Section from chapter 1936: Billie and Ella   [ return to introduction ]

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By Mervyn Cooke • 325 illustrations,
82 in full color • 256 pages • 8-1/2 x 8-1/2"
Cloth • ISBN 0-7892-0399-5 • U.S. $45.00
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Basie's laconic and understated keyboard playing formed an effective contrast to the extrovert brilliance of his virtuoso big band. [ view larger image ] (© Redferns, London)
The Count from New Jersey

In the spring of 1936, pianist William "Count" Basie was leading his Barons of Rhythm band at Club Reno in Kansas City (• p. 64). By happy chance, John Hammond (• p. 209) heard a broadcast from the venue and persuaded Basie to bring the band to New York, where its energetic "southwest" manner of playing soon enthralled audiences. Basie's early experience with Bennie Moten and Walter Page in Missouri had influenced his cultivation of a big-band style that was far more entrenched in the blues than that of his white competitors. His band's powerful sense of swing and greater improvisational spontaneity demonstrated how much jazzier a good black band could sound when compared with the polished but sometimes pedestrian performances of Goodman and others. Basie's orchestra exploited the walking bass and characteristic rhythmic patterns of the swing style to the full, creating an unfailing sense of musical momentum with techniques that could, however, all too easily become stale clichés.

A spell in 1937 at New York's Roseland Ballroom, former stomping ground of Fletcher Henderson, cemented the band's reputation. That same year it also recorded the hit tune "One o'clock Jump," which embodied a masterful treatment of a simple but catchy riff. Now expanded from its original nine members to no fewer than sixteen, the band included a formidable saxophone section that thrived on the creative tension between its two tenor players, Lester Young and the ill-fated Herschel Evans (• p. 92). Young espoused a light tone full of air and grace, while Evans was one of the most impassioned melodists of his generation. Basie himself contributed piano solos that seemed to leave their stride origins far behind. This former protégé of Fats Waller (• p. 105) now began to rely on a bare minimum of notes, delivered with an unerring sense of timing and a delicacy of touch that at times sat oddly alongside the invigorating style of his band.