The local stations had gone off  the air and the only music I could find was at the top of the dial, 1550 kilocycles, where I picked up W9XBY, an experimental station in Kansas City. The nightly broadcast by the Count Basie band from the Reno Club was just beginning. I couldn't believe my ears'.

After that first hearing, an event which Leonard Feather has called 'the most momentous chance audition in jazz history', Hammond tuned in to W9XBY whenever he could. So intrigued was he by the sound of the band that he went down to KC to hear the music for himself. On his first visit to the Reno the first thing he saw was 'the high bandstand, at the top of which sat Jo Jones surrounded by his drums. Basie sat at the left with Walter Page and his bass crowded as close to the piano as he could get. In the front line were Lester Young, Buster Smith on alto, and Jack Washington on baritone. Behind them were two trumpets, Oran 'Lips' Page and Joe Keyes, and the trombone, Dan Minor. Jimmy Rushing, the famous Mr. Five-By-Five, sang the blues, and Hattie Noel, as big as Rushing and dressed in a ridiculous pinafore, was the comedienne and a fairly good singer'.

No recordings of broadcasts from the Reno Club have come to light but, from first-hand descriptions of the music and the very earliest known Basie recordings it is possible to make a judgement on how the band probably sounded. It made extensive use of riffs both behind soloists and as launching pads. The arrangements (perhaps routines would be a more accurate description) were sufficiently flexible to allow soloists to take extra choruses if it happened that the inspirational level was high. And Basie himself? John Hammond has noted that 'Basie had developed an extraordinary economy of style. With fewer notes he was saying all that Waller and Hines could say pianistically, using perfectly timed punctuation - a chord, even a single note - which could inspire a horn player to heights he had never reached before'. Although Hammond was writing of Count at the time of the W9XBY broadcasts his description could be applied to Basie at almost any period. At the same time it would be a mistake to assume that Count had lost the art of two-handed playing. Sandwiched in the middle of the 1957 Roulette recording of Kid from Red Bank, for example, there are a couple of choruses of stride piano which would do credit to any masters of the idiom.

Hammond's enthusiasm for the Basie band went further than writing about it in Down Beat magazine. He urged Dick Altschuler of the American Record Company to sign the band for his Brunswick label. Altschuler agreed but, by a clever piece of fast manipulation, Dave Kapp, brother to Jack Kapp, head of Decca, got to Count first. The contract Basie signed was for twenty-four 78rpm sides a year for three years with a payment of 750 dollars to Basie for each of the three years. There were to be be no royalty payments or, in fact, any further money for Basie. Hammond did his best to redress the situation on Count's behalf but the fact remains that Basie never received any further payments for the 61 tracks he made for Decca between January, 1937 and February, 1939. When one considers that, amongst those 61 titles, were the original versions of One o'clock jump, Topsy, Sent for you yesterday, Jumpin' at the Woodside, Jive at five, Blue and sentimental etc, the iniquity of the Decca move can be judged. On the brighter side, Hammond managed to get Willard Alexander of the powerful Music Corporation of America (MCA) so interested in the band that he signed Basie to an MCA contract. Alexander booked the band into the Grand Terrace Hotel in Chicago, up until then the stronghold of the Earl Hines and Fletcher Henderson bands.

With so much potential activity in the offing, Basie set about enlarging his band. Joe Glaser had signed Hot Lips Page to a separate contract, thinking Page had a bigger future than the Count. In his place Basie secured the services of Buck Clayton, who up to that time had not intended to stay in KC longer than a few days. (He was on his way east from California in order to join Willie Bryant's band.) 'I was with Basie two months at the Reno Club,' states Clayton. 'We left Kansas City Octobers 31,1936, Halloween Night, the same night we had played in a battle of bands with Duke Ellington at the Paseo Ballroom. In our minds, we thought we had won the battle, but when we got on the bus to leave there wasn't one single friend of ours on hand to assure us we had. So probably we didn't, and, knowing Duke as I know him now, I'm almost sure we didn't'.

If there was uncertainty about who won at the Paseo Ballroom there was no doubt about the Basie band's position when they opened at the Grand Terrace. 'They had us playing the Poet and Peasant Overture as our big show number' Basie recalled later. 'The band just didn't make it, and there was nothing in the show that gave us a real chance to display ourselves properly'. John Hammond was more forthright. 'Remembering those first nights at the Grand Terrace, I am astonished they were not fired. They struggled through Ed Fox's show arrangements, but the chorus girls loved the band because it was so easy to dance to. Jo Jones, a dancer himself, knew how to play for dancers. Fletcher Henderson came to the rescue, allowing Basie to use half his library of arrangements, one of the generous gestures which endeared Fletcher to so many musicians.'

The Basie band played the Grand Terrace from November 7, 1936 to December 3, a period in which owner Ed Fox claimed the Terrace did its smallest business in years. (He tried to cancel the Basie booking but MCA ignored his plea; the agency was more interested in the radio wire which the club had.) But the Grand Terrace booking was probably Basie's first and greatest hurdle. Pitchforked into an entirely new musical environment was like being thrown in at the deep end. Years later Jimmy Rushing blamed the Count for some of the band's shortcomings. 'It was Basie who couldn't read, and the troubles started when Tiny Parham had written an arrangement for the band of the William Tell Overture. Basie couldn't play the piano part so we had to call in a woman who was a music teacher, and she took over the piano'. Away from the Grand Terrace a small group from the band achieved greatness. John Hammond, incensed at Decca's signing of the band to a recording contract, decided to record Basie for himself, albeit as part of a group under someone else's leadership. The date for the session is usually given as October 8 or 9 but the band was still in Kansas City at that time. Years later Hammond gave the date of November 9, 1936 which seems far more likely. The records came out on the Vocalion label under the name 'Jones - Smith Inc.' and they contain the first (and some would claim the best) examples of Lester Young on record. The full band used Lady be good and Shoeshine boy as part of its repertoire; these small group versions allow Young to spin out long melodic lines of a character which was entirely fresh to those brought up to believe that the sound of the tenor saxophone was epitomised by the work of Coleman Hawkins.

After the Grand Terrace booking came to an end, Basie moved East, playing a series of dates prior to his engagement at New York's Roseland Ballroom just before New Year's day. The band's spirits must have been at a low ebb after the Grand Terrace debacle and, as Hammond reports, a one-night stand at New London, Connecticut, on the way to New York did little for morale. 'They played (New London) on the night of a terrible New England storm' remembers Hammond, 'in a ballroom which normally held about sixteen hundred. That night there were no more than four hundred'. In an attempt to broaden the band's appeal, the musicians knocked together arrangements of popular songs and found that they were also expected to play tangos and rhumbas. 'Woody Herman was playing opposite us at the Roseland' said Basie. 'He was breaking in his band too, but he was in there - he had made it. We had a rough time at the Roseland, but the manager there stuck with us - he believed in what we wanted to do'.

The New York booking also gave Decca the chance to record the band for the the first time, a unit which now boasted five brass (Buck Clayton, Tatti Smith and Joe Keyes on trumpets, George Hunt and Dan Minor on trombones), four saxes and four rhythm. Lead alto Buster Smith, suspicious of the MCA contract, had refused to leave Kansas City for the Chicago and New York engagements so Basie brought in Caughey Roberts, who had played in California with Buck Clayton. By now the band boasted two exceptional and contrasting tenors in Lester Young and the Texas-born Herschel Evans. Claude 'Fiddler’ Williams doubled guitar and violin (although he played only the former on the record date) and the band was completed by Reno stalwarts Jo Jones, Walter Page and Jack Washington. Those first four titles, Honeysuckle Rose (solos by Basie, Young and Tatti Smith), Pennies from Heaven (Rushing vocal), Swinging at the Daisy Chain (Basie, Buck Clayton, Herschel Evans, Walter Page and Jo Jones) and Roseland Shuffle (solos from Basie and Lester Young) give a very clear indication of the band's enormous capabilities and unrivalled solo strength.

At the Roseland Basie played before a segregated audience for the ballroom enforced its 'whites only' ruling so strictly that Puerto Ricans were discouraged. From the Roseland the band moved on to the Apollo Theatre on 125th Street. This Harlem entertainment centre had been a proving ground for talent since it first opened its doors in 1934 and Basie was apprehensive about the reception he could expect. Willard Alexander still had confidence in Basie's ability to succeed and he persuaded the Apollo management to spend extra money to promote the Count and his men. As John Hammond wrote later 'Nobody in Harlem will ever forget that opening. Basie passed the test. He was on his way'. But Alexander's next booking for the band cast them back in the melting pot for he moved them into the William Penn Hotel in Pittsburgh, the best hotel in the city which had never previously had a Negro band in residence. Fortunately for us an LP exists (Jazz Archives JA-16, The Count At The Chatterbox) recorded from the network radio broadcasts which were done from the hotel. One can now imagine the impact Basie's music must have had on the staid and sedate atmosphere. Hammond went to the opening and reported 'Bill did his best to accommodate the William Penn customers, muting the brass, keeping the guys on their best behaviour, but the band couldn't help swinging’. The 'Chatterbox' album is a valuable document for it is the earliest 'live' recording of the Basie band to appear. The music bursts with inner enthusiasm and although this was a thirteen-man ensemble it has the feel of a small group, so well-integrated are the backing riffs behind the soloists. The evidence is here that, by this date at least, Count had refined his own piano playing to the point where he only played the notes that mattered. The contrast between the full power of the band and Basie's relaxed keyboard figurations is a joy.

After the William Penn Hotel booking the band did a string of one-nighters gaining impetus at each date. The network radio broadcasts plus the first Decca releases, Pennies from Heaven coupled with Swingin' at the Daisy Chain and Honeysuckle Rose backed with Roseland Shuffle, all helped the band to establish its reputation. Lester Young and Herschel Evans now had their own groups of supporters at the various dance halls and Basie was not slow to feature the tenor 'battles'. This was the foundation for many similar musical wars of attrition in later years and for Basie's assertion that 'the band starts with the rhythm section then builds up to the tenors'. Jimmy Rushing sang the blues and the band was beginning to make some real money but MCA felt that it would be even more of a success with a girl singer on the payroll.

In March, 1937 Billie Holiday joined the band but, due to conflicting contracts, she was not allowed to make records with the Count. (Nevertheless she may be heard on a handful of titles which have appeared as parts of broadcast transcriptions dating from 1937.) Billie's stay with Basie lasted less than a year although she herself referred to it as 'almost two years' in her autobiography Lady Sings The Blues, a book which cannot be relied upon too much for factual matters. This was obviously an unhappy period for both Bill and Billie; Jimmy Rushing accused her of not acting in a professional way and Billie complained that the money she was paid did not cover her laundry bills and other expenses. Basie and Holiday parted company at the beginning of 1938 and Billie made no secret of the fact that she blamed John Hammond for her dismissal. Willard Alexander sprang to Hammond's defence; 'it was John Hammond who got Billie the job with Count Basie' he was reported as saying in Down Beat,' and he was responsible for Basie keeping her. In fact, if it hadn't been for John Hammond, Billie would have been through six months sooner. The reason for her dismissal was strictly one of deportment, which was unsatisfactory, and a distinctly wrong attitude towards her work. Billie sang fine when she felt like it. We just couldn't count on her for consistent performance'. Hammond was soon at work behind the scenes on Basie's behalf. Having convinced Count already that Freddie Green would make a greater contribution to the rhythm section than Claude Williams, he was directing Basie's attention towards a singer who was both consistent and professional, Miss Helen Humes.”

To be continued ….

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