Skip to Main Content | Colorblind Mode: On Off
Duke Ellington and Count Basie
Chapter Outline

Here we introduce two powerfully influential band leaders. Count Basie and Duke Ellington tower above their contemporaries. After his stint at the Cotton Club, Ellington toured the nation playing concerts, dances, and theaters. He became an important American composer even though his popularity waned. Here Ellington's career post-1927 receives full attention. We discuss his achievements as a jazz composer, as well as his complicated relationship with the musicians most associated with him (Johnny Hodges, Cootie Williams) and his co-composer, Billy Strayhorn. We also address new styles from Kansas City and the "old Southwest," including the blues-piano style known as boogie-woogie. A number of bands come from this part of the country, including the Andy Kirk band (with Mary Lou Williams) and "territory bands" like the Blue Devils. Still, our discussion of "Kansas City swing" boils down to Count Basie and his orchestra, the best known and most influential exemplar of the style. Basie came out of the American Southwest, where blues and a four-beat relaxed drive reinvigorated swing. This chapter also shows how Kansas City jazz is affected by the informal jam session and the head arrangement.

  1. The Southwest
    1. By the 1930s swing had disseminated out from New York through recordings, radio, and national tours by musicians who came from all over the country. Nevertheless, there was one strong regional influence where African American folk traditions influenced the mainstream: the Southwest, which, in this case, means an area whose headquarters was in Kansas City.
    2. Since the Civil War, American blacks had been fleeing the South, looking for economic and social opportunities. Many of them went to the urban North during World War I, but some went to the "frontier," Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas, working on the rivers and railroads and in turpentine factories and mines. The music in this relatively free frontier was bluesy, orally based, and improvisational. Count Basie was its foremost exponent.
  2. From the Margins to the Center: Boogie-Woogie
    1. Boogie-woogie is a blues piano style. It began in the Southwest and spread during the 1920s, finding a home in Kansas City and Chicago.
    2. Like ragtime it had a strong left-hand rhythmic foundation, but unlike ragtime it was made up of percussive ostinati (or "chains") in four-four time. The right hand played bluesy patterns, often in cross-rhythms.
    3. It was a raucous social music, good for dancing and blues singing. In rural areas it was played in the outbuildings of work camps, or barrelhouses. In cities, it was played in speakeasies, where pianists would work all night for tips and few dollars in pay. Boogie-woogie was like the southwestern version of stride piano. By the 1930s it had become popular in New York as well.
    4. Recordings of boogie-woogie start to appear in the 1920s. The name seems to have come from a kind of dance. During the Depression, sales of boogie-woogie records declined, as with most other popular music. Performers worked at other jobs or died young.
    5. Revival
      1. Taking advantage of the interest in black music generated by swing, John Hammond decided to put on a concert at Carnegie Hall in 1938 called "From Spirituals to Swing," which included swing, blues, and spirituals. He hired some of the best boogie-woogie pianists for the concert, which reinvigorated interest in the style. All pianists were expected to know how to play it, and the famous World War II song "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" illustrates how this former underground Kansas City music had made it to the mainstream.
  3. Pete Johnson (1904-1967) and Big Joe Turner (1911-1985)
    1. The Sunset Café in Kansas City was one of the centers of boogie-woogie. Here pianist Pete Johnson and singer Big Joe Turner performed driving, percussive blues. Turner worked across the room as a bartender and would sing from behind the bar; occasionally he would step outside and sing to lure customers into the bar.
      1. John Hammond visited Kansas City in 1936 and recalled that slow tunes could last more than half an hour and faster tunes twenty minutes. They built up a tremendous momentum in performance that excited the dancers, foreshadowing teenagers' intense reaction to rock and roll. Turner's 1950s recording of "Shake Rattle and Roll" took a leading role in that reaction as well.
    2. Johnson and Turner played in Hammond's 1938 "Spirituals to Swing" concert at Carnegie Hall. They had to trim the length of their performances and Carnegie Hall was certainly no Sunset Café, but being professionals, they made it work anyway, to great success.
    3. "It's All Right, Baby"
      1. Performed at the Carnegie Hall concert, this recording is filled with Turner's "shouts," Johnson's percussive playing, and the call and response exchange between the two.
  4. Territory Bands
    1. During the 1920s and 1930s most dance music remained local. People hired bands that they knew from live performance and that were within a day's drive-in the territory. All bands started this way, but eventually some bands became national through radio network broadcasts and widespread tours. By the end of the 1930s, territory bands were considered "minor league"-a good place for musicians to break into the business.
    2. There were thousands of territory bands during the 1920s-white and black, hot and sweet. Some were all female. Their names often had little to do with reality.
  5. Andy Kirk (1898-1992) and Mary Lou Williams (1910-1981)
    1. Andy Kirk's Twelve Clouds of Joy was a "commonwealth" band, in which income, business decisions, and responsibilities were equally divided. Typical for a territory band, they toured constantly, didn't record, and were under constant financial pressure.
    2. In 1936, with a contract with Decca Records, which wanted them to play blues, Kirk convinced the recording company to let him record a ballad, "Until the Real Thing Comes Along." It was a hit, and the Kirk band started to tour nationally.
    3. The musical genius of the band was Mary Lou Williams, who had an uncanny musical memory and perfect pitch. She proudly claimed that she played heavy ("like a man"), reflecting the biases of the time. She absorbed the influences around her, including Earl Hines, Jelly Roll Morton, James P. Johnson, and Count Basie. She also started writing arrangements for the band after she learned how to read music.
    4. "Walkin' and Swingin'
      1. Written by Mary Lou Williams in 1936, just after they signed with Decca. This was a smaller band than most in 1936. To make it sound bigger, Williams had one of the trumpeters play with the saxophone section, using a mute to help blend. The last chorus contains a riff that Thelonious Monk used for his composition "Rhythm-a-thing."
    5. Williams left Kirk in 1942 and started to work at Café Society in New York. She started composing more. Her interest in modern harmony pulled her into the bebop scene during the 1940s, and many of the bebop luminaries hung out at her apartment. During the 1950s she retired, but during the1960s she started giving concerts highlighting the history of jazz. She eventually became a music professor at Duke University.
  6. Women in Jazz
    1. As the men went off to fight in World War I, able bodies were needed for the Swing Era dance bands. Women had to overcome the prejudice against playing an instrument in public. Most women in the business up to that time were singers or dancers. The only exception were women pianists.
    2. A woman on stage was assumed to be "loose"-whether a singer or an instrumentalist. Nevertheless, some of those who stuck to it became quite famous, including singers Billie Holiday and Anita O'Day and instrumentalists Billie Rogers (Woody Herman's band) and Clora Bryant. Another way to be successful was to band together. The all-female group could protect reputations.
    3. Even so, most women's careers were short due to family pressures. But they did show that women could swing.
  7. Count Basie (1904-1984)
    1. He grew up in New Jersey, near New York. He taught himself stride piano and started working in New York until he joined a traveling vaudeville show. In the mid-1920s he was stranded in Oklahoma City when the vaudeville act disbanded. There he heard a territory band called the Blue Devils and was impressed by their sense of fun and team spirit. He played occasionally with them over the next several years. However, as a commonwealth band, they found it difficult to operate in an increasingly centralized music business.
    2. Benny Moten (1894-1935)
      1. The Blue Devils dissolved in 1933. The most prosperous band in the territory, run by Benny Moten, hired Basie, bassist Walter Page, and others from this band. Moten was a ragtime pianist well connected to the regime of Kansas City political boss Tom Pendergast.
      2. Even at this early stage, the characteristic four-beat groove of Kansas City jazz was starting to be heard. Although many of the early recordings of bands from this period have a two-beat rhythm, once bassist Walter Page changed from tuba to string bass, four-beat rhythms became typical for the Moten band.
      3. In 1935 Moten died on the operating table during a tonsillectomy, bleeding to death from a severed artery. Basie started his own small band from the remnants of the Moten band at the Reno Club in Kansas City. They played mostly head arrangements.
    3. "One O'clock Jump"
      1. A twelve-bar blues, this piece evolved gradually for more than a decade before it was recorded. Various players in the band added riffs. The original melody, found in the ninth chorus, can be heard in the 1920s Redman arrangement of "Six or Seven Times." All of these musical ideas were considered public property. It became Basie's first hit.
      2. Basie often started a piece, as he does here, in order to set the right tempo and groove. The next few choruses are mostly solos. After the rhythm section chorus, which includes Basie's characteristic jabbing chords, the band comes in with a series of interlocking riffs. This commercial recordings lasts about three minutes, but live or on radio, it could go as long as a half hour or, like African music, long enough to suit any occasion.
    4. The Basie Band
      1. Originally Basie did not aspire to live in an integrated world and his band was known in Kansas City only. But after John Hammond heard them on shortwave radio and then in person, he brought them to New York.
      2. At first, they had intonation problems and a restricted repertory of head arrangements. But this was their strength. Working with Eddie Durham, they wrote out their head arrangements and edited submitted arrangements to fit their uncluttered, clean style. This marked a new emphasis in jazz on the centrality of the groove. This was also true of Basie's piano style.
      3. Basie understood the importance of leaving room, and a relaxed manner of playing was the best way to build momentum. Although his chords are simple enough, his timing is not. Drummer Jo Jones contributed by keeping the pulse on the bass drum very light, matching the sound of the bass and the guitar, and moving the basic sound to the high-hat cymbals, prefiguring bebop drumming. Guitarist Freddie Green held the rhythm section together by his soft, felt-rather-than heard, four-to-the bar chording.
      4. Trumpeter Buck Clayton added spare, bluesy solos that contrasted with trumpeter Eddie "Sweets" Edison's low, muted tone. Eddie Durham was one of the trombonists as well an arranger and one of the earliest electric guitar players. One innovative feature of the band was dueling tenor saxophonists Lester Young and Herschel Evans, a full tone Texas-style player, who was featured on slow blues tunes and ballads and who contrasted markedly with Young. The idea of dueling tenors was picked up by countless other bands.
      5. Basie's vocalist, Jimmy Rushing ("Mister Five by Five"), sang pop songs but became famous for his blues singing.
    5. Later Basie
      1. After World War II, Basie, like many leaders of big bands, faced hard times. In 1950 he formed a septet. He did re-form the big band, the New Testament, later with studio musicians and Freddie Green. Gone were the heard arrangements in favor of some excellent written arrangements by Neil Hefti and Thad Jones. They also worked with singers such as Sinatra, Tony Bennett, and Billy Eckstine.
  8. Head Arrangements and Jam Sessions
    1. Arranging in Kansas City was more casual than elsewhere. There musicians specialized in head arrangements that were created collectively and passed down orally. The skill of creating and remembering arrangements in one's head came in handy for the jam sessions that were common in Kansas City. Out-of-work musicians would gravitate to clubs where they could just sit in and play. These jam sessions were friendly, but also competitive.
    2. Usually the club would hire a rhythm section, say drums and piano, as was the case at the Sunset Café. A long line of horn players would be waiting their turn to play. Often one piece could last more than an hour. Improvisational skill and meaningfully played solos were highly valued. While one was soloing, other horn players might start playing a harmonized riff. This was considered a specialized skill in Kansas City, and if you couldn't find the correct note to harmonize the riff, you were told to sit down. With many horn players, each had to find a note that wasn't already being played. This sometimes resulted in the addition of extended notes to the chord. This process is reminiscent of African American folk practices.
    3. Sometimes head arrangement riffs were written down in order to preserve their order. The spontaneous oral character of head arrangements, however, allowed the band to extend the performance of a piece as long as dancers required it.
  9. Kansas City
    1. The "Paris of the plains" became a wide-open town during the Depression under the protection of political boss Tom Pendergast. Starting in 1926, when he formed a partnership with hood Johnny Lazia, this city alderman ran the city. While offering a kind of populism, he allowed a thriving nightlife during Prohibition. This meant there was a lot of work for black musicians playing hip, urbanized blues and jazz.
  10. Duke Ellington
    1. In the early 1930s, Ellington's group had replaced Henderson's as the foremost black dance band. They recorded, toured and made radio appearances.
    2. Even after World War II, when many dance bands started to disappear, Ellington kept going and even revived his orchestra after a performance at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival. He continued to play concert halls, and country fairs all across the country.
    3. Ellington as a Composer
      1. Ellington thought that the word jazz marginalized black musicians. He thought of himself as "beyond category" or, at times, a composer of "Negro folk music."
      2. Although Ellington, like European composers, wrote musical ideas in isolation, most of his composing was done in collaboration with other musicians. Ellington would come up with musical ideas and the band would respond, often offering alternatives. This made his scores very confusing, and no permanent record of his music survives. This led to some confusion. In 1965 he was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize but was overruled by the Pulitzer board, probably because there were no published scores for them to consider.
      3. Ellington had been a graphic artist and often used visual approach to his music. He also used the timbres and styles of individual musicians like paint colors on a palette.
      4. Ellington's talent came out most in the recording studio. He made many three-minute recordings while at the same time creating longer, more ambitious pieces for multiple 78 rpm discs, and later, starting in the 1950s, for LPs.
    4. Dramatis Fedilae.
      1. Unlike other bands, Ellington did not write arrangements that could be played by any competent dance band musician. He wrote for the specific musicians in the band.
      2. By 1935 Ellington had manned his band with the idiosyncratic musicians that sparked his imagination. Each section could blend together beautifully but each musician had his own particular sound as well, which Ellington took full advantage of.
      3. Bubber Miley, Tricky Sam Nanton, and Sonny Greer were some of the unique players in the band. Harry Carney, the baritone saxophonist, was also an integral part of the Ellington sound. Like many of Ellington' s musicians, he stayed with the band for many years.
      4. But some players didn't last as long. Ellington had to fire Miley because he drank too much. Ellington replaced him with Cootie Williams. Williams learned to use mutes from Nanton, thereby adding his own, unique voice to the trumpet section without Ellington telling him what to do.
      5. Ellington learned to love the New Orleans woody clarinet sound when he played with Bechet in the mid-1920s. Barney Bigard was the perfect fit in for bringing an older, New Orleans sound into the mix.
    5. "Mood Indigo"
      1. Recorded in 1930, "Mood Indigo" is a good example of how Ellington used his instrumental resources. Ellington's inspiration for this piece is a story about a "little girl and a little boy" and the unrequited love between them. The melody comes from Barney Bigard but Ellington turns it into his own.
      2. Although Ellington uses the New Orleans front line of trumpet, trombone, and clarinet, the sound is entirely distinctive, with muted brass and low-register clarinet.
    6. Alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges was probably the most important soloist to join the band during these early years. Bluesy and lyrical, Hodges became Ellington's main soloist and thereby a strong influence on a whole generation of alto players due to his swooping glissandos and elegant soft passages.
    7. Two trombonists, Lawrence Brown and Juan Tizol, added a rich tone to the band, in the case of the former, and a classical tone, in case of the latter. As a Latino, Tizol was one of the few whites to play with a black band at that time. He contributed "exotic" sounds, updating Ellington's "jungle sound."
    8. Ellington in the Swing Era
      1. Ellington became a celebrity during the 1930s. After a trip in 1933 to France and England, where he was adored, he returned home with new expectations. He also continued to play theaters and dances, which kept the band grounded.
      2. Ellington's public persona was one of aristocratic sophistication, although this contrasted with the private Ellington. You can see the public persona in the 1935 short film Symphony in Black.
      3. He was also a "race man," insisting that the black man was the creative voice of America. To the black community, Ellington and his band represented worldly sophistication.
    9. In 1941 Ellington wrote Jump for Joy, a musical that opened in Los Angeles. It was designed to eliminate the African American stereotypes propagated by Hollywood and Broadway.
    10. His Black, Brown and Beige was a wordless piece that was just as politically and musically persuasive. It premiered in 1943 but was not received well by white critics, who saw it as pretentious.
    11. During the 1940s, Ellington brought in new players like Ben Webster.
    12. "Conga Brava"
      1. This piece starts with "exotic" evocations and covers a tremendous amount of stylistic territory before it returns to the opening mood played by Juan Tizol.
    13. The Later Years
      1. By the mid-1940s a number of band members, tired of the constant touring (Sam Nanton even died of a stroke on the job), cashed in on their growing reputations, and. In 1951 Johnny Hodges left, partly out of his irritation with Ellington's appropriation of his music ideas. He took Lawrence Brown and Sonny Greer with him.
      2. After World War II, the band business began changing. Obsolete theaters were demolished or renovated to new uses, radio no longer broadcast live music, film and television were not very open to black bands. The rise of modern jazz marginalized Ellington's sound.
      3. In 1956 his fortunes picked up. At the third annual Newport Jazz Festival, Ellington went on late and played the two-part "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue." The two parts of the piece were separated by an open-ended twelve-bar blues, during which tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves played twenty-seven choruses while a woman in the audience danced. The intensity grew to such a pitch that the audience went wild. A recording of the performance became a best seller and Ellington made the cover of Time magazine.
      4. For the next twenty years Ellington wrote longer pieces, taking advantage of LP technology. These included reworkings of older pieces and compositions inspired by special circumstances. He also wrote a number of film scores and made a few albums with modernists such as John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, and Max Roach.
  11. Billy Strayhorn (1915-1967)
    1. Strayhorn was Ellington's musical partner during this late activity. Originally interested in classical music, he moved to popular music after discovering that opportunities in the classical world were limited for blacks. He was also homosexual.
    2. Strayhorn met Ellington in 1938 when he played a few of his piano variations on Ellington's "Sophisticated Lady." Ellington invited him to New York. Strayhorn's first piece for Ellington was based on the directions he was given to get to Ellington's apartment: "Take the 'A' Train." It became the band's new theme.
    3. "Swee' Pea," as he was known, worked very closely with Ellington during the 1950s and 1960s, so close that is difficult to separate their work. Strayhorn shared the composer credits with Ellington, and on some pieces was named as the sole composer.
    4. "Blood Count"
      1. Written while in the hospital dying of esophageal cancer, this was his last composition. Although it is tonally ambiguous at the beginning, soloist Johnny Hodges takes the melody through a number of keys until a reaching a crescendo in the second bridge. The intensity then subsides through a number of chromatically descending chords over a pedal point. The album ends with Ellington playing Strayhorn's "Lotus Blossom" as the band leaves.
Print This Page

Norton Ebooks

The ebook version Jazz offers the full content of the print version at half the price.

Norton Ebooks

The Norton Gradebook

Instructors and students now have an easy way to track online quiz scores with the Norton Gradebook.

Norton Gradebook