For many fans of big band music, the Count Basie Orchestra was the epitome of what an 18-person ensemble could and should sound like. Throughout his five decade career, Basie (a/k/a “The Chief”), held tight to his inner compass of what and how his bands should play. Though he was a man of few words, he made his feelings and intentions known through subtle but forceful direction. The Hamilton College Jazz Archive oral history project focused first on Basie alums and we are blessed with a wealth of material about Count Basie and his career. The first entry will focus on why his band sounded like it did.
We heard from Clark Terry in his conversation with Joe Williams at the end of our Ellington blog post. Clark spent time with both bands, and offers his opinion on Basie’s number one strength:
CT: I’ll tell you about this cat, Basie. Although Ellington was more endowed with harmony and theory and so forth, Basie was the king as far as tempo, and he taught us all the greatest lesson in the world and that is the utilization of space and time. They say he learned it through the medium of just socializing at Kansas City at the Cherry Blossom and the little places where you would have people sit, in a small room like this where you would have gingham tablecloths and he’d play a little bit with Jo Jones, and Walter Page, or Freddie [Green], and The Fiddler [Claude Williams], or whoever was there, and he’d go socializing. Bing-a-dink and he’d go over there socialize “yeah, baby, how you doing?” Bing-a-dink, go over there and have another taste over there and have two or three tastes. Meanwhile Jo Jones and Biggun [Walter Page] are still going [scats]. And he’d come in [scats]. So he was so endowed with rhythm and utilization of space and time, so he knew exactly the way a tune should be before you played it. Now the one, the best example is when Neal Hefti was writing for the band, he brought in a tune and passed it out, and Basie played it and Basie shook his head. He said “what’s the matter, you don’t like the arrangement, Chief?” He said “no.” He said “what’s wrong with it?” He said “the tempo.” Well the tune was about here [claps]. So he said “well what do you think it should be?” “About here” [claps slowly]. Well the tune was [scats]. He brought it in to be [scats slowly].
JW: That was “L’il Darling.”
CT: He heard it. Right away he said “uh oh.” And look at the result. If he’d a kept it up there it would have just been another also-ran tune. He was the king of space, time.
Basie’s band of the late 1930’s was the loosest of his aggregations, operating more like a large combo. Much of the music they played was created on stage or in rehearsals and called “head arrangements,” only to be written down later. Harry “Sweets” Edison talked of the challenge of becoming a part of such a swinging band, and associating with Basie’s fellow musicians:
SE: We didn’t have any music.
MR: That was my question. Now how did that work? And how did you learn what to play when you first got in there?
SE: Well, that’s an interesting question. Because when I first joined the band, everybody in the Count Basie band had played with Bennie Moten’s band. So they all knew what they wanted to play. They all had notes to different — like “One O’Clock Jump,” “Swinging the Blues,” “Out the Window.” It was a head arrangement you know. They just, the brass section would get together and they would play, set a riff behind a melody Basie would play on the piano. The saxophones would go in to another room and they would set a riff. And when we all came back to the rehearsal hall, we’d all have an arrangement, you know? So that went on with me for about a couple of years. And finally I told Basie I said “I’m going to quit.” He says “why? You sound good.” I said “well all these arrangements that you play every night — I can’t find a note. I can’t find a note to ‘Swinging the Blues’ and playing it fast.” I haven’t had a chance...I really was disgusted.
MR: Discouraged, huh?
SE: Yes. So I said “I’d rather for you to take my notice.” He said “well if you find a note tonight that sounds good, play the same damn note every night.” So that’s what I did. He encouraged me to sit there. And it was very difficult. Because when they played a tune like “Out the Window” or of course “One O’clock Jump” wasn’t too fast, you could find a note, but “Jumpin’ at the Woodside.” Hell they’re playing and you’re trying to find a note to play, and it’s passed, and they’re finished before you can find a note.
MR: There’s no rehearsal time to do that. You’re playing every night, right?
SE: Sure, sure. But he encouraged me, and I stayed there for twenty years in and out you know. And had it not been for Count Basie, I wouldn’t be here with you, because nobody would have never heard about me. He gave me a chance and I had so much fun I don’t know why he kept me with the band because I was having a ball. You know every night was fun to me. Just absolutely — sitting next to Lester Young — gee whiz, what a thrill you know. Jo Jones. Walter Page. Freddie Green, Buck Clayton, sitting next to him — you know it wasn’t but three trumpets, Buck Clayton, Ed Lewis and myself; there was two trombones, and four saxophones. And four rhythm section. So I should have paid him to be in the band because I was having so much fun.
One of the first things an aspiring big band musician had to learn was the difference between two-beat and four-beat — a subtle but profound change in the basic feel of swing. Trumpeters Snooky Young and Gerald Wilson were both Basie alums and often played a musical game of tag team in and out of various bands. They talk about that subtle swing difference, when they were interviewed together on September 30, 1995 in Los Angeles:
MR: That must have been a thrill. Is it possible to put into words what that rhythm section did?
GW: Well you know, you remember Jo Jones was an innovator into drumming. Jo Jones was a real innovator. He had some things going that drummers had not been doing. Walter Page had been one of the first to start the walking bass rather than playing the root and the fifth. In other words Boom Boom BOOM Boom. In earlier days, they just played the one note. Boom Boom Boom Boom Boom Boom Boom Boom. So Page started walking on the chords more or less. And Freddie Green, who had you know, nobody can play the guitar, rhythm guitar, like Freddie Green. To this day.
SY: That’s right.
GW: To this day. He never bothered about a solo.
SY: You know when I left Lunceford’s band and getting back to what he’s saying, I went directly into Basie’s band. And those two bands was night and day. I mean Lunceford’s rhythm was a two beat rhythm thing, you know. And it was great and all like that, but you’d come out of that and move into Basie’s band, I almost felt like I didn’t know how to read music. ‘Cause everything was laying so different.
MR: Especially for a lead trumpet, right?
SY: That’s right.
MR: Because you’ve got to be in sync.
SY: That’s right. And I had to learn how to play with Basie’s band, because, well, can you explain that better than I can? Because it’s very difficult, because you asked a question that kind of hit on that, and I left from one band and went directly into this band, this swing band what you’re saying. And I noticed a difference. But Lunceford had great rhythm and everything, but it was a two beat rhythm. And so most bands was playing two beats. Not like Lunceford’s band did though.
GW: Yeah, Lunceford had the two beats.
SY: They had the two beats, Lunceford’s band.
GW: But they had to get that, you know to play jazz, the ultimate jazz beat is when you’re playing four four. It’s the ultimate rhythm. And they had this thing. Jo had it going here, he had it going here, and it was the thing that all bands needed, and still to this day, I mean the band you play with now, all bands, you’ve got to have this.
The early 50’s were challenging years for big bands. Even the Basie band was struggling economically and the Count pared down to a 7-piece group for a number of years. Bassist Jimmy Lewis found that the Count’s knack for creating intense swing could be applied to a small group as well as a big band:
JL: Yes, the small group. We had Wardell Gray, Clark Terry, Gus Johnson on drums, Freddie Green on guitar, me on bass and like we used Bud DeFranco playing tenor. … We worked the Brass Rail [Chicago] down at the loop. We opened up one night and all the people were sitting at the table, and so Basie started off real soft. We started playing soft you know. I thought I was playing louder than anybody, I mean I’m just playing it. Basie says “don’t play so loud.” He said “they’ll hear ya.” So I cut down on the bass. And Basie set a tempo and then he’d watch the people’s feet. He said “okay, everybody’s starting to feel you over the conversation.” He said “now Gus, pick up your sticks.” Gus was playing with brushes. He said “pick up your sticks.” He said “we’ve got ‘em now.” And by the time we opened up, everybody turned and you couldn’t believe it. Buddy DeFranco walked out to the stand, and man, everybody would start to play. He and Clark Terry started doing tricks. Clark would take his horn, take the mouthpiece off and just put it in the end of a glass and blow you know, and make all kinds of funny sounds you know. And Gus Johnson, then here comes Wardell Gray. He’d walk up and he’d just play something like Lester Young. … And Freddie Green boy, he was like a metronome sitting there. And you couldn’t get away from him. The tempo might move up a little bit, I’d get excited, and Freddie would say “Come back here. Right here.” And boy that thing would take off. And Basie, he’d sit there and give signs. He had all kinds of signs. He’d do his face, you know when he’d want you to play louder or softer you know. And when he’d get ready to close a number he’d double his fists. And like if he wanted some excitement, he’d stand up from the piano and look at you. And boy, and Gus was sitting on the drums and you’d hear this thing, it sounded like it was coming up out of the floor. And boy the people just went crazy.
We will hear again from Jimmy Lewis in a subsequent Basie blog entry.
The heyday of the big bands occurred before the Civil Rights era. While some swing bands made tentative moves towards integration after the Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton, Teddy Wilson, Gene Krupa combination, there was an obvious distinction between black and white bands for many years. Grover Mitchell, a Basie trombonist and an eventual leader of the band, reminds us why the Ellington and Basie orchestras were able to sound as they did:
GM: Well we had some genius-level people you know. Ellington’s band and Basie’s band, the one thing that caused them in some way to be at the ability level that we were able to maintain was we, in the older days and prior to 1964, we couldn’t get jobs in studios you know. We couldn’t play at the networks and all that. And so Ellington and Basie had access to the greatest black musicians alive. In other words, that’s what we had to aspire to. And you couldn’t think of going to NBC or ABC or be in a Hollywood studio, which later I did, and quite successfully. But in those days they had access to the greatest black musicians available. The greatest. And so they had their choice. That’s something.
MR: That’s a really important statement. I haven’t heard it put quite that way.
GM: I know, most people won’t say it. They’re afraid to say it. But I know it. Because we would sit there and our greatest competition was each other because we, you know, until Clark Terry and those guys in 1964 and ‘63 started getting into the networks and all that kind of stuff. There was a couple of guys here and there you know; CBS was pretty good, they had a guy over there. And a New York contractor named Lou Shoobe, he was quite fair, and so some guys got jobs. But for the most part you couldn’t even dream of getting a studio job, it was just unheard of in those days.
Both Grover and Clark Terry spent time in Duke’s and the Count’s bands. It’s not a stretch to say that this is tantamount to a classical musician touting the fact that he spent one part of his career with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy then moved on to the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein.
Tenor saxophonist Frank Foster is high on the list of important Basie figures. He was one half of the two tenor team of Frank [Foster] and Frank [Wess], in the New Testament Band. Foster became one of Basie’s most dependable writers, but even he was subject to the Basie musical scrutiny.
FF: The first arrangement I brought to the Basie band was one I brought from Korea with me that I had played with a band in Korea. It was an original cha-cha-cha.
MR: No kidding.
FF: And the band needed a couple of Latin flavored songs for the dancers that they were playing. And they only had one mambo. So this was a mambo, not a cha-cha-cha.
MR: You wrote a mambo?
FF: Yeah. This was an original sort of thing based on a mambo groove, and it was very simple. And I brought it in to the band and we played it. And Basie encouraged me to continue writing. And the results of that encouragement were “Blues Backstage,” and “Blues in Hoss’ Flat,” and eventually “Shiny Stockings.” But it’s not all peaches and cream or roses as it were. If you could count the arrangements that were rejected as stacked up against those that were accepted, the stacks would be pretty even.
MR: No kidding.
MR: So you’d take it into a rehearsal and did it take him a long time to decide?
FF: No. It never took him a long time. If the arrangement played down the first time and nobody had to decipher it as though it were hieroglyphics and it swung, it was in. Generally if it took too long and people had to labor over phrases and how does this go and what does this mean, and if it sounded like too much dissonance, or too many “pregnant nineteenths” as Basie used to say...
MR: Did he say that?
FF: Yeah he said “son, when you write an arrangement, don’t put too many pregnant nineteenths in there.” So I knew what he meant by “pregnant nineteenths.” And if was too busy, too overloaded, every time it got rejected. Which brings me to the story of “Shiny Stockings.” We were playing a place in Philadelphia called Pep’s Bar. And we’d just arrived in town that morning and we had to rehearse that day because it was customary to rehearse on the opening day of each nightclub engagement. For the Basie band that was practically the only time we ever rehearsed, was the opening day of an engagement at Birdland or Storyville or the Blue Note or the Crescendo or this place in Philadelphia. But we had arrived late and checked in late at the hotel, a long trip from somewhere. Everybody is tired, ill-tempered, hungry, and no one felt like rehearsing. You know we’d rather have done anything than rehearse. But we had to rehearse that day. And I brought “Shiny Stockings” in. And the first rehearsal of “Shiny Stockings,” it just sounded like a 43 car pile-up on the New York Thruway. Everybody ran into everybody. I said oh my, he’ll never play this song and I put so much into it. Well Mr. Basie must have heard something, because with that horrible rehearsal, he must have understood how tired everyone was and how unwilling we were to rehearse and that was the result of our attitudes. He must have heard something because we played it and played it and played it and I guess you could say the rest is history.
MR: I guess so.
FF: But many other songs that sounded like that in rehearsal never got played. And we had an expression, if we were rehearsing something and it wasn’t going well, either because it was too busy or the harmonies weren’t right or it sounded amateurish, we had an expression, “Pasadena,” which meant pass it in. And after we worked on that chart for about ten, fifteen minutes, Marshall Royal, who was the straw boss, he’d say “Pasadena.” And I guess this was sort of code terminology so that if the arranger was somebody outside the band, he wouldn’t know what we were talking about, but you’d see all this music converging on one spot, and it was being passed in.
MR: Well I guess it was a left handed compliment to say I was rejected by Count Basie.
FF: I’ll tell you, Basie, he would always make it up, because years after, this must have been in the early 60’s now, “Shiny Stockings” was introduced to the book in 1955, Basie pulled me over in the corner and he said “kid, you know you wrote that ‘Shiny Stockings?’” I said “yeah.” He said “you really put one down that time, boy.”
MR: It was five years later, huh?
FF: Yeah, right.
MR: He was a man of few words most of the time?
FF: Definitely. But every word meant something.
MR: Just like his playing, right?
FF: Right, exactly. Like his playing.
A non-Basie musician offered a brief story that summed up the respect and admiration that jazz musicians had for Basie and his band. Alto saxophonist Jerry Dodgion was never an official member, but did have the opportunity to play on the 1966 LP “Hollywood Basie’s Way.”
JD: Sure I do.
MR: Nice record. How did that come about?
JD: Well I knew almost everybody in the band because I’d gone to hear the band so much in those years. And one day Billy Mitchell called me and he said “what are you doing Thursday?” I said “I’m not doing anything, why?” He said “well would you like to make a recording date with Count Basie?” I said “that’s why I’m alive.” I mean that’s the dream, I mean unbelievable, I thought that’s never going to happen. Well he said Bobby Plater had to take off, because he was writing a date for Lockjaw that was scheduled at the exact same time so he couldn’t be there, so would I come in and play. I said great. So I got to play with Marshall Royal, with Basie, and that was always a dream too, you know, because [Royal was] the consummate lead alto player for that band. As Thad [Jones] used to say, “tailor made lead alto.” That was really a thrill. Wonderful.
It’s bittersweet to reflect on the fact that six of the nine Basie alums quoted here are now deceased.
Our next blog will spotlight road stories originating from Basie band members.