Friday, November 2, 2018

Count Basie by Alun Morgan - Part 3

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

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.

"I probably don't need to tell you that Alun Morgan was one of the most gifted and knowledgeable of all jazz writers. He wrote the most beautiful English and what he had to say was communicated flawlessly to his readers. He was comprehensively generous to other writers, and it was at his instigation that I wrote my book on Woody Herman. Once I decided to write it, he shovelled  to me the information that he had acquired for his own use on Woody at an amazing rate. Try to find anything he has written and you will be deeply rewarded if you succeed. His book on Modern Jazz was an early primer on the subject, and you'll find the one on Basie, despite its great age, is as relevant as it ever was." -  Steve Voce

Chapter Three

"The arrival of Helen Humes in July, 1938 was the last important addition to a band which had now become nationally famous. No longer could it be looked upon as a 'territory' unit which had tried to storm the bastion of the New York dance halls, scuttling back to Kansas City when it needed reassurance. Basie had made important changes to his personnel and with Helen and Rushing sharing the vocals the ensemble comprised Ed Lewis on lead trumpet with Buck Clayton and Harry Edison sharing the solos, trombonists Dan Minor, Benny Morton and Dicky Wells, Earl Warren on alto leading Herschel Evans and Lester Young on tenors and Jack Washington doubling baritone and alto plus the 'All American Rhythm Section' of Basie, Freddie Green, Walter Page and Jo Jones.

Prior to Basie's bookings in New York the Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway and Chick Webb bands held sway with Benny Goodman coming on strongly. It was the era when bands tried to 'cut' each other and one such contest took place at the Savoy Ballroom on January 16,1938, the night of Benny Goodman's Carnegie Hall concert at which Basie, Buck Clayton, Lester Young, Freddie Green and Walter Page had participated. Metronome magazine for February of that year reported 'Count Basie did it! For years, nobody was able to lick Chick Webb and his Chicks within the walls of his own Savoy Ballroom, but on January 16, notables such as Duke, Norvo, Bailey, Duchin, Krupa and Goodman heard the Count gain a decision over the famed Chick. It was a matter of solid swing to the heart triumphing over sensational blows to the head'.

Years later, during the Seventies when Charles Fox interviewed Basie on the radio and suggested that Webb had come second that night Count was vehement in his denial. 'Absolutely not! There was no cutting! We played together and we were lucky to get out with just a few bruises!' This is consistent with Basie's self-effacement and his outspoken admiration for men such as Webb, Duke Ellington and Oscar Peterson. But the fact remained that Basie's band was now a potent force in the hierarchy. Count based himself at New York's Woodside Hotel and held court in the basement, auditioning new arrangements from outsiders such as Don Redman, Jimmy Mundy and Andy Gibson. The turning point was the band's summer booking into the tiny 'Famous Door’ club at 66 West 52nd Street. 'The band first started clicking at the Famous Door' recalls Buck Clayton. 'We had made good changes and the band sounded well together. The place was small and we sat close together, and the low ceilings made the band sound beautiful, and it was a rocking place, and that's where business started picking up'.

The Famous Door was the second 52nd Street premises to bear the name; it measured 20 to 25 feet wide and 50 to 60 feet deep. Frank Driggs, who contributed a valuable sleeve note to Jazz Archives JA-41 Count Basie At The Famous Door 1938-1939 states that when the Columbia Broadcasting System did its regular broadcasts from the club, 'the patrons had to remove themselves to the sidewalk in order to achieve clear transmission from the cramped, mirrored club'. Basie played the Famous Door from July, 1938 to January, 1939 and it was a mark of Willard Alexander's faith in the band that he loaned the club 2,500 dollars to install air-conditioning to attract the customers during the hot summer months of 1938. Alexander also twisted a few of the most influential arms at CBS with the result that a radio network line was installed. Basie was paid about 1,300 dollars a week at the Famous Door but the extensive radio network coverage was of immense value. The surviving broadcast recordings from the Famous Door are revealing for a number of reasons, not the least being the excellence of Jack Washington as an improvising baritone soloist, at a time when such fluidity on the instrument was the prerogative of Harry Carney, or so it seems judged solely on the evidence of commercially made records.

Frank Driggs points out that it was the success and popularity of the contrasting tenor soloists which caused Basie to drop Washington from a prominent role as a soloist. The Famous Door transcriptions show also that Benny Morton was the chief trombone soloist probably because Dicky Wells had only recently come into the band. There is also another example of Lester Young's clarinet playing to add to the discographies. Basie's judicious fill-ins and occasional middle-eights sandwiched between ensemble passages helped to give the band a sense of contrast which few others possessed at the time.

The six month residency at the Famous Door was followed by a further six month engagement in Chicago and these extended bookings gave the band a feeling of stability. The new men had plenty of opportunities to familiarise themselves with the band library and their section colleagues. Record producers also found it useful to have so many outstanding jazz players in one place for so long. John Hammond recorded bands under the leadership of both Billie Holiday and Teddy Wilson during 1938 when the supporting musicians were nearly all taken from the Basie ranks.

Under his own name Count was fulfilling his Decca contract both with the full band and as leader of the 'All American Rhythm Section'. The titles Basie made in November, 1938 and January, 1939 give us rare opportunities to study the magic of this unique team. Hammond had been right in drawing Freddie Green to Basie's attention for seldom in jazz did two musicians complement each other better. The foundation of the team was the immensely strong and authoritative bass playing of Walter Page, a man who knew instinctively how every other instrumentalist in the band should play. Basie credits Page bringing out the best in Jo Jones and it was probably Page's idea that Jones scaled his sound down to the point where the beat was sometimes felt rather than heard. Jo Jones certainly knew how to paint rhythmic colours and was never boorish in his work behind band or soloists. In fact it was Jones who paved the way for the later 'cool school' drummers with his floating rhythmic pulse and beautifully controlled hi-hat cymbal. 'Jo Jones' said drummer Don Lamond, one of the finest of all big band drummers, 'reminds me of the wind. He has more class than any drummer I've ever heard and has been an influence on me ever since I first heard him with Basie. Man, he could drive that band! With Jo there's none of that damn raucous tom-tom beating or riveting-machine stuff! Jo makes sense'.

Jones started out as a carnival musician and had to be prepared to accompany all manner of acts and improvise backing at a moment's notice. All this served him in good stead when he came to work with Basie for he had the ability to listen to each soloist, modify his accents as necessary and, at the same time, fit in with the other members of the rhythm team. On Jones's right sat Freddie Green, probably the greatest rhythm guitarist in the history of jazz. He was called, with perfect truth, Basie's left hand. As he explained, 'Basie's piano certainly contributes to making the rhythm smooth. He contributes the missing things. I feel very comfortable working with him because he always seems to know the right thing to play for rhythm. Count is also just about the best piano player I know for pushing a band and for comping soloists. I mean the way he makes different preparations for each soloist and the way, at the end of his solos, he prepares an entrance for the next man. He leaves the way open'.

Sitting at the keyboard, watching and listening to every move made by his musicians, Basie played with deceptive simplicity. 'I don't want to "run it into the ground" as they say. I love to play, but the idea of one man taking one chorus after another is not wise, in my opinion. Therefore, I fed dancers my own piano in short doses, and when I came for a solo I did it unexpectedly, using a strong rhythm background behind me. That way we figured, the Count's piano wasn't going to become monotonous'. This magnificent and unique quartet of players came into being in March, 1937 and stayed together, week in and week out, until the summer of 1942 when Page left, following a disagreement. It formed the foundation to some of the finest examples of big band swing and was the envy of every other band leader.

While the Count Basie band was still appearing at the Famous Door, John Hammond arranged a concert presentation at Carnegie Hall for December 23rd, 1938. 'The concert should include, I thought, both primitive and sophisticated performers, as well as all of the music of the blacks in which jazz is rooted. I wanted to include gospel music, which I listened to in various storefront churches wherever I travelled, as well as country blues singers and shouters, and ultimately the kind of jazz played by the Basie band'. The two LPs issued years later from the 'Spirituals To Swing' concert are especially valuable for some small band titles by Basie, Lester Young, Buck Clayton and rhythm (even although the tracks on the LP were actually recorded six months earlier in a studio and have fake applause dubbed on) and a reunion between Basie and trumpeter Hot Lips Page. At the commencement of 1939 Decca set up five Basie dates within the space of a month. The recording contract was due to expire and Decca were anxious to retain the services of Basie; they sent Jack Kapp along to Basie with a thousand dollars as an inducement to sign for a further term. Although he needed the money, Count refused to stay with Decca and signed instead with Columbia, an arrangement which was to last in unbroken form until August, 1946.

With a new contract for making records, Basie found himself in direct competition with Duke Ellington. Duke's was the only Negro band on the Columbia label 'but because of Ellington's understanding with Columbia' wrote John Hammond later 'Basie's records had to be released on Okeh. When Basie finally moved to Columbia, Ellington left and went to Victor. I never understood the jealousy and resentment Duke seemed to feel toward other black band leaders. His place was secure, his genius recognized, yet he seemed to feel threatened. I do know that Basie worshipped him'.

Just prior to the conclusion of the Decca arrangement, Count was faced with the need to find another tenor soloist. The outstanding Herschel Evans collapsed while working with Count Basie at the Crystal Ballroom, Hartford, Connecticut in January, 1939. He was rushed to a New York hospital but died of a cardiac condition. Basie borrowed Chu Berry from Cab Calloway's band to complete his Decca dates then brought in another Texas tenor, Buddy Tate, as a permanent replacement. (Buddy became one of the longest-serving Basie sidemen; he joined the Count in February, 1939 and left in September, 1948.)

Although Basie had fostered the 'tenor battles' while Evans and Lester Young sat at opposite ends of the saxophone section, those who were close to the two men claimed that the so-called feuding bore no relation to their true feelings. 'Herschel Evans was a natural' said Jo Jones. 'He had a sound on the tenor that perhaps you will never hear on a horn again. As for the so-called friction between him and Lester, there was no real friction. What there was was almost like an incident you would say could exist between two brothers. No matter what, there was always a mutual feeling there. Even in Lester's playing today, somewhere he'll always play two to four measures of Herschel because they were so close in what they felt about music'. Evans left his stamp on a handful of the Decca sides, notably the gorgeous and sensitive statement on Blue and sentimental as well as more aggressive solos on One o'clock jump, Time out, Georgianna and his own arrangement of Doggin' around. (In all four latter titles Herschel is the first of the two tenor soloists.)

The first session for Columbia took place at United studios in Chicago on February 13, 1939 but none of the titles was issued until 33 years later. 'We cut these in a terrible studio and there was something wrong with the equipment' wrote John Hammond years later. 'When we finally cut the masters we couldn't get the records to track'. This was not a full band session but by an octet, with Jimmy Rushing singing on Goin' to Chicago, a track on which Basie played organ. Jo Jones recalls that 'the goddam organ wouldn't work properly and I had to get under it and kick it to make it go. It hadn't been played for close on ten years'. When these titles eventually appeared as part of a two-LP set titled Count Basie -Super Chief the jazz world was suddenly the richer by some magnificent Buck Clayton, Lester Young, Dicky Wells and Basie solos following the painstaking work of recording engineer Doug Meehan who went to endless trouble to overcome the original defects. From what might have seemed an inauspicious beginning, the Columbia contract blossomed into full flower a month later with an orchestra date and the band built steadily on the foundation of this success throughout the rest of the year. As the war clouds gathered over Europe Basie was recording gems such as Taxi war dance, Rock-a-bye Basie (a tune which Dizzy Gillespie later claimed was based on one of his riffs which Shad Collins took with him into the Basie band), Jimmy Mundy's arrangement of Miss Thing (which was spread across two sides of a 78) and Jump for me.

Two days after Britain declared war on Germany Count Basie's Kansas City Seven assembled in Columbia's New York studio to record two titles which soon became classics, Dickie's dream and Lester leaps in. Buck Clayton, Dicky Wells and Lester Young make up an unbeatable front line, superbly backed by the All American Rhythm Section. In the autumn of 1939 Rozelle Claxton (from Ernie Field's band) took Basie's place at the keyboard for a short time while the Count was off sick and the year finished with the band at the Casa Loma Ballroom in St. Louis. Metronome magazine asked its readers to vote in its second annual poll with the result that Basie came second on piano, Lester third on tenor and Walter Page, Jo Jones and Freddie Green occupying similar positions on their respective instruments. As a new decade began it looked as if Basie had been accepted, three years after that first booking outside the Kansas City limits. The Count was on his way.”

To be continued ….

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