Monday, November 15, 2010

The Reno Club, Part 2

“Picture Kansas City’s 12th and Cherry in 1935 with the Club Reno almost at its Northeast corner, and parked there, almost seeming to lean against it, a…lunch wagon, horse drawn and stacked high with liver, pig snoots and ears, hog maws, fish, chicken and pork tenderloins. Pick up a sandwich on your way into this musty, smoke-hazed room, squeezing past the hustlers, grifters, solicitors and off-duty musicians, to find a seat as close as you can to the bandstand….”

"Hot Lips" Page at the mic in the Reno Club
“Out on the floor, with patent leather hair gleaming, would be the Reno Club’s highly polished ‘Hot Lips’ Page…. Backing him up was…the Reno Club band. Nine brilliant instrumental satellites of sound responding to the sonic radiance of their personable mentor, Bill Basie….”

– Trumpeter Richard Smith, 1973, in The Kansas City Star


Count Basie:

“[Manager] Sol Steibold gave me some money to make a few additions and changes in the group he had put me in charge of at the Reno. So I went down to Oklahoma City and talked Jack Washington and Big ‘Un [Walter Page] into coming with me, and then I went down to Dallas and got Buster Smith and Joe Keys to join me.”

Saxophonist Buster Smith:

“Jesse Price [was] on drums [but] he and Basie couldn’t get along. Jesse was temperamental. He got mad, he walked off and left the job. So I got Jo [Jones]. [He] was in Omaha, Nebraska, playing with Lloyd Hunter…. So I called up there to get Jo.”

Count Basie:

“Lips Page and Jimmy Rushing had stayed in Kansas City [after Bennie Moten’s death], but when they came down to the Reno, they came as singles…. Lips was also the master of ceremonies and entertainer, and he would sit in with the band, but he was not a regular member of the trumpet section…. Jimmy a job as a regular single feature and as a part of the floor show, and he was such a hit that he could have stayed in there as long as there was a Reno Club….

“After a while, I had three trumpets, three reeds and three rhythms. So we called it Three, Three and Three. There was no trombone in there at first. I couldn’t afford one at the time. As a matter of fact, I didn’t have but two trumpets, because Lips Page made it three. The other trumpets were Joe Keys, who had been in Bennie’s band, and Carl Smith, better known as Tatti, who had once been with the great Alphonso Trent band out of Dallas….

“When Lester [Young] came in there on tenor, I figured I had just about what I needed for what we were doing in the Reno. We didn’t have much room on that bandstand anyway. But what I also mean is we had a hell of a reed section. With Lester in there with Prof [Buster Smith] and Jack Washington, we were cooking with gas, lots of gas.”

Buster Smith:

“In the Reno Club, Basie, it’s no telling what he’s liable to play, ‘cause he’s just sitting down on the piano. He didn’t know nothing about music or nothing, just played by ear. He’d sit down there…he’d get to playing in F – F is his main key – get to playing the blues, he’d say, ‘Prof’ – they all called me Prof – ‘set something.’ He’d leave it to me. I’d be playing the horn and the other boys would be following me, way on down the line. Every time we’d change choruses, I’d set a different riff. That’s the way we made up One O’Clock Jump….

“After I left the band…the first thing they recorded was that tune…. And Basie put his name on it… [Later] he said, ‘Don’t sue me, it’s a long story, I’ll treat you right.’ He sweet-talked me there.”

Trombonist Eddie Durham:

“[Count Basie has] got some fantastic ideas, but nobody’s ever got them out of him, he would never hold still long enough for you to get them. He’d always give me an idea for a couple of measures, then he’d find a little girl and go out and drink….”

Count Basie:

“I don’t remember exactly how long we had been in the Reno when Fats Waller there to see me one night, and he just flipped out over that band. He sent back to the hotel to get [his manager] to come down and listen to those cats…. Fats was crazy about that band. He was in there every night he was in town….

“He said he wanted to fire his band and take mine on the road with him. He didn’t mean he wanted to to take it away from me…. He just wanted that band to have a break….

“I don’t mean to pat myself on the back, but that band was strutting, really strutting.”

In 1935, an experimental radio station, W9XBY, at 1580 AM, started broadcasts from the Reno Club. On a clear night, they reached at least as far as Chicago, where record producer John Hammond heard them.

(The following exchange is from the documentary, John Hammond: From Bessie Smith to Bruce Springsteen.)

John Hammond:

“January of 1936, when I was out with Benny Goodman, I got so sick of listening to the same tunes every night that one night, I went out to my car and I went way to the end of the dial. I started to listen to some music from a band that I had not heard of, coming from the Reno Club in Kansas City. I couldn’t believe it. It was Count Basie and his orchestra.

“So I started writing Basie letters at the Reno Club. And I never heard a word.”

Count Basie:

“So finally, one night I looked up and John was sitting along side of me. That was really the first time that…we really ever got together, and we had a ball.”

John Hammond:

“Here was a band I couldn’t find any fault with.”

Basie’s band left Kansas City in 1936. Among the bands following them in the Reno Club were Bus Moten’s (pictured with Lips Page in the photo above) and Oliver Todd’s. The Reno Club closed in 1939.


Unless otherwise noted, quotes by Basie are from his autobiography, Good Morning Blues and other quotes are from Goin’ to Kansas City, a history of KC jazz.

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