Part II in a series exploring the history of the Swing Era's greatest songs.
In the summer of 1937 Charlie Parker headed to the Ozark Mountains with a stack of Count Basie records and spent hours woodshedding, learning the solos of Lester Young note for note. Although Parker developed his own style out of this exercise, Young's playing had a profound influence on his initial approach. But Parker wasn't the only one; there were plenty of artists who devoted time to copying the floating, melodic style of the tenor player. Many of these artists learned to play like Young from the early Basie records, including "One O'Clock Jump".
The Rhythm Section
The Basie bandstand was littered with talented musicians besides Young. Herschel Evans was a star tenor player in the Texas style, and Buck Clayton and Harry "Sweets" Edison blew some hot trumpet. But Basie's music was always intended for dancing, and thus it made sense that he would have the best rhythm section around. Basie said, "I am sure that the rhythm section is right as it is. It's the one section that has given us no trouble at any time. And when I speak of the rhythm, I mean bass, drums and guitar. You can count me out." Jo Jones, Walter Page, and Freddie Green (known as "The All-American Rhythm Section") all but invented the notion of swing through their innovations. Jones moved the pulse from the base drum to the cymbals and perfected the use of the high hat, giving the rhythm a sizzling drive. Page was the first to popularize the four-to-the-bar method of playing bass that became the standard for all big bands. And Freddie Green was the world's best rhythm guitarist, often more felt than heard, never taking a solo yet always emphasizing the beat. Basie, for his part, soloed with a sparse piano style inspired by stride pianists like James P. Johnson, filled with long, rhythmic pauses that made every note count. Freddie Green said, "The Count don't do much, but he does it better than anyone else." The Basie sound was built from this foundation up.
Kansas City and Beyond
The Basie band had its roots in the Kansas City sound, a riff-heavy blending of blues with big band orchestration. In 1936 they broadcast regularly from the Reno Club there, where they caught the attention of John Hammond, who began writing about the Basie band in Downbeat. This led to a contract with Decca, where Basie recorded a series of popular big band records, such as "Swingin' the Blues", Jumpin' at the Woodside", and the song that would eventually become his theme, "One O'Clock Jump." The standard practice at the time was to offer a musician $750 for twenty-four sides over three years; thus Basie never saw any royalties from any of these recordings. The success of the Basie band led to gigs in Chicago, followed by several engagements in New York, including a fiery battle with Chick Webb's orchestra at the Savoy Ballroom. Basie beat the popular drummer at his own game, adding to his reputation.
"One O'Clock Jump" is a fairly simple tune, based on a 12-bar blues that builds in rhythmic intensity. It is constructed from a series of three riffs, carried first by the saxophones, then by the trumpets, then finally the trombones, followed by a series of solos. It was such a popular tune and so easy to adopt that several bandleaders, including Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington, quickly added it to their repertoire. By 1940 it had been recorded a dozen times. As was customary at the time, Basie was given credit for composing the tune, although several people had a hand in its creation. The famous riff which concludes the piece was nicked from a recording by Fats Waller entitled "Six or Seven Times", and arranger Eddie Durham certainly had a hand in the tight, swinging orchestration. "One O'Clock Jump" proved to be so popular that it became the last song of the night at the Reno Club before it was even recorded, and Basie used it as his closing song for over fifty years. Originally the tune was called "Blue Ball", but a nervous radio broadcaster felt that he couldn't say the title on the air. The tune was thus dubbed "One O'Clock Jump" after the late hour that it was traditionally played.
The Tenor Battles
Although Buck Clayton plays a spirited solo, "One O'Clock Jump" was really a showcase for the fierce tenor battles between Herschel Evans and Lester Young that became a band mainstay. The two couldn't have been more different; Evans was a tough, fiery soloist in the style of Coleman Hawkins, whereas Young favored an airy approach in the upper register. But Basie found that if he pitted the two against each other, it brought out the best in both of them. Basie intentionally fanned the flames, fixing it so that people really thought that there was a feud between the two and acting as the instigator. Basie said, "I used to tell Herschel that Lester had said something about his solo, and then tell Lester that Herschel has said something like, 'You know, that cat really thinks he really got me on that last go round.' And it was on. They would both be raring to go." But despite rumors and appearances (they were placed at opposite ends of the bandstand) the two respected each other and were close friends. The two traded the opening salvo; Evans traditionally got the first solo on "One O'Clock Jump" and Young followed. The tenor battles became a long-standing Basie tradition; a later edition of the band featured Paul Quinichette and Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis duking it out.
Like all great bands, this edition of the Basie band eventually ended as the members went their separate ways. Evans died of a heart condition at the age of 39, never quite reaching his potential as a soloist (some claim that they could hear an echo of Evans' style in Young's later playing.) Young left the Basie band for a time to front his own group, but came back in the early forties. He was drafted in 1944 and found the war to be a nightmarish experience that took a toll on his physical health. He began drinking, and many claim that his haunted, post-war playing was a mere shadow of his earlier achievements. One reviewer called him "weary, but still trying."
Basie for his part worked with small groups in the fifties for a brief time before forming a second big band featuring the ferocious arrangements of Neal Hefti (the two versions of the band are commonly referred to as "Old Testament" and "New Testament"). This version of the band resurrected Basie in popularity, recording classic albums like April in Paris and The Atomic Mr. Basie.
Young got one last crack at "One O'Clock Jump" with the Basie band at a Newport Jazz Festival appearance. Although ill health had ravaged the tenor player, he still turns in a commanding performance on the band's signature tune, along with other Basie alumni. Long afterward Basie was still ending concerts with "One O'Clock Jump" and the various member of the band never grew tired of it, finding new ways to rework the basic 12-bar blues to fit the times. To this day "One O'Clock Jump" is one of the best examples of the Kansas City style of big band playing.
"Count Basie", http://www.swingmusic.net. February 16, 2005.
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Douglas, Henry Daniels. Lester Leaps In: The Life and Times of Lester "Pres" Young. Boston: Beacon Press, 2002.
Murray, Albert. Good Morning Blues: The Autobiography of Count Basie. New York: Random House, 1985.
Schuller, Gunther. The Swing Era. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.