August 18, 2011

Tales of the Big Bands: Basie, Part 3

The top echelon singers loved the Basie band. Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra are among the most recognizable names that recorded with Count Basie. Basie also had the good fortune and sense to employ hip singers as part of the orchestra. You’ll recognize the names Billy Holiday, Helen Humes, Jimmy Rushing, and the subject of our final Basie blog entry, Joe Williams, Basie’s “Number One Son.”

Many of the quotes and images in this blog entry were obtained during interview sessions conducted for the purpose of creating a 1996 documentary on Joe’s life entitled “A Portrait in Song,” which was produced by Burrill Crohn.

Joe joined the Basie band on Christmas Day in 1954. He was not a total unknown to the Count. Joe sat in a number of times with Basie’s septet at the Brass Rail in Chicago, and the Count must have heard something he liked. Basie signed Joe up when his “new testament” band came to fruition. The Joe and Basie combination was an instant success, resulting in the early 1955 release of “Count Basie Swings/Joe Williams Sings,” which contained Joe’s signature song, “Every Day I Have the Blues.” Trombonist Bill Hughes was a young man at that time and was thrilled to be a part of this ensemble.

BH: I think when [Joe] first joined this band he had performed with Basie’s sextet or something, somewhere before. Basie had heard him. I had never heard the guy until he came in and when he came in I looked at him, you know, like the pants were a little high, his wardrobe wasn’t all that great, and I was saying I wonder why Basie’s hiring this guy, until I heard him sing that night. Then I was saying I wonder what took him so long to hire this guy. And I remember I was young then and I remember walking down the streets of New York and almost every record store you’d hear this sound coming out and it would be Joe Williams singing these things. And I would be saying to myself, wow, I’m a part of this. And the band was so hot. And Basie was so hot. And every night man, it was just a joy to go and play this music. Actually I don’t think the Basie band would have survived as long as it has without Joe having been that catalyst back in 1954.

An observation often made about the Basie band is that they could sound like a small group even though it was a large ensemble. Basie must have had that in mind when he signed Joe on with no arrangements ready for him. The band was able to set riffs and create head arrangements for the first couple of weeks until things could be written down that suited Joe’s voice and unique abilities. Joe talked about those first few months in the band:

JW: We had no arrangements. None at all. We got to Jackson, Mississippi I guess it was. And they had a place they called the Two Spot. And we were there about four or five days. And I got together with Ernie Wilkins and Frank Foster and arranged “Every Day I Have the Blues,” “Teach Me Tonight,” — Foster did “In the Evening,” and something else. And there was “Every Day I Fall in Love,” and something else he did. But yeah, that was ’55. And when we got back we had these things to present, plus the things they were doing that were head [arrangements], like “Roll ‘em Pete” and “Shake, Rattle and Roll.”

It would be inevitable that Joe would be compared with Mr. Five-by-Five, Jimmy Rushing, whose fifteen year tenure with the orchestra ended in 1950. But Joe didn’t look backwards. He was confronted with the considerable shadow of Jimmy Rushing when he went to England with the band in 1957:

(The photograph of Joe and Jimmy above was taken at
the Newport Jazz Festival in 1962.)
JW: We went [to England] in 1957 and one of the critics stated at the end of his obvious critique or review, that most of the applause was given to a young singer named Joe Williams, who is no Jimmy Rushing. I said I certainly hope so. I wasn’t trying to be a Jimmy Rushing either. That’s why I fought Basie so hard, it’s that if they asked me did I know anything of Jimmy Rushing’s. I told them no, I didn’t. And I didn’t, really. It would have been simple for me to learn, I could learn his stuff in one night and perform it. But that was not the object of the exercise. I wasn’t singing 1930’s, 1940’s, or even 1950 music. I was adding things that I wanted to present, that’s all. And I’m glad it found favor, not only with the musicians but with the audiences as well. I had to fight to get him to do it. But I learned from it. He would sit, after we presented it, and it was enthusiastically received by the public, then he would look at me and go — and I gleaned what he meant, that he wouldn’t have to say anything, like if you believe in something strong enough, fight for it, even those that are closest to you. Because he was paying for the arrangements in those days.

Basie taught Joe that if he believed strongly enough in the direction he wanted to take, and if he worked for it, it would pay off in the end. Joe also learned a bit about when to get off the stage. Joe talked about a trip to Stockholm, Sweden in 1956.

JW: So Basie said to me “you’ve been killing them in the States, everybody just loves you over there.” He said “let’s see what you’re going to do now, ‘cause none of these people understand English. [There were] ten thousand people standing on their chairs and they were busy, you know, like screaming and hollering. And I said to Mr. Basie, “what are we going to do, Bas?” He says “for once you’re going to quit while you’re ahead.” I never forgot that lesson, man.

Another musical lesson from Basie offered a poignant description of Basie’s character:

JW: As a leader, I watched and observed [Basie]. He never saw mistakes. Those of us who knew, it was like, gee that wasn’t what we do 98 times out of a hundred. That was an accident. And so instead of looking where it came from, he’d always happen to be looking someplace else. Somebody over there you know. He missed it. He never heard it. He did something marvelously unusual. [When a musician did something that pleased him] he would go light up like a Christmas tree. What I learned from him was that when you were working with first class musicians particularly, or any musician for that matter, you live with what they contribute. You don’t have to give them direction necessarily or anything. Let them find their own level of what goes in support of what, according to their own depth and perception. You have to. And that way you get an unusual presentation and one that is always fresh and refreshing to you. You don’t get tired.

Considering all the young men who passed through Count Basie’s orchestra, Joe must have been very special to earn the moniker “Basie’s Number One Son.” When Joe decided it was time to move on and leave the band, in 1961, the Count attended Joe’s first gig with the Sweets Edison quintet.

While great singers all love performing in front of stellar bands, the feeling is not always mutual. Vocalists, by their very presence on stage, move the spotlight off the instrumentalists. A singer needed to earn his/her respect with the band both musically and from their personal character. Many musicians spoke of Joe’s musical talent — his ability to sing blues, ballads and anything in between in any key. The second part of the equation was addressed by baritone saxophonist John Williams, who crossed paths with Joe during the singer’s many appearances with the Basie orchestra in the 1970’s:

JW: Well in reference to being a singer I always like to say that if Joe Williams isn’t the greatest singer in the world, there’s none greater. And in reference to being a human being, I think that one of the greatest attributes that a human being could have is good manners. And this is the one thing that I noticed about him that made him sort of, I mean set him apart from many of the other performers with whom I’ve worked. And Basie used to say “God doesn’t like ugly,” in reference to people who are ill-mannered. And I could see why he was proud to call Joe his Number One Son because Joe always, from the moment I met him, was a person who had very good manners. And it starts with self-respect. He had self-respect so it was very easy for him to show us respect. And I just didn’t feel like a lowly baritone player who had very few solos to play, just an ensemble player, a guy supporting the front line. I felt just as important in Joe’s presence as one of the featured musicians. So anyway, good manners was the thing that really caught my attention.

Joe’s respect for other performers included fellow singers as well. In the concert documentary mentioned above, Joe performed live at Hamilton College, with the Count Basie Orchestra under the direction of Grover Mitchell. He surprised the producer and production staff when on his first song (“Every Day I Have the Blues,” his signature tune), he invited Chris Murrell, the then-current Basie vocalist, to join him on stage and trade verses. After the concert we asked both Bill Hughes and Joe himself why he chose this moment to spotlight another singer.

BH: Yeah, he invited Chris. He’s very generous with the microphone. But most of the great jazz singers I’ve ever seen have been generous with the microphone. They are eager to have their fellow artists come up and show what they can do.

JW: I vowed within myself that if ever I found someone who wanted that microphone as badly as I wanted it, then I would share it with them. My manager John [Levy] used to give me hell about it because he says you share your space and your time with the musicians and you’ll have people say “wow!” and you say “put the spotlight on somebody else.” He said “then you have to go back and grab them again.” Well I feel as though I can. I can afford to present someone. Because I don’t have to stand there and have them keep that spotlight on me.

The Jazz Archive continues to acquire interviews. In July of 2011 we visited Iola Brubeck, wife of Dave Brubeck, and she reminisced about Count Basie and Joe Williams.

IB: I should have brought this up when we were talking about the idea for The Real Ambassadors because Joe Williams was a part of that. That summer I was in New York and I went to Central Park and Joe Williams was with the Basie band, and he was just so great. And the night before I had gone to a Broadway musical. And I said to myself Joe Williams said more and reached me more emotionally with the Basie band that night than that big production I’d seen the night before. And that was one of the reasons why I started thinking in terms of a Broadway show.

MR: He was a big help to us getting this started.

IB: That’s what I understand. Well I loved Joe Williams. He was a wonderful, wonderful man. He was another example of a black man who, right at the height of the sort of division that was going on in jazz was not effected by that. And I can remember in Europe one time, Joe and some other musicians were sitting outside a hotel in the summertime, on a sort of patio, and our car pulled up and Dave and I got out of the van and Joe got up from where he was sitting with the other musicians and came over and they embraced, he gave Dave a hug and so forth. And it was just kind of a way of him saying “cool it guys.”

Joe left Basie in the early sixties and went on to a successful solo career lasting over three decades. In 1995 when the Hamilton College Jazz Archive was founded we were fortunate to have Joe lend his credibility and his name as we contacted musicians to request interviews. He passed three years later. The College recognized his contribution by designating my position the Joe Williams Director of the Hamilton College Jazz Archive.

The Count Basie Orchestra swings on, and its succession of leaders all played in the orchestra when The Count was at the helm. Its current conductor is drummer Dennis Mackrel.

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