Composed by Earle Warren; arranged by Buster Harding.
Recorded by Count Basie and His Orchestra for Okeh/Columbia on April 10, 1941 in Chicago.
William J. “Count” Basie, piano, directing: Edward Lewis, first trumpet; Al Killian, Wilbur “Buck” Clayton, and Harry “Sweets” Edison, trumpets; William “Dicky” Wells, Dan Minor and Edward Cuffee, trombones; Earle Ronald Warren, first alto saxophone; Tallmadge “Tab” Smith, alto saxophone; Don Byas, George “Buddy” Tate, tenor saxophones; Ronald “Jack” Washington, baritone saxophone; Freddie Green, guitar; Walter Page, bass; Jonathan “Jo” Jones, drums. Coleman Hawkins, guest tenor saxophone soloist.
The story: Over the decades since the swing era, fans of the music of the great swing bands have rarely thought about the circumstances under which the music of those bands was made. Very often, the music was made in difficult, challenging circumstances. It has been my own experience that usually when I listen to this or that great recording, I simply enjoy it, and never think anything more about it. Inevitably, there was something going on back in the day that affected how various recordings came to be made.
Count Basie’s various bands, starting in the mid-1930s and for the next five decades, were invariably outstanding musical aggregations. But over the years, Basie was confronted with many serious obstacles, which he usually overcame with cool adroitness. He was an astute businessman who understood the vagaries of the band business as well as any leader. He also understood that for him to achieve success and then to maintain it, he needed to have around him not only great musicians, but also smart and honest business associates.
After several years, when Basie was represented by Music Corporation of America (MCA), the largest and most successful band-booking agency in the nation, Basie was by late 1940 beginning to question why his band was experiencing so many open dates on their performance calendar. Those open dates were dire warnings to him that something had to change, or very quickly he would find himself being sucked into a quagmire of debt.
As the Basie band sat idle, Basie hustled one-off gigs for himself on his own, most notably some recordings he made with Benny Goodman in late 1940 and early 1941. Since those recordings coincided with Goodman’s much heralded return to leading a band after he had had serious back surgery in mid-1940, there was much media attention focused on BG. Probably with Benny’s active concurrence, media rumors began to swirl that Basie was going to fold his own band and work as a sideman with Benny Goodman at a salary of $500.00 per week.These rumors were unsettling for a number of Basie sidemen, most notably tenor saxophonist Lester Young, and trombonist Vic Dickenson, who were understandably concerned about their future employment with Basie. Both Young and Dickenson would leave the Basie band before the end of 1940. Basie meanwhile, who actually had no desire to disband, was working behind the scenes with various business associates to improve the management of his band. (Above right: Benny Goodman and Count Basie, early 1941. Goodman admired Basie as a musician and bandleader, and on more than one occasion did things to assist Basie.)
To complicate matters further, World War II was going on in Europe, and the United States, though taking a public stance maintaining its neutrality, was nevertheless taking steps, including enacting the Selective Service Act of 1940 on September 16, to be prepared in case of war. This law, which required all men between the ages of 21 and 45 to register for the draft, was the first peacetime draft in U.S. history. Everyone in the Basie band, including Basie himself (he was 36 years old in 1940), had to register for the draft. To commemorate this unsettling development, Basie and his band recorded “Draftin’ Blues,” aka “The Draftin’ Blues,” a song written by Maceo Pinkard (1) during World War I, with a vocal by Jimmy Rushing, on October 30.
Meanwhile, tenor saxophone jazz colossus Coleman Hawkins was also suffering the big band blues. “Under a headline ARE ALL NEGRO BANDS DOOMED AS MONEY MAKERS? the December 1, 1940 issue of Down Beat reported the demise of (Hawkins’s) band; ‘Coleman Hawkins’s recent tour with a large band was not successful. The day it returned to New York in November, the band dissolved.’ The magazine mentioned that Count Basie’s band was not working steadily, and even Duke Ellington’s orchestra was experiencing a lean time. The music that these bands played delighted jazz fans, but in this part of the Swing Era, it was the more commercial bands, almost all of them white, that drew the biggest crowds.” (2)
Coleman Hawkins, after spending five happy and prosperous years in Europe, returned home to the USA on July 31, 1939. Although his absence from the American music scene had in no way diminished his technical and creative powers as a jazz tenor saxophone soloist, his primacy on his instrument, at least with jazz fans, was now being challenged by a host of younger men, paramount of whom were Leon “Chu” Berry, Ben Webster, and especially Lester Young. The music scene Hawkins had left in 1934 was vastly different in 1939. Big bands, both black and white, were now serious money-makers, and great showcases for jazz and jazz-based music. Nevertheless, the challenges in successfully operating a big band were daunting, even under the most auspicious circumstances. Also, the handicaps any Afro-American musician had to endure in that time of virulent racism and Jim Crow mores only added more obstacles to achieving success, even on a modest scale.
Basie managed to extricate himself from the clutches of MCA by early 1941, and moved to the William Morris Agency, where Duke Ellington was also a client. His prospects did not improve immediately however. The months of February and March were filled with one night dance dates that ranged from Miami, Florida in the south, to Milwaukee, Wisconsin in the north. By April, the Basie band was able to sit down in Chicago for a few days, and make some records. Coincidentally, Coleman Hawkins was also in Chicago at that time, rehearsing with a band of Chicago musicians for an engagement at a south side venue called Dave’s Swingland Cafe’. (3)
Basie had been using various tenor saxophonists to cover Lester Young’s chair in his band since Young departed in mid-December of 1940. The man who did most of that covering was tenor saxophonist Paul Bascomb, long associated with Erskine Hawkins’s band. But as good as Bascomb was, he was not Coleman Hawkins. Basie contacted Hawkins to make the April 12 recording date, Hawkins’s fee was agreed upon, as well as that Hawk’s name would appear on the record’s label as soloist, and Coleman was in the studio ready to work when the Basie band arrived.
“9:20 Special” was composed by Basie’s lead alto saxophonist, Earle Warren. It was known in the Basie band as “Earle’s tune.” It was arranged by Lavere “Buster” Harding.(4)
Various explanations have been given over the years about where the title “9:20 Special” came from. Here is one such. “The band had come to the recording studio after a night’s work in Chicago, and by the time they finished this number it was 9:20 a.m.” (5) To me, “9:20 Special” has always evoked images of a speeding passenger train hurtling through the night.
This performance begins with a delightful eight-bar introduction fashioned by arranger Buster Harding: the clipped open brass are followed by the saxophones, then the oo-ah trombones, then Basie’s piano. The catchy main melody exposition in the first chorus is presented by velvety cup-muted trumpets against humming saxophones. The saxophones then take the bridge, followed by the cup-muted trumpets reprising the main melody.
There follows a colorful transitional passage that leads to Basie’s piano solo: Hear the saxophones against the open trombones playing pedal notes and then the open trumpets that verily catapult Basie into his understated piano solo. This is masterful arranging, and establishes a sequence of contrasts involving Basie and the band. The eight bar alto saxophone solo is played (in my opinion) by Earle Warren (shown at left – it is his tune and it sounds like him), though one source attributed it to Tab Smith. (6) The brief, droll open brass fanfare introduces yet another contrast, a Harmon-muted trumpet solo by Harry “Sweets” Edison. Sweets was a very underrated swing era performer. He consistently delivered top-grade jazz solos in a very personal way to Basie’s music. The brief burst of open trumpet after this solo is also by Edison, yet another contrasting sound.
A reprise of the cup-muted trumpets playing the main melody flows into another transitional band segment, followed by a crisp drum and cymbal explosion by Jo Jones, all of which eventually serve as a modulation into the big-toned and romping tenor saxophone solo played by guest star Coleman Hawkins. The telepathic interplay between Hawkins and Basie throughout Hawkins’s solo is especially exciting. Hawk rarely got comping like this, and he responds with bold swing.
The recording presented with this post was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.
(1) Maceo Pinkard (1897-1962) was also the composer of a number of favorite tunes of jazz musicians, including “Sweet Georgia Brown,” “Them There Eyes,” “Sugar,” and the wonderful novelty “Is That Religion?” Here is a link to a recording of “Is That Religion?” swung by Mildred Bailey and friends, including Bunny Berigan. https://swingandbeyond.com/2017/02/25/is-that-religion-1933-mildred-bailey-and-the-dorsey-brothers/
(2) The Song of the Hawk …The Life and Recordings of Coleman Hawkins, by John Chilton (1990), 183.
(3) Hawkins was the titular leader of this Chicago band, and of course, its featured soloist. The band was organized by ex-Earl Hines saxophonist Bob Crowder. The band’s musical director was trumpeter Ed Sims, also formerly with Hines. Basically, Hawkins showed up at the gig, played his saxophone, collected his money and went home afterwards.
(4) Lavere “Buster” Harding (1912-1965) was born in North Buxton, Ontario Canada, and was raised in Cleveland, Ohio, where as a teenager he started his own band. He began working as a pianist with various territory bands in the late 1930s, and began arranging and playing second piano in Teddy Wilson’s big band in 1939. He then worked for Coleman Hawkins as an arranger in 1940, then went onto considerable success with Cab Calloway in 1941-1942. Harding worked as a free lance arranger from 1942 until the late 1950s (including an association with Billie Holiday), and into the 1960s, when he was associated with trumpeter Jonah Jones.
(5) The Swing Era – 1941-1942, (1970), notes by Joseph Kastner, (57).
(6) In The World of Count Basie, by Stanley Dance, (1980) Earle Warren stated that Tab Smith played first alto on the arrangements he (Smith) wrote for the Basie band, and also any alto solos called for on those arrangements. Otherwise, Warren played first alto and the alto solos.
Here is a link to Coleman Hawkins’s great recording of “Body and Soul”: https://swingandbeyond.com/2016/11/01/body-and-soul-1939-coleman-hawkins/
Here are some links to other great performances by the Count Basie’s bands of the 1930s and 1940s: