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Still Clinging To The Wreckage 05/20

How the Basie band survived the big-band decline of the late 1940s to thrive in the 50s thanks to the blues and men such as Frank Foster, Ernie Wilkins and Joe Williams

One day in the early 50s, Bill Harris, Victor Feldman and Bobby Lamb were walking along Broadway when they met Henry Coker, Benny Powell and the third Basie trombonist coming the other way. Knowing that the Basie band was not working, Bill Harris asked what the three had been doing. “We’ve been meeting up and playing together”, said one of the Basie men. “What’ve you been playing?” asked Bill. “We been playing the études”, the man said proudly.

The two groups resumed their walking. “What the hell are the études?” Bill asked his companions. Answer came there none. Basie’s band was built on blues.

Basie big bands had always run on the principle of playing pure jazz, and the new band, with its emphasis on the many soloists and on Basie’s immortal touch and timing at the piano, was firmly in that tradition

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Big bands broke down at the end of the 40s, few more spectacularly than Basie’s, as signified graphically by the results of the 1949 Downbeat poll, which was won by the Woody Herman band with 1,042 votes. The Basie band came 20th with 15 votes.

(An étude is “a short musical composition usually for one instrument designed to improve the technique of the player”).

The roots grown out of the Basie band were then and are now the spine of big band jazz.

The Basie band had found itself on a failing tour of the South at the end of 1949. Bookings had fallen through and the band lost a great deal of money. When the band returned to the Woodside in New York in January, Count had no option but to break up the band and cancel any of its already booked dates.

He was without a band for a month, having left his musicians kicking their heels at the Woodside. They were surprised to see the Count return with a brand new octet which eventually settled down with Clark Terry, Buddy DeFranco and Wardell Gray as its front line. “What are you doing here?” Basie asked Freddie Green when Freddie turned up at one of the octet’s gigs. Without a word, Freddie reinserted himself in the rhythm section.

Basie’s groups had always highlighted contrasting dynamics with the rhythm section always key, often contrasted against the rest of the band. These elements were modified for the octet.

Billy Eckstine was the leader of a fervent group who urged Basie to reform the big band, with Count already feeling the need to get back to 16 men swinging. In March 1950 Basie expanded the octet to a 16-piece for a week at the Apollo. Basie stuck to the form with a recording session for Columbia on 10 April 1951 to which he was already committed. Howzit, Nails, Little Pony and Beaver Junction were the results. After a brief return to work with the octet Count began to think about making the big band permanent.

Clark Terry, already feeling guilty about his plans to leave Basie for Ellington, was enthusiastic to help. “I need an alto and a trombone player”, said Basie.

“I got them for you”, said Terry. “Ernie and Jimmy Wilkins”.

Basie went for a shower and while he was washing Clark hurriedly rang his pal Ernie Wilkins in St Louis. “But I never played alto”, said Ernie. “I’m a tenor player”. “Borrow an alto, and bring Jimmy too”, said Clark.

Count was able to reassemble the big band for a three-month tour that took it to Las Vegas, Los Angeles and the West Coast. The band broke up yet again in August but reformed in October for a one-night stand at Boston’s Symphony Hall. With hindsight we can see the roots of the next great band as Wendell Culley, Benny Powell, Marshall Royal, Ernie Wilkins and Charlie Fowlkes became permanent sidemen.

It was a happy coincidence that Norman Granz was breaking his links with the Mercury label and was going out on his own with the new Clef and Norgran labels. He was keen to add his favourite swing players to the new catalogue as well as creating new stars. Thus Count Basie and Oscar Peterson were at the root of his plans. Count’s first Clef session of 19 January 1952 added Joe Newman, Marshal Royal, Paul Quinichette and Gus Johnson, and produced Nat Pierce’s New Basie Blues, and three pieces from new arranger Neil Hefti – Sure Thing, Why Not?, and Fancy Meeting You.

Lockjaw Davis came and went and it was not until he and Quinichette were replaced by Frank Foster and Frank Wess that the heart of the new band was created..

“Billy Eckstine and Ernie Wilkins recommended me to Count”, Frank Foster told me. “The lead solo chair was next to Basie. If you sat on the other end next to the baritone player that was the lesser chair but still there were a lot of solos in both chairs, because that was a tenor solo band”. The tradition set by Lester Young, Herschel Evans and Buddy Tate had lasted.

Basie big bands had always run on the principle of playing pure jazz, and the new band, with its emphasis on the many soloists and on Basie’s immortal touch and timing at the piano, was firmly in that tradition.

Frank Foster continued: “A few weeks before I joined, Frank Wess had replaced Paul Quinichette, so we were a new team for Count. By this time I was really impelled by the Sonny Stitt style of playing, and from the moment I joined the band I was unsure about whether my playing fitted. Basie loved the Ben Webster style which was sort of indicated by his preference to have Frank Wess play on ballads. Frank Wess had that warm, old-fashioned sound. He mostly had me play on fast tunes like Jumping At The Woodside. I played on a lot of the flag-wavers. He didn’t like the hard, bebop approach to ballads.

“My first arrangements for the band weren’t too successful. Later I wrote Blues Backstage and Down For The Count which were my first two arrangements for the band that had any success”. With the new band needing a library, there was plenty of room for new writers, and Manny Album, Wess, Johnny Mandel, Nat Pierce and Ernie Wilkins were the names to juggle with.

Reunald Jones became lead trumpet in 1952 and soon disdained the lack of solo work assigned to him in the music that he had before him. Despite his brilliance at leading and organising the section, he petulantly sat throughout live performances using one arm to hold the trumpet with the other hand lying on his knee. Basie ignored this until late in 1957 when it got too much for him and Jones was sacked.

But not before Renauld had done the band a big favour. Whilst the band was playing at a dance hall in Chicago in 1954, Renauld wandered into a small club down the street during a Basie intermission and heard a young singer. The man made such an impression on him that he ran back to the dance hall and told Basie about him. Basie had had Jimmy Rushing as a regular and had recorded successfully with Billy Eckstine as guest, so had a space for a permanent male singer. The young man turned out to be Joe Williams.

Joe Williams had already had a minor hit in 1952 when he recorded Every Day I Have The Blues for Checker with a small group. It faded into insignificance when Ernie Wilkins took the piece in 1955 and had some new ideas about it

The two Franks, the eloquent Joe Newman, the bop-inspired Thad Jones and the gifted Benny Powell became the band’s main front-line soloists, backed now by the highly individual and perfectly suited Sonny Payne on drums.

Joe Williams had already had a minor hit in 1952 when he recorded Every Day I Have The Blues for Checker with a small group. It faded into insignificance when Ernie Wilkins took the piece in 1955 and had some new ideas about it.

Written and recorded by Memphis Slim in 1948 the blues was familiar in the rhythm and blues hit parade in versions by Lowell Fulson and, months before the Joe Williams version, by B B King.

The band and Joe Williams assembled in the New York studio on 17 May, 1955, which was to turn out to be a phenomenal day, even in the lustrous career of Count Basie.

This was still in the days of 78s, and Ernie Wilkins’s imaginative treatment used the first side of the disc in rocking instrumental blues by the band before Joe, with powerful tenor backing from Foster, intoned the lyrics. Nobody had heard the blues dealt with like this before as Count’s band and Joe strode comfortably across the groove. Basie’s biggest hit was born.

In terms of success the three other tunes done that day, all with biting arrangements from Frank Foster, weren’t far behind. Foster heard The Comeback, another Memphis Slim blues, as dominated by Basie and the rhythm with its bass figure from Eddie Jones, and a third blues, Alright, OK, You Win was yet another big hit. A dignified, slower paced version of Leroy Carr’s In The Evening rounded off one of the most successful Basie sessions ever. Williams’s presence was prodigious enough to make him an instant star and to supercharge the band to earn, for the next few years, Basie’s description of him as “Son Number One”.

Ernie Wilkins and Joe Williams died within three months of each other in 1999.

Joe Williams chose to live in Las Vegas because the desert climate eased the problems he had with emphysema in later life that meant that he had to avoid high altitudes and polluted air. The illness overtook him while working in a smoke-filled club in Seattle. He was put in hospital when he returned home to Las Vegas and was by now beginning to suffer from dementia. He discharged himself against medical advice. He walked several miles and the next day was found dead in a ditch a few blocks from his home.

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