Composed by Count Basie and Eddie Durham; “Head” arrangement worked out by Count Basie, Eddie Durham and the members of the Basie band.
Recorded by Count Basie and His Orchestra for Decca on February 16, 1938 in New York.
William J. “Count” Basie, piano, directing: Ed Lewis, first trumpet; Wilbur “Buck” Clayton and Harry “Sweets” Edison, trumpets; Bennie Morton, Dan Minor and Eddie Durham, trombones; Earle Warren first alto saxophone; Ronald “Jack” Washington, alto saxophone; Herschel Evans and Lester Young, tenor saxophones; Freddie Green, guitar; Walter Page, bass; Jonathan “Jo” Jones, drums.
The story: Lester Willis Young, one of the most influential musicians in the history of jazz, was born on August 27, 1909, in Woodville, Mississippi. After a lengthy apprenticeship spent in numerous black territory bands in the Midwest, Young learned to read music at sight, achieved complete control of the instruments he played (which by then were tenor saxophone and clarinet), and developed some extraordinarily original jazz ideas. By the early 1930s, he had grown to six feet one. His height and the combination of his light skin, penetrating green eyes, and tiny feet (size seven), made him a striking individual. He also had begun to accumulate a number of personal eccentricities that only heightened his individuality. His dress, manner of speech, and humor were exceedingly different, even in the somewhat unorthodox world of dance band musicians. (At left: Lester Young -early 1930s.)
But it was in his music that Lester Young was most individual, especially in the 1930s. His professional activity in the early 1930s was continuous, though hardly high profile. The low point came when he was hired by Fletcher Henderson in the spring of 1934, replacing Coleman Hawkins, whose stentorian tenor saxophone stylings had been a prominent feature of Henderson’s band for years. Young’s entire approach to the tenor saxophone was antithetical to Hawkins’s, and his employment with Henderson was short lived and exasperating. (Young requested a letter from Henderson stating that he had not been fired for musical inadequacy, which Henderson gladly provided to him. Young’s playing simply didn’t fit into the Henderson band’s style.)
Incredibly, even though Young had been a professional musician since approximately 1923, he did not make his first record until the autumn of 1936. His playing on the recording of “Lady Be Good” (ARC/Vocalion on October 9, 1936 – see the link to it below), with a small group of musicians from Count Basie’s earliest band, can only be described as astonishing. Young’s approach to jazz, which in my view was an extension in many ways (principally rhythmic) of what Bix Beiderbecke had started, was the first full-scale alternative to the approach developed by Louis Armstrong. His tenor saxophone sound was also quite different from that used by all others then. He attributed its light “coolness” to the influence of C-melody sax pioneer Frank Trumbauer. When heard in the context of what jazz was in the late 1930s, Lester Young seemed to have dropped to earth from another planet as a unique, fully formed jazz virtuoso.
It is important to remember that when this recording was made, Billie Holiday was Basie’s female vocalist, and had been for many months. Her relationship with the members of the Basie band was generally very good. People often wonder if her relationship with Lester Young was sexual. The consensus drawn from people who were on the scene then, and later, is that it was not. Nevertheless, they had a profound musical relationship that certainly found deep expression when they made music together. (At left: Billie Holiday and Lester Young.)
The pianist Jimmy Rowles, who knew both Billie and Lester well, and worked with both of them, explained his views on their personal relationship in a quote in the book Wishing on the Moon …The Life and Times of Billie Holiday, by Donald Clarke,. Rowles’s recollection is definitely X-rated, and very funny. I have sanitized it considerably because this is a family blog. But the essence of it is this: He was gentle and “…she was rough, and I mean rough. She’d be hugging him, and she’d move back, and like they would mate, but just so much. Like she was going to eat him up. And they went through their little trip. You put the two of them together, and it’s pretty wild. But they’d just touch, …and it was cool. They’d grab each other, and they’d split. Like accidental joy. It was like brother and sister. But another thing: He was so strange. He was like a visitor. And she was too.”(1)
After disastrous experiences with racism and injustice in the U.S. Army in World War II, Young was dishonorably discharged. After this, he gradually descended into a misama of alcoholism. Paradoxically, it was during this same time that he achieved his most widespread success as a performer, dividing his time between Jazz at the Philharmonic and leading his own small groups. His influence on other tenor saxophonists was greatest in the later 1940s and 1950s. Lester Young died in Manhattan on March 15, 1959, suffering from symptoms of cirrhosis of the liver. (At right: Lester Young in 1958.)
The music: A marvelous summary of how this music was created and what is going on in the original Basie band performance was presented in the book The Swing Era 1937-1938, which accompanied the new recordings of classic swing era performances that were issued around 1970. Here are parts of that summary: “This is one of those up-tempo head arrangements that the Basie band was doing so superbly in its first years in New York. It was built, as most of them were, on a riff the band had latched onto – this time a phrase reminiscent of ‘Christopher Columbus,’ the famous Fletcher Henderson number. Eddie Durham, who played trombone and electric guitar solos in the Basie band (in 1937 and into 1938), also took on the job of making arrangements out of the band’s improvisations. ‘Basie and Eddie,’ said another Basie trombonist, Dicky Wells, ‘would lock up in a room with a jug, and Basie would play the ideas and Eddie would voice them.’ It wasn’t all that simple, according to Durham: ‘That guy Basie, he was just full of ideas, but you could never hold him still for more than eight bars.’
The song’s title comes from a mid-twentieth century Afro-American adage: ‘Every tub sits on its own bottom,’ meaning that every person has to stand on his/her own.” (2)
Lester leaps – Lester Young plays a solo at the Randall’s Island Carnival of Swing, May 29, 1938 in New York City. Also visible L-R: bassist Walter Page, Count Basie, Herschel Evans, Earle Warren. The guitar and hands at right belong to Freddie Green.
Lester Young plays the introduction, and then flies right on into the sixteen bar solo that opens the first chorus. This is quintessential late 1930s Lester: his light tenor saxophone sound with minimal vibrato, his fluid swinging technique, his playing phrases of varying lengths flowing over bar lines. In 1938, this playing was revolutionary in the world of swing. Lester soars in sovereign fashion over the playing of the rhythm section who are providing the basic pulse, and the syncopated oo-ah brass, who are providing the third layer of rhythm. This use of rhythm, and various counter-rhythms was a trade-mark of the early Basie band, and it drove dancers into paroxysms of joy.
Harry Edison plays a trumpet solo at the Randall’s Island Carnival of Swing. Also shown, L-R: Earle Warren, Jack Washington, Lester Young, Dan Minor, Bennie Morton, Eddie Durham.
After the intensity of Young’s solo and what went on behind it, there is a sudden drop in the dynamic level of the music as Basie, accompanied only by guitar, bass and drummer Jo Jones applying his brushes to his high-hat cymbals, plays a typically aphoristic piano solo. The contrast is most effective.
A brief brass fanfare springs trumpeter Harry “Sweets” Edison into a joyous full chorus solo. At first he is backed by riffing saxophones, with great comping from Basie and subtle drum explosions by Jones. Then the brass surge in the second half of his improvisation. Take note of Edison’s superb trumpet technique. Sweets always had great chops and could swing most effectively in an up-tempo setting. His later pared-down and sly obbligatos, often with a Harmon mute in the bell of his trumpet, typified in his work behind many singers in the 1950s (most notably Frank Sinatra), have obscured what a great technician he was.
Edison’s solo is followed by a sequence of riffing, then a bit more of Basie’s piano. After some more riffing, Young’s tenor saxophone colleague Herschel Evans plays a few bars, providing a contrast in sound and approach to Lester. Edison returns briefly amidst the riffs, and Young is heard briefly at the very end. (At left: Count Basie, rhythm alchemist, at the piano – late 1930s.)
This recording provides a perfect example of the Basie style of swing, which in many ways was revolutionary in the period 1937-1939. A very good and detailed analysis of the component parts of the Basie style of swing can be found in Gunther Schuller’s book The Swing Era. (3) Schuller provides a perceptive look at how the Basie rhythm section of those years, Freddie Green on acoustic rhythm guitar, Walter Page on the strongly walking 4/4 bass, Jo Jones using his drums and cymbals in a way that flowed, and last but certainly not least, Basie’s piano playing, both in its in its role as accompanist for the jazz soloists in his band, and as a band pianist, provided the rhythmic basis for everything that happened musically in the band. The key descriptor Schuller uses when analyzing what these men were doing to provide the rhythmic flow under the music is linear (as opposed to vertical). That was new and it allowed jazz men like Lester Young and Harry Edison to soar in their improvised solos.
The recording presented with this post was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.
Notes and links:
(1) Wishing on the Moon …The Life and Times of Billie Holiday, by Donald Clarke (1994) 126.
(2) The Swing Era 1937-1938, (1971), notes on the music by Joseph Kastner, 55.
(3) The Swing Era …The Development of Jazz – 1930-1545, by Gunther Schuller (1989) 223-229.
Here are links to more vintage Basie with Lester Young:
And here is a link to Fletcher Henderson’s “Christopher Columbus”: