May 3, 2016

The Basie Bus

Imagine your job required you to ride an average of 190 miles before you begin your workday. At the end of your shift you travel another 190 miles, but you will not be home. Instead you will arrive at a second- or third-rate motel room to be shared with one or two other co-workers. This was basically the life of a sideman in the world-famous Count Basie Orchestra in its early iterations.
The Basie band was originally a Kansas City organization. In the mid-1930s William “Count” Basie took over the Benny Moten Orchestra after the death of its leader, and in 1936 they ventured out from this swinging Midwestern city. Some of their early engagements were relatively comfortable, with multiple weeks spent in one location. The Grand Terrace in Chicago and the Apollo and Famous Door in New York City hosted the Basie band and offered them an opportunity to hone their soon-to-be-distinctive sound. But these location gigs were not the norm. Author Chris Sheridan reconstructed a multi-year itinerary derived from band member diaries and the records of the William Alexander Booking Agency in Count Basie: A Bio-Discography. This fascinating book includes a travelogue that gives us an acute sense of the dues paid by big band musicians during the swing era.
In 1938 the Basie band played a week-long stint at the Savoy Ballroom in New York City. The following day they left on a tour of 46 one-nighters in 51 days. Here is the documented itinerary for one month of that journey. Beginning on March 19, 1938 in New York City, they traveled to Harrisburg PA, Wheeling WV, Akron OH, Lexington KY, Dayton OH, Huntington WV, Mt. Hope WV, Bluefield WV, Charleston WV, Louisville KY, Memphis TN, Birmingham AL, Chattanooga TN, Atlanta GA, Bowling Green KY, St. Louis MO, Kansas City MO, Omaha NE, Kansas City MO, Topeka KS, Wichita KS, Tulsa OK, Muskogee OK, Oklahoma City OK, Ft. Worth TX, Shreveport LA, and Waco TX. This totaled 5,154 miles or an average of 190 miles between gigs. The road trip continued with 19 additional one-nighters, ending with a 488-mile trip from Durham NC to New York City.
Established bands like Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway traveled by private Pullman railroad cars, but the early Basie band spent most of their waking hours either performing or riding on the bus. There are loyal Basie fans who insist that the personnel from this era was never equaled. Among the future jazz legends were trumpeter Harry “Sweets” Edison and the tenor saxophone duo of Lester Young and Herschel Evans. What would later be known as the All-American Rhythm Section consisted of Jo Jones on drums, Freddie Green on guitar, Walter Page on bass, and the Count on piano.
In the segregated society of 1938 America, black musicians were denied opportunities in classical and radio orchestras. What they could aspire to was a chair in an established, working ensemble. In the Fillius Archive interview from September of 1995, Sweets Edison recalled the necessity of this lifestyle:
Sweets Edison, in 1995
SE: There was no place for us to play but dance halls. I joined Count Basie in 1938 and he used to do like 300 one-nighters a year. Where Benny Goodman or one of those bands would be in a hotel six months in New York and the hotel in Chicago for three months, you know, they always were sitting some place where they could do balls or whatever they wanted to do. They could be with their families, you know? But we had to take to the road.
Fast forward 20 years, the band bus is upgraded and an occasional trip by air is called for, but the grind of the one-nighters remained the same. Tenor saxophonist Frank Foster was part of the 1950s “New Testament” Basie ensemble, and in his 1998 interview he reminisced about life on the road, and how it was taking a toll on his family life:
MR: The decision to leave Basie — was it just the length of time you were there?
Frank Foster, in 1998
FF: It was a number of things, mostly I had a family that was growing, I had two children in my first marriage, and not being able to stay home more than a few weeks at a time, I was not able to really watch my kids grow up. And then gradually the audiences changed. I guess these people died off or something, and the audiences became mostly families, like people, maybe one guy, he loves the band, he brings his whole family, his wife and his sister and her husband and their children. And not everybody is feeling the way he’s feeling about it. And it got to appear as though a lot of people were coming just out of curiosity, like well let’s go see what this Basie band is about, I’ve been hearing about them, let’s see what they are. Oh, they’re not The Beatles. Oh, they don’t play rock & roll.
MR: Well you anticipated my question. I wondered if that was what was causing it, was the rock & roll.
FF: I think the advent of rock & roll and how the big beat just inundated the world, and I think that just kind of put a damper on things. The crowds, the big band groupies disappeared in the early, mid, late 50s we had big band groupies by the busloads. And that was all off. But it wasn’t so much that as the nature of the audiences was changing and it didn’t appear that everyone there was a devout jazz lover and a devout Basie lover. And so trips to Europe got to be not so exciting. And sometimes accommodations were a little touch and go. And I began to get tired of the bus. We began to become weary of smelling each other’s armpits.
MR: Basically living with each other all the time.
FF: Yeah. Basically living with each other all the time. And some guys who came to the band couldn’t get along with guys who were already there and there were a couple of even fist fights, and all manner of things that were making road life not as glamorous and as fun and as happy as it had been. The novelty had worn off and I had gotten involved in so many different kinds of undesirable affairs and personal life was just in a shambles. And I wanted to be closer to these children. So all these influences. And plus, oh the big thing was I wasn’t getting to play enough.
Young musicians of every era can read these stories, and even if they hear them first-hand from those who lived it, they still decide for themselves that they want to do it, and eagerly inquire, “When does the bus leave?”

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