Vail Jazz column: Stranded in the Paris of the Plains with Count Basie
This is the story of William James “Count” Basie, one of the most famous jazz musicians who ever lived. Born into an African American family of musicians in Red Bank, New Jersey, in 1904, Basie was initially taught to play the piano by his mother and began playing professionally after dropping out of school at 16.
By the time he was 20, he had settled in Harlem, where he learned stride piano techniques from some of the legendary masters of that style. During his early 20s, he honed his considerable pianistic skills and traveled extensively, meeting and playing with many of the jazz greats. Everything looked like Bill was on his way to “making it” in New York, but a detour was ahead.
Stranded in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1927 when the show he was traveling with was canceled, Bill took up residency in Kansas City, and his life would never be the same.
Corrupt to the core
The jazz scene in Kansas City was completely different than in New York. The music was drenched in the blues, with players using “head arrangements” of “riffs” that were made up on the spot and memorized, instead of reading and playing sophisticated written arrangements. Solos were improvised, and Bill’s stride piano playing didn’t fit into the swinging 4/4 rhythm that was the Kansas City style. He had to adapt.
Kansas City was a rough-and-tumble place that was then known as the “Paris of the Plains.” Corrupt to the core, it was a place where anything illicit was readily available, Prohibition notwithstanding; booze and reefer were everywhere.
Fifty clubs with live music, floor shows, taxi dancers and more were all centered on 18th and Vine, the heart of the African American community. Whorehouses and strip joints abounded, along with gambling joints next to the clubs. Music started at 8 p.m. and didn’t stop until 4 a.m., with some clubs never closing. While the clubs were segregated, the races were abundantly represented in the wide-open, free-wheeling center of the jazz scene in Kansas City.
Kansas City was all about having a good time, with an exuberance and energy that was the perfect place for a young man to feel the pulse of the city and build it into a sound that would be heard around the world. This special K.C. music was infectious and was drawing some of the finest jazz players to it.
Being geographically central, the musicians formed what became known as “territory” bands that traveled to the Mid- and Southwest, spreading the K.C. sound by playing nightly in different towns to enthusiastic dancers. Between 1929 and 1935, Bill played with K.C. legendary bands led by Walter Page and Benny Moten, and while the Depression showed up in 1929, K.C.’s music offered a way to cope with the hard times.
By 1935, Bill had ascended to the ranks of jazz royalty, and he was known affectionately as “Count” Basie. He led his own nine-piece band, playing nightly at the Reno Club, the “Queen of Kansas City Clubs.” Composed of some of the greatest players anywhere, the Count Basie Orchestra performed three shows a night for dancers and listeners.
By 1936, Count Basie had been a professional musician for more than half of his life and was making a mere $18 per week (adjusted for inflation … about $310). He had synthesized the K.C. sound that would become his trademark with a “less is more” style of piano playing that used piano accents as the perfect complement to a hard-swinging rhythm section that drove the great horn players in a unique sound that became known as the Basie sound, a defining sound of the Swing Era.
Fortuitously for Basie, Kansas City was home to one of four experimental radio stations licensed in the United States to use a broadband frequency that allowed it to be heard over an extended area, and the station broadcasted the Count Basie Orchestra’s performances at the Reno Club.
Enter John Hammond
One late night in May 1936, John Hammond, the great grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt, was driving his car in Chicago (400-plus miles from K.C.) and heard on his car radio the broadcast of one of these performances from K.C. Hammond was wealthy and had made it his life’s work to discover, promote and mentor musicians. Having already helped establish the careers of Billie Holiday and Benny Goodman, Hammond was ready to help Count Basie.
Traveling to Kansas City shortly thereafter, Hammond helped propel Count Basie’s career, arranging for him to return home to New York City in late 1936. With a recording contract as a bonus, the Count Basie Orchestra was enlarged to 17, and Basie never looked back. By 1939, the orchestra was one of the top bands in the land.
Count Basie died in 1984 at age 79, having had a remarkable six-decade-long career, filled with numerous Grammys and hits, having performed with the who’s who of jazz and popular music, including many of the great vocalists of the day, all to world-wide acclaim. While personnel turned over in the Count Basie Orchestra, many musicians stayed for extended periods of time, as he was respected and admired by his musicians.
Through the ups and downs of changing musical tastes, Basie kept his music fresh and exciting, bringing in new audiences by broadening his musical offerings with the help of polished arrangements by a succession of some of the finest jazz arrangers. Thirty-two years after Count Basie’s passing, his legacy lives on today as the Count Basie Orchestra continues performing to this day.
On Thursday, Vail Jazz presents the H2 Big Band in a tribute concert to the music of Count Basie. With 17 of the swingiest jazz musicians in Denver, the H2 Big Band will play all the tunes that made Count Basie world famous. You won’t want to miss this show.
Howard Stone is the founder and artistic director of the Vail Jazz Foundation, which produces the annual Vail Jazz Festival. Celebrating its 22nd year, the Vail Jazz Festival is a summer-long celebration of jazz music, culminating with the Labor Day weekend Vail Jazz Party. Visit http://www.vailjazz.org for more information.