In jazz, the most rewarding art combines mature technique, deep feeling, and the willingness of players and singers to become carefree children, trying new things with no censorious adults looking on.
Consider a four-song Chicago recording session that took place one day before Valentine’s Day in 1939. In total, the results are slightly less than twelve minutes. But what a memorable brief expression! The players, perhaps named years later, are “Basie’s Bad Boys,” a title both accurate and inspired. Basie played not only piano but organ (according to Jo Jones, the organ was particularly ancient, recalcitrant).
He was joined by the rest of his irreplaceable late-Thirties rhythm section: Walter Page, bass; Freddie Green, guitar; Jo Jones, drums. Jimmy Rushing sang the blues on one number and trombonist Dan Minor accompanied him on it; trumpeters Buck Clayton and Shad Collins stood side-by-side with Lester Young, playing clarinet as well as tenor on “I Ain’t Got Nobody,” “Goin’ to Chicago,” “Live and Love Tonight,” and “Love Me Or Leave Me.”
I have occasionally been severe about John Hammond-as-mythologizer in this blog, but this session was one of his finest ideas, a worthy addition to “Jones-Smith, Inc.” and the 1940 rehearsal session that paired Goodman and Basie, Young and Christian. The November 1936 session that produced “Shoe Shine Boy” and “Lady Be Good” was Hammond’s revenge on Decca, the company that had signed Basie to a restrictive contract, the payoff being $750, a paltry sum even in 1936 dollars. I believe that the Basie band was just about to escape from its Decca servitude in early 1939, so this session might have been another naughty gesture on Hammond’s part – making recordings for Vocalion while the band was still under contract to Decca, sides that then could be issued once the band was free. These sides were recorded in Chicago, in what Hammond remembered as a really terrible studio, making them impossible to issue. Ironically, the studio was called United – and that the Basie small band certainly was on this date.
I first heard this music on a precious vinyl record issued in Sweden on the Tax label, “The Alternative Lester,” which contained, among other things, previously unissued takes of “Shoe Shine Boy,” “Dickie’s Dream,” and “Lester Leaps In,” heady stuff in the late Seventies.
Tidied up, all four sides then appeared on a two-record Columbia anthology, “Super Chief,” which had a color drawing of Basie’s smiling visage superimposed on the front of a locomotive (Basie, like Ellington, loved trains and the music they made). This anthology also offered brilliantly idiosyncratic notes by Michael Brooks, a writer who took chances: some of his swooping metaphorical leaps are audacious. Brooks had also interviewed Jones and other Basieites, and their recollections are priceless.
The four sides are now available on the Lester Young Mosaic box set (MD4-239), and they sound spectacular. I had not heard them for a few years, having been separated from my copy of “Super Chief,” but they burst through the speakers.
They represent an Edenic glimpse into what the Basie band truly was – a good-natured, intense traveling jam session made up of supremely telepathic players. For me, the great period of that band was delineated by Lester Young’s arrival and departure. I can still marvel at individual solos recorded from 1940 onwards by Clayton, Dicky Wells, Buddy Tate. Don Byas, Vic Dickenson, that gliding rhythm section, Rushing and Helen Humes. But the demands or expectations of the marketplace made the band outgrow itself. What was a small group at the Reno Club in Kansas City was compelled to become a Swing Era big band – nearly doubling in size and heft. It gained power yet lost mobility. Some of the early Deccas show the ghost of the Reno Club band: “Panassie Stomp” and “Out the Window” come to mind. But as arrangers came in, capable ones, and popular tunes became part of the repertoire in hopes of a hit record, the Basie band sounds like someone who has gained fifty pounds overnight. On the 1938 radio airshots from the Famous Door (the two versions of “Indiana”) – soloists have room to invent, to play. Behind a trumpet solo, Lester creates a background, which the reeds fall in with instantaneously. The two dozen-plus men on the stand function as a small group, musically jostling and joking. The best recordings of the period balance soloists, the rhythm section, and spare riff backgrounds. But as the Basie band became identified with “One O’Clock Jump” and “Jumpin’ at the Woodside,” those sliding trombones, trumpets fanning their metal derbies, saxes repeating patterns, became the norm. What had been extemporaneous became more mechanical. Arrangements might have been necessary as the band grew, to prevent small collisions, but no wonder Lester complained that rehearsals had become tiresome, that Vic Dickenson, legend has it, was fired for falling asleep on the stand. The unthinkable had happened: the band had become dull.
But it had not happened yet at this session. “I Ain’t Got Nobody” had been a favorite of both Basie and Hammond as a piano feature; on another clandestine 1938 session, Basie, Page, and Jones, strolled through that potentially lachrymose song, first as a meditative Fats Waller medium-tempo rhapsody, full of baroque excursions – a tribute to Basie’s friend and mentor. Then, as if moving into Modern Times, away from His Master’s Voice, Basie played it in his own faster tempo, leaving spaces all along for Page and Jo to propel, to encourage. This three-minute lesson in jazz piano history is available on the Vanguard “From Spirituals to Swing” set and the Phontastic “Lester – Amadeus” disc.
The 1939 “I Ain’t Got Nobody” from Chicago begins at the brisk tempo Basie had concluded with in 1938, yet with an unusual Basie-with-rhythm introduction: his first phrase a characteristic simple riff owing something to “You’re Getting To Be A Habit With Me.” I suspect that it was one of Basie’s beloved gestures, but it would have been a sly in-joke if he had been thinking of “Habit,” whose opening phrase states that the lover is addicted to the Love Object – while playing “Nobody,” whose lyrics drip lonely self-pity. His second figure moves into an upwards chromatic run, something Basie would often use to end a number rather than begin it. Even though Green’s guitar is deeply buried, felt rather than heard at best, the sound of the rhythm is so instantly infectious that a listener does not notice the oddity of Basie’s introduction at first.
Then he launches into the familiar melody, leaving only the most bare contours, stating the theme in widely spaced, ringing chords. Basie casually alternates passages of embellished melody with his familiar catch-phrases: what makes this potentially threadbare style so winning is his rhythmic sense, as well as the nearly choral support the rhythm section gives, Page’s bass resounding like a reassuring heartbeat. Even when the gesture Basie launches into (the phrase just before the bridge) is such a timeworn Waller phrase, his good humor and rhythmic delight maskits familiarity. (Even when borrowing from Waller, Basie’s individuality is as strong as Louis’s or Bird’s: who, on hearing this, would mistake him for another pianist?)
During that bridge, I hear some talking, perhaps merely an affirmative grunt from Basie or one of the musicians? Was Basie telling Lester that he was up next, or was Hammond directing traffic? It’s clearly not a Fats-aside, meant to be heard, but a private nudge or reminder – teasingly audible but not decipherable, even given the clarity of the CD. Readers with better hearing than mine — it has stumped fellow listeners! — are invited to send their conjectures for appropriate prizes.
But musicians did not give such verbal cues on record unless it was an informal session or if the take was to be scrapped. This makes me wonder if this performance, the first one mastered that session, was originally a casual warm-up, a run-through to get a balance in this murky studio. But I can imagine that the musicians and Hammond, at the end of this take, thought that this performance too good to discard. Basie ends his chorus with a single repeated note, one of his trademarks (where else did Harry Edison get this ultimately irritating mannerism from?) that perhaps he used as a signal, “I’m finished. Your turn now.”
Everything we might expect is transformed when Lester enters, not dancing in on a complex swooping tenor phrase, but announcing his presence on clarinet. His announcement is a simple phrase followed by a rest, but it is arresting. What strikes the listener is Lester’s particular tone. Early in his career, he played a cheap metal clarinet – the kind of instrument students and band musicians, who marched outdoors, would have used instead of the more delicate wooden models. And Lester’s particular sound is supposed to have been the result of this instrument. Benny Goodman is supposed to have been so entranced with the way Lester played clarinet that he gave Lester a better one (one rebuttal to tales of Goodman’s stinginess). This instrument was stolen some time during Lester’s stay with the band, but his colleagues say that he never played a metal clarinet on records. But his tone, piping, narrow, almost shrill, forceful, is not like any other clarinetist’s, not Shaw, Bigard, Noone . . . .
A digression here. While vacationing in Maine, the Beloved and I went twice to an open-air flea market, the most varied and intriguing one I ever saw. There I saw not one but two metal clarinets for sale, and nearly succumbed to their lure. Visible rust kept me from even inquiring the price. If I could have been sure that a metal clarinet would enable me to approach Lester’s sound(s), I would have bought one happily. But I remembered a conversation with a musician in his eighties, who said that everyone who plays an instrument inevitably sounds different, because of the shape of one’s skull and the cavities within it govern what happens when a player buzzes into a metal mouthpiece or makes the reed vibrate. That anyone could sound like anyone else would be miraculous, and that someone like Paul Quinichette succeeded so well in copying aspects of Lester’s tone is remarkable rather than deplorable.
But back to Lester. we hear that tone first, then his eloquent use of space, one tumbling phrase separated from the next by breathing-pauses. Although his range is consciously limited (most clarinetists cannot resist the temptation to fill the air with ornamental notes that show off technique but destroy potential architecture) and his note choices restrained, he is bobbing and weaving over the background. What we hear is greatly influenced by Basie’s spareness, translated into Lester’s vocabulary, sensibility, and instrument.
That background is both plain and propulsive: the muted trumpets of Clayton (left) and Collins (right) doing four doo-wahs in succession behind him. No doubt that phrase was a familiar one for jazz players well before Ellington popularized it in capital letters as part of the lyrics and music of the 1932 “It Don’t Mean A Thing.” But one doesn’t notice its familiarity because it fits so well. A listener senses only that something dynamic and irresistible has taken place, as the texture of the rhythm section (Basie’s treble line, Page’s steady tread, the whish of Jones’s hi-hat) has suddenly exploded into a much more richly textured sound, Lester’s thin, penetrating line undulating over the deeper, half-muffled choral punctuations of the horns. Basie’s chorus was anything but monochromatic, but when the horns enter, color explodes in the listener’s consciousness.
And the dynamic contrast is not only strong but unexpected: often, recordings began with the piano or the rhythm section, then went to a chorus of a soloist over that rhythm, then (and only then) was the soloist joined by other horns in support. Because of the time limitations of the 78 rpm record, everything seems telescoped: not overly fast, but moving at top speed with no time for elaborate transitions between one kind of display and the next. As was common practice, the trumpets laid out during the bridge, their absence letting us hear the dry slap of Jo Jones’s wire brushes on his snare drum. (In my mind’s eye, I see him, even late in life, boisterous, grinning, wrists and elbows in motion.) Lester remembered his childhood in New Orleans with affection, and here he offers his own version of the clarinet’s traditional place in the ensemble, dancing in arcs of notes over the brass. The remainder of his solo, its balance between a bridge made up mostly of passages of repeated notes, the upward arpeggios that bookend that bridge (their highest note verging on the shrill) — could be committed to memory, genuinely his, simple yet inevitable. And its tonal variations, so different from what a “better” clarinet player might have offered, and so much more rewarding. Another clarinet player might have worked up to a high note, a dazzling technical flurry to conclude his solo; Lester, making way for the next player, winds down into a sweet decrescendo, a musing figure, generously bowing out as if to prepare the way.
When he concludes, the transition is seamless and wondrous. From clarinet-backed-by-trumpets, we have Buck backed by Lester and Shad, the two of them using another simple Swing Era convention that develops the earlier backing riff but doesn’t repeat it. (This was the glory of the Basie “Kansas City” style that other orchestras tried to imitate but failed at, choosing instead to repeat the same riff for chorus after chorus.) This figure seems an orchestral transcription of one of Basie’s favorite triplet figures.
In some ways, what one realizes in this performance is the strength and pervasive durability of Basie’s personality. Although he was a modest, reticent man, his artistic identity was so strong that his soloists seem to share his most characteristic thoughts, shapes, and utterances, as he is drawing upon theirs. This record is of course the triumph of individualists, having their instantly recognizable time to say their piece, but it is also the triumph of a completely integrated artistic community, where ideas have become generously-shared communal property. And the two kinds of expression balance. Soloists step forward, testify, and then take their place in the congregation so that the next person can speak.
Clayton’s solo is another triumph of what Louis called “tonation and phrasing,” Buck’s sound, his way of attacking his notes. Like Lester, he announces himself – his choice being a punchy, staccato phrase reminiscent of the spare closing riffs of “Every Tub.” Although the trumpet style of the late Thirties was often commanding, insisting, Clayton’s sound (his horn cup-muted as it often was) asks rather than demands, hitting some notes precisely, bending and slurring others. But his originality is paramount. Even when he fills his second phrase with one of the oldest motifs in jazz, a direct reference to Bolden’s “funky butt, funky butt, take it away,” the borrowing does not intrude. The listener, again, doesn’t think, “Oh, that old thing?” because the notes tumble on, one of Clayton’s talents being in rhythmic placement, instinctively knowing how many notes would fit neatly in a scalar phrase. His solo is not made of a series of ascents, but a progression of descending phrases, somewhere between Bill Robinson dancing down the stairs and a waiter with a full tray of dishes making his way, carefully but rapidly. And Buck seems to improvise on his own ideas: the beginning of his bridge contains a clearly articulated descending figure, which he later turns into a half-comedic slide down an imagined slope. At times, the solo uses repeated notes (not as Lester did) in a way that players like Muggsy Spanier would flatten into predictable pounding of simple ideas. What makes Clayton’s work pleasing is his vocalized tone, his rhythmic subtleties. And, as Basie had signaled the end of his solo by playing with one note, Clayton earnestly turns the same figure over and over as his thirty-two bars come to a close.
On a more predictable recording, with everyone given a turn, the next soloist would have been Collins, but that would have courted the monotony of one trumpet following another. What comes next is a brilliant offering, something that didn’t happen often: Lester coming back for another solo, this time on tenor. (It happens on the Kansas City Six recording of “Them There Eyes” and on the Glenn Hardman session, on “China Boy” and perhaps elsewhere.) With feline grace, Lester doesn’t “leap in” immediately, but there is the pause of a short breath, the silence heightening our expectations: what will happen next? And instead of a horn or horns backing him, there is only the rhythm section – but Basie has become his own orchestra, his simple bell-like rhythmic figures (new ones this time) urging Lester on. Behind him, one must marvel at the supple, pulsing time that Jo, Walter, and Freddie grant – a rhythmic wave that could sustain a weaker soloist and push a strong one to creative heights. Again, in Lester’s solo, one hears those arpeggios, up and down, his turning melodic lines into a blues. This second solo seems to encapsulate all of his style. It could be sung; it is full of unexpected pauses; it has its own wandering yet logical shape. On tenor, he purrs, cajoles in a more mellow way. I would love to hear his two solos on this recording played simultaneously, Lester as one-man band, playing counterpoint with himself. I’d be nearly as happy to see the two solos notated in parallel, to see their shapes over the same chords. Until then, I will simply play this record over and over.
Records made for issue on the expected 10″ 78 discs were planned to be somewhere between three and three-and-a-half minutes long. Studios had clocks, but experienced musicians had to know how many choruses could fit at a particular tempo. After Lester’s chorus, one way to conclude the record – with time for one chorus – would have been a collective improvisation, or a riff beneath another soloist leading to a final four bars of jamming. (Think of the Holiday-Wilson “What A Little Moonlight Can Do” and how it ends, for instance.) This record’s final chorus is an egalitarian one, audibly something worked out in progress, which completes the circle that records were. In the first instance, Clayton’s chorus came between Lester’s two solos, affording him time to put down his clarinet and clip his tenor on to his neck strap – something that big-band reed players were expected to do with ease, even in the middle of an arrangement, although photographs show them having stands for their instruments on the job. However, after Lester’s tenor chorus is concluded, there is a brief space, not quite strictly delineated, where all one hears is Basie responding with punctuations to the initial two-trumpet riff, Jones’s accents moving the music along. It takes Lester four bars, more or less, to get his clarinet into play, and then we hear him begin to dance over the background again. The listener who is prepared for another clarinet-with-rhythm bridge is in for a surprise, as that bridge is given over to trumpeter Shad Collins, a new member of the band whose style came out of the same roots as Clayton’s – but one would never mistake one for the other. Jo Jones said that Shad made each note pop out as if he were making spitballs, but there is more to his style than a simple percussive attack. As Clayton’s tone is beseeching, fragile, Collins’s tone is nearly derisive, needling, a buzzing that is, in some way, insect-like. Yes, there is a stylized bit of Armstrong declaration, but also the teasing sonic play of Rex Stewart. His solo goes by so fast but deserves a rehearing. And, in the last eight bars, everything coalesces precisely because the band seems willing to go on forever, happily unchecked – Lester singing his wry song over the trumpets, Basie commenting and urging everyone on, and the rhythm pulsing without strain or exhaustion. Everyone pedals happily off into some imagined swing paradise.
Ezra Pound, always writing manifestoes, had a simple one: MAKE IT NEW. This 2:55 of recorded time is a true embodiment of that principle. Take ideas going back to Economy Hall and make them ardent, emotionally strong, by blending individuality and community. Synthesize without ever seeming synthetic. All this in a badly-designed recording studio in Chicago one day in February nearly seventy years ago.
The other three sides will reveal their beauties with repeated listening, but I will suggest only these. The sound that Basie got from the organ on “Goin’ to Chicago,” his familiar piano gestures transfigured by that instrument, and the beautiful depth of Page’s bass. The way Basie and Jo accompany Clayton’s lovely open blues chorus; the sound of Lester’s clarinet behind Jimmy Rushing’s voice, veering in 1939 between entreaty and delicacy; Dan Minor’s plainer version of Dicky Wells’s familiar phrases behind Jimmy, and Shad’s commentary, which gives way to another rocking episode of Lester, on clarinet, riffing over the two trumpets in what was the simplest of blues riffs. (Where was Dicky? Had he misbehaved, or was Minor finally being given a chance to have a solo – a mere twelve bars of traditional blues accompaniment? Hammond must have approved of Minor’s playing, because Minor stands alongside Bechet, Ladnier, James P. Johnson, Page, and Jo – some band! – on the 1938 Spirituals to Swing concert.) On “Live and Love Tonight,” a 1934 movie song – recorded by the Ellington band and who else in a jazz context, and whose choice was it? – Basie’s organ introduction is melodramatic, suggesting the Saturday afternoon matinee at the Bijou, his volume nearly overwhelming the microphone, before it settles down into a marvelous Clayton melodic statement. Listeners who don’t quite understand the reverence musicians had for Basie might listen closely to his accompaniment – on a bulky and balky instrument – behind Clayton. It is a graduate seminar on how to guide, cheer, and raise a soloist and the band. And Basie’s solo chorus that follows is anything but a solo – in fact, the soloists who should get our attention are Page and Jones. February in Chicago might have been brutal, for someone coughs quietly during that bridge, too. And the Waller-Basie trill that he can’t help inserting near the end of the chorus is hilarious: given the bulk of the organ’s sound, it is like Oliver Hardy on point, executing a pirouette. Lester’s chorus is emotionally and rhythmically moving, apparently a series of easy ascents and descents through the chorus – but his tone is earnest and unfulfilled, as if whatever request he was making was, he knew, not going to be granted. The ending is more pious than one might have expected, but I suspect it was a combination of time running out and no one having anything to say after Lester’s exposition. Jo Jones said of “Love Me Or Leave Me,” happily, that he could be heard now, which is true, and we hear him closing his hi-hat cymbals decisively rather than keeping them part open, but the sound is crisp, especially considering the murk which dominated the previous three sides. This version of Donaldson’s edgy lament predates “Dickie’s Dream,” but it suggests that these chord changes were meat and drink to this Basie band much as “You’re Driving Me Crazy,” also by Donaldson, pared down to “Moten Swing,” was for the 1932 band on into 1937 or so, as broadcast openings and closings show. This, one feels, is what the band must have sounded like when everyone was fully warmed up: hear how Clayton manages to turn a phrase over and over in the middle of his solo, how Lester dances in to his, followed by a full Collins chorus, and then an abbreviated chorus, the sound of a band running out of time. This recording – a simple series of solos over rhythm with a get-it-all-in final sixteen bars – is a banquet, even though it leaves us wanting more.
Artists at play, blessedly and brilliantly.
POSTSCRIPT: Both Dan Block and Doug Pomeroy, whose opinions I trust, feel that Lester was probably playing a metal clarinet on the 1938 Kansas City Six recordings.