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Playing for Ourselves’

Good Morning Blues: The Autobiography of Count Basie

as told to Albert Murray
Random House, 416 pp., $19.95

The World of Count Basie

by Stanley Dance
Da Capo, 399 pp., $10.95 (paper)

Sometime in the 1950s American popular music committed parricide. Rock murdered jazz. Count Basie describes a moment of the murder in his autobiography. There was

a heck of a thing going on at a theater down on Fourteenth Street somewhere, and we used to get down there at around eleven o’clock and you couldn’t get near the place for the crowd…. I remember this and I also remember how things went. The first acts would go on, and the kids would all be jammed in there having a ball and applauding and whistling. Then when it came time for us to go on, just about all of them would get up and go outside and get their popcorn and ice cream and everything, and we just played our act to an almost empty house. Then when we finished our set they would all come back in. No kidding.

So we would just go downstairs and play poker till it was time to go on again. That’s the way it actually went. Those kids didn’t care anything about jazz. Some of them would stay and come down front and stand and listen and try to hear it as long as they could, and we would try fast and slow, and it made no difference. That was not what they came to hear. To them we were just an intermission act. That’s what that was. It didn’t mean anything but just that. You had to face it.

If anyone wanted to turn Good Morning Blues into a play, this image of the aging bandleader stoically accepting a deeply resented defeat might make a good curtain. But Basie’s career continued for another thirty years, though his memoir rather races through them. He did not quite see the current resuscitation of jazz as the American classical music of the professional middle class and the dinner music of lower Manbattan Yuppie restaurants. (One can hardly speak of a real revival until the music ceases to rely primarily on survivors of the days before the 1960s.)

These last decades before he died in 1984 were not the most distinguished in the career of what was not the greatest big band in jazz—Basie himself constantly stresses the supremacy of Ellington—but was, in many ways, the quintessential expression of the populism of jazz; and jazz remains much the most serious musical contribution of the United States to world culture. Basie is a central figure both in the golden age of the music which coincided with the New Deal years and in the discovery of jazz, hitherto a music of unrespectable poor blacks and hip-flask-swigging white dancers, as an art to be taken with the utmost seriousness, and a breeding ground of great artists. The discovery was largely the achievement of political radicals who devoted themselves passionately and selflessly to the joint cause of the blacks and their music, without as Basie underlines, exploiting them.1 In the debates about the history of the American left in the Roosevelt period that are now raging, this achievement in music of the Reds and fellow travelers of the time has not been sufficiently appreciated.

Until it loses itself in the repetitive details of touring and personnel changes, Good Morning Blues is therefore of considerable interest to anyone who wishes to understand the evolution of one of the few twentieth-century arts that owe nothing to middle-class culture. And the original Basie band, recognized as the purest expression of big-band swing as soon as it roared out of Kansas City, owed less to the middle class and intellectuals than any other—except, of course, its discovery and training for fame.

It was not much of a “reading band” at its best. In its heyday it used little except head arrangements. “I don’t think we had over four or five sheets of music up there at that time,” Basie recalls. It was not a respectable band, even by jazz standards. The arranger Eddie Durham, used to the college men in the Lunceford band, found Basie’s group too much for him. They “didn’t believe in going out with steady black people,” in the words of Gene Ramey, whose sketch of the Kansas City atmosphere in Stanley Dance’s invaluable collection of interviews, now republished, is one of the best:

They’d head straight for the pimps and prostitutes and hang out with them. Those people were like a great advertisement for Basie. They didn’t dig Andy Kirk. They said he was too uppity. But Basie was down there, lying in the gutter, getting drunk with them. He’d have patches in his pants and everything. All of his band was like that.

This is not the image stressed in Good Morning Blues, a notably reticent work in many ways, though in fact the attraction of the milieu of gambling, good times, women, and, not least, whiskey, constantly shines through the cracks in the autobiographical facade of the elder jazz statesman. His book brings out, perhaps more clearly than any other memoir, both how attractive and how important to the development of the music was that floating, nomadic community of professional black musicians, living on the self-contained and self-sufficient little islands of the popular entertainers and other night people—a street or two where the action was, rooming houses, bars, clubs—which were scattered like a Micronesian archipelago across the US.

For that is where players found a milieu that accepted the overriding importance of professionalism, of getting the music right, of the strange marriage between group cooperation and ferocious competitive testing of individuals, which is analogous to the milieu of that other creation of working-class culture professional sports. Once again Basie’s under-statements and exceptional—indeed for the autobiographer excessive—modesty muffle his account. The most he allows himself to say in the way of hype is “I don’t mean to pat myself on the back, but that band was strutting, really strutting.” He is much more likely to record occasions when he suffered or evaded defeat than to exult in public. The band’s true sound of locker-room triumph is to be heard elsewhere:

We were only Count Basie’s band, and we got out of a ragged bus, but when we got on that bandstand we started jumping and showering down…. We put a hurting on them that night and washed Lunceford out of the dance hall.

(the trumpeter Harry “Sweets” Edison, quoted in Stanley Dance’s
The World of Count Basie)

The conviction of the early Basie band lay in this capacity to exult. For the professional musician of Basie’s day, as he himself puts it, “playing music has never really been work.” It was more even than a way of having a good time. It was, as sport is for the athlete, a continuous means of asserting oneself as a human being, as an agent in the world and not the subject of others’ actions, as a discipline of the soul, a daily testing, an expression of the value and sense of life, a way to perfection. Athletes cannot use their voices to say this, but musicians can, without having to formulate it in words. So the working-class athlete’s conviction produced a great art in the form of jazz; and, thanks to the phonograph, a permanent art.

Basie’s strength as a bandleader lay in his capacity to distill the essence of jazz as black players felt it. That is why this inarticulate dropout from New Jersey was doubly lucky to find himself stranded, in the mid-Twenties, in Kansas City. First, because it allowed him to recognize his vocation. Till then he had merely been a poor black youngster who liked playing piano and chose the only form of freedom available to his kind, the gypsy life of show business. Liberation and not money was the object (“I don’t think I ever came into contact with any rich entertainers when I grew up”) and he neither made nor kept money. “I liked playing music and I liked the life.” Good Morning Blues is a superb evocation of the underside of black show biz in the 1920s—the casts of burlesque shows like “Hippity-Hop” thirsting for some action in the desert of Omaha, Gonzelle White and her Big Jazz Jamboree slowly foundering as she sailed along the TOBA circuit of black vaudeville theaters, finally sinking in KC. After the wreck Basie drifted into full-time jazz “without quite being aware of the big change I was making.” It was his first stroke of luck.

The second was finding himself in Kansas City, capital of that apparent cultural desert southwest of the Missouri which even blacks bypassed en route from the Delta to the bright lights of Chicago and Detroit, and which even the black vaudeville circuit still wrote off. KC was long its westernmost point, which is why shows like Gonzelle White’s disbanded there if not turned around, rerouted, or re-formed. Kansas and Oklahoma were not Meccas of show biz. Apart from KC and Texas, the entire Southwest had only small and scattered black populations. The first tour of the newly formed Basie band was a row of one-nighters through places like Tulsa, Muskogee, Okmulgee, Oklahoma City, and Wichita.

Yet this was the region that produced two major developments in jazz. It fused the down-home blues with popular dance-band music, and the arranged performance with the jam session, to create both the classic swing band and the most powerful experimental laboratory of jazz. Kansas City produced not only Count Basie but also Charlie Parker.

Much has been written about this apparent paradox. Most of it has concentrated on the peculiar character of Kansas City (Missouri), in the wide-open, free-spending days of Boss Pendergast, whose gang-run nighttime municipal Keynesianism kept KC in the Depression an oasis where black musicians could at least eat. (It would be too much to call the player’s life of hot dogs, plates of beans, jugs of whiskey, perhaps with a little subsidy from a girl, prosperity.) But in fact, though Good Morning Blues makes little of it, there was little regular work in Kansas City. As one of Basie’s pioneers puts it, “the work was around, out on the road,” though in Kansas City itself there was an enormous amount of ill-paid casual gigging with tips, and even more unpaid jamming.

Most of the talent seems to have come out of the territory, with relatively little direct recruitment from the deep South and even less from the East. Walter Page’s Blue Devils, the foundation and inspiration of Basie’s team, was a territory band working in Oklahoma. And the down-home blues that Kansas City integrated into band jazz was not a big-city product; nor, at this stage, were band-accompanied male blues shouters, who became Basie’s trademark, of any interest to a white public.

The KC musicians, in short, played what came naturally to southwestern blacks and largely what a segregated audience wanted. The blues was imposed on them by the ghetto. Independently, Basie and Jimmy Rushing observe of each other that in the mid-Twenties Basie “couldn’t play the blues then,” and Rushing, who could, “wasn’t really a blues singer in those days.” Ten years later they sang and played little else.

The gems, mined in the dance halls of places like Muskogee, were cut and polished in the countless nightclubs and after-hours sessions of Kansas City by an unusually large community of professional musicians. But in spite of the KC myth which insists on battles won with visiting stars, and admiration from outsiders, this community thought of itself as in some sense marooned:

We were really behind the Iron Curtain. There was no chance for us. So there was nothing for us to do but play for ourselves.

(The great drummer Jo Jones, quoted in The World of Count Basie)

It could have been said about the Kansas City scene as a whole. It was said about its most characteristic product, the Basie band.

Yet at first sight Basie himself had few qualifications for eminence. By jazz standards he was not a top-class pianist, especially when compared to the New York stride-piano giants in whose style he had been formed and against whom he constantly measured himself—to his disadvantage. As one of his arrangers said: “He knew he couldn’t challenge Fats Waller or Earl Hines. He didn’t have the same kind of gift from above.”

Nor was he a particularly literate musician, unlike most of the big-band leaders, who tended to come from a schooled black background. He came into the big time with little more than a number of head-arrangements and blues, not only because he did not lead a reading band, but because he himself was not a writer or arranger in the ordinary sense. Even his ideas had short breath: “He’d only go about four measures,” says his arranger Eddie Durham. His provincial ignorance, even within the limits of commercial dance music, was startling. In 1936 he risked his booking in a great New York ballroom because, he claims, “I don’t believe I even knew what a goddamn tango was.” There was nothing original about the format of his band, except perhaps using two saxophones in contest. And any reader of his memoir will wonder how this easygoing, frequently drunk, tongue-tied man managed the job of holding his team together.

In short, on paper he had no qualifications to be anything except another adequate jazz player. And with the modesty, or honesty, which is his trademark, he says as much in his tribute to John Hammond, who heard his broadcast from the Reno Club on a shortwave car radio in 1935 as he drove through the Middle West, was bowled over by it, and made Basie into a national figure:

Without him I probably would still be back in Kansas City, if I still happened to be alive. Or back in New York…trying to be in somebody’s band, and then worrying about getting fired.

But what was it that Hammond, and later the rest of the world, recognized in Basie? Once again, the best descriptions come from others:

He was and is [says Harry “Sweets” Edison] the greatest for stomping off the tempo. He noodles around on the piano until he gets it just right. Just like you were mixing mash and yeast to make whiskey, and you keep tasting and tasting it…. Freddie Green and Jo Jones would follow him until he hit the right tempo, and when he started it they kept it.

That “tempo” was the clue to Basie, and Good Morning Blues begins with his discovery in, of all places, Tulsa, Oklahoma, of what Albert Murray elsewhere calls “that ever-steady, yet always flexible transcontinental locomotive-like drive of the Kansas City 4/4”2 in Walter Page’s Blue Devils, who are by common consent the pioneers of that lovely, easy, lilting rhythm both driving and relaxed. They were to form the core of his early band.

Having set the tempo, Basie would next

set a rhythm for the saxes first,… then he’d set one for the bones and we’d pick that up. Now it’s our rhythm against theirs. The third rhythm would be for the trumpets…. The solos would fall in between the ensembles, but that’s how the piece would begin, and that’s how Basie put his tunes together.

(Dicky Wells, trombonist, quoted in The World of Count Basie)

The great waves of ensemble riffs, hitting the audience like Atlantic rollers, were therefore—initially at least—not stylistic tricks or ends in themselves. They were the essential groundswell of the music, the setting for what the musicians them-selves, in the great days, did not see as an ensemble band, but (apart from the self-effacing members of the stupendous rhythm section) as a company of creative soloists. Alas, it eventually declined into an ensemble band in response to the public. Self-effacement was also the secret of Basie’s minimalist arrangements and his increasingly sparse piano interventions, whose purpose was entirely to keep the music moving.

Whatever the origin of an arrangement, it was whittled down into the Basie version by ruthless selection and cutting. Basie, who “never wrote down anything on paper,” composed by editing, in other words by fitting his numbers to his musicians. But unlike Ellington, who had precise musical ideas and picked his players to fit them—even if some had originally been suggested by listening to other musicians—the less articulate Basie was fundamentally a selector. What he heard in his head was the shapes and patterns of numbers, the rhythm and dynamics, the stage mechanics and effects rather than the plot or words of the play. (“I have my own little ideas about how to get certain guys into certain numbers and how to get them out. I had my own way of opening the door for them to let them come in and sit around awhile. Then I would exit them.”) But none of this became real until he heard musicians play and recognized in the sound what he had in mind. Listening was his essential talent. That is how the Basie band in its prime—between 1936 and 1950—came to be built up and shaped by apparently haphazard recruitment and playing.

The only time during this period that Basie groped and showed uncertainty was when he came into the big time and his booking agent, the devoted Willard Alexander, told him that for commercial reasons he had to double the size of his band. He floundered, and almost failed. Fortunately both his backers and other musicians (Fletcher Henderson generously gave him his own arrangements) were so convinced of the band’s merits that he had time to adjust.

Consequently the Basie band was a marvelous combination of solo creation and collective exhilaration. It attracted and held a remarkable collection of individual talent. The intense joy of being in the early Basie band, a band of brothers, shines through the reminiscences of hardbitten and jealous pros. Some of that joy was owing to the temperament and tact of the leader who led, as it were, like the headman of a traditional Russian village commune, by articulating and crystallizing consensus. Even more was owed to the players’ sense of equality, fraternity, and above all liberty to create, controlled only by their own collective sense of what sounded “right.” And to the end of his days Basie liked to present himself not as leader or driver, but as the fulcrum of his band the small still center: “Keep your eye on the fellow at the piano. The sparrow. He don’t know nothing, but you just keep your eyes on him and we’ll all know what’s going down.” It was not entirely an affectation.

Those who were young in the 1930s and first heard the unanswerable sound of the early Basie band rolling across continent and oceans are tempted, like Yeats with the Easter Rising, to call the muster roll of heroes: Basie, Page, Jones, and Green, Herschel Evans and Lester Young, Buck Clayton and Harry Edison, Benny Morton, Dicky Wells, and Jimmy Rushing singing the blues. But in retrospect these were not only men who produced remarkable music and helped to create what is in fact the classic music of the US, but who did so in an extraordinary and unprecedented way. Good Morning Blues and The World of Count Basie are not works of cultural sociology. (Perhaps luckily: Adorno wrote some of the most stupid pages ever written about jazz.) Nevertheless, they should be read by all who want to explore the obscure zone that links society with the creation of art.

Stanley Dance’s book is a collection of interviews by one of the oldest and most knowledgeable jazz lovers in the world. Good Morning Blues is more than a ghosted autobiography. Albert Murray, a distinguished black writer who worked with Basie on the book for years and backed it—as all good oral history should be backed—by research far more extensive than the actual interviewing, deserves credit for a remarkable achievement. He has, like his subject, effaced himself to let someone else speak as he would have wanted to, but, without his help, could not have done. He has respected Basie’s reticence, and neither concealed nor disguised the limitations of a man of great gifts, but with all the reluctance to commit himself publicly that one would expect of a black entertainer who grew up in the days when they were still called “sepia.” The man who emerges is a man to respect. Basie was always good at finding others to voice his ideas. Good Morning Blues is his last success in doing so.

  1. 1

    He’s been a hell of a man,” writes Basie of his discoverer John Hammond. “And he has never asked for a nickel from me or any of those other people he’s done so much for. And there have been quite a few of them. All he wanted to see was the results of what was supposed to be happening.”

  2. 2

    Albert Murray, Stomping the blues (Vintage,1982),p.166.

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