How a Hasty Cover Song Made a Jazz Giant’s Career
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Count Basie created bluesy jazz that influenced R&B and rock ’n’ roll.
By Keith Murphy
The Chicago recording studio was a mess. The comically tiny 12-by-15 room wasn’t big enough to accommodate Count Basie’s grand piano, so he played a beat-up baby grand. The acoustics were so poor that one hit from Jo Jones’ thunderous bass drum coupled with vibrations from Walter Page’s upright bass caused the playback needle to slap viciously back and forth. As a result, Jones was forced to use only his snare and cymbals.
The three-hour session on Nov. 9, 1936, for the independent label Vocalion Records was so impromptu that vocalist Jimmy Rushing kept his overcoat on the entire time. And Lester Young, the laid-back kid who added a new musical lexicon for the saxophone with his wide-open, buttery-warm style? He was just happy to be making his recording debut.
When famed producer and A&R man John Hammond booked studio time and convinced future jazz giant William James Basie and his four-man unit to cut previously recorded material, the usual sunny optimism of the bandleader from Red Bank, New Jersey, darkened to apprehension. “I didn’t know what the heck we were going to do,” Basie recalled of the landmark date that introduced the hopping, blues-based Kansas City sound to the jazz world. “So we just sat down and came up with four tunes and had a nice ball on the session.”
The remakes included “Shoe Shine Boy,” “Evening” and “Oh, Lady Be Good.” The fourth tune was a cover of the decade-old blues stomp “Boogie Woogie.” Not only did the throwback composition single-handedly reignite a musical genre first made popular in the ’20s, it went on to influence pop (the Andrews Sisters’ “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy”), early jump R&B (Louis Jordan) and rock ’n’ roll (Little Richard, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis).
I want to say categorically … that Count Bill Basie has by far and away the finest dance orchestra in the country.
John Hammond, record producer
Basie was already under contract with Decca, so Hammond had a savvy suggestion: Record as Jones-Smith Incorporated, and beat the label bosses at their own game — in this case, a draconian three-year deal that paid Basie and his band a flat rate of $750 with no royalties.
“The stripped-down nature of Basie’s band was something entirely different” at that Chicago recording, says Chuck Haddix, who co-wrote Kansas City Jazz: From Ragtime to Bebop — A History. “It’s classic Kansas City. It swings hard, and Lester Young plays one of jazz’s landmark solos. Basie and his band basically improvised that entire performance.”
Hammond first heard Basie on a live radio broadcast in 1936 during the drummer-turned-piano-man’s legendary residency at Kansas City’s Reno Club. The performance floored the white jazz enthusiast and rising industry player who had lifted Billie Holiday from obscurity and helped Benny Goodman start his band.
“I want to say categorically and without fear of ridicule that Count Bill Basie has by far and away the finest dance orchestra in the country,” Hammond wrote in his column in DownBeat magazine. When Hammond drove out from Chicago to meet the amiable Basie, it was the beginning of one of jazz’s most indelible unions.
Starting out, Basie had scuffled as a vaudeville accompanist and also backed blues vocalists Clara Smith and Maggie Jones. In the late ’20s, the East Coast musician found himself stranded in Kansas City following a gig with the Gonzelle White show. Basie eventually found work with Walter Page’s Blue Devils band. When that group broke up in 1929, Basie played with Bennie Moten’s orchestra until the bandleader’s untimely death in 1935.
Two years later, now a bandleader himself, Basie had his commercial breakthrough with “One O’Clock Jump,” a rollicking 12-bar blues instrumental that became the theme song for the Count Basie Orchestra. It was during the swing era that the orchestra found its biggest, most consistent national acclaim, regularly facing off against bands led by Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Chick Webb and Glenn Miller.
But jazz was drastically changing. Vocalists were becoming the marquee musicians, and the youthful bebop insurgence led by Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk was driving the final stake into the heart of the big band scene. Count Basie had dismantled his orchestra by 1950. However, when nostalgia set in later that decade, big bands came roaring back, led by a reinvigorated Basie. Nearly three decades into his career, he enjoyed his biggest hit with a 1957 cover of “April in Paris.”
Suddenly, Count Basie was an institution, so universally revered that his band was chosen to play at one of President John F. Kennedy’s five inaugural balls in 1961 and yet still cool enough to appear in his trademark yachting cap in Mel Brooks’ 1974 comedy Blazing Saddles.
The true testament to the greatness of Count Basie? Even after the Kennedy Center honoree’s death in 1984, the Basie band continues to tour, carrying on the legacy of one of jazz’s most celebrated characters. As Basie once famously said, “One more time.…”
William James Basie
- Nicknames: Count (courtesy of an announcer on a live radio broadcast from the Reno Club in Kansas City who wanted to lend some style to the bandleader’s name), Holy Man (courtesy of band member Lester Young)
- Vitals: b. Aug. 21, 1904, Red Bank, New Jersey – d. April 26, 1984, Hollywood, Florida
- Instrument: Piano
- Standards: “Boogie Woogie” (1936), “One O’Clock Jump” (1937), “April in Paris” (1957)
- Quirks: As a teen played accompaniment music to silent films; began his jazz career as a drummer but switched to piano after watching percussionist Sonny Greer perform; known for his trademark yachting cap.
- Another take: Count Basie — Swingin’ the Blues, directed by Matthew Seig (1991)
- Keith Murphy Contact Keith Murphy