“Blue and Sentimental”
Composed by Count Basie; arranged by Eddie Durham.
Recorded by Count Basie and His Orchestra for Decca on June 6, 1938 in New York.
William J. “Count” Basie, directing: Ed Lewis (lead), Harry “Sweets” Edison and Wilbur “Buck” Clayton, trumpets; Benny Morton, Dan Minor and Eddie Durham, trombones; Earle Warren, first alto saxophone; Ronald “Jack” Washington, alto saxophone; Lester Young and Herschel Evans, tenor saxophones; Young solos on clarinet; Freddie Green, guitar; Walter Page, bass; Jonathan “Jo” Jones, drums.
“Several aspects of “Blue and Sentimental” set it apart from other (songs composed by) Basie. One is its form: it is, among all of the Count’s jives, jumps and bounces, his only romantic ballad. Another rarity is the famous clarinet soloist, Lester Young — who was famous, however, for playing the tenor sax, not the clarinet.But what gives “Blue and Sentimental” its place in swing are the rhapsodic tenor saxophone solos played originally by Herschel Evans (1909-1939), who crowded a whole lifetime of fine music into his two and a half years with Basie. (At left: Herschel Evans, with Freddie Green in the background – 1938.)
Evans, a Texan, was brought to Kansas City by his cousin, Eddie Durham, who himself was starting his distinguished career as a trombonist, guitarist and arranger. ‘He was playing the alto,’ said Durham many years later, ‘but his tone was so bad that we had to put him on the tenor. Herschel …was a quiet man.’ Evans joined Basie in Kansas City in 1936, and almost immediately, he and Lester Young launched into their legendary tenor rivalry. Evans’s style, emotional and melting in the slow numbers, impetuous in the fast ones, contrasted with Young’s cooler, controlled approach.” (1)
Trombonist Dickie Wells, who played in the Basie band from mid-1938 through the time when Evans died (and for many years after that), remembered the Evans-Young musical rivalry: “When Young started a solo, part of the crowd would stand up and cheer him. When Evans took his, the rest of the crowd would cheer for him. Even when Herschel and Lester wasn’t talking to each other (not necessarily that unusual in swing era bands where musicians worked and lived together, often being in close contact for literally months on end), they were still friends.” (2)
Evans, like most other musicians working in top-flight bands during the swing era, was a young man. He did what the other musicians did, which entailed a lot of work and a lot of travel. No one ever suspected that any of these young men could have serious illnesses — too much was required of them, especially in their playing. Any weakness due to illness would immediately be noticed.The fraternity of jazz tenor saxophone players in top swing bands in the late 1930s was a small one. Most of the players in that select group were known either personally or by reputation by others who essentially did the same thing in other bands. One young tenor player, Jerry Jerome, had met Basie and Lester Young in Kansas City in 1935 or 1936, and had stayed in touch. Whenever whatever band Jerry was working with worked near to where the Basie band was, Jerry would make it a point to visit the Basie band on their job, and renew old acquaintances. Many years after the events he describes below, Jerome recalled an alarming meeting with Herschel Evans:
“I was playing in Hartford, Connecticut at a theater with Benny Goodman (NOTE: it was the State Theater in Hartford, on or about February 7, 1939. MZ), and Benny said to me ‘let’s go hear Basie, he’s playing at the Crystal Ballroom, which was a black night club in Hartford. Herschel Evans was a very good friend of mine. He and others (in the Basie band knew that I had studied medicine), and I would do things to help guys medically by either suggesting or (by actually) helping them. Anyway, we went over to hear Basie, and Herschel came over to me and he said, ‘Jerry, I’m having trouble breathing.’ I asked him how long this had been going on, and he said for about a week. He showed me that his pants were unbuttoned, he couldn’t button them (because he was so swollen). He said he had changed his mouthpiece from an Otto Link 7 opening to about a 4. I asked him if he had seen any doctors recently, and he said he had seen a doctor in Harlem who thought he had asthma. So during the break they had (between sets), I took him back into the dressing room and stretched him out on a bench, and I put my ear down, because he was so swollen, he couldn’t even tie his shoe laces. He had something going on. I listened to his belly, I rolled him from side to side, and I could hear a splashing. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. To me it was peritoneal ascites. That means body fluid had backed-up because the heart was not pumping properly. But I’m limited, I’m not a doctor. This was just clinical stuff. (Above right: Jerry Jerome and Benny Goodman – early 1939.)
So I said to Basie ‘get him to a hospital, right away! This man is seriously ill!’ I didn’t know exactly what ( was wrong), but he was all swollen and loaded with edema. Basie said he would do that because they were going right back to the city (New York).
Well, we went back (to where the Goodman band was in Hartford) in a taxicab, Benny and his manager and I, and I said to Benny, I think Herschel is in cardiac failure. I think he is dying. Benny shook his head and said, “What are you talking about, man? You’re such a quack.” (3)
Herschel Evans was in fact hospitalized after this, at Wadsworth Hospital in New York.(4) It is unclear how long he remained in the hospital, or if he ever left the hospital to return to the Basie band. Herschel Evans died on February 9, 1939, so it is unlikely that he ever left the hospital, and based on Jerry Jerome’s recollection, he was certainly in no condition to play.
Jerome provided the epilogue: “The next day or the day after, we were at a recording session, and Benny got a call from John Hammond who told him that Herschel Evans had died. (NOTE: The Goodman band did in fact make a recording session in New York on February 9, 1939.) It tore me apart. Later, I met his family in California. They gave me his mouthpiece.” (5)
Evans’s death shook everyone in the Basie band, but it shook no one more than Lester Young. “I was the last one to see him before he died. I even paid his doctor’s bills. He was a nice person. He loved his instrument and I loved mine.” (6)
As was mentioned above, “Blue and Sentimental” is unusual in the Basie canon for several reasons. The composer credit for this tune went to Count Basie, who probably had little, if anything, to do with its creation. (A lyric was added later, written by Mack David and Jerry Livingston.) The melody of “Blue and Sentimental” greatly resembles that of the earlier pop tune “Can’t We Talk It Over?” which was composed in 1931 by Victor Young (music) and Ned Washington (lyric). The sultry chanteuse Lee Wiley recorded one of the first versions of it (she and Victor Young were romantically involved at that time), and soon thereafter Bing Crosby made a hit recording of it. So by the mid-1930s, “Can’t We Talk It Over?” was a well-known pop song.
Insightful comments about the Basie recording of “Blue and Sentimental” have been made by historian and musician Loren Schoenberg: “Can’t We Talk It Over?” …had been a huge hit record for Bing Crosby a year before (Herschel) Evans came into the (Bennie) Moten/ Count Basie orbit in 1933. It’s possible that Evans had used it as a feature then, and by simply inverting the first melody notes and changing the middle section, (Eddie) Durham fashioned a new tune. (Durham is shown above right.)
Count Basie and His Orchestra at the Famous Door on 52nd Street in Manhattan – July 11 – November 12, 1938. L-R back: Walter Page, Jo Jones, Benny Morton, (not visible, Dan Minor and Dickie Wells); middle: Freddie Green, Buck Clayton (standing), Ed Lewis is obscured, Harry Edison; front: Herschel Evans, Earle Warren, Jack Washington and Lester Young. Basie of course is in front at the piano. Basie placed the trumpets in front of the trombones, which was quite unusual, for a part of the Famous Door gig.
Lester Young makes his (recording) debut as a clarinetist on this recording. (His solo) is played on the wooden clarinet Benny Goodman gave him in early 1937, and on which he made all his recordings through 1939, and it’s one of his most beautiful creations. Indeed, Young is the one who does the real improvising, while Evans limits himself to melodic paraphrase, which perhaps inspired him to pour so much feeling into every note.
For over 70 years this was the only performance extant of this piece with Evans. The discovery of a broadcast version from the Famous Door made a few months later reveals that Young was followed by a Helen Humes vocal (in which Ms. Humes sings the David-Livingston lyric), which then led back to where we hear Evans return here.” (7)
I will add a few observations about the music. Careful listening to this performance leads to the conclusion that this piece was certainly used as a feature by Basie for the huge, rhapsodic sound of Herschel Evans’s tenor saxophone, which was very much in the tradition of his fellow Texas tenor artists. His playing is melodic, with some minor stylistic embellishments here and there. But Evans’s playing in this performance was but one part of a beautifully balanced arrangement put together by Eddie Durham, which included a number of contrasts. Listen to the haunting murmurs from the open brass (sometimes with the most gentle wa-wa effects) and three lulling saxophones behind Evans; they provide quiet but evocative harmonic pads for Herschel to play against.
Evans’s first chorus solo is bookended by the marvelously subtle yet stimulating piano playing of Count Basie. Basie, who plays a perfect four bar introduction before Evans’s solo, and then a sixteen bar improvisation after it, was never given adequate credit for his brilliance as a piano soloist. Of course he was also an absolutely masterful accompanist, which he also demonstrates throughout this performance.
After Basie’s improvised solo, lead trumpeter Ed Lewis plays a superbly controlled yet expressive eight bar solo on the tune’s bridge, using a plunger very minimally in front of the bell of his open trumpet.
Then the largest contrast of all appears: Lester Young’s other-worldly clarinet solo, first with quiet accompaniment, and then in dialog with the entire ensemble. Young’s sound on clarinet was unique, and his improvised solo here is stunning. (Young is shown at right playing clarinet – 1938.)
Evans returns to conclude this brilliant performance.
“Blue and Sentimental”
Recorded by Count Basie and His Orchestra at the Tropicana in Las Vegas, Nevada on January 28-30, 1969.
Count Basie, piano, directing: George “Sonny” Cohn, first trumpet; Oscar Brashear, Eugene Coe, Al Aarons and Harry “Sweets” Edison, trumpets; Grover Mitchell, first trombone; Richard Boone, Frank Hooks and Bill Hughes, trombones; Marshal Royal, first alto saxophone; Bobby Plater, alto saxophone; Eric Dixon and Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, tenor saxophones; Charlie Fowlkes, baritone saxophone; Freddie Green, guitar; Norman Keenan, bass, Harold Jones, drums.
The story continues:
Here is a performance of “Blue and Sentimental” by a latter-day Basie band, recorded live in performance at the Tropicana in Las Vegas in 1969. The arrangement was written by Sammy Nestico, and it used Basie’s superb saxophone section, led in inspired fashion by Marshal Royal on alto and anchored by Charlie Fowlkes on baritone, to pay tribute to the iconic tenor saxophone solo played by Herschel Evans. Nestico wisely steered clear of attempting to incorporate any part of Lester Young’s brilliant improvisation into this arrangement. In it’s place there is an improvisation by Harry “Sweets” Edison on Harmon-muted trumpet, who was there when the original recording was made, and was a guest soloist here. The open trumpet solo on the tune’s bridge is by Basie’s lead trumpeter of the time, Sonny Cohn.
The recordings presented in this post were digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.
(1) The Swing Era, 1937-1938, (1971), (55), notes on the music by Joseph Kastner; hereafter Kastner.
(3) Interview of Jerry Jerome done by Monk Rowe on April 12, 1996 in Sarasota, Florida; hereafter Rowe interview of Jerry Jerome.
(4) Count Basie …A Bio-Discography, by Chris Sheridan (1986), 64.
(5) Rowe interview of Jerry Jerome.
(6) Kastner, 56.
(7) Classic 1936-1947 Count Basie and Lester Young Studio Sessions, Mosaic Records (2016), 13.
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