About this Recording
8.120736 -

‘Rock-A-Bye Basie’ Original Recordings 1939-1940

Count Basie was not only one of the giants of the swing era but his big band has always defined swing. Although Basie first came to prominence more than a year after Benny Goodman launched the swing era, his orchestra soon became extremely influential and not only uplifted swing but led the way towards bebop (in the realignment of its rhythm section) and cool jazz (in the soft tone of tenor-saxophonist Lester Young).

Bill Basie was born 21 August 1904 in Red Bank, New Jersey. As a teenager he was encouraged by Fats Waller who became his early mentor as a stride pianist and one who persuaded him to also play organ. Basie started his career working locally in New Jersey and New York, including with the bands of June Clark and Elmer Snowden. By 1925 he was on the road, working with travelling revues including spending two years touring with the Gonzelle White Show. When the show broke up in Kansas City and he was stranded without any money, Basie gained a job playing piano, accompanying silent movies. He checked out the local music situation with its very active after-hours scene, liked what he saw, and decided to stay.

In 1928 Basie became a member of Walter Page’s Blue Devils and the following year joined the Bennie Moten Orchestra, the finest big band in Kansas City. Moten, himself a pianist, thought so highly of Basie’s playing that he used him on all of his recordings during 1929-32. Other than a brief period in 1934, Basie remained with Moten until the latter’s death in 1935 from a botched tonsillectomy. A short time later, Basie began leading the Barons of Rhythm. He gained his lifelong nickname of “Count” from a radio announcer.

Beginning with a nucleus from the Moten band, Basie soon had a swinging outfit featuring singer Jimmy Rushing, drummer Jo Jones, trumpeter Buck Clayton and tenor-saxophonist Lester Young. Talent scout/producer John Hammond heard the band broadcasting from the Reno Club on radio station W9XBY one night in 1936, flew immediately to Kansas City and persuaded Basie to take his band east. Basie added a few new members so his ensemble would be considered a full-fledged orchestra and it took a half-year of struggle before the ensemble solidified. But by mid-1937, the Count Basie Orchestra was a hit in New York and impressing everyone.

This reissue begins on 19 March 1939, more than two years after Basie had left Kansas City. By then the Basie band was established as one of the top swing orchestra in the music world. Basie had pared his piano style down to the barest essentials and developed into a master at using space and making every note count. With guitarist Freddie Green and bassist Walter Page contributing a steady four-to-the-bar rhythm, drummer Jo Jones was free to lighten his style (de-emphasizing the use of the bass drum) and the Basie band had the appearance of floating even when swinging hard. The contrasting tenor tones of Lester Young (who had a revolutionary lighter-than-air sound) and the harder style of Buddy Tate, who had recently succeeded the late Herschel Evans, added to the excitement as did such key soloists as trumpeters Buck Clayton and Harry “Sweets” Edison and trombonist Dickie Wells.

Rock-A-Bye Basie, a riffing melody that sounds so spontaneous that it seems as if it could have been made up on the spot, gets this set off to a rollicking start. Buddy Tate and Harry “Sweets” Edison have swinging solos and there are brief spots for altoist Earl Warren and the Basie rhythm section.

Most swing bands that employed a male singer used the vocalist for romantic ballads and sentimental pop tunes. Basie was very lucky to have Jimmy Rushing, an infectious blues and swing singer who was as notable as any of the band’s soloists. Rushing makes four appearances on this program including on the medium-tempo blues Baby, Don’t Tell On Me which also has contributions from Buck Clayton and Dickie Wells. The comparatively mellow Jump For Me has a brief spot for a trombonist (probably Benny Morton) and Tate, with Edison and Basie getting the main solos.

Twelfth Street Rag, which was already a vintage song by 1939, was an off-the-wall choice for Basie to record. Count does not take the song all that seriously but Lester Young digs in and creates a classic solo that could have been twice as long; Sweets fares well too.

Helen Humes, one of the finest vocalists to emerge from the big bands, often had to fight with Rushing in order to get good songs to sing because she was expert at singing the same type of blues and standards as “Mr. Five By Five”. And The Angels Sing, a hit for Benny Goodman in 1939, shows off her warm voice.

The Count Basie band often gave the impression that they could jam for twenty minutes on a song without running out of ideas, but they were restricted by the three-minute time limit of the usual 78 record. Miss Thing has the orchestra stretching out a bit as this original based on the chord changes of “Honeysuckle Rose” was originally issued on two sides of a 78. Young, Clayton, Tate, Wells and Earl Warren make short statements but the emphasis is on the ensembles. Nobody Knows has Basie switching to the eerie-sounding pipe organ, something he did on rare occasions throughout his career. Rushing wails the blues with commentary provided by Wells’ trombone. Back on piano, Basie leads the band through a brisker blues, Pound Cake, that has fine spots for baritonist Jack Washington, Warren, Clayton and Young. Leroy Carr’s How Long Blues, a song that practically defined the term ‘blues ballad’, finds Basie and Clayton setting the stage for Jimmy Rushing.

Since many of the recordings by the Count Basie Orchestra have the big band emulating a small group, it was only natural that on an occasional basis Basie would record with some of his top soloists in a smaller combo. His session of 5 September 1939 with his Kansas City Seven resulted in a couple classics named after his sidemen, Dickie’s Dream and Lester Leaps In. The eccentric Wells, the lyrical Clayton and Young are the co-stars on Dickie’s Dream while Young (who was nicknamed Pres for being the president of the tenor) dominates Lester Leaps In, which became one of his trademark songs.

The sombre minor blues I Left My Baby has some memorable singing from Rushing and superb backup work from Young. The jumping Riff Interlude is a much more joyous type of blues, featuring Tate, Edison, Young and Basie. Helen Humes returns for Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea, sounding a little like Mildred Bailey in her phrasing. That number also has brief statements by Edison, the laidback Young and Basie. Easy Does It is the epitome of cool, Basie’s brand of relaxed but solid swinging. Clayton, Young and Edison star. Let Me See is a romp that puts Tate, Basie, trombonist Vic Dickenson and Young in the spotlight.

With the addition of altoist Tab Smith to the band in May 1940, the Count Basie Orchestra had eight major soloists (counting Clayton, Edison, Wells, Dickenson, Young, Tate and Basie) plus several others who were quite capable of being in the lead. The romping Blow Top has Smith, Basie, Edison and Dickenson making short statements but Lester Young stealing the show. Gone With ‘What’ Wind is a blues that had its origin on a Benny Goodman Sextet session with Basie as guest pianist. Basie, Tate, Dickenson solo on this version. Finally the collection closes with Super Chief which has one final statement from Tate and Edison.

Rock-A-Bye Basie has nineteen of the very best Count Basie recordings from a fifteenmonth period. Still just 36 at the time of Super Chief, Count Basie had 43 more years of musical accomplishments ahead of him.

Scott Yanow
– author of eight jazz books including Swing, Jazz On Film, Bebop, Trumpet Kings and Jazz On Record 1917-76

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