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Walter Page: Freedom Bass Dance

The liberating style of a four-string pioneer

Walter Page
Walter Page (photo: Dave Dexter, Jr. Collection, LaBudde Special Collections, Miller Nichols Library, UMKC)

Were it possible to measure the weight of a band’s sound, I’m not sure you could find a greater scale-tipper than the Count Basie Orchestra of the late 1930s. They surged as a slab of pure rhythm, a juking continental shelf. Such a setting might not seem an ideal playground for an imaginative bassist. But the Count’s man of the low tones, Walter Page, brokered no fetters—you could even say that he was a liberator, establishing sonic freedoms few players at the time got to enjoy. 

Born February 9, 1900, in Gallatin, Missouri, Page arrived at the very dawn of a century he’d help to imbue with its rhythmic edge. He started with the Bennie Moten Orchestra, later led his own Blue Devils—with Lester Young in tow—and was eventually absorbed into the old Bennie Moten band when Basie absorbed what remained of it. Page, guitarist Freddie Green, and drummer Jo Jones combined as the ultimate rhythm-section triumvirate, the men who made the floorboards in ballrooms vibrate, and hearts jackhammer so that one just had to dance.

There are no dud tracks from Page’s stay with Basie, but it’s the live recordings and airshots of the late ’30s where we can really experience how valuable his skills were to the free-ranging functionality of this band. Page would blast out a walking bass figure less oriented to peregrinating and more in the line of power-striding. His pace often blazed, and he was loud in an era when a lot of bassists couldn’t make themselves heard over the ensemble. Page’s sound buttonholed you, got up in your face, though sans confrontation. Here within the joyous maelstrom, his was the most ingratiating voice.

Ellington’s bass man, Jimmy Blanton, was a ballerino in his playing, all leaps and bounds, graceful interludes in air. We might think of the Ellington band as a diaphanous, coruscating cloud, whereas the Basie boys came to you as a block of osmium, in which internal movement would seem to be limited. Page took care of that. It was usually his bass that drove the unit, the quarterback bearing the brunt of the offense’s responsibilities. An ideal pairing, given that the band was pure offense; there are no “prevent” defenses in prime-era Basieland.

On a recording from NYC’s Famous Door club in 1938, Basie’s piano and Page’s bass rip into “Doggin’ Around” like they’re skinning a hide at some molten fast-forward setting. The bass punches space in the very air, creating room for these big-time, badass players to do their thing.

Minus Page, we don’t get the contrast between tenor players Herschel Evans and Lester Young, because there might not have been enough separate ground for each to do what he did. Evans is the Jimmie Foxx of the duo: brawny, bestial—but smart bestial—power. Young is Ted Williams, the obvious thinker who never thinks anything obvious, and who flits—actually, he plays his horn like Blanton will work his bass with Ellington. Page is an identity facilitator. If you put him in Woody Herman’s Thundering Herd, it would have had clearer separation of instruments, more individual nuance, rather than a juggernaut-ish Wall of Sound. Not that said Wall is a bad thing, but it isn’t a core Basie tenet. The best waves have sub-aqueous depths to explore. And those are Basie—and Walter Page—waves.

The Basie band thrilled in the studio, making some of the truly perfect American sides, but live they were jazz’s early answer to the Lewis and Clark spirit.  Lester, in particular, gamboled, attempting runs and solos that he wouldn’t within the confines of an antiseptic room, with Page helping to send him on his way as a knight-errant of envelope-pushing style. “Wo-Ta-Ta” from the Famous Door gig posits a heavy metal Young, and who even knew that was a thing? You could interpolate the saxophonist’s riffs in Live-Evil-era Miles Davis and the Wagnerian heft and hoodoo would hold true.  

At Pittsburgh’s Chatterbox Café in 1937, Page kicks off “Tattersfield Stomp” with this three-note figuration that seems to dip into the earth, such is its booming resonance. The song is a free-for-all, and it has a proto-Ascension vibe to it. But there comes this moment when Page’s bass is the loudest instrument—so loud that it causes distortion on the primitive recording device. The other players drop out, as if they’re both intent on seeing where Page next takes this ball of energy and trying not to fly off the bandstand.

We’re talking music as elemental as the weather, a sea throwing itself against shore-rock again and again, the incessant “I’m not going anywhere” advance, and yet so orderly, controlled, both repeatable and always new. A daring empiricism, an improvised science of rhythm-making.

And if you’re in that band, there’s no way you’d be saying, “Gonna play it safe today.” You’d be hearing Walter Page, this man who took next to no solos—he played one long solo that helped out his mates—and thinking, “Right! I got next, and I’m going to tear it up, me-style.”

Colin Fleming

Colin Fleming writes fiction and nonfiction on myriad topics—art, film, music, sports, literature—for a wide range of publications. He also talks regularly on the radio for the likes of NPR and Downtown with Rich Kimball. His most recent book, Buried on the Beaches: Cape Stories for Hooked Hearts and Driftwood Souls (Tailwinds), was published in 2019, with an entry in Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series on Sam Cooke’s Live at the Harlem Square Club to follow in 2020. Find him on the web at colinfleminglit.com (where you’ll also find his unique online journal, the Many Moments More blog) and on Twitter @colinfleminglit. He lives in Boston and has contributed to JazzTimes since 2006.