Count Basie Orchestra: America's #1 Band: The Columbia Years

C. Michael Bailey By

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The Duke Ellington Orchestra, the Count Basie Orchestra – the Count Basie Orchestra, the Duke Ellington Orchestra – which one is superior? A more contemporary example would be the fractious communities who favor the Beatles as opposed to the Rolling Stones. Personally, I have always favored the organic feel of the Stones. I give the edge to Basie for the same reason. Ellington's music was that of a composer, one carefully thought out and executed. Basie's music was from the gut, arranged and performed on stage. Basie was not a composer, he was a bandleader and his instrument was the band in the same way that the classical orchestra was French Romantic composer Hector Berlioz's instrument.

A fine stride pianist, William Basie cultivated a group of musicians who could swing effortlessly. Many times, Basie put together a head on the bandstand and then allowed his fine soloists to stretch it out. His philosophy, as practiced over the 15 years he was associated with Columbia Records, is collected here on the present four-disc set. The set is divided into three parts: first are the various Basie small group recordings from the 1936-1950 period; second are the studio recordings of the Count Basie Orchestra from the same period. The final part of this collection consists of previously unreleased club performances by the Count Basie Orchestra performed between July 1939 and October 1941.

A Missing Link

The opening pieces of this collection illustrate the percolation of jazz in the period of the mid- 1930s. The sound has a slight New Orleans cum Chicago flavor, with an additional pinch of something that would later be defined as the "Kansas City Sound." Jones-Smith, Inc., named such because of a Basie contractual conflict of interest, was just beginning to shed the two-beat rhythm of early jazz, moving toward the 4/4 swing. "Shoeshine Boy" demonstrates Basie's stride roots and the germination of Lester Young before both changed jazz forever. It also showcases three-quarters of the finest jazz rhythm section ever. Basie, bassist Walter Page, and drummer Jonathan Jones held the tarp down until Freddy Green arrived and changed things again with his rhythm guitar playing. This session closes with a seminal Basie piece, the Gershwins' "O, Lady Be Good." Here Lester Young begins to define is tenor philosophy, establishing himself as a force separate from Coleman Hawkins.

Jumping forward to early 1939, Basie is recording under his name ("Basie's Bad Boys"). Freddie Green shows up and the greatest rhythm section is complete. Jimmy Rushing sings his composition "Going to Chicago" and Basie begins his blues journey. Dickie Wells emerges as a superb blues trombone. Basie plays the organ and while Lester Young is credited with playing Tenor Saxophone, could he possibly be playing clarinet (or tenor, high register) obbligato in the background? Basie's organ on "Live and Love Tonight" sounds thirty years more modern than the late 1930s.

Count Basie's Kansas City Seven added Buck Clayton for a September 1939 session that produced, among other things, "Lester Leaps In." Count Basie and his All-Star Rhythm Section added tenor player Don Byas recording a series of blues that included Leroy Carr's "How Long Blues" and "St. Louis Blues." Basie is beginning to define his swing style. His piano on "St Louis Blues" is moving away from stride to mainstream. Comparing these small group recordings from the late 1930s to the Count Basie Octet sides of 1950 demonstrates the evolution of swing. The octet with Clark Terry, Buddy DeFranco, Charlie Rouse, and Serge Chaloff sounds like a little big band. The biggest difference here, though, is the presence of the great Basie arranger Neal Hefti. Hefti, good or bad, was always able to tame the wild animal in the Basie band, mostly without losing any to the earthy soul of the group.

The Old Testament

Finally, the listeners make it to the big band recordings. This is the pre Thad Jones Basie Band. Buck Clayton, Harry "Sweets" Edison, Dickie Wells, Lester Young, Buddy Tate, Freddie Green, Walter Page, Jo Jones, and the Good Count himself. Helen Hume vocals and Buck Clayton arrangements, this is when the listener knows that all is good and everything will be all right. Several head arrangements still make there way into the book, including "Rock-a-Bye Basie", "Taxi War Dance, Twelfth Street Rag" and Miss Thing." Buck Clayton arranges the remaining pieces. That is the story for most of Disc 2. Don Redman and Henry Wood arrange Disc 3, the contents of which were recording between November 1940 and April 1951. Coleman Hawkins shows up as a guest on "9:20 Special." Irving Berlin's "Blue Skies" (with Jimmy Rushing on Vocals) and Clayton's "Queer Street" are highlights.

The real story here is the entire Disc 4, which is made up of previously unreleased radio broadcasts recorded from live performances at the Famous Door (July 1939), the Savoy Ballroom (June 1937), the Meadowbrook Lounge (November 1937), the Panther Room (June 1939), the Southland Theatre Restaurant (February 1940), and the Cafe Society Uptown (September 1941). Complete with MC narration, these radio shows showed what African-American swing was all about in the pre-war New York City. The sound quality is better that we could hope for or deserve. On hand for all of it was that greatest rhythm section in jazz, Walter Page, Freddie Green, Jonathan Jones, and Bill Basie. Heaven must be better because of them.

This is not the swing of Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman – and perhaps it is impolitic to point this out, but Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Billy Eckstein all played big band ambrosia... and none like it would be made again.

For more information, please see Columbia Legacy .

Track Listing: Disc 1-(Jones-Smith, Inc.) Shoe Shine Boy; Evenin'; Boogie Woogie (I May Be Wrong); Oh, Lady Be Good; (Basie's Bad Boys) I Ain't Got Nobody; Goin' To Chicago; Live And Love Tonight; Love Me Or Leave Me (Count Basie Kansas City Seven) Dickie's Dream; Lester Leaps In; (Count Basie & His All-American Rhythm Section) How Long Blues; Royal Garden Blues; Bugle Blues; Sugar Blues; Farewell Blues; Cafe Society Blues; Way Back Blues; St. Louis Blues; (Count Basie Octet) Neal's Deal; The Golden Bullet, You're My Baby, You. Disc 2-(Count Basie Octet) Song Of The Islands; These Foolish Things (Remind Me Of You); I'm Confessing (That I Love You); One O'clock Jump; I A'int Got Nobody; Little White Lies; I'll Remember April; Tootie; (Count Basie And His Orchestra) Rock-A-Bye Basie; One Hour; Taxi War Dance; Twelfth Street Rag; Miss Thing, Part 1; Miss Thing Part 2; Nobody Knows (Alternate); Pound Cake; Song Of The Islands; Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie; Tickle Toe; Louisiana; Easy Does It; Somebody Stole My Gal; I Want A Little Girl. Disc 3-(Count Basie And His Orchestra) Five O'clock Whistle; Broadway; It's The Same Old South; Jump The Blues Away; The Jitters; 9:20 Special; Goin' To Chicago Blues; Harvard Blues; One O'clock Jump; It's Sand, Man; A'int That The Truth; Taps Miller; Avenue C; Blue Skies; Queer Street; Lazy Lady Blues; Rambo; The King; Mutton Leg; Stay On It; Little Pony; Beaver Junction. Disc 4-(Count Basie Orchestra Live-At The Famous Door) One O'clock Jump; Swinging The Blues; Rock-A-Bye Basie; Don't Worry 'Bout Me; Time Out; Boogie Woogie Blues; Roseland Shuffle; White Sails; Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie; One O'Clock Jump; (At The Savoy Ballroom) They Can't Take That Away From Me; (At The Meadowbrook Lounge) I Can't Get Started; (At The Panther Room) Moten Swing; Ebony Rhapsody; Darn That Dream; Take It, Pres; Baby, Don't Tell On Me; I Got Rhythm; (At The Cafe Society Uptown) 9:20 Special; Elmer's Tune; Jumpin' At The Woodside.

Personnel: Jones-Smith, Inc.-Count Basie-Piano; Walter Page-Bass; Jo Jones-Drums; Carl Smith-Trumpet; Lester Young-Tenor Saxophone; Jimmy Rushing-Vocals. Basie's Bad Boys-Count Basie-Piano, Organ; Walter Page-Bass; Jo Jones-Drums; Freddie Green- Guitar; Buck Clayton, Shad Collins-Trumpet; Dickie Wells-Trombone; Lester Young-Tenor Saxophone; Jimmy Rushing-Vocals. Count Basie Kansas City Seven-Count Basie-Piano, Organ; Walter Page-Bass; Jo Jones-Drums; Freddie Green-Guitar; Buck Clayton-Trumpet; Dickie Wells-Trombone; Lester Young-Tenor Saxophone. Count Basie And His All-American Rhythm Section- Count Basie-Piano, Organ; Walter Page-Bass; Jo Jones-Drums; Freddie Green-Guitar; Buck Clayton-Trumpet; Don Byas-Tenor Saxophone. Count Basie Octet- Count Basie-Piano, Organ; Jimmy Lewis-Bass; Jo Jones-Drums; Buddy Rich- Guitar; Clark Terry-Trumpet; Buddy DeFranco-Clarinet; Serge Chaloff-Baritone Saxophone; Charlie Rouse-Tenor Saxophone; Freddie Green-Guitar. Count Basie and His Orchestra- Count Basie-Piano, Organ; Walter Page-Bass; Jo Jones, Gus Johnson-Drums; Freddie Green-Guitar; Buck Clayton, Shad Collins, Al Killian, Harry Edison; Ed Lewis-Trumpet; Dan Minor, Benny Morton; Dickie Wells, Vick Dickenson, Leon Comegys, Matthew Gee; Booty Wood-Trombones; Earle Warren, Marshall Royal, Rubin Philips-Alto Saxophone; Lester Young, Buddy Tate, Don Byas, Coleman Hawkins, Wardell Gray, Lucky Thompson-Tenor Saxophone; Jack Washington-Baritone Saxophone; Helen Hume, Jimmy Rushing-Vocals.

Title: America's #1 Band: The Columbia Years | Year Released: 2003 | Record Label: Columbia Records


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