Monday, March 12, 2012

Kansas City in the Early '30s, Part 2

On Big Joe Turner and Pete Johnson:

“I didn’t actually get to Kansas City until late March or early April [1936]…and I’ll never forget the first night. I went to the [Reno Club]. Basie had a show at eight o’clock at night, eight p.m. to four a.m. They did three shows a night. There were about four chorus girls, there was a whorehouse upstairs….

“So there I was at eight o’clock and I stayed until four that night. Then afterwards Basie said to me, ‘Come on, John, I’m gonna take you to the Sunset.’ I had never heard Pete [Johnson] and Joe [Turner] at that time. Joe Turner was singing at the bar and Pete was in the back room playing, and while Pete was playing Joe would be singing. A room apart, and it was unbelievable. Joe’s invention was just endless. One blues could take a good half hour or forty minutes if it was slow and twenty minutes if it was fast…. He was just marvelous….”

— John Hammond, Goin’ to Kansas City

“Sometimes I used to go by and listen to Joe Turner singing the blues. The first time I met Joe he was working on Independence Avenue. He was the bartender  down there in a basement joint where they used to serve whiskey by the dipper. Big Joe was the singing bartender. He would sing his numbers right behind the bar while he was mixing drinks. He’d be hollering the blues and dipping that good taste, and also taking special care of all the cats he knew. He was in charge of that whole basement down there.

“Later on, he was working for Piney Brown at Piney Brown’s Sunset on Twelfth Street with Pete Johnson, playing piano with Murl Johnson, and sometimes Baby Lovett on drums. And they were something. When I heard him that first time, I said to myself, Jesus, I never heard nothing like this guy. He was the blues singer in that town. Anybody who came to Kansas City talking about singing some blues had to go listen to him.”

— Count Basie, Good Morning Blues

“The first time I came to Kansas City I’d never been exposed to anything like was happening then. Joe Turner and Pete Johnson and [drummer] Murl Johnson were working together [and] I would go down…the street and listen to Joe sing.

“I had no idea that sometimes he’d be making up the words as he’d go along. The thing that really amazed me was that Joe would keep singing for thirty or forty minutes straight through…. Between times he’d tell Pete to roll ’em [play a boogie-woogie piano solo], and Pete would roll ’em on the piano for maybe ten minutes, then Joe would come back [and] sing ten or fifteen minutes. You know, they’d play one tune and it’d last forty-five, fifty minutes and that was the set. A one-tune set…. I’d never seen anything like that.

“I didn’t know when to go to bed. I was afraid I’d miss something.”

— Jay McShann, Goin’ to Kansas City

On Count Basie and Andy Kirk:

“Basie’s band built up their popularity on socializing. I mean the big following they had in and around Kansas City. But that whole band didn’t believe in going out with steady black people. They’d head straight for the pimps and prostitutes and hang out with them. Those people were like a great advertisement for Basie. They didn’t dig Andy Kirk. They said he was too uppity. But Basie was down there, lying in the gutter, getting drunk with them. He’d have patches on his pants and everything. All of his band was like that.

“Andy Kirk was winning all the battles, but he didn’t have the right people to give him a build-up. His was the most popular band in Kansas City, but Basie ended up with...John Hammond behind him. You think Kirk’s band didn’t have the drive of Basie’s, but I’d put it a different way. Some bands – and I could name others in Kansas City – had too much orchestration. When you listen to the original Basie records, they sound so exciting. Sometimes it wasn’t really the solo that made it exciting, but the riff backing it up that Buster Smith, Herschel [Evans], Jack Washington, or any of the four guys in the sax section set. That also left the soloist free. The horns weren’t fighting to make that note on time, like in those real experienced bands of Duke, Lunceford and Andy Kirk. One band that went to New York and didn’t really make it, because it didn’t do enough ad lib playing, was Harlan Leonard’s. That was why Jay McShann’s band outblew them every time. Jay would give us the first chorus then turn us a-loose.”

— Gene Ramey, The World of Count Basie

On Mary Lou Williams:

“…Sometimes I used to sit in at the Subway Club. I remember working down there with a drummer…. But I didn’t hang around there too often, because the Subway also used to be one of Mary Lou Williams’s stopping-off places, and I always used to get out of her way. Anytime she was in the neighborhood, I used to find myself another little territory, because Mary Lou was tearing everybody up.”

— Count Basie, Good Morning Blues

“[Kansas City] was such a great city for the music, when anyone visited they always stayed! They never left. That’s where I met Thelonious Monk, and Joe Smith, the great trumpet player. Fletcher Henderson stayed there, married a girl. It was just so joyous to go out every night, around seven o’clock and jam and play the piano and mingle with people all [through the] morning.”

— Mary Lou Williams, Goin’ to Kansas City

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