It was eighty years ago this week.
Trumpeter Buck Clayton:
“Bennie Moten had the best band [in Kansas City]…. That’s when he had Eddie Durham and Barefield….
Drummer Booker Washington:
“Some [songs] were memorized and some by charts, most of them by charts, especially when Eddie Durham got in the band. Eddie Durham joined the band…[in 1929, and] started making arrangements then. He added [to the sound].”
Trombonist, guitarist and arranger Eddie Durham:
“Of all the arrangements I did for Bennie Moten, Moten Swing was the biggest.
“We were at the Pearl Theater in Philadelphia when the owner, Sam Steiffel, complained about us doing the same things over and over again. ‘You’ve got to get something else,’ he said, but we didn’t have anything else. When Bennie said we’d got to have a new number, I asked him to let me lay off one show to get it together for him.
“I went downstairs and Basie came with me. He was often my co-writer…. This time he gave me the channel. Horace Henderson was there and saw me write it, in pencil. We took it upstairs and the band went over it once, and then played it on the next show.
“It stopped the show every time. When we went to the Lafayette in New York the following week, we played it as the last number and it took seven encores.”
Now forward to December, 1932.
Saxophonist Eddie Barefield:
“We played in Kansas City and down in Oklahoma…then Moten decided to go east once more. He was established, but it was a hazardous trip….
“It was quite a band we had, with Lips [Page], Dee [Stewart] and Joe Keyes on trumpet; Eddie Durham and Dan Minor on trombone; Jack Washington, Ben Webster and myself on saxophones; [Count] Basie and Walter Page in the rhythm section, with Leroy Berry on guitar and Pete McWashington on drums; and Jimmy Rushing as vocalist. Bennie Moten played piano, too, but Basie played most of the time and Buster Moten conducted.
“We were stranded in nearly every city on our way to New York – in Columbus, Ohio, in Zaneville, Ohio, and in Cincinnati…. We were all young...and we didn’t care. We just hung around the town until they got another raggedy bus.
“And those busses were always breaking down. One time in Virginia we were coming down one of those steep hills and the brakes refused to work. The handbrake came out in the driver’s hand, and the bus went careening down through a town at about sixty miles an hour. We were frightened to death and we were lucky we didn’t run into anybody.
“Being stranded meant that you were in a town without work or money. You had to eat and sleep, but you couldn’t get out. Bennie might hustle up enough to get us a meal ticket. We would eat anything. Mostly it was hot dogs and chili, with booze. We weren’t alarmed, because it was a common thing….
“Finally, somehow, we got to the Pearl Theater in Philadelphia. We knew we were going to work for a week and get a week’s salary, so everybody could have some money in his pocket. We were all whooping it up, juicing and taking chorus girls out.
“When payday came, we all lined up to get our money. When I saw Bennie send a guy out to get a plate of beans and some whiskey, I felt something was wrong. Then he told us that the bus and the box office receipts had been attached to pay for uniforms he’d bought on his previous engagement at the theater, when he’d borrowed money from Mr. Steiffel, the theater owner. So there we were, standing out in front of the theater with our bags and horns – and no bus. The man had booked us for a whole week only to get his money back. Now we couldn’t pay our rent, our tabs, or anything.
“But Bennie finally met a little, fat colored guy named Archie Robinson, who was an agent, and they went off together in Archie’s car. They came back with a great big old raggedy bus, and we all piled in to go to Camden to record for Victor, something they’d cooked up at the last minute.
“Now, we were all very hungry, but somewhere or other Archie found a rabbit. We pulled off the highway to a pool hall, where they made a big tub of stew with this one rabbit…. It tasted very good. We stood around the pool table sopping up the gravy and stuff with bread until the tub was empty….
“Then we got in the bus again and went over to the church they used as a studio….
“We recorded ten sides: Toby, Moten Swing, The Blue Room, Imagination, New Orleans, The Only Girl I Ever Loved, Milenberg Joys, Lafayette, Prince of Wales, and Two Times.”
Most of these sides, recorded by Bennie Moten’s Kansas City Orchestra on Tuesday, December 13, 1932, are still recognized as some of the greatest recordings in jazz history.
“We never got paid for them to this day…. I don’t know whether Moten originally got money. We were just young, stupid kids at the time.
“The way we played on those records, with those fast tempos, was the way we used to play every night. We didn’t have any music, but we sure used to swing….
“After the Camden session, we set out again and were stranded in Newport News, Virginia. Eventually, we got back to Kansas City.”
Most of the songs recorded that day can be found on YouTube. Here’s Moten Swing:
Quotes by Eddie Durham and Eddie Barefield are from The World of Count Basie by Stanley Dance, Da Capo Press, 1980. Quotes from Buck Clayton and Booker Washington are from Goin’ to Kansas City by Nathan W. Pearson, Jr., University of Illinois Press, 1987.