Winnipeg's Jazz Magazine

September/October 2009: George Colligan

Count Basie: April in Paris

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Bill “Count” Basie was one of the great leaders in jazz and played one of its biggest instruments, his orchestra. Basie’s big band played so tightly, soloed so imaginatively, and swung so hard it sounded like a small ensemble.

Bill Basie was discovered in Kansas City, but he was born in Red Band, New Jersey, where his mother taught him to play the piano as a child. He was influenced by the early stride piano work of James P Johnson and Fats Waller. While working as a vaudeville pianist he became stranded in Kansas City and started playing in a movie theatre. In 1928, he joined Walter Page’s Blue Devils and later played with the Benny Moten band. Basie formed his own group, the Barons of Rhythm, in 1935, after Moten died, and recruited some of the best players from Moten’s band, including Lester Young on sax, vocalist Jimmy Rushing, and trumpet player Oran “Hot Lips” Page.

One night while they were doing a live radio broadcast, jazz producer John Hammond heard them on his car radio in Chicago. It turned out to be a fortuitous audition. Hammond liked what he heard and after seeing Basie live in Kansas City signed him to a recording deal.

It was also on a live broadcast that Basie acquired the nickname Count. One night the host called Basie over to the microphone and said Bill was kind of an ordinary name and now that there was an Earl (Hines) and a Duke (Ellington), wasn’t it time to elevate him to Count? The nickname stuck.

The blues and swing were the foundation the Basie band was built upon. Basie had driving, hard-hitting brass and a swinging rhythm section. He created an environment that encouraged growth and allowed individuality to flourish. Many of his players were great soloists, and many went on to careers outside of the Basie band. He was tough when required and conducted his group from the piano bench by gesturing with his eyes, nodding his head, and pointing a finger.

One of the staples of the Basie library is April in Paris [Verve #3145214022]. The album was recorded in two separate sessions in December 1955 and January 1956, when the band was playing regularly at New York’s Birdland. From these dates came three important songs that helped to revitalize the Basie orchestra and in the process became jazz standards.

Vernon Duke’s “April in Paris” came from the 1932 musical Walk a Little Faster. Basie’s version is the most famous, and it climbed to number twenty-eight on the pop charts in 1956. The public loved it, in particular Thad Jones’s trumpet’s quotes from “Pop Goes the Weasel” and the false ending where Basie says, “One more time.” It is this performance of “April in Paris” that was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1985.

“Corner Pocket” was co-written by Basie’s long-time guitarist Freddie Green. (After Jon Hendricks wrote lyrics to it, it became “Until I Met You.”) The song features an arrangement written by Ernie Wilkins that has the trumpets of Thad Joes and Joe Newman coming in strong after a brisk introduction by Basie on piano. Saxophonist Frank Foster’s “Shiny Stockings” is a compositional masterpiece, and the band plays it in a hard-blowing jazz mood.

One of the reasons this album is so good is that Basie kept it simple and swinging. He came from the less-is-best school of playing. He could pop the right note when the band was taking a breath. Basie played short lines with his right hand, with occasional punctuations by his left hand, while guitar and bass provided the rhythm functions normally played by the left hand. Freddie Green, on acoustic guitar, was a masterful rhythm guitarist and time-keeper. Drummer Sonny Payne was an innovator who laid out the time with wire brushes on a high-hat cymbal and worked the bass drum softly.

This is great big band music, and April in Paris is a high-water mark for Basie and his sixteen-piece orchestra. This is a big band at the top of its game.

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