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Loren Schoenberg -- Writings

Count Basie: America's #1 Band by Loren Schoenberg

The Count Basie band heard on these recordings has been frequently referred to as the "Old Testament" band, rather too neatly leaving the "New Testament" appellation for the unit of the 1950s. This is actually quite misleading, for in almost every way this group was far more creative and "modern" than any of the later Basie bands. The soloists were superior, the arrangements far more original and perhaps most significantly, the band's rhythm section was simply one of the best in the entire history of jazz. The man truly responsible for the concept that led to this era of musical miracles was neither the leader nor the band's resident genius, Lester Young. It was the bassist Walter Page (1900-1957), who had developed a unique approach that managed to sustain the spontaneity of a jazz small group within the more formal confines of a larger ensemble. Page, in his own words, was "enthused by the singing of folksongs and spirituals by my family. Stayed with me all the way through school." He played the bass drum, bass horn and bass violin. His inspiration for playing jazz on the bass was hearing the great New Orleans bassist Wellman Braud when he came through Kansas City long before his famous stint with the Ellington band. Page has been quoted as saying: "He hit those tones like hammers and made them jump right out of that box." Page's music teacher at Kansas City's Lincoln High School was the legendary Major N. Clark Smith. In 1918, shortly after graduating, the young bassist joined pianist Bennie Moten's orchestra and during five years there continued formal studies (piano, voice, violin, saxophone, composition and arranging) at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. He then joined a road band. It broke up, he took it over, and this in turn led to the formation of Walter Page's Blue Devils, the band that brought together Basie, Eddie Durham, Jimmy Rushing, Hot Lips Page and many of the others who went on to develop what Page had created into what became known as "Kansas City Jazz." Ironically, the Blue Devils were based in Oklahoma City, though they certainly played far and wide, including KC. Fortunately, Ralph Ellison grew up in their home area and as a teen-ager briefly entertained dreams of playing trumpet in Page's band. It is from his writings on this magical period that we get some of our clearest pictures of what these men wrought. The bassist was particularly proud of his ability to sight-read difficult music, and his total professionalism was legendary in the region. The depression, plus various strings of bad luck, enabled Moten to steal Page's key sidemen, and eventually to hire Page himself.

The 1932 Moten records for Victor are commonly perceived as being the ur-Basie text, but in actuality the spark for that whole concept came from the bassist. Indeed, the other members of Basie's famous rhythm section — guitarist Freddie Green, drummer Jo Jones and the pianist himself — all have credited Page with teaching them how they should play their instruments in order to realize what he was hearing in his head. It began with bringing the volume down and the intensity up, giving them the space in which to create the meshing of timbres that resulted in one organic, indivisible whole. Later there would be the pacing of the performance, and the counterpoint of the bass lines, as well as the way that rhythm section made it sound as if they were breathing the beat — but all this was still a few years ahead.

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