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PITTSBURGH JAZZ

 

From Blakey to Brown, Como to Costa, Eckstine to Eldridge, Galbraith to Garner, Harris to Hines, Horne to Hyman, Jamal to Jefferson, Kelly to Klook; Mancini to Marmarosa, May to Mitchell, Negri to Nestico, Parlan to Ponder, Reed to Ruther, Strayhorn to Sullivan, Turk to Turrentine, Wade to Williams… the forthcoming publication Treasury of Pittsburgh Jazz Connections by Dr. Nelson Harrison and Dr. Ralph Proctor, Jr. will document the legacy of one of the world’s greatest jazz capitals.

 

Do you want to know who Dizzy Gillespie  idolized? Did you ever wonder who inspired Kenny Clarke and Art Blakey? Who was the pianist that mentored Monk, Bud Powell, Tad Dameron, Elmo Hope, Sarah Vaughan and Mel Torme? Who was Art Tatum’s idol and Nat Cole’s mentor? What musical quartet pioneered the concept adopted later by the Modern Jazz Quartet? Were you ever curious to know who taught saxophone to Stanley Turrentine or who taught piano to Ahmad Jamal? What community music school trained Robert McFerrin, Sr. for his history-making debut with the Metropolitan Opera? What virtually unknown pianist was a significant influence on young John Coltrane, Shirley Scott, McCoy Tyner, Bobby Timmons and Ray Bryant when he moved to Philadelphia from Pittsburgh in the 1940s?  Would you be surprised to know that Erroll Garner attended classes at the Julliard School of Music in New York and was at the top of his class in writing and arranging proficiency?

 

Some answers  can be gleaned from the postings on the Pittsburgh Jazz Network.

 

For almost 100 years the Pittsburgh region has been a metacenter of jazz originality that is second to no other in the history of jazz.  One of the best kept secrets in jazz folklore, the Pittsburgh Jazz Legacy has heretofore remained mythical.  We have dubbed it “the greatest story never told” since it has not been represented in writing before now in such a way as to be accessible to anyone seeking to know more about it.  When it was happening, little did we know how priceless the memories would become when the times were gone.

 

Today jazz is still king in Pittsburgh, with events, performances and activities happening all the time. The Pittsburgh Jazz Network is dedicated to celebrating and showcasing the places, artists and fans that carry on the legacy of Pittsburgh's jazz heritage.

 

WELCOME!

 

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Duke Ellington is first African-American and the first musician to solo on U.S. circulating coin

    MARY LOU WILLIAMS     

            INTERVIEW

       In Her Own Words

JazzTimes 10: Essential Count Basie Recordings

10 prime cuts by the swingingest band in history

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Perhaps you noticed that our JazzTimes 10 from the Swing Era was missing a crucial component. That wasn’t an accident: Count Basie is too important to be limited to one list item.

You’ll often hear Basie being discussed in glowing, even hyperbolic terms: He led the swingingest band that ever was! He could swing on one note! The one-note part is an exaggeration—what Basie could do was find and play the right note, in the right place, to make an already-moving ensemble swing. As for the swingingest band … well, it might be subjective, but show me a swinging-er one.

Basie also sowed many of the seeds for what would later become bebop. His star soloist, tenor saxophonist Lester Young, transformed the way his instrument was played and broke new ground in phrasing and vocabulary (as did, to a lesser extent, trumpeters Buck Clayton and Sweets Edison and Basie himself). His rhythm section—guitarist Freddie Green, bassist Walter Page, drummer “Papa” Jo Jones—was responsible for so many innovations that they’re still being counted. The “Salt Peanuts” lick that introduced bebop to the world? That was a lick from Basie’s piano.

Yet Basie’s band found itself unable to compete with the rise of bebop—so the maestro reinvented it in the 1950s. Basie’s “New Testament” orchestra was a favorite playground for arrangers; it had its share of star soloists (trumpeter Thad Jones and trombonist Al Grey among them), but its real star was the ensemble, especially what might be the finest brass section ever assembled. When Basie died in 1984 (the orchestra continues today, led by trumpeter Scotty Banhart), he had a tremendous and transformative legacy to bequeath.

Here’s a list that only scratches the surface of that legacy—but scratching the surface is a great way to start digging.

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Listen to a Spotify playlist featuring most of the tracks in this JazzTimes 10:

 

Count Basie Complete Decca Recordings CompleteDeccaRecordings.jpg 1400w" sizes="(max-width: 800px) 100vw, 800px" />

1. “One O’Clock Jump” (The Complete Decca Recordings 1937–1939; Decca, 1992 [originally recorded July 7, 1937])

The Basie orchestra’s theme song (title changed from the decidedly uncommercial “Blue Balls”) was among its first hits. It was also perhaps the ultimate example of the band’s famous “head arrangements” (in which the “arrangement” was a loose sketch that the musicians played first by ear, then from memory). For all that spontaneity, though, this recording of “One O’Clock Jump” is all but laboratory-engineered to be the perfect introduction to the band. It’s a blues (in F for Basie’s solo, and D-flat afterward). There is a breathtaking succession of soloists. After Basie fires off three blues choruses, accompanied by the rhythm section, we hear from Herschel Evans (perhaps the original “Texas tenor”); trombonist Dicky Wells; Lester Young; Buck Clayton; and Basie again, followed by reeds and horns dueling with the riffs they’ve played under the improvisers. From start to finish, the bouncy rhythm all but demands a dance.

Learn more about The Complete Decca Recordings 1937-1939 at Amazon!

The Essential Count Basie Volume 1 

2. “Pound Cake” (The Essential Count Basie Volume 1; Columbia, 1987 [originally recorded May 19, 1939])

We can’t depart from Basie’s ’30s work without one canonical Lester Young solo. Another blues—not everything Basie recorded was in the 12-bar, three-chord form, but it was his backbone—this one offers tastes of Herschel Evans, altoist Earl Warren, and Buck Clayton before Young takes off, gracefully, playfully, into a serene two-chorus line, then jousts with the horns in two-bar phrases. From any other band this record would be a trifle, an aimless blowing session. But “Pound Cake” is everything that the band does well: off-the-cuff workouts on the blues, surprisingly sharp head arrangements, and the consistent motion of the rhythm section while Basie himself goes sparse and subtle on the keys. This kind of sophistication-through-simplicity was a real revolution.

Learn more about The Essential Count Basie Volume 1 at Amazon and Apple Music!

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Jimmy Rushing with Count Basie 

3. “One-Two-Three-O’Lairy” (Jimmy Rushing with Count Basie and His Orchestra, 1938-1945; Giants of Jazz, 2007 [originally recorded July 2, 1941])

Young left the Basie band in late 1940, to be replaced by another great proto-bop tenor player, Don Byas. But while Byas makes his presence known on “One-Two-Three-O’Lairy,” it’s really a platform for the band’s beloved male vocalist, Jimmy Rushing. The man called “Mr. Five by Five” (for his short, stout stature) puts on a fine, fun, syncopated performance of what is essentially a novelty lyric. Byas and his tenor partner Buddy Tate both make four-bar deposits after Rushing’s main chorus, which also features an aggressive capper from Jo Jones. Notice, though, that the ensemble lines are cleaner and more intricate than before. Basie was beginning to use real arrangers—in this case, the groundbreaking Eddie Durham—but was doing so without sacrificing the bluesy chemistry that made his band what it was.

Learn more about Jimmy Rushing with Count Basie and His Orchestra, 1938-1945 at Amazon and Apple Music!

Kansas City Seven and Five 

4. The Kansas City Seven: “Six Cats and a Prince” (Kansas City Seven/Kansas City Five, Keynote, 2020 [originally recorded March 22, 1944])

As the band name suggests, this is a small-group session—one on which Basie didn’t use his real name (he’s billed as “Prince Charming”). Still, the date has all the charm and trademarks of his big band, and nobody could mistake the pianist for anyone else. Among those trademarks is Lester Young, who’d returned to the band for a brief spell and gets off two superb solos. Buck Clayton has one, and Dicky Wells another. It’s Basie and his inimitable piano that have real authority on the record, however. He opens with one of his distinctive intros, adds lovely fills to the horn melody, puts on a hell of an improvisation himself, then appropriately comps the other soloists. More to the point, he does his swing thing all over “Six Cats and a Prince,” making the song strut like there’s no tomorrow.

Learn more about Kansas City Seven/Kansas City Five  on Amazon.

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Count Basie Me, the Blues and the Swing 

5. “Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball?” (Me, the Blues and the Swing; Amazon Music, 2021 [originally recorded April 11, 1949])

Jackie Robinson had integrated Major League Baseball two years before this recording. By 1949, more and more Negro League stars were crossing over in America’s national pastime. But African Americans still gave special props to Robinson. As vocalist Taps Miller puts it, “Satchel Paige is mellow, and so is [Roy] Campanella/ [Don] Newcombe and [Larry] Doby too/ But it’s a natural fact, when Jackie comes to bat/ The other team is through.” The song is social commentary, disguised as a mere paean to baseball (even beginning with a swinging quote from “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”): The Basie band was seeing itself reflected at last in the most popular arena of the country’s most popular sport, and they made their music reflect it too. They were also reflecting changing times in the music itself, with a sound drifting toward rhythm & blues and what would soon become rock & roll. Sweets Edison’s trumpet solo, in fact, might be best described as “mean.”

Listen on Amazon Music

Learn more about Me, the Blues and the Swing here.

Count Basie April in Paris 

6. “Corner Pocket” (April in Paris; Verve, 1956)

The Basie band that re-emerged in the early ’50s was quite a different one. The emphasis was on the arrangements and the ensemble, not the solos. Having said that, “Corner Pocket”—by “Old Testament” holdout Freddie Green (with Ernie Wilkins arranging) features three fine solos by trumpeters Thad Jones and Joe Newman and tenor saxophonist Frank Wess (not counting the intro by Basie himself). Yet the power is in the immaculate and powerful section playing. The brass passages following Wess’ solo are spectacular; the exchanges between piano and reeds are scintillating; and the full-band expression of the main theme is still a thing to behold 65 years after the fact. Here was the sound of a great big bandleader who was not about to go gentle into that good night.

Learn more about April in Paris at Amazon and Walmart.

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The Atomic Mr. Basie 

. “Double-O” (The Atomic Mr. Basie; Roulette, 1958)

The Count was willing to flirt with, even incorporate elements of modernism in his reinvented band, though never ready to go full-on bebop. (Thad Jones, one of Basie’s stars, would ultimately leave to co-found his own big band with drummer Mel Lewis after Basie complained that his arrangements were “too modern.”) Still, it’s no coincidence that The Atomic Mr. Basie was recorded and released at the height of the hard-bop era. Arranged by Neal Hefti, “Double-O” is a stark reminder that if one wanted their jazz to be earthier and bluesier, Basie was still the go-to. The tune is as bright, explosive, and kinetic as the album’s cover photograph. And, as if to drive the point home, Basie brings on tenor saxophonist Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis for a feature solo that all but roars out of the speakers.

Learn more about The Atomic Mr. Basie at Amazon and Walmart.

Sinatra at the Sands 

8. Frank Sinatra: “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” (Sinatra at the Sands with Count Basie & the Orchestra; Reprise, 1966)

The New Testament band was particularly renowned for its collaborations with vocalists, and so how could its collaborations with the mighty Caesar of all singers be anything but great? Recorded live in (where else?) Las Vegas, the summit features a third star: Quincy Jones, the arranger and conductor of this stellar music. On “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” in any context one of Sinatra’s greatest swing numbers, he outdoes himself. There’s a good argument that he’s inspired by the prodding reeds and aggressive horns (note how he ad-libs “Run for cover! Run and hide!” during the trombones’ ensemble passage). Speaking of trombones, the track features another treat: a plunger solo by Al Grey, one of Basie’s featured soloists of the period. Again, one is tempted to credit him with the extra fire Sinatra has on the final bridge.

Learn more about Sinatra at the Sands with Count Basie & the Orchestra at Amazon and Walmart.

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Count Basie Orchestra Afrique 

9. “Kilimanjaro” (Afrique; Flying Dutchman, 1971)

There was always a yin-and-yang relationship between Basie and his fellow big-band survivor, Duke Ellington. With Afrique, however, the pianist joined with composer/arranger Oliver Nelson for a remarkably Ellingtonian journey. The album took the Ducal path of meshing large-ensemble jazz with elements of world music and the African diaspora in particular. Never was it as successful and as shot through with high drama as on “Kilimanjaro.” Nelson even does cross-section charts, having flute and trumpet lead a call-and-response with the horns (along with baritone saxophonist Cecil Payne) in the theme. Then comes a solo by the hippest flutist of the era, Hubert Laws, followed by a piano solo that’s both characteristically Basie and harmonically suggestive of Ellington. As the era of Black Consciousness was gaining momentum, the Count demonstrated that he was as on top of current trends as anyone in the jazz business.

Learn more about Afrique on Amazon and Apple Music!

Count Basie 88 Basie Street 

10. “88 Basie Street” (88 Basie Street; Pablo, 1983)

Any Count Basie list must have at least one chart by Sammy Nestico, one of the most fruitful and innovative of the band’s collaborators. Nestico considered it a mission to make his writing “as musical as possible,” a vague- (even obvious-) sounding proposition that nonetheless is borne out by “88 Basie Street.” Every inch of it is lively and lyrical, filled with call-and-response conversations between horns and reeds; a Sonny Cohn trumpet solo with Basie obbligati that often sounds like counterpoint (then a typically wondrous piano solo); bouncing riffs; and a loping, compelling-in-its-own-right bass line courtesy of the late Cleveland Eaton. Basie would be dead within a year of making this recording, and he was dead set on remaining great to the last.

Learn more about 88 Basie Street on Amazon and Apple Music!


MICHAEL J. WEST

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.

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