The Video/Audio below is an excerpt from the 9th show of my radio series Voices and Freedoms: A History of Jazz, based on my 1976 book of the same name. The episode is about Swing, the style and era when jazz dominated the American musical scene. One of the most important musicians of that era was William “Count” Basie. The 16-part series played across the nation for five years in the late 70’s/early 80’ and holds its relevance—or is even more so—today than it was back then. The excerpts present about 6 to 8 minutes of the original 30-minute broadcasts. The link above takes you to information about the book and our plans to re-release it and provide access to the full-length original shows. Go HERE for a complete list of shows and links to all excerpts.
Though jazz entered the American musical mainstream in the 1920’s, in the decade between 1935 and 1945 it came to dominate American music. It was sold coast to coast as Swing Music, and it followed a familiar pattern: the White groups that popularized the music—the Goodman Band, the Glenn Miller Orchestra, the Dorsey Brothers, etc.—were outrageously popular and made most of the money. Even as stellar a Black band as Duke Ellington’s made about half the money of popular White bands. Of course, this story of cultural appropriation and money-making pre-dated Swing and continues through Rock ‘n’ Roll and beyond to today and into the foreseeable future.
Black bands which had created the music were playing it in the early 30’s, even the late 20’s. Duke Ellington and Irving Mills wrote their hit “It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got that Swing” in 1932. Chick Webb, Bennie Moten, Earl Hines, Louis Russell—these were among the many Black bands playing Swing early, and the leader in the movement was Fletcher Henderson, whose band started a historic re-engagement at New York’s Roseland Ballroom in October 1924.
The excerpt below discusses the main ideas, band divisions, and musical structure of Swing before playing a 1932 Henderson classic, “Wrapping It Up.” It spends more time with one of the most influential jazz musicians of all time, Count Basic, whose big band is one of the most seminal in jazz history, employing the likes of Walter Page, Joe Jones, and Lester Young. In the full show I spend a lot of time talking about Basie’s first big hit, the wonderful “One O’Clock Jump.” In the excerpt below we bring it up at the end of Basie’s opening piano solo and play only Lester Young’s full solo, a solo built on spontaneous reaction to the last few notes of the preceding trombone solo, and backed inventively by the drumming of Joe Jones. The excerpt ends with the last seconds of “One O’Clock Jump,” just giving you a taste of some of the most inspired contrapuntal riffing in jazz history.
Kansas City played a big part in Basie’s career. He was stranded there when a traveling show he had joined, Donzel White and His Big Jamboree Review, ran out of money. “In jazz history” is a phrase we use a lot describing Basie’s music and career, and this was the most productive piece of hard luck “in jazz history.” Kansas City was home to some of the best Swing bands in the country, including Bennie Moten’s, for whom Basie played piano before forming his own band, many of whom were Moten alumni. On the edge of the Southwest, Kansas City had that Southwest feeling of openness which I believe played a part in creating a more open musical structure. It was also closer to the South, and therefore closer to the culture and sound of the Blues, plus the more Southern jazz tradition which gave prominence to the soloist.
Basie seemed to give it all over to his soloists, and some initially reacted poorly to his music. While someone like Ellington created a highly textured, highly orchestrated blend of voices. Basie seemed to give everything to the soloists, and some initially thought of his Swing pieces as nothing more than a string of solos with minimal ensemble involvement. But listening to “One O’Clock Jump” reveals a highly integrated whole with soloist and band in an exciting give and take, the best give and take in all of Swing. Jazz, at heart, may be a soloists art, and it seems definitely most at home the closer it is to Blues form, attitude, and voice. Basie had his musical cake and ate it too by bringing the soloist and Blues voice into the big band, Swing format.
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