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The Red Bank kid who became the atomic Mr Basie

Count Basie, the all time king of swing, composed to a five-minute deadline what was to become his theme song. He died in 1984, and continued to play his "atomic" music till the very end

Count Basie on the piano

One day in the late '30s, when playing with his orchestra in a bar-cum-dance hall, William "Count" Basie found himself facing a deadline. The bar-owner said closing time - 1 a.m. - was five minutes away, and would he please let him know the name of the last number? The Count thought for a moment and asked the owner to announce One o' clock jump. (Jumps, like hops and stomps, were dances in jazz slang.)

Contrasting with his usual style of introducing the melody in patterns built up of a couple of alternating riffs, One o'clock jump started with a long intro and solos on piano. The theme came only towards the end, about a minute or so in some soon recorded three-minute versions. The reason was of course that Basie had immortalised his deadline by composing a piece -- it became his theme song -- on the spot, and he needed time to work his orchestra into the melody.

As many as three soloists

One o'clock... may have been untypical in structure of Basie's repertoire, but it was certainly a good example of the relentless and irresistible swing of his work. Anchored in his rhythm section playing in perfect concert, it afforded a smooth ride for his soloists to work on. In the swing age, his band's work had the most liberal dose of solos, almost never fewer than three soloists and sometimes as many as five performing on a single piece. Benny Goodman may have been the King of Swing in popular esteem for two reasons: he was there first, and he hit the big time because he was white. But jazz musicians always accorded that title to Count Basie.

The Red Bank kid sets out

It was John Hammond, the impresario who'd heard Goodman on the radio and brought him to the attention of a wider public, who discovered the Basie band playing in an obscure joint in New York State. In the '30s, New York City was already the Big Apple of jazz musicians, and Basie had moved there after his formative years in Kansas City. He had in fact grown up closer to NYC in Red Bank, New Jersey. (He was later also known as "The Kid from Red Bank", which became the title of a piece composed in his honour by his arranger in the '50s, Neil Hefti, who also wrote The Atomic Mr Basie). Kansas City was, with Chicago, one of the earliest places to which jazz moved outwards from New Orleans, and it had a strong tradition, especially in bluesy jazz.

The band takes shape

In Kansas City Basie joined the Bennie Moten orchestra, eventually taking it over when ill-health forced Moten to retire shortly before his eventual death. From his inherited orchestra he built up the rhythm section that was to serve him for years, Walter Page on bass, Jo Jones on drums and Freddie Green on guitar with himself on piano. In those years, the late '30s to early '40s in New York when swing was at its peak and the Basie band swung more than most others, he also assembled a brilliant team of soloists: Lester Young (remembered in Lester leaps in) on tenor sax, Buck Clayton and Harry "Sweets" Edison on trumpets, Dickie Wells (remembered in Dickie's dream) and Vic Dickenson on trombones, and many more. He slowly evolved a style in which his own piano contributed just an occasional solo and stayed softly in the background for the melody and others' solos, making its presence felt in the little riffs it threw in when the melody instruments took a pause.

He adapted to survive

Like most swing bandleaders, Basie too fell on hard times during the be-bop revolution. He briefly disbanded his team but reassembled it soon after. In the early '50s his and Ellington's were almost the only old swing big bands still in existence, though most of his personnel (but for Green) had changed. He had a great new team of soloists, including Joe Newman on trumpet, Frank Wess on tenor and alto sax and flute, and Frank Foster on tenor sax. He had always maintained a great blues singer to pitch in with vocals, Joe Williams now being a worthy successor to the legendary Jimmy Rushing. His early emphasis on solos enabled him to fit into the new culture of be-bop and hard bop, and indeed much of his work from this time differs perceptibly from hard bop only in the size of his big bands.

Memorable jam sessions

Even that difference disappeared in his small group recordings (such as with the Kansas City Seven), especially in jam sessions. In one memorable jam session that I heard on the Voice of America and whose date and location I have not been able to trace, he teamed up with Benny Carter on alto sax, Stan Getz and Wardell Grey on tenor sax, Buddy di Franco on clarinet, John Simmons on bass and Buddy Rich on drums, plus his old buddies Sweets Edison on trumpet, Willie Smith on alto sax and Freddie Green on guitar. They devoted about 14 minutes to a highly original version of Oh, lady be good that carries forward and develops the idea of improvising the basic melody found on the This is jazz: Count Basie album. There follows Blues for the Count, on which Basie plays electric organ, for which he'd got a fondness from his mentor Fats Waller.

Throughout the '50s and after, Basie frequently jammed on festival dates and even on live TV with his old buddies and others, taking in the sweep of his cohorts Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Illinois Jacquet, Roy Eldridge, Jo Jones, Buck Clayton, Dickie Wells, Clark Terry and other legends who, like him, had moved seamlessly between swing and something akin to hard bop. He had a couple of duo collaborations with Oscar Peterson, one on which they both played piano and one on which Basie on organ matched Peterson on piano.

In small groups and some other jam sessions Basie's piano-playing got less restrained like Ellington's in the same period, and audiences discovered anew what a great pianist he was. From VOA broadcasts I know he was still recording in 1982. And that, given he was born in 1906 and died in 1984, is saying something.

Jazzebel




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