JAZZ: Scott DeVeaux, W.W. Norton & Company


It's interesting to compare Basie to Ellington because Ellington is, of course, an absolute original, and coming in from a composer's point of view, the Count Basie Band comes in from a completely different angle. And of course Basie himself is from New Jersey so it's not like he's really a Kansas City man to begin with, but he fits into the kind of environment that was happening out west, in the Midwest, in places like Kansas City or Oklahoma City or St. Louis or some of these areas out there. Especially Kansas City because the political scene was loose enough there that things like Prohibition really – it just was not enforced in Kansas City. I don't think that was done for the benefit of black musicians, but clearly black musicians had an opportunity to play in clubs that never closed, you know, stayed open until five or six in the morning.

Out of that kind of environment you end up with a loose way of putting together blues music in a big band setting that was in many ways revolutionary, and the Count Basie Band essentially worked within that kind of context. A lot of the tunes that they originally created were not written down. When he first started entering the national scene in 1937, he had a whole bunch of tunes that the band had been playing or knew going back many years that were simply a series of riffs in a kind of order that had been created in jam sessions. You know, everybody knew there was a riff like . . . [Deveaux demonstrates on the piano] . . . and they knew that that fit over the blues thing and they would be able to put together arrangements just knowing that if they found those riffs and if they knew how to harmonize them on the spot, it would sound like they had an arrangement all along. This is what we call "head" arrangements, and it really is one of the big contributions that the Count Basie Band and Kansas City bands generally bring into, bring into the national scene. They also bring into the national scene that kind of blue-sy sensibility that was endemic to Kansas City but that very soon became endemic to the whole country.

Everybody, for example, was doing boogie-woogie during that time and, you know, boogie-woogie's the kind of thing . . . [Deveaux demonstrates on the piano] . . . these sort of left-hand things that are going on that are dividing the beat and on top of that the piano player can then do various kinds of cross-rhythms – this is really just like . . . the way people made music at parties in Kansas City, and it very quickly enters the mainstream around 1938 or 1939 thanks to John Hammond and his From Spirituals to Swing concert, uh, and it very quickly just becomes part of ordinary popular culture. The Basie band in the same way is bringing that kind of relaxed, rhythm-focused swing into, into national swing music, in a way that made him, in a peculiar way, one of the, one of the top bands of the Swing Era.