‘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)

Count Basie
Count Basie; drawing by David Levine

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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.