“Easy Does It” (1940) Count Basie with Lester Young, Buck Clayton and Sweets Edison

“Easy Does It”

Composed by Sy Oliver and James “Trummy” Young; arranged by Jimmy Mundy.

Recorded by Count Basie and His Orchestra for Columbia on March 20, 1940 in New York.

William J. “Count” Basie, piano, directing: Ed Lewis, first trumpet; Harry “Sweets” Edison, Wilbur “Buck” Clayton, Al Killian, trumpets; Dicky Wells, Vic Dickenson, Dan Minor, trombones; Earle Warren, first alto saxophone; Ronald “Jack” Washington, baritone saxophone; George “Buddy” Tate and Lester Young, tenor saxophones; Freddie Green, guitar; Walter Page, bass; Jonathan “Jo” Jones, drums.

The story: The work life for moderately successful bands during the swing era was less rigorous than life for less successful bands, but only moderately so. Less successful bands, no matter how good they were musically, were destined to tour endlessly playing one night stands. These one-nighters could be as far as 300 miles apart. Making these long jumps during warm weather was difficult enough in 1940 cars or buses over 1940 highways. (We must remember that there was no Interstate highways system in 1940.) In winter in the North and Midwest, this kind of touring was brutal.

Count Basie and His Orchestra, by the early months of 1940, were a moderately successful band. Being an Afro-American ensemble in Jim Crow America, they were almost completely excluded from performing on sponsored network radio shows, the life blood of top-notch big bands then.The Basie band, like all other bands, black and white, made the most money playing for a week at a time (or a split-week) in various theaters. In order to knock-down a very good gross of say $5,000.00 in a week playing a theater, a band would have to play at least four and sometimes as many as six one-hour shows a day, alternating with feature films/coming attractions/short subjects and vaudeville acts.It was not unusual for a band to play its first show in a theater at 10:00 a.m., and still be in the same theater at midnight. After a week of this, the performers were usually on the edge of madness.

Week-long gigs in hotels, night clubs, and ballrooms in big cities paid much less money than theaters.They were attractive however, because many of these venues had remote radio broadcasting facilities that allowed a band’s music to be heard either locally or regionally, and sometimes nationally. This provided good promotion and public relations for a band, but these broadcasts were invariably “sustaining” ones, meaning they were unsponsored. Consequently, the bands whose music was broadcast on these sustaining remotes were not paid for broadcasting. They just received the minimum compensation for their work on the venue gig that was called for, usually by musicians’ union rules. But of equal benefit to the bands was that playing these “residencies” for periods of time kept them off the road. Therefore, the band’s management had to balance, as best possible, lucrative theater jobs with low-paying “residencies.”

Of course, the default fill-in for all bands was one-nighters. All bands did them. Some were fairly lucrative. Many more brought the band only its minimum guarantee, if that band was strong enough in terms of popularity to demand and get a minimum. Most bands were not.

Count Basie and His Orchestra at Harlem’s Apollo Theater – 1940: L-R: front  Basie, Buddy Tate, Tab Smith (subbing for Earle Warren), Jack Washington, Lester Young; middle: Walter Page, Jo Jones, Freddie Green, Vic Dickenson, Dickie Wells, Dan Minor; back: Buck Clayton, Ed Lewis (hidden behind Dickenson), Al Killian, Sweets Edison.

Against this background, here is what the Basie band was doing in early 1940. In January, they had a week-long stay at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. On the bill with the Basie band there were comedienne Jackie “Moms” Mabley, dancer Taps Miller, and the Apollo dancing team known as the Harperettes. Then fourteen days at the Golden Gate Ballroom in Harlem (Lenox Avenue and 142nd St.). Scattered one-nighters followed through New York state, Connecticut, down to Baltimore and up to Boston. Then a month at the Southland Cafe’ in Boston (with broadcasts), running from the last week of February through the middle of March. They were in Manhattan briefly to make records on March 19th and 20th.

The music:

The melody of “Easy Does It” is minimal. Indeed, it can quickly be numbingly repetitive, unless it is interpreted and transformed by gifted jazz musicians. (The tune is in a 24-bar A-B-A form containing three eight-bar segments.) Fortunately, there is enough harmonic meat on the melodic bones of this tune to allow this. As we hear in this marvelously thoughtful performance, three jazz soloists in the Basie band (and Basie himself) find what they need to change what could easily be musical dross in lesser hands to gold.

Basie begins the performance at the piano, setting the perfect tempo and mood with his characteristically sparse playing. The four saxophones then the brass state the melody to orient the listener. Basie returns with a brief piano sequence that ushers in Buck Clayton. Clayton’s (pictured at right – late 1930s) quiet trumpet sound is veiled by a cup mute. Clayton was always a thoughtful jazz soloist whose playing, as it is here, was informed by a keen harmonic sense. (He also gradually became a fine arranger.)  I think that Clayton’s tasty sotto voce playing, superimposed on the tune’s harmony, was very inspiring for tenor saxophonist Lester Young, whose marvelously floating solo follows. Lester lived in a sotto voce world.

But before we consider Lester’s solo, we must analyze the incredible modulation he plays, immediately after Clayton’s solo ends. The late Richard M. Sudhalter, who was a jazz trumpeter, provided an insightful description: “The key is F.; Young must use his four bar opening backed only by Jo Jones’s high-hats to get to D-flat. Getting from F to D-flat is by no means a notable feat. What stunned the Basie band was the way that Young did it. He plays four arpeggios based on augmented chords–triads whose fifth voices have been raised a half-step–running the sequence C, D, B and A-flat. Young had a partiality for the augmented chord, but nowhere else has he used this most distinctive construction so ingeniously. He seems to have grasped intuitively what most musicians could achieve only through study: That this sequence of augmented chords in the key of F is also simultaneously a natural sequence in the new key of D-flat. By playing them as he does, Young constructs a modulation of taste and sophistication, bridging the gap between the two keys and strongly establishing the tonality of D-flat for the band to enter.” (2)

Tenor saxophonist George “Buddy” Tate had been sitting next to Lester Young in the Basie saxophone section for about a year when the Basie band recorded “Easy Does It.” Like everyone who listened closely to what Young played, Tate was constantly surprised and amazed at the steady flow of brilliant jazz solos produced by Young. “That modulation, he did it right off the top of his head, completely unrehearsed! He made it sound as if it had been written. He upset everybody in the band. We couldn’t wait for the thing to be over just to ask him: ‘Hey, how did you think of that?’ He was real cool, and just said something like, ‘Aw, that’s just one of those things that come to me sometimes.’ I guess that’s a part of what makes him so great.” (3)

Ingenious, brilliant, mind-blowing, Young’s modulation, covering four bars, each containing an arpeggio, is music of such inspired perfection that a writing-down composer would have been elated to have produced it after a week of composing, adjusting, tinkering. What follows it is a full 24-bar chorus of improvisation by Young that is also wonderful, if less startling, than his modulation. Young’s highly individual tenor saxophone sound soars over the somewhat busy brass background created by arranger Jimmy Mundy. Young produces top grade jazz in this solo. (Above right: L-R: Jimmy Mundy, Lester Young and Walter Page – summer 1940.)

Trumpeter Harry “Sweets” Edison (shown at left) follows, with his Harmon-muted trumpet. Edison was one of three technically gifted trumpeters to have emerged in the late 1930s in swing bands (the other two being Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Shavers). But here he dials down the technique, and dials up the soul. Sensitive listeners then, including a young Frank Sinatra and a younger Nelson Riddle, heard and appreciated what Edison was doing. Starting in the 1950s, Edison’s aphoristic Harmon-muted trumpet sounds found their way onto dozens of recordings by Sinatra (often using Nelson Riddle arrangements) and many other top pop vocalists of that era.

(1) Good Morning Blues …the Autobiography of Count Basie, as told to Albert Murray (1985), 236-238.

(2) Giants of Jazz – Lester Young (1980), 43.

(3) Ibid.

The recording presented in this post was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.

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  1. Mike, you never cease to amaze me with your knowledge and interpretation!! No one goes “deeper” into it ! Congratulations!! I met Count Basie in 1979 at The Hague during The North Sea Jazz Festival. I had breakfast with Basie and his band. He loved the newspaper article which I showed him: “William Basie was an only child who had his first piano lessons from his mother and a wonderful lady named Holloway”. He wrote on it: “To Henry–thanks and love”.

  2. That is beautiful Henry. Basie, in addition to being a great musician and inspiring bandleader, was a wonderful human being. I have never heard or discovered anyone who said anything negative about the man.

  3. I’m late in reading this post, which I discovered through a search — wondering if this great side might have been one that you covered. Sy Oliver, co-composer of “Easy Does It,” is my favourite arranger, but I have to say that this song is one instance in which his chart for TD, though good, comes in a distant second to Jimmy Mundy’s for The Count. This groover has to be in my Basie Top Five. The solos of Buck, Sweets and especially Pres (the last including the famous, oft-quoted modulation) are magnificent, with their eloquence giving us a welcome break from the rather limited and insistent melody, but, too, Jimmy’s support for each is so beautiful — the floating reed section behind Buck and Sweets and the trombones against trumpets behind Pres. Basie’s minimalism, with only the rest of the rhythm section behind him, suggests someone sneaking in the dark. For me, this side captures the middle-of-the-night city atmosphere of its times.

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