Nights With Count Basie — A Birthday Celebration
By Stuart Mitchner
My boys and I have to have four heavy beats to the bar and no cheating.
—Count Basie (1904-1984)
Friday, August 21, Count Basie’s birthday, I’m in the kitchen making pesto and listening to the Kid from Red Bank on the Bose Wave player. As the Count and the All-American Rhythm Section perform “How Long Blues,” everything’s in synch, Basie and basil, note by note, leaf by leaf, plucked one at a time, rinsed with a sprinkling of water, tapped dry to the chimes the Count’s right hand is ringing, each note shining and distinct. The way he and his four-heavy-beats-to-the-bar boys play it, it’s a happy blues, happening here and now, never mind how long. Basie’s touch seems no more dated than a drop of rain the day after Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s hope-rhymes-with-history acceptance speech.
Okay, no cheating. Strictly speaking, everything’s dated in the online universe. This music, the sound of life moving inventively, endearingly, unstoppably forward was recorded on July 24, 1942, the first day of “the systematic deportation of the Jewish people from the Warsaw ghetto,” according to www.history.com.
Also recorded during the July 24 session, “Farewell Blues” moves at a faster, sprightlier pace. Then still unaware of the dark side of the date, I’m contentedly grating a hunk of parmesan stroke by stroke in 4/4 time with guitarist Freddie Greene’s steady strumming, and so antic, so bright and airy and impish are the sounds the Count’s conjuring from the keyboard, I’m having “what fools these mortals be” thoughts, with Basie as the pianist for Oberon’s pit band in the film version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, until the grinding of the blender brings me down to earth. I don’t need to know what happened on that date in history to hear war in the noise. The silence that follows is like one of those special Basie moments when the roar of the big band subsides and the rhythm section drives on through, the Count nimbly prancing from key to key, having his way with “Shine On Harvest Moon,” taking his time, here a note, there a note, a process resembling what John Hammond heard one night in Chicago as “perfectly timed punctuation … inspired economy, the right note at the right time.” Checking the date of this session, I see that it took place on May 21, 1947, the war was over, that war, anyway, and the music and the moon are still shining.
Hammond’s Excellent Adventure
Introduced in Robert Gottlieb’s anthology Reading Jazz (1996) as “the most famous discoverer of talent in jazz” (25 years later he would discover Bob Dylan), Hammond was 25 when he first heard Count Basie: “It was as cold as only Chicago in January can be, and I turned on the car radio. I had a twelve tube Motorola with a large speaker, unlike any car radio in those days [circa 1935]. I spent so much time on the road that I wanted a superior instrument to keep me in touch with music around the country. It was one o’clock in the morning [Basie’s signature number was “One O’Clock Jump”].” With the local stations off the air, the only music Hammond could find was W9XBY, an experimental station in Kansas City. “The nightly broadcast from the Reno Club was just beginning. I couldn’t believe my ears.”
As someone whose preferred place for listening to music is a car, I can relate to that moment. If you grew up in middle America susceptible to the enchantment of fabulously powerful radio stations playing jazz late at night as you drive around the country, you have to envy a man whose purpose in life was spending time on the road scouting genius musicians. Not only did Hammond write about his discovery in Down Beat, he went to Kansas City “when the town was wide open and filled with jazz,” and he hung out with Basie and his band.
In Reading Jazz, the chapter that follows Hammond’s contains Basie’s amusing version of what happened in Kansas City, from his autobiography Good Morning Blues (1985): “It was a Sunday night and we were on the air, and this very young cat just came right on up there and sat on the bench beside me. I didn’t pay much attention to him at first, because actually that was something that used to happen fairly often, especially at the Reno…. I looked around, and that’s when I saw that the young fellow sitting there was a complete stranger to me.”
As it happened, Hammond had already been in touch, letting Basie know that he was spreading the word about the band. But for this reader, who approached the Count in person two decades later, a 15-year-old fan armed with an LP for Basie and the band to autograph, such a night sounds like pure fantasy: to sit down at the piano next to the Count, to “stay through all the shows” (“We had a ball,” said Basie) with the band playing “exceptionally well that night…it sounded like the guys turned on another button or something…. It was just one of those good nights when the band was solidly in the groove and could go on and on swinging like that forever …. And this young fellow really dug it. He stuck around to talk some more after we finished our last number, and we went out to some other spots that were still open, and that was a ball, too. He liked what I liked.”
Enter Freddie Green
And it’s not just that John Hammond shared that Kansas City adventure with Count Basie and helped engineer the band’s first recording contract; he made a historic contribution to the character of the ensemble. As I read Hammond’s in-person account of various band members, I was puzzled by the absence of guitarist Freddie Green, the rhythm section’s bulwark and the big band’s designated driver for five decades. Hammond mentions tenor legend Lester Young, who was “already at his absolute zenith” and drummer Jo Jones who had “extraordinary wit in his playing” and a “wide smile that … showed clearly that he felt the lift he gave the band [you can see how wide a smile in the cover photo of The Kid From Red Bank]. So where’s Freddie Green? He was playing in New York, soon to be discovered by John Hammond and introduced to Basie. To say “the rest is history” would be an understatement. Outliving the Count by three years, Green held “the longest job in jazz,” the mainstay of the band from March 1937 until the night of March 1, 1987, when he died of a stroke after playing the first two sets of a show in Las Vegas.
“April in Paris”
For days I’ve been “thriving on a riff,” whistling, humming, moving through life to the gale-force-glorious finale of the full Basie band’s double-encore show piece, “April in Paris.” The successor to “One O’Clock Jump” as Basie’s signature number, this charming Parisian travel brochure valentine set to music was transformed into a towering, earth-shaking mammoth — the Yes in Thunder alternative to Melville’s No in Thunder advisory to Hawthorne. Admittedly, to experience the total impact, to understand that I’m speaking as someone whose ears were ringing for days after seeing the sixties power trio Cream up close, you had to be there in person with the full band in a compact venue, like Birdland or the basement dining hall of a fraternity house, which is where I met the band, a high school junior crashing a closed event.
I didn’t sit on the piano next to Basie that night in late May 1955 but I felt the full force of his smile when he saw that the first person I sought out for a signature was Freddie Greene, who of all the heroes in my life must be the most unlikely. He never takes a solo (but for one brief long-ago exception), needs no electricity to make his presence felt, no outside amplified power to be there even as the big band is ascending the pinnacle of the second encore of “April in Paris.” He’s the secret sharer who shook my hand that night, signed my album, and said a few encouraging words.
After hearing and praising (four stars!) Basie’s “House Rent Boogie” in an August 1948 Metronome Blindfold Test, Charlie Parker, whose 100th birthday is this Friday, said Basie “plays some weird piano. And then when the band comes in they get a … they get something — how would you describe the emotion they get out of that band? They get a groove … all the sections melt into that rhythm section.”
What a week for jazz birthdays is the last week of August. You begin with Basie on the 21st, Lester Young on the 27th, and Charlie Parker on the 29th.
“Searching and Mysterious”
Having already celebrated the 100th birthday of the one and only president for the ages (“Lester Young at 100: Fine and Mellow, Hurtful and Haunting,” August 26, 2009), I’ll reprise the epigraph I used, from Stanley Dance: “Irrespective of tempo, his melodic invention was always strange and haunting. On a jump number, he would impose a weird mood; a ballad was transformed into a nostalgic song, searching and mysterious.”
Meanwhile Basie plays on, life keeps moving forward. So goes the hope rhymes with history blues.