Good Morning Blues: The Autobiography of Count Basie as told to Albert Murray
William James Basie
University of Minnesota Press
In May 1959 Count Basie and his Orchestra played a "Breakfast Dance and Barbecue," like back in Kansas City, hosted by Roulette Records, for whom Basie had recently started to record. Lord, what a band: Thad Jones
, Joe Newman
,, Snooky Young
and Wendell Culley
on trumpet; Henry Coker
, Al Grey
and Benny Powell
, trombone; Marshal Royal
, Frank Wess
, Frank Foster
, Billy Mitchell
and Charlie Fowlkes
on saxophones; Freddie Green
(who else?) on guitar; Eddie Jones
on double bass; and the irrepressible Sonny Payne
on drums." "I have never bragged on anything, but [that] band was one I could have bragged on....Hell, I'd find myself just sitting back listening....Frankly, I felt pretty lucky to be along in that band, because I just as soon and listen because everything was cracking so evenly." (322, 328) The band even did a version of Neal Hefti
's "Cute" whose chanted 32 bar introduction ("What'd you say last night about Freddie Green...Freddie Green...Freddie Green...") sounded for all the world like Sun Ra
playing "You Got to Face the Music." Imagine, the Count Basie Arkestra. Don't believe me? Listen for yourself.
Basie, who was nothing if not modest, rarely said his bands could cut the competition. Particularly in the late 1930s, when Basie ended up reorganizing Bennie Moten
's band after Moten unexpectedly died from a botched tonsillectomy. After leaving home in Red Bank, NJ for stints in Harlem and Oklahoma, he made his way to Kansas City , where a lot of on the job training took place. Basie's big break came after he had gently schemed his way into Moten's band as a kind of relief pianist. As Basie added Joe Jones
, Lester Young
and Buck Clayton
, there really wasn't much question about whose band this had become. Basie may have deferred pretty consistently to Duke Ellington
, and as a pianist, he wasn't about to fool with any of the heavy hitters:"there were too many sharps in there" he said of a part someone put in front of him. Basie liked an occasional drink: a "taste" was both a chorus or an adult beverage. He liked women, but there was no doubt that Katy, nee Catharine Morgan, was the love of his life. About race and Jim Crow, which defined the lives of so many Black American musicians, Basie had little to say. That's certainly not because he lived any sort of charmed life: he didn't and the few incidents he mentions have a discouragingly familiar ring about them. But this isn't that sort of autobiography, or biography, or whatever: no kiss and tell, no larceny a la Art Pepper
, nor even much in the way of sustained reflection on the music. That wasn't what Basie wanted. When this was first published 30 years ago after his death, Basie got what he wanted, a kind of annotated chronology, to be very blunt. Which, at first blush, makes you wonder about the usual gushing blurbs and superlatives: "One of the all time great memoirs in jazz." Really?
That said, the book is a revelation, especially to someone not intimately familiar with the corpus of Basie's work, which effectively spanned more than half a century and produced some of the most varied, hard-swinging and killing tunes of the mid to late twentieth century. If you like, you could fixate just on the sidemen who played with Basie, and the profusion of brilliant solos and ensemble passages. If you're a fan of Snooky Young or of Harry "Sweets" Edison
, you find yourself repeatedly saying, "I never heard that before." Or how did I miss this? If you were brought up in a swing-oriented environment in which Benny Goodman
was The King of Swing, you sort of know. I'm certain my Dad must have had more Basie and Ellington in his much lamented collection of 78s than I ever knew (trashed in the 1950s when I little). So I discovered Basie via Frank Sinatra
and Reprise rather than by Verve and certainly not by Roulette. These were great recordings with Sinatra, but Basie had been at it on his own for nearly three decades. It's one thing to know Basie's cover of "I Can't Stop Loving You" note for note (I did), quite another "Topsy" let alone "Ain't It the Truth." Not exactly throw-aways, but Basie scarcely mentions "Topsy" (194) with Jack Washington
's astounding bari solo. Or yet again, play Prez's solo on "Clap Hands Here Comes Charlie" and then listen to Stan Getz
in the 1950s, particularly on "I Want to Be Happy" with Oscar Peterson
. Kind of stunning if you've never tried the exercise. You could go on about Basie's (and Ernie Wilkins
)immense influence on the big bands of Harry James
in the 1950s and 1960s , but really, what's the point. If you're dealing with a jazz-literate audience, you're preaching to the choir.
Essentially, this reissue of Basie's Autobiography by the University of Minnesota Press is an invaluable resource for a younger (or not so younger) listener whose life wasn't blessed enough to exactly coincide with Basie's lengthy career, or who missed the appearance of the original in 1985. These days, you have the internet, and it's astonishing how much of Basie's recorded output, both of the "Old" and "New" Testament bands, is there. You could probably spend a year with this volume and hardly scratch the surface of Basie's discography if you come with a willingness to learn and open ears. No, it doesn't give you the insights into Basie at any level that, say, Michael Zirpolo's biography of Bunny Berigan
does. But how much do I wish that Basie had written some of this in the 1960s and 1970s when I was drifting off to listen to bands that had been trendier or more athletic, but whose music really pales by comparison, something that time and a little perspective makes more evident now that the principals are all gone?
If you want to learn from a master, then your read Basie's Autobiography. It will be time well spent if you use it creatively rather than just read aimlessly or straight through at a shot.