Count Basie and Lester Young: So Now We’ll Find Out What Happens

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Count Basie
By Chenz/Dalle

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In February 1936, when Lester Young joined him at the Reno Club in Kansas City, Bill Basie was 31 years old. Born in Red Bank, New Jersey, he had been a protégé of the great Fats Waller when they were both still teenagers. Indeed, he had literally sat at Waller’s feet, observing those extremities as they worked the organ pedals in the pit of New York’s Lincoln Theater. After a while, Fats entrusted him with the occasional interval spot on the organ and began passing on piano-playing jobs at Harlem rent parties. Before he was out of his teens, Basie was touring as a professional pianist with vaudeville shows. He would have been playing the “stride” style, which had developed out of ragtime and was still quite formal and metronomic in its approach. The blues, of which he was to become such a consummate master, had not yet penetrated the black popular music of New York and the Northeast. Nevertheless, to play stride even passably well required a more than adequate technique and, to the end of his life, Basie could produce occasional bursts of stride piano that would not have disgraced the mighty Fats himself.

Basie wound up in Kansas City when the Gonzelle White Show, with which he was touring, hit rock bottom and foundered there in 1927. This was where he made contact with the Blue Devils, whose blues-inflected music had such a dramatic effect on him. “You just couldn’t help wishing you were part of it,” he recalled fondly in his autobiography. Within a year he actually was part of it, and part of Bennie Moten’s orchestra when the Blue Devils were no more. He split from Moten for a while to form his own band, but returned later. Then, in April 1935, Moten suddenly died, the victim of a surgical mishap during a routine operation. Basie secured himself a job at the Reno Club and gradually gathered a little band of Blue Devils and Moten survivors around him. Throughout most of his long life, it was Basie’s habit to act as the bewildered and innocent victim of fate, which had somehow landed him in the unlooked-for position of bandleader. He played the role to perfection, but the building of the Reno band was a skillful and determined piece of work. First, he persuaded the owner, Sol Steibold, to enlarge the band from six to nine pieces: three brass, three reeds, three rhythm (“three, three and three”). Then he located the scattered individuals he wanted, after which he was forced to sack the men whose places they were to take. Eventually, once Lester and drummer Jo Jones were aboard, seven of the nine were Blue Devils/Moten alumni.

Basie explained:

The Reno was not one of those big fancy places where you go in and go downstairs and all that. It was like a club off the street. But once you got inside, it was a cabaret, with a little bandstand and a little space for a floorshow, and with a bar up front, and there was also a little balcony in there. There were also girls available as dancing partners. It was a good place to work.

The bandstand was so small that Basie’s piano had to be placed on the floor, and a hole had to be cut in the ornamental shell above the stage in order to accommodate Walter Page’s double bass. The hours were quite unbelievable by modern standards: 9 p.m. to 5 a.m., consisting of four floorshows of an hour’s duration each, with dancing in between. For this they were paid $18 a week each (Basie got $21), plus tips. After work on Sundays, musicians would get together for what they called a “Spook Breakfast” and, thus refreshed, would proceed to the delights of a jam session.

Lester had finally landed in the perfect environment. A nine-piece band in which everyone shares the same background and speaks the same musical language can do wonders, especially if it works the kind of hours that Basie’s Barons of Rhythm were used to. Raised in territory bands, kept up to the mark by frequent jam sessions, they possessed a vast store of musical knowledge and customary practice. They could slip effortlessly into riff patterns, piling one on top of another, switch from unison to harmony and back again, drop back to let the rhythm section tick over for a chorus, pass solos around. Such written arrangements as they had were mainly created by Buster Smith, known as “Prof,” who led the saxophone section, but mostly the band played “head arrangements,” routines worked out collectively on the bandstand. Basie was delighted that his plan for the band had worked so well, especially the saxophone section of Prof, Lester and Jack Washington. “I don’t think we had over four or five sheets of music up there at that time. But we had our own thing, and we could always play some more blues and call it something, and we did our thing on the old standards and the current pops. We had a ball every night in there.”

True to form, Basie always claimed that the extent of his ambition had been to “get a group of guys together and work in a place like that and have some fun.” Everything that happened subsequently, he implied, was mere accident and good fortune. If so, it was a remarkable stroke of luck that caused the Reno Club to have been fitted up with a live radio link. Network radio, the first truly universal medium of entertainment, had developed with remarkable speed during the early 1930s, and one of its most popular features was the live relay of dance music from nightclubs, hotels and ballrooms. The nightly broadcast from the Reno went out over a local Kansas City station, W9XBY, which had an exceptionally powerful transmitter. Late at night, when most other local stations had closed down, leaving the airwaves clear, it could be picked up hundreds of miles away.

At this point the ubiquitous figure of John Hammond enters the picture. It is impossible to delve into the history of jazz and popular music without sooner or later encountering him, usually taking an active role in some important new development. Born in 1910, Hammond was a son of the American aristocracy. His paternal grandfather had been General Sherman’s chief-of-staff during the Civil War, while his formidable mother was a descendant of Cornelius Vanderbilt, the steamship and railroad magnate. His twin passions were jazz and social reform, and when he came into his inheritance at the age of 21 he plunged ardently into both. With his money and social assurance he soon began to make his presence felt, writing articles in the press, seeking out new artists and sometimes even using his own money to pay for recording sessions. His tall, gangling figure, topped by his trademark crew cut, was likely to turn up anywhere that jazz was being performed. In 1936, he had already played a part in the burgeoning success of Benny Goodman and been instrumental in setting up Billie Holiday’s first recording sessions. In the course of a long life he was to have a hand in advancing many other careers, including those of Basie, Charlie Christian, Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, George Benson and Bruce Springsteen.

On a cold January night in 1936, Hammond had been listening to Goodman’s orchestra playing at the Congress Hotel in Chicago. He explains:

I went out to my car, parked across the street from the Congress, not quite decided where to go next ... I turned on the car radio ... It was one o’clock in the morning. The local stations had all 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 ... The nightly broadcast by the Count Basie band from the Reno Club was just beginning. I couldn’t believe my ears ... Basie had developed an extraordinary economy of style ...using perfectly timed punctuations—a chord, even a single note—which could inspire a horn player to heights he had never reached before ... Basie had discovered how effective simplicity can be.

For Hammond, hearing something that excited him was enough to set him vigorously in motion. He was determined to do something about Basie. He began writing about the band in Down Beat and other journals, and advising everyone within earshot to tune in to the marvelous little band broadcasting from an obscure Kansas City nightspot. On a more practical level, he opened negotiations with Willard Alexander of the MCA agency, with a view to bringing Basie and the band to New York. He also secured an agreement in principle for a recording deal with the American Record Corporation. In 1936, the swing era was accelerating fast. The Depression was beginning to lift, more and more people were dancing and the demand for exciting new bands seemed insatiable. Inevitably, other music-business operators began to take an interest in Hammond’s discovery. First off the mark was the notoriously pugnacious Joe Glaser, Louis Armstrong’s manager and head of the United Booking Corporation, who turned up one night at the Reno. He was unimpressed by the band and Basie’s quiet, undemonstrative style, but took a fancy to Hot Lips Page, the ebullient trumpet soloist. He made Page an offer he couldn’t refuse and Page gave in his notice. By now, Basie had learned of Hammond’s efforts on his behalf, and realized that big things might be brewing. He was not surprised, therefore, when Dave Kapp, of Decca Records, appeared in Kansas City, claiming to be an emissary from John Hammond and waving a recording contract. It seemed like the break of a lifetime. Basie signed, and that night he told Lester Young the news. Says Basie:

I called him over, got us a couple of nips and went and stood outside the doorway to the back alley, where we usually went when we wanted to have a little private sip and a little personal chat.

“Well,” I said. “I got some great news. I think we’ll take a Pullman into Chicago and do some recording for Decca.”

And all he did was just sort of stand there looking into space like he hadn’t heard what I’d said ... Then he looked at me again.

“What did I hear you say? Did I hear you?”

“Yes,” I said. “We’re going to Chicago to make some records for Decca ...”

And he just stood there, nodding his head, thinking about it, and then the next thing he said was like he was talking to himself.

“Well, okay. So now we’ll find out what happens.”

A few days later, John Hammond finally made the journey to Kansas City and presented himself at the Reno. Basie greeted him warmly. The pianist recalls:

“A friend of yours was here to see me, John.”

“Who?” I asked. “I didn’t send anyone.”

“Dave Kapp.”

“Let me see what you signed,” I said, fearing the worst.

His fears were justified. The contract called for 24 78-rpm sides a year, for three years, at a total fee of $750 each year. It contained no provision for payment of royalties on sales and was totally binding on Basie’s part. To Basie, with his $21 dollars a week, plus tips, it seemed like a lot of money, but $750 wouldn’t even cover the session fees for the musicians, at the minimum rate stipulated by the American Federation of Musicians (AFM). Hammond later went to the AFM and succeeded in getting the fee raised to the session minimum, but he could do nothing at all about the lack of royalties.

In all other respects, however, his visit to Kansas City was full of glorious revelations. In the first place, he couldn’t believe that a 10-piece band (Basie had managed to add another trumpet) could create such a full and varied sound. Neither could he believe the hours they worked and the enthusiasm they succeeded in maintaining. But most of all he couldn’t believe Lester Young. He already knew, from the Henderson episode, what an exceptional musician Lester was, but he only fully appreciated the extent of his talent when he joined Lester on his early-morning prowl in search of a jam session, which they found at “a joint on 18th Street.”

He would launch himself headlong into improvisations which, with each new chorus, renewed themselves as if by magic; it was as though his energy and originality knew no bounds. Lester could improvise on the same theme for an hour at a stretch, without once giving the impression that he might be running out of ideas ... His features evinced not the slightest emotion and his whole being was concentrated in the music.

The agency agreement with Willard Alexander and MCA went through without a hitch. Basie’s band was to be enlarged to 14 players, to put it on a par with other leading bands, and the “Barons of Rhythm” tag was dropped in favor of a simple “Count Basie and His Orchestra.” There was a panic when Buster Smith, “Prof,” announced that he would not be coming along. The whole enterprise seemed far too risky to him and, anyway, life was fine in KC and the Southwest and he saw no reason to uproot himself. They all tried to persuade him but he would not budge, and a replacement lead alto was eventually found in the form of Caughey Roberts. The enlargement process brought in a number of musicians destined to play an important part in Basie’s future success, in particular trumpeter Buck Clayton, and Herschel Evans returned to the fold, his gloriously fat, oily tenor saxophone tone striking a perfect contrast with Lester’s.

The new band was booked to open at the Grand Terrace, Chicago, on November 6, 1936. They played a Halloween Night ball at the Paseo Hall in Kansas City on October 31, and were all set to go when Walter Page announced that his wife was unhappy about the whole thing and he might have to cry off. Since its rhythm section was probably the band’s strongest suit, and Walter Page (known as “Big ’Un”) was its mainstay, this was potentially disastrous news. Everyone pleaded with Mrs. Page, even promising to send Big ’Un back once they had gotten established, and she finally relented. Thirteen of them set off for Chicago: trumpeters Buck Clayton, Joe Keyes and Carl “Tatti” Smith; trombonists Dan Minor and George Hunt; saxophonists Caughey Roberts, Lester Young, Herschel Evans and Jack Washington; Basie on piano, Walter Page on bass, Jo Jones on drums and vocalist Jimmy Rushing. The final member, guitarist and violinist Claude “Fiddler” Williams, would join them at their destination.

It was not the most triumphant of debuts. In fact, it was distinctly underwhelming. The Grand Terrace was nothing like the Reno Club. It had a large stage, a proper dance floor, a fully produced stage show, subdued lighting, mirrored walls, hat-check girls, girls selling cigarettes and flowers—in short, all the trappings of sophistication as portrayed in Hollywood films of the period and reproduced for the delectation of patrons at 3955 South Parkway, Chicago, Illinois. The main problem was the show, for which they were handed a pile of music and expected to play it, which most of them couldn’t do. Left to themselves, they could have played all night, non-stop, but faced with tangos, waltzes, unfamiliar ballad selections and excerpts from the Poet and Peasant overture, they were at something of a disadvantage. According to Basie, the customers, once they had gotten used to the band’s style, were happy enough, but there was no denying that the floorshow was a shambles. The vocalists and “speciality” acts (jugglers, acrobats, etc.) complained so bitterly that the boss, Ed Fox, was ready to fire the band, but the showgirls and chorus dancers loved the rhythm Basie’s men were laying down, and stuck up for them. Basie overheard one dancer, Alma Smith, berating Fox: “Why don’t you just lay off ... Take it easy. These are just a nice group of country boys. They just come to town. This is all new to them ... One of these days you might be trying like hell to get them back in here, just wait and see. And I hope to God I’m still living to see them turn you down!” Then she took Basie aside and told him, “Don’t you worry. Just play something behind me.” Fortunately, because of his apprenticeship in traveling outfits like the Gonzelle White Show, “playing something” on piano for show-dancers came as second nature to Bill Basie.

And so they managed to struggle through, but it was a gruesome few weeks. Given all the advance publicity, it was inevitable that the press would take an interest in the band’s Chicago debut, and most of the critics seemed to have taken the same view as the Grand Terrace management. “By the time you read this,” one wrote, “they will be on their way back to Kansas City.” George T. Simon, reviewing a live broadcast from the Grand Terrace for Metronome magazine, was particularly trenchant: “If you think the sax section sounds out of tune, catch the brass! And if you think the brass by itself is out of tune, catch the intonation of the band as a whole!! Swing is swing, but music is music, too.”

By dint of much rehearsal, and with the help of a pile of arrangements generously lent by Horace Henderson, Fletcher’s brother, matters gradually improved, but some problems were endemic. Musicians who had scarcely been earning a living wage could not afford new instruments, nor could they pay for the professional maintenance of those they had. All brass and reed players acquire the skills of basic instrumental make-do-and-mend, involving rubber bands, string, bits of cork, etc., but these are only stop-gap measures. Basie’s men were mostly playing instruments that no further patching could improve, with the inevitable result, cruelly highlighted by George T. Simon, that they played out of tune. Again, one of the glories of this early Basie band was its ability, perfected at the Reno Club, to create coherent music by ear, employing instinct and a shared vocabulary. Some, like Lester and Buck Clayton, could read well, but most couldn’t. Now that there were 14 of them, and they were having to keep up with the latest dance tunes and popular songs, the good old method was no longer sufficient. To use a modern cliché, Count Basie and His Orchestra were on a steep learning curve, and there were bound to be casualties eventually.

The first recording sessions under the Decca contract did not, after all, take place in Chicago. No doubt it was felt that a longer playing-in period was called for. This gave John Hammond the opportunity he had been waiting for, the chance to have some small revenge on Decca for stealing the Basie band from under his nose. He was determined to get in first and record, if not the full band, then some of its leading members, especially Lester Young. On November 9, 1936, a couple of days after the Grand Terrace opening, a small band gathered at the Chicago studios of the American Record Corporation. It consisted of Basie, Walter Page, Jo Jones, Lester Young and trumpeter Carl “Tatti” Smith. Hammond had wanted Buck Clayton, but he had fallen victim to the trumpet player’s occupational hazard, a split lip. Jimmy Rushing was also there, to provide the vocals. The time was 10 a.m., not so much an early morning as a late night, since none of them had yet been to bed.

This was the moment when Lester Young finally sidled out of the shadows, the moment when he ceased to be just a name, a rumor from the territory, a set of tall tales concerning jam sessions in bars and hotel lobbies and shoeshine parlors, and became a sound. For the first time, his music was caught, frozen onto shellac grooves and sent out into the world. Forty-five years later, after a lifetime in the record business, Hammond could still categorically say of those three hours, “It’s the only perfect, completely perfect recording session I’ve ever had anything to do with.”

They recorded four pieces that morning, the first being “Shoe Shine Boy,” a cheerful little tune from the 1930 musical show Hot Chocolates. Basie and the rhythm section play an introduction, setting tempo and mood, and then, after 45 seconds, Lester Young bursts forth. The first impression is of blazing energy and complete self-assurance. He plays with all the confidence and poise of a young man fully aware of his powers and in complete control of them. The only possible comparison is with the young Louis Armstrong of 10 years earlier. Faced with such unhesitating fluency, it is easy to understand why other musicians at jam sessions would simply lay down their instruments and sit goggle-eyed. “Look, I didn’t come here to give a concert,” he had complained, but who could possibly hope to follow this? It is easy to believe, too, that he could keep it up for hours on end. Here, constrained by the three-minute limit of the 10-inch, 78-rpm record, he confines himself to two choruses, 64 bars, lasting exactly one minute, but it is obvious that he has barely gotten into his stride. The take was a perfect one, but, perhaps unable to believe what they had just heard, Hammond and the engineer called for a second. Lester plays another two choruses, completely different but equally inventive and energetic. And this is a man who has already been playing all night and would otherwise be on his way to bed.

Nothing becomes Lester Young so well as his first utterance on record, a phrase eight bars long, starting and finishing with exactly the same interval, C to F in quavers (eighth-notes). The notes themselves are all perfectly straightforward. All but three of them are contained in the scale of F major, and if you write them down you end up with eight bars of harmless-looking crotchets (quarter-notes) and quavers, with not even a triplet to ruffle the surface. So why, when you try to hum or whistle those eight bars, does it take half-a-dozen attempts to get them right? Simple and tricky at the same time. Devious candor, one of the unique qualities of Lester Young’s imagination, stands revealed in these first few seconds of his recorded work.

After the two takes of “Shoe Shine Boy,” they tackled “Evenin’,” a minor-key song of no great distinction by Harry White and Mitchell Parish, to feature Jimmy Rushing. Lester plays no solo here, apart from eight bars in the opening instrumental chorus. The main focus is on Rushing, whose high, plaintive but at the same time lusty voice was to be a vital component of Basie’s music for many years to come. He had been a member of both the Blue Devils and Moten’s orchestra, and no one embodies more clearly the proclivity of Southwestern musicians to turn any tune into a species of blues. Every phrase is flooded with blues inflexions and he imbues “Evenin’” with a rising passion that its authors can never have envisaged. Rushing follows this with a real blues, the kind of thing that might have been heard issuing nightly from any of the joints around 12th and Vine Streets in Kansas City. Here called “Boogie-Woogie,” it is simply a comfortable assemblage of traditional blues elements: the rolling boogie piano of the title, four venerable verses from Rushing (“Baby, what’s on your worried mind?” etc.), simple riffs from Lester and Tatti Smith, and a two-chorus solo by Lester, so plain and lucid as to defy comment or analysis.

The final number of the session is “Lady Be Good” (or “Oh! Lady Be Good,” to be strictly correct), from the 1924 musical comedy of the same name by George and Ira Gershwin, although the original melody doesn’t get much of a look-in. The pattern is very similar to that of “Shoe Shine Boy,” with Lester taking the first main solo. Once again, the actual notes are simple, but they are deployed with such rhythmic cunning that every phrase contains a surprise.

Having now heard him at some length, we can begin to understand what it was about Lester Young that had caused such consternation in the Fletcher Henderson band. Anything less like Coleman Hawkins it would be difficult to imagine. When the discs from the session were released a few months later, under the band name “Jones-Smith Incorporated,” they were greeted at first with baffled silence, because this was simply not the way the tenor saxophone was supposed to sound. The most obvious difference lay in the tone, but tone is just one element of style, inseparable from others, such as articulation, phrasing, and ultimately personality itself. Hawkins played the way he did because that’s the way he was. Most other tenor saxophone players, even if they shared no personality traits at all with him, strove to play as though they did. It never occurred to Lester to follow such a course. From remarks he made at various times in his life, it is clear that he couldn’t understand why anyone should want to.

Lester’s tone is not thin or weak. It is certainly not, as some claimed at the time, the result of failing to breathe from the diaphragm. Anyone who has ever tried filling five feet of tenor saxophone with air will know that it simply cannot be done without steady pressure from that organ. Lester’s tone is supported by just as much air as Hawkins’. Indeed, listening to “Lady Be Good” and “Shoe Shine Boy,” one has the impression that the process starts somewhere in the region of his boots. Hawkins’ forceful manner and ornate conception led him to develop a sound that was not only broad but biting. It had what saxophonists call “edge.” By contrast, Lester’s sound at this period was round and contained, with virtually no edge at all. It didn’t cut, it floated. It was this quality in [saxophonist Frankie] Trumbauer which had first attracted him, and he had been working on it ever since. As he tottered off to get some sleep, at around the time when solid citizens were sitting down to their lunch, he must have been wondering about the future. He was 27 years old and a corner had at last been turned. “Well, okay. So now we’ll find out what happens.”

Excerpted from Being Prez by Dave Gelly, published by Oxford University Press. Used by permission.

Originally published in January/February 2008

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