Monday, March 4, 2013

Built in Kansas City

Trombonist Dicky Wells:

“So I think the real difference between the Basie band and most others was the way they broke down arrangements the way they wanted them. Sometimes, Benny Carter’s bands sounded almost too perfect. That’s the funny thing about jazz. You may rehearse until you’re hitting everything on the head, and here comes a band like the Savoy Sultans, raggedy, fuzzy-sounding, and they upset everything. ‘What am I doing here?’ you wonder. But that’s the way it is. That’s jazz. If you get too clean, too precise, you don’t swing sometimes, and the fun goes out of the music….

“You could compare it to a lot of kids playing in the mud, having a big time. When the mother calls one in to wash his hands, he gets clean, but he has to stand and just look while the others are having a ball. He’s too clean and he can’t go back. Same way when you clean up on that horn and the arrangements are too clean: you get on another level. You’re looking down on those guys, but they’re all having a good, free-going time.”

Drummer Jo Jones:

“At that time in Kansas City a local band had to to play opposite visiting bands, and when some met up with Basie’s raggedy band they got egg on their faces. They’d rather have paid us and had us not play. You ask Earl Hines about the night his band and ours played together…. Fletcher Henderson? McKinney’s Cotton Pickers? They never had a rhythm section. Chick Webb? Great, but never had a rhythm section….

“We worked at it, to build a rhythm section, every day, every night.... I didn’t care what happened – one of us would be up to par. If three were down, one would carry the three. Never four were out.”

Dicky Wells:

“I don’t think the Basie band had anything new except the idea of the two tenors. After all, Fletcher had swung just about everything that could be swung. Maybe Fletcher’s things were a bit more polished, but Basie had those tempos like Bennie Moten had….

“Basie’s two battling tenors were two of the best, and the crowd went for them. I heard them going like that at the Cherry Blossom when I was in Kansas City with Fletcher Henderson. Plenty of bands had two trumpet soloists, or two trombones, but not two tenors…. As soon as Herschel  [Evans] stood up, before ever he went down front, the people would start yelling. The same when Lester [Young] stood up. I think that started the tenor sax duet within a band. Before that it had been drums and trumpet.”

Trumpeter Buck Clayton:

“Our reputation, before we came east, was built on nine pieces, and I don’t think we ever had a bad night in Kansas City. But when we added five or six men it made a lot of difference. The band had to be enlarged to go on the road, but it slowed everything down and made it sluggish.... Then Benny Morton, Dicky Wells, Harry Edison and Earl Warren came in and it began to sound like a good big band.

“At first it was a disappointment, especially as compared with the band in Kansas City. Anyone who heard it there heard the swingingest band in the world. It was really a pleasure to play in it. Of course, we weren’t making any money to speak of, but things were cheap then and I think my rent was only about three dollars a week.

“We always had fun some kind of way.”


On Saturday, October 31st, 1936, Count Basie’s band played a farewell dance at Paseo Hall, at 15th and The Paseo, before leaving Kansas City.

Count Basie:

“The first Halloween dance was at Paseo Hall that last Saturday night. We advertised it as our farewell dance. They always liked farewells and homecomings in Kansas city, so we called this our farewell thing. But actually we went right back into Paseo Hall that very next Monday night and played our last gig as the local union band. The big headline attraction that night was Duke Ellington….

“It was a very special night for everybody, because Duke had been coming to Kansas City for at least several years by that time, but this was the first time he was coming to play a dance at Paseo Hall. All the other times he had been booked into the big theaters downtown….

[At that time, Black patrons could not attend Kansas City’s downtown theaters.]

“But I didn’t get to hear him that last night in Kansas City, because we went on first, and we couldn’t stay for the main event because we were scheduled to leave for Chicago that very same Monday night. In fact our bus was parked outside, ready to pull out as soon as we finished our set and loaded our instruments. Our suitcases were already on board….

“We went on early, and of course, we did our best to liven things up in there, and we always did. But then when Duke’s famous musicians began arriving, the crowd couldn’t help showing how excited it was about having them there. So, as many friends and well-wishers as we knew we had in Kansas City, I don’t think there were many more than about a dozen people who came outside to see us off.

“But Duke himself came out…. I hadn’t yet had a chance to get to know him personally at that time…. But that last night he made it his business to come outside of Paseo Hall and give us his congratulations and wish us good luck, and he gave me a few words of encouragement and a big pat on the shoulder just before I got on the bus. He was beautiful.

“‘Go ahead,’ he said. ‘You can make it.’”


Quotes by Dicky Wells, Jo Jones and Buck Clayton are from The World of Count Basie by Stanley Dance. Quotes by Count Basie are from Good Morning Blues, The Autobiography of Count Basie.

No comments:

Post a Comment

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