The first record date for Lester Young, and the only surviving alternate take from the session. The room was so small, Jo Jones could only bring his snare drum and high hat, but he was an inventive percussionist, listen carefully. The small group also allows us a chance to listen more closely to the bass-work of Walter Page. Basie seems uncharacteristically busy, those fingers are flying across the keys.
Though Lester Young had been a professional musician for about ten years, he had somehow missed being near a microphone until November 9, 1936, when John Hammond got a few members of the Count Basie Orchestra into a small studio in Chicago to record for the Columbia label. Because Basie had a rather binding contract with another record company at the time, the discs were issued under the names of Carl Smith and Jo Jones, or Jones Smith Inc: Tatti Smith on Trumpet, Jo Jones on Drums, with Walter Page, Bass, Bill Basie Piano, Lester Young Tenor Sax. Two sides recorded that day featured Jimmy Rushing, Boy Singer. The quintet line-up here featured would become the standard combo group as the big bands began to decline; it's worth noting that the renovators of the jazz quintet, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, were greatly influenced by the music recorded in Chicago on that November day. Three of these tunes would be later arranged for Basie's Orchestra. "Shoe Shine Boy" is an example of recording art, like the small group recordings that would come out of the Ellington Orchestra, captured on wax but rarely or never performed "live." In the days of the 78 disc, a studio would be booked for perhaps four hours, with the intention to produce four sides. We are blessed indeed that "Shoe Shine Boy" survives in two takes. However, barring the possibility of a false start or two, I doubt that the other songs at the session required alternate takes, for one of the most appealing and astonishing aspects of this date is the profound organization of the musicians, their unerring demonstration of e pluribus unum, "from many one."
This is a listening project, and though this combination of talent is sublime, the individual contributions are distinct, even though recorded on a single microphone in glorious monophonic sound. I mentioned that Hammond brought these guys into a small studio -- so small, Jo Jones could only use his snare drum and high hat: but listen carefully, and enjoy the inventiveness of this superb percussionist. A small group in a small room lets us hear Walter Page to great advantage. Page had had his own band in Kansas City before joining up with Benny Moten; he was an early champion of the young Bill Basie, and engineered Moten's hiring Basie as a second pianist for the Moten Orchestra, and then persuaded Moten to take on the role of conductor, giving Basie the lead piano spot. It was Moten who gave Basie the nickname "Count" though in a roundabout way. Basie, brilliant when performing, was, like many jazz musicians, a bit irregular checking the clock. Often late to rehearsals, Basie was the subject of a number of complaints from Moten, who called him "No Account" Basie. This demeaning nickname was changed by the other band members to Count. When Benny Moten died suddenly in 1935, Basie formed his own band, and ultimately seven of Moten's men came with him. On these sides, we can hear Basie's early minimalism, often playing his solos with one hand, and maybe only three fingers at that. Of Carl Smith, I can't say much: these are probably his most famous recordings, and he would leave the Basie band soon after. In the late forties, Smith began to work in South America: sadly, there is no information regarding his death, a rather shocking fact in the XX century. Of Lester Young, I hope I need say little. Though the saxophone soloist, he is as much a part of the rhythm section as Jones and Page and Basie, and once he starts playing, he doesn't stop!
The session produced four sides: SHOESHINE BOY, EVENING, BOOGIE WOOGIE, and LADY BE GOOD. There were two takes of Shoeshine Boy, which leads me to think it may have been the first item on the agenda; the first take presents no outstanding problem, but the second is just more unified and was the one originally released. It presents even greater cooperation between Jo Jones and Lester Young; I'd not be surprised if Jones himself insisted on a second take, realizing he had missed an opportunity to better accentuate Young's solo. I recognize that the difference may not be immediately audible to the casual listener: listen to Jones.
Shoeshine Boy was a Louis Armstrong number, recorded on December 18, 1935 and remained a part of his repertoire through the 40s. Lester Young once declared that his personal record library ran through A "for Armstrong": I can't help but think that the number was selected as an homage to Satchmo, but the Jones Smith Five are not afraid to make it new: their treatment of the tune is much faster than Satchmo's, and by dumping the lyrics, they cut to the origin of the song itself, which was written by Sammy Cahn and based on a phrase that Armstrong often employed in his solo flights.
Basie introduces the tune with a solo that is really rather busy for Basie: born in Red Bank New Jersey in 1904, Basie came to New York while still a kid, and became the protégé of Fats Waller, who was not much older than Bill, but was an acknowledged master of stride piano, as well as an accomplished organist. Basie's intro seems a tip of the hat to his mentor. Shortly after Basie, enter Walter Page on Bass, followed by Jo Jones, and then we hear the first recorded notes of Lester Young. With the entrance of Carl Smith, one might expect Young to step out and catch his breath, but instead, he remains present, albeit in the background, now softly joining the rhythm section, giving subtly shaded accents to Smith's solo.
The two blues numbers feature Jimmy Rushing's vocal, and if, as a President's man, I am sorry that Evening doesn't feature enough Lester Young, the song does show off Rushing's great talent in providing slight but meaningful variations to the simple and (bluntly put) repetitive lyrics. Back in the swing era, the singers were referred to as Boy or Girl singers, and the Basie Orchestra had a number of girl singers over the years, such as Billie Holiday and Thelma Carpenter. But during the days of the Old Testament Band, Rushing was the steady Boy Singer. The blues were not a major component of the New York jazz scene where Basie began in the early 20s; he would later say that he had no notion of the blues until he wound up in Kansas City in 1927. What Basie would not admit publically was his genius in incorporating a variety of styles with majestic ease. Listening to these two sides from the Chicago session, you would think the blues as natural to Basie as breathing, and of course, by this time they were.
Evening had been recorded earlier by Cab Calloway, and was a number in the Basie Orchestra playlist (the big band version would be recorded in 1940). The lyrics were written by Mitchell Parish. Born in Lithuania, he spent a portion of his childhood in Louisiana, before the family moved to New York City.
There are two other entries in the Basie catalogue called "Boogie Woogie" — one of which was recorded at the November 9 1938 session that featured the All American Rhythm section (Basie, Page, Jones, and Freddie Green on guitar). Curiously, each version receives a different composer credit! The Jones-Smith Inc version is attributed to Pinetop Smith; the big band version (March 26, 1937) bears the by-line of Basie Rushing; the quartet version of 1938 (without a vocal) is listed under Carl Smith. Carl Smith is not Clarence Pinetop Smith; jazz frequently suffered from sloppy documentation.
The final tune from this session was the Gershwins' "Lady Be Good" and we are back to the five instrumentalists of Jones Smith Inc. George Gershwin's role in jazz history is solid just for the numerous reworkings of the chord changes of "I've Got Rhythm" but the Gershwin boys contributed many standards to the jazz repertoire, and this performance of the Gershwin standard has come to be seen as a standard for the industry. Today, it is difficult to realize how revolutionary Young's approach was; it is hard to believe that when he briefly sat in with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, taking over the Coleman Hawkins chair, it was fellow band members who petitioned Henderson to get rid of Young. When these sides were released early in 1937, the response was not unanimous cheering for the advent of a new force in jazz: if anything, it was largely unbroken silence. But in Kansas City, a young man named Charlie Parker was listening, and learning. Bird would often play Young's solo from Lady Be Good as a warming up exercise: note for note and three times as fast!
9 xi 12/Astoria