How Basie Won My Heart
Count Basie’s 108th birthday anniversary is today. He made his first recordings as a sideman with Walter Page’s Blue Devils in 1929, and his last in 1983, the year before his death at age 79. That’s a recording career of 54 years, and it’s got me doing another kind of math: given that I’ve been listening intensively to his music for at least 42 years, if I kick around another dozen, I’ll have equaled in my years of devotion to Basie his years on record. Of course, I hope I’m here well beyond 2024, not least because Basie’s music will still be around and its wonders will continue to be revelatory.
Here’s an anomaly: the first Basie recording I ever paid attention to was a flute-dominated chart by Thad Jones that appeared on the Impulse anthology, The Definitive Jazz Scene, Volume 1. Frankly, it was John Coltrane’s “Big Nick,” Ben Webster’s “Single Petal of a Rose” and McCoy Tyner’s “Flapstick Blues,” that really captured my attention on the sampler, but Basie’s piano, supported by Eddie Jones on bass and Sonny Payne on drums, tickled my fancy too. I’d probably heard Basie somewhere in the background by then, and I’d certainly seen him on television, but it was with “Trey of Hearts” that he first got my foot to pattin’. And as Gary Giddins wrote of Basie and Lester Young in his essay “Westward Ho! And Back,” Basie knew that if he “had your foot, your heart and mind would follow.”
Back in the day, most of my teenaged jazz friends had no eyes for big band jazz, and many of them rejected Basie out of hand. But “Trey of Hearts” was made by a septet billed as Count Basie and the Kansas City Seven, so right from the outset I began to appreciate that most of Basie’s music was essentially small group jazz in big band wrapping, especially the so-called Old Testament band he led in the ‘30’s and ‘40’s with Young and Sweets Edison and Buck Clayton and Jimmy Rushing.
Basie’s output included numerous small group recordings in the ‘30’s and ‘40s, and a revival of the format when Norman Granz produced Basie for Pablo Records in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s. In between, the Kansas City 7 session of 1962 was about it for small combo Basie, and we’ll hear it as the golden anniversary feature in tonight’s Jazz a la Mode, in addition to Basie and Pres in the mid-30’s, and a thrilling performance of “One O’Clock Jump,” at Newport in 1957. The latter was performed by Basie’s precision-tooled big band of the ‘50’s with special guests Roy Eldridge and Illinois Jacquet, and Basie’s original time-keeper, drummer Jo Jones. The whole band wails, but at its core, what drives the performance is Basie’s sublime, perfectly-placed chordal and single-note thrusts.
The only time Basie led a small group as his working band was the septet he fronted in 1950-51. Here’s that combo with Clark Terry, Buddy deFranco, and Wardell Gray playing, “One O’Clock Jump.”