Monday, April 4, 2011

The Blue Devils You Don't Know

Count Basie opens his autobiography recalling the first time he heard the Blue Devils and the impact they had on his music and his career.


“…The Blue Devils was the first big band I ever had a chance to get close to and really listen to, and it was the greatest thing I had ever heard. I had never heard the blues played like that….”

Jimmy Rushing:

“Basie had come West with a show. He couldn’t play the blues then….

“They would balleyhoo in front of the show, take a band and play a number, and have fellows singing….

“ The first time [Basie] heard the Blue Devils, we were balleyhooing on a big truck in Kansas City. [In his autobiography, Basie says it was in Tulsa.] There was a lot of that in those days. Wherever you were working, you had to go out and balleyhoo for the place. Coming back from downtown, we struck up with a good blues. Basie heard this and thought it was a record, but somebody told him, ‘No, that’s the Blue Devils!’ He ran down and met all the fellows. Not long after, he…joined our band.”

Walter Page's Blue Devils, 1932
One of most influential bands from the early days of Kansas City jazz was Walter Page’s Original Blue Devils. A territory band which spent winters in Kansas City but traveled the Midwest, some of the greatest names associated with KC jazz were once a Blue Devil.

Bassist Walter Page, who would anchor Count Basie’s orchestra, was there at the start, in 1923. Bill Basie joined in 1928. Other Blue Devils included saxophonist Buster Smith (joined in 1925, profiled here), singer Jimmy Rushing (1925), drummer and vocalist Ernie Williams (1925), trombonists Dan Minor (1927) and Eddie Durham (1928), trumpeter Oran “Hot Lips” Page (1928), and saxophonist Lester Young (1932).

Ernie Williams:

“The original Blue Devils was Billie King’s [Road Show, a 9-piece vaudeville troupe, started in Kansas City].”

Buster Smith:

“The first man that [led the band] was a fellow named Coleman, we called him Bucket. He was kind of hard to get along with and the boys fired him and turned it over to Walter Page….”

Page took over and renamed the band in 1925, then expanded it to 13 pieces.

Count Basie:

“… you could also hear the musicians addressing [Page] by his nickname, which was Big ‘Un. You could also tell right away that they didn’t just respect him because he was the boss; they really liked him and felt close to him because he was also one of them.”

Pianist and vocalist Sam Price:

“I remember hearing the Blue Devils [in the mid-1920s]. When the saxophones would be playing a riff, Jimmy Rushing would be singing and Lips [Page] would…play anything he wanted to…. He didn’t have to play with the [trumpet] section. He’d be up high, Rush’d be singing and the rhythm and the band’d be playing something else. It’d be fantastic.”

Count Basie:

“Everybody seemed to be having so much fun just being up there playing together…. There was such a team spirit among those guys, and it came out in the music, and as you stood there looking and listening you just couldn’t help wishing that you were a part of it. Everything about them really got to me….”

Pianist Jesse Stone:

“The biggest upset we ever had in our life…happened to be in Sioux City, Iowa…and it was a battle of the bands between Page and Jesse Stone. We got up there on the stand first because we were considered like a house band there. We played there regularly. Well, we started out with some of our light things, little ballads. And [the Blue Devils] hit right off the reel, wham, and they didn’t let up all night long. They had a tough band. They were just sharper, cleaner, more powerful, and they had more material….

“These guys, they were actually ragged. Their uniforms were tattered and they came in an old beat up…airport bus. It was about ready to cave in. We said, ‘It ain’t no problem.’ And they gave us the biggest shock of our whole career….”

Jimmy Rushing:

“The best band in Kansas City in those days was reckoned to be Bennie Moten’s. We battled all the bands around, but he avoided us until we caught him one night and tore him up.”

Buster Smith:

“We played a whole bunch of battles. We used to play rings around Bennie, because he wanted to play all them old tunes he made, and he’d stick with them a lot…. We had a better reed section than Bennie had…. We’d get off. We built the band around them solo things. We had Lips [Page] on trumpet over there and we had Dee Stewart…second trumpet. In other words, we tried to be a band that could just get off instead of just read music.”

Bennie Moten began to raid the Blue Devils for musicians. Basie left for Moten’s band in 1929, followed by Lips Page, Jimmy Rushing and Eddie Durham. Walter Page left and joined Moten in 1932. Buster Smith, Lester Young and Ernie Williams were still with the Blue Devils when the band fell apart in 1933 in Virginia. The last seven Blue Devils hoboed on trains to St. Louis. When Moten heard, he sent a car to pick up them up and hired all seven.

Count Basie:

“…As things worked out, hearing them that day was probably the most important turning point in my musical career so far as my notions about what kind of music I really wanted to try to play was concerned…. When I look back at just about every step I’ve taken since I ran into those guys that morning, I can see quite a lot to bear out the old saying, ‘Once a Blue Devil, always a Blue Devil.’”


Quotes by Basie are from his autobiography, Good Morning Blues. Quotes by Jimmy Rushing are from the book, The World of Count Basie. All other quotes are from the book, Goin’ to Kansas City.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments are welcome. If you prefer, you can reach me directly at kcjazzlark(at)gmail(dot)com.