Why Count Basie's Band Was the Rolling Stones of Swing
Post–World War II America was a bleak period for the big-band business. It was the sound that accompanied the country during the Depression and through the war—the comforting warmth of Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw, the Dorseys; the sentimental ballads of loss and longing, the lively escapism—but with peacetime, those large ensembles for dancing and dreaming were falling out of fashion. It was a time of smaller groups, like Louis Jordan and his Tympany Five and the Nat King Cole Trio, and the economics of taking more than a dozen players out on the road simply weren't adding up at the end of the '40s. Some bandleaders scaled back, keeping reduced combos. At the time, pianist Count Basie commanded an orchestra that made a mighty noise and featured such musicians as Lester Young, Buck Clayton, Jo Jones, and Illinois Jacquet, and singers Jimmy Rushing and Helen Humes (and, for a short time, Billie Holiday, before she joined Artie Shaw's outfit). Basie did the math and dismantled his powerhouse ensemble.
If Duke Ellington's orchestra was the Beatles of the swing era, a sophisticated, innovative band with a broad stylistic palette, and a genius in-house composer, then Basie's big band was the Stones, steeped in blues influences, visceral and assertive, more about the beat and the propulsion. It was music that jumped (two of the most famous tunes in their repertoire, both written by Basie, were "Jumpin' at the Woodside " and "One O'Clock Jump "). As early as 1937, the Basie band was pointing towards rhythm and blues, with Rushing-sung numbers like "Boogie Woogie (I May Be Wrong) ," and honking instrumentals like "Swingin' the Blues ." If any of the bands of the '30s and '40s could make itself heard when be-bop and rock'n'roll were rewriting the musical playbook, it was Basie's. It always felt modern; it had punch; it was brash and optimistic, like America in the early part of the 1950s. There wasn't anything corny about it, or dated. It was going to continue to move forward.
In 1952, Basie reassembled his orchestra, took it on tour, took it into the studio, cutting sides for Norman Granz's Clef Records. Singer Joe Williams, a fearsome blues shouter who could also caress a ballad, came on board in '54. The Basie-Williams version of "Every Day I Have the Blues " (Williams had cut it earlier for Checker Records) became a big R&B hit, and the 1955 album 'Count Basie Swings, Joe Williams Sings ' was a landmark example of how big-band arrangements of blues songs and standards could be utterly contemporary. Sammy Cahn and Gene DePaul's "Teach Me Tonight " brushed against Percy Mayfield's "Please Send Me Someone to Love " and Leroy Carr's "In the Evening (When the Sun Goes Down) ," and Basie's new gang of players, including Sonny Payne on drums, Freddie Green on guitar, sax players Frank Wess and Frank Foster, and trumpet players Joe Newman and Thad Jones formed a tightly swinging group. This "New Testament" band created a sound that helped define a corner of the jazz world through the rest of the decade and beyond.
What Basie was up to around '55–'57, especially when Williams was front and center, was not miles away from what Atlantic was doing with Big Joe Turner, Ray Charles, and Ruth Brown; it was blues-based popular music, except with jazz credentials. It's odd: people always say that a strict dividing line was drawn when rock'n'roll came along, between teen and adult music, but it wasn't as clear-cut as all that. There was a considerable amount of overlap, stylistically (the Platters, for example, owed quite a bit to the Ink Spots) and strategically. Was it bizarre that Count Basie and his Orchestra were the house band for disc jockey Alan Freed's Camel Rock & Roll Dance Party on CBS Radio, doing their own songs and backing up acts like Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers and LaVern Baker? Or that the Basie band with Williams was featured in the rock 'n' roll movie Jamboree, alongside Fats Domino and Jerry Lee Lewis? (The music supervisor for the film was frequent Basie composer-arranger Neil Hefti.) Or that the music trade magazine Cash Box named the Basie orchestra the top Rock 'n' Roll band in America as chosen by the nation's jukebox operators? Basie was quoted as saying, "Rock 'n' Roll started the kids dancing again—that's certainly a blessing for us." (Later, in 1961, he put out a 45, "The Basie Twist ," because that's what the kids were dancing to.)
The Basie band's initial tenure with Norman Granz's label (now with a new name, Verve) peaked with Wild Bill Davis's exciting arrangement of the Vernon Duke–Yip Harburg standard "April in Paris ," and ended with a 1957 set at the Newport Jazz Festival that brought back alumni Lester Young and Jimmy Rushing for guest slots. It was an emotional, musically thrilling performance, hosted by John Hammond, a snapshot of a band absolutely roaring with confidence. The next era for Basie began when Morris Levy signed him to Roulette Records, and in 1958, 'The Atomic Mr. Basie ' was released, an album written and arranged by Hefti that was, as its title promised, explosive. Tracks like "The Kid from Red Bank ," "Splanky ," and "Lil' Darlin " instantly entered Basie canon, and the album was honored with a couple of trophies at the first Grammy Awards. This was jet-age big-band jazz.
Throughout the '50s and '60s, Basie and his crew (sometimes without their leader) made many essential recordings. There were always going to be fans who had a more profound attachment to the earlier Basie period, the jumpin' band with Lester Young and Jimmy Rushing, but the influence of the New Testament band was widespread and vital. Here's just a sampling of how Basie thrived creatively during the rock era. Let's take it, as he said on the tag of "April in Paris," one more time.
The Beginning of the New Era
The new era for Count Basie and his Orchestra began with the band's expansion in 1952, and there were some fun records released on Clef ("Blee Blop Blues," Bread," "Cash Box": all those and more can be found on 'The Complete Clef & Verve Fifties Studio Recordings'), but everything clicked into place with the release of 'Count Basie Swings, Joe Williams Sings' in 1955). Basie had found an ideal singer, and hit on the sweet spot where boogie, blues, jazz, and standards intersected. Everything on that album is impeccably performed, but what's so intriguing is how, on tracks like "Roll 'Em Pete," they tiptoe up to the R&B line. The track on 'One O'Clock Jump ' is notable for being the first recorded encounter of Count Basie and Ella Fitzgerald. She does a duet with Williams on the LP's lead-off track, "Too Close for Comfort ," then disappears for the rest of the session; it'd be more than a half-decade before Basie and Ella got down to serious business. On 'Count Basie at Newport', you hear the band ripping up "Lester Leaps In ," Joe Williams's exuberant "Smack Dab in the Middle ," and Jimmy Rushing rejoining his old boss to revisit "Boogie Woogie (I May Be Wrong) " from two decades earlier.
Doodlin' and Moanin'
When Morris Levy held Basie's recording contract, Basie was not always made available for sessions with other artists (for Tony Bennett to collaborate with Basie, they had to do two albums, one for Columbia and one for Roulette). But that didn't prevent artists on other labels from using the Basie band sans Count, which is how the sound of the orchestra made its way on to albums by Sarah Vaughan, Nat "King" Cole, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Ray Charles. The Vaughan setrounds up everyone except the leader-pianist for a romp through the Great American Songbook (Berlin, Carmichael, Porter, Kern) and adds Horace Silver's "Doodlin' ," which was given lyrics by Jon Hendricks. Cole's album is bright and brassy, and the title song is filled with hep patter: "Love went and threw me, but we all snap back, mac." 'I Gotta Right to Swing ' leans decidedly in the direction of Ray Charles (on the opening "The Lady Is a Tramp ," Sammy sings, "And for Ray Charles, she whistles and stamps"), and Davis is comfortable in that zone ("Mess Around " is particularly fun). On six tracks on 'Genius + Soul = Jazz', including Bobby Timmon's bop-standard "Moanin' ," arranger Quincy Jonesputs Charles's Hammond organ at the center of the Basie orchestra.
In 1957, the dazzling vocalese trio Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, with Basie's rhythm section (Freddie Green, Eddie Jones, and Sonny Payne) recorded the album 'Sing a Song of Basie ', on which lyrics were added to such Basie staples as "Avenue C ," "Down for the Count ," and "Little Pony ." So it made sense for the group, plus Joe Williams, to make a follow-up with the whole band. It's a swinging session , naturally, opening with "Jumpin' at the Woodside " and concluding with the Hefti composition "Lil' Darlin ." Of the two Bennett-Basie albums, the nod goes to the one on Roulette (the Columbia companion, 'In Person! ', was not quite in person), where they romp through "Chicago ," "Anything Goes ," and the Depression-era "With Plenty of Money and You ." The set with Eckstine is dominated by blues material, including Charles Brown's "Drifting ," "Stormy Monday Blues ," and Eckstine's own "Jelly Jelly ," which he first recorded with Earl Hines in 1941.
Back on the Verve roster…
Back on the Verve roster, Basie was in full swing. The reunion started with a 1962 album of Hefti songs that continued in the 'Atomic Mr. Basie' mode ('On My Way and Shoutin' Again! '), followed by a set devoted to songs associated with Frank Sinatra. The highpoint of his second stint at Verve was his first full-length teaming-up with Ella Fitzgerald . It is a total joy, and picking out a single track is kind of crazy: there are two flawless Ellington interpretations ("Satin Doll" and "I'm Beginning to See the Light "); Ella adds her own lyrics to Frank Foster's "Shiny Stockings " and is girlish and giddy—and scatting like wild—on "Them There Eyes ," which also features a sprightly Basie solo. There should have been a Verve Ella-Count sequel, but no luck. Not that Basie was lacking for duet partners: he was nicely matched with the deep-voiced Arthur Prysock(again, an excellent Ellington cover ) and with Sammy Davis, Jr. now able to bounce off each other in the studio, and with Quincy Jones on board, they get into, as they used to say, a solid groove, riffing on the Quincy–Peggy Lee anthem "New York City Blues ."
Pop Goes the Basie
Three albums on three different labels, each an attempt to stay in the contemporary musical conversation. For Frank Sinatra's Reprise label, Quincy Jones arranged a program of mainly recent material (the album's subtitle is 'Hits of the 50's and 60's'): "I Left My Heart in San Francisco ," "Moon River ," "Walk, Don't Run ." The original LP concluded with the romantic theme from Billy Wilder's The Apartment . 'This Time by Basie ' was the only time—except for his collaborations with Sinatra—that a Basie album made the Billboard top 20, so mission accomplished. It did so well that, two years later, Reprise did a sequel, 'Pop Goes the Basie ', where "Do Wah Diddy Diddy " met "Call Me Irresponsible." In the interim, there were the Beatles to contend with. Many jazzy and mainstream pop artists were sent into the studio to wrestle with the songs of Lennon and McCartney, and Basie did about as well as most . His cleverest move was to include Leiber and Stoller's "Kansas City ," which you could imagine him doing in the '50s with Joe Williams (and of course there was Basie's own time playing in Kansas City in the early '30s). Basie made a brief stop at United Artists Records: one album and out, a collection of James Bond–related tracks . The band sounds particularly at home on John Barry's theme from Thunderball .
The Best is Yet to Come
You've got to wind up with Frank Sinatra and Count Basie. Not because Basie didn't carry on until the '80s, and have musical encounters with artists like Jackie Wilson, Big Joe Turner, the Mills Brothers, and old acquaintances like Ella and Sarah. But because when Sinatra and Basie got together, especially live, there was something electrifying about the combination. They'd gotten together twice in the studio, for 1962's 'Sinatra-Basie: An Historic Musical First ' (Hefti with the arranger gig) and 'It Might As Well Be Swing ' in 1964 (Quincy in the chair), and each of those albums holds up. Those versions of "Fly Me to the Moon ," and "The Best Is Yet to Come " from the Quincy sessions have become embedded in our brains. But 'Sinatra at the Sands ' topped them easily. Sinatra was in peak swagger when he and the Basie band took over the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas in early 1966. And the guys who weren't backing him up weren't simply backing him up: they were pushing him. They didn't play games. Introducing "Fly Me to the Moon," Sinatra says of the Count, "This man here is gonna take me by the hand and lead me down the right path… in the right tempo." ("Let me swing among those stars," Sinatra snaps.) On an alternate version of "I've Got You Under My Skin," from a different show than the one on the 'Sands' album, he tells the audience, "We're gonna take this here building, and move it three feet that way. Now, hold on to your handbag." And he isn't kidding. This was a band that could move buildings, and blast a singer into orbit.