Ballads? We don't need no stinking ballads! The Count Basie band is famous for many things, but its delivery of sentimental ballads is not one of them. That's apparent to me every time I put together a Basie feature for the show. That band loved to SWING! And swing they did, in best Kansas City style. What is Kansas City style Jazz? Well, the Basie band can explain it much better than I could.
We open the show with a perfect example - Blow Top from 1940. You'll recognize the sax riff right away. You hear it, and your brain says, "Oh yeah, THAT one!" The saxes are riffing at top speed, the brass is punching away in the cracks, and then The Count opens things up with a piano solo that's so transparent that the mood lightens instantly...but that tempo is rockin' steady. We get a couple of minutes of solos from Basie's great sidemen of 1940, a guitar-and-bass break, and then it's a rollicking finish with a Harrier-jet-style vertical landing. The guys on the stand are lighting cigarettes and checking racing forms before the applause even starts. And that's the sure-handed confidence of the Count Basie band. They did it for over 50 years, and nobody did it better.
And we're off and running with Basie and his men for our first 20 minutes or so. We hear from trumpet soloists Harry "Sweets" Edison (almost always muted) and Buck Clayton, tenor saxists Lester Young and Herschel Evans, altoist Earl Warren, and, in a superb cut from the band's tenure on Verve Records in the mid-1950s, the great Frank Wess on both flute and tenor sax. Our selection even includes outstanding performances from two of Basie's most exciting vocalists, Jimmy Rushing and Joe Williams.
And not a ballad among them!
Hour Two kicks off with 20 minutes from the King of Swing, Benny Goodman. We are confining ourselves to Benny's big band here, since we often highlight his smaller combos. The Goodman Big Band played a book heavily populated with top-shelf arrangements from Fletcher Henderson, Jimmy Mundy and Eddie Sauter, three of the best in the business. And what strikes you as you listen is that, no matter what the tempo of the song, fast or slow, this band swings relentlessly. Even the ballads swing. And the dance tempos are always perfect. If you're not a dancer, you might not appreciate this aspect of the best of the Big Bands. Tempo is SO important, with just a slight variation changing the complexion of a song entirely. In those days, it was a dancer's world. And no matter whether you were Wayne King or Artie Shaw, your customers came to DANCE.
We start our Goodman set with Swingtime in the Rockies, a Jimmy Mundy creation that was a real favorite out on the dance floor - and for obvious reasons. It's a real jitterbug, with Gene Krupa and guitarist Allen Reuss laying down the breakneck tempo with razor-sharp precision. Benny's brother Harry Goodman is on bass, but Gene and Allen just kind of push him out of the way; he can barely be heard on this famous recording. We are blessed with a pristine copy of the original Victor scroll label 78 from 1935. It's a genuine thrill to spin this one.
This segment is loaded with examples from Benny's Victor and Columbia catalogs. They are all solid swingers, and offer ample evidence of the prowess of Benny's stable of talent - both the writing and the playing variety. This week's show marks the first time we have played Pound Ridge from 1941, which contains one of the dirtiest Cootie Williams trumpet solos on record from that period. He adds a few shakes to his solo in a nod to Harry James, who previously occupied that chair. We also get to hear from four of Goodman's most popular girl singers - Helen Forrest, Martha Tilton, Liza Morrow, and Helen Ward. It's amazing to hear how they all managed to put their own personal touches into these performances, just like Benny's great instrumentalists.
If you're not knocked flat out by these special segments with Count Basie and Benny Goodman, you will surely be rendered unconscious by the superb offerings of Tommy Dorsey, Erskine Hawkins, Harry James, Glenn Miller, Will Bradley, Larry Clinton, Duke Ellington and Fats Waller. We get to hear from trumpet greats Harry James, Henry Busse (yes, THAT record!), and Ziggy Elman, along with the Ink Spots, Ella Fitzgerald and Cab Calloway (yes, THAT record!).
Here's a suggestion: if you're a player,c do what I often do when listening to the show: grab your horn and jam along with the records. It'll do wonders for your improvising skills! If you're a singer, open up and sing right along with us! There are no better examples to follow for phrasing and accuracy.
Remember to call a band student and invite them to listen to the show with you this week! They need this music like tomatoes need salt. Be good to one another this week, and above all, Keep Swinging!