We’ve started another February down here and we have a large stash of jazz in the back, so we figured we pull out a chunk for you.  Jazz and The Public Records go great together; like a tight rhythm section.  The dark, the smell of candles and old records – it doesn’t get any better.  Anyway, before we get too wistful,  back to the task at hand.  To usher us in to the second month of the new decade, let’s take a listen to a fella who had a large influence on popular music a little more than a century ago.  Without any more ado, The Public Records presents as its album of the week for February 7th, 2020: Count Basie and his OrchestraNot Now, I’ll Tell You When‘ (Roulette Records, 1960).

Born William James Basie in Red Bank New Jersey in 1904, the ‘Count’ had an early introduction to music as both his parents played an instrument and it was his mother who gave him his first piano lessons.  Not much for traditional schooling, William was much more interested in traveling carnivals, the Vaudeville scene, and performance.  Upon finishing junior high school, Basie soon began doing odd jobs at the Palace Theater which allowed him to have free entrance to shows.  His ability to improvise well on the piano soon landed him gigs providing ‘scores’ to the silent movies that would be shown in the theater.

Word of his ability spread quickly and he was often asked to join other groups for dances and shows around town and worked with another local youth, drummer Sonny Greer – who was also working with Duke Ellington.  Greer’s professional career picked up and he moved out of town.  After that, it was Basie’s turn and in the early 1920s he moved to Harlem, New York City where he met up with Greer once again.  By 1925, he had been picked up by many acts and was on the road working the Vaudeville circuit, not only as a musician but as a musical director as well.

He again arrived in New York and got a steady gig at a place called Leroy’s, which famously catered to celebrities and was known for ‘cutting contests’, improvise offs, and where the house band never used sheet music, but winged it with ‘head arrangements’.  He also got house party gigs from Duke Ellington to help pay the bills.  During this time, he and Fats Waller were introduced and Waller taught him the organ.

In 1928, Basie relocated to Tulsa, Oklahoma.  He met and was invited into Walter Page and The Blue Devils, an early big band and this was where he earned his title ‘Count’. The jazz royalty tradition began in New Orleans even before jazz was a genre itself; great players were bequeathed titles: Ella Fitzgerald was the queen of jazz, Bessie Smith the empress of the blues, Benny Goodman the king of wing, King Oliver, Duke Ellington, The Prince of Darkness Miles Davis, and The Maharaja Oscar Peterson were just a few.

In 1929, Basie was picked up by Bennie Moten and his band in Kansas City.  The Moten band was less bluesy than The Blue Devils and this fit in with Basie’s more sophisticated tastes.  He began arranging and was credited for creating the ‘Moten Swing’ sound influenced the whole swing movement and was massively popular.  Moten passed in 1935 and Basie reformed the group as the Barons of Rhythm had a regular radio show and it was one of the radio announcers who dubbed him ‘Count’ to make him sound more intriguing – and this simple moniker worked.

He was soon able to take his group to Chicago where he decided to have two tenor saxophones.  No one was doing this at the time and he would have them ‘battle’ each other, this quickly became the norm.  After Chicago, came New York again and by the mid-1930s and was soon recording for the label Decca.  Band battles were common and Basie had Billie Holiday as his secret weapon.  He soon got a regular spot and a place called the Famous Door that not only had a live CBS feed, but air conditioning.  The band soon moved to the West Coast for a stint and was soon featured minorly in major motion pictures.  World War Two happened and many musicians were scooped up by the armed forces.  This led to fewer gigs and smaller pay which was compounded by musicians’ strikes in 1942-44.

The war ended and rock and roll began to dominate.  Basie was began experimenting with bebop and lessened his dependency on improv in exchange for tighter written arrangements.  He was still trucking along with fresher faces, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and was still ahead of the curve.  One of his innovations was jazz flute, which became widely popular in later jazz funk groups.

In the late 1950s, he had his first European tour, where ‘classic’ American jazz was having a renaissance post war.  He was then asked to perform at one of Kennedy’s inaugural balls.  He kept touring up to his death in the 1980s.  In fact he was so popular on cruises, that he began to often perform in a yachting cap.

Enjoy our mid career Basie pick with a nice Maker’s Mark Manhattan.