“Taxi War Dance”(1939) Count Basie with Lester Young, Dicky Wells and Buddy Tate

“Taxi War Dance”

Composed by Count Basie and Lester Young; head arrangement organized by Count Basie.

Recorded by Count Basie and His Orchestra for Columbia-Vocalion on March 19, 1939 in New York.

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

NOTE: With this post, we celebrate having hosted over 1,000,000 visitors at our You Tube channels, and almost 250,000 viewers here at swingandbeyond.com. Thanks to everyone who visits, listens, reads and enjoys. More posts about music in the swing idiom and the people who made it are in various stages of planning and production. I will continue to do my best to keep things swinging here at swingandbeyond.com. Mike Zirpolo.

The story:

John Hammond, that jazz gadfly, who on his own sought-out, discovered, promoted, and assisted many musicians during the swing era, and after, also functioned in several “official” capacities vis-a-vis musicians he respected, including as an A and R man (producer) for Columbia Records (and its predecessor, American Record Company). In the late 1930s, as the swing era was blossoming, Hammond was a young man (born in 1910) of strong opinions. If he disliked any musician’s playing, that musician would get no assistance from him. But if he liked a musician’s playing, he could be a very strong ally. His strength was directly related to his wealth (he was a member of the Vanderbilt family), and his aggressive personality. Two musicians John Hammond liked tremendously were Count Basie and Lester Young. (Above left: John Hammond in the late 1930s)

The story of how Hammond “discovered” the Count Basie band in January of 1936 in Chicago, when he tuned in his car radio and stumbled across a Kansas City radio station that was broadcasting Basie live from the Reno Club in that city’s black ghetto, has long been a part of jazz legend. What is less known is that in early 1936, just past his 25th birthday, Hammond was not yet the show-biz and recording industry insider he would soon become. His honest response to the exciting music of the 1936 Count Basie band was to be thrilled, and then to write several laudatory articles about Basie that appeared in Down Beat, and generally to talk Basie up to whomever would listen, including Benny Goodman, another musician whose playing he liked, and had a close relationship with.(1) Hammond’s attention was then diverted to other matters, and the embryonic Basie band continued to work basically in Kansas City. Hammond would not get to Kansas City to see and hear the Basie band in person until probably the spring of 1936.

On Hammond’s first visit to Kansas City, he did meet Basie (whom he had seen perform in Harlem some years before), and they immediately became friends. Hammond listened to the Basie band for a couple of nights, met several of the musicians in the band, including Lester Young, and became even more excited by their music. Here is what Hammond recalled about that early Basie band later: “What I heard in that nine-piece Basie band was the sort of free, swinging jazz I have always preferred. Fletcher Henderson’s band had the same elements, so did Benny Moten’s, back in 1932, when Basie played with him. To me, this sort of unbuttoned, never-too-disciplined band is the foundation from which inspired jazz solos spring. Not everyone agrees. …For me, there has never been anything like the early Basie band. It had shortcomings. Its sound was occasionally raw and raucous. But you expected it to erupt, an sooner or later, it did.” (2) (Above right: Count Basie in the mid-1930s.)

After his meeting with Basie in Kansas City, Hammond began working within his personal network of acquaintances within the music business to start the process of building the name of Count Basie. These people included, in addition to Benny Goodman, Willard Alexander, BG’s liaison with Music Corporation of America (MCA).(3)  At some point in mid-1936, Hammond also began to focus on getting Basie a recording contract. His contact was with Dick Altschuler of the American Record Company, the corporation that owned the Brunswick and Vocalion record labels, among others.

Meanwhile, he continued his pro-Basie ballyhoo, both in-print and in-person. Dave Kapp, one of the aggressive Kapp brothers who ran the up-and coming Decca Records, listened to Hammond’s combination of fan-rave and sales-pitch, and quickly, without informing Hammond, headed to Kansas City to sign Basie to a sub-entry-level Decca recording contract. His sales-pitch to Basie was “I’m a friend of John Hammond…” The terms of this contract were hardly favorable to Basie, nevertheless, he saw the Decca contract as a break for him and his fledgling band, something that would at least keep them in eating money while they attempted to modify their music so that perhaps some mainstream (that is white) record buyers and dancers outside of the Kansas City territory would get to know something about them. When Hammond found out about the Decca contract, he was livid. Here is how Basie recalled that: “Without realizing what I was doing, I had agreed to record twelve records a year (for a two-year period) for $750.00 a year outright, with no royalties. I didn’t know anything about royalties. John couldn’t believe it. He couldn’t get us out of that contract, but he was able to get Decca to raise the musicians’ pay (at recording sessions) up to union minimum. I don’t think I ever heard of minimum scale before that, and if I had, I never paid any attention to it. I guess I had to learn some things the hard way.” (4)

Basie’s point of view regarding the Decca contract could not have been more different from Hammond’s. Basie was a musician, and he was black in Jim Crow 1936 America. Hammond was white and a Vanderbilt. What Hammond saw as exploitation, Basie saw as opportunity. Both were right. But while Hammond seethed over Basie’s Decca contract, Basie tried to make the most of it. It appears that the two-year term of Basie’s contract with Decca began around the time he made his first recordings pursuant to that contract on January 21, 1937. However, it also appears that Basie had signed the Decca contract weeks if not months before that, and that another provision of that contract prevented him from making recordings for any other commercial record label. This explains in part why John Hammond surreptitiously recorded Basie and a few of his sidemen in Chicago on November 9, 1936 for ARC/Vocalion, using the nom du disque Jones-Smith Inc. That recording session captured the early Basie approach to swing, and catapulted Lester Young into the awareness of dance band musicians everywhere. (A link to the recording of “Lady, Be Good ” from that session can be accessed by clicking on the link below at note 5.)

Despite the fact that Basie worked tirelessly to improve the musicianship of his band, and broaden its repertoire to have a wider public appeal, the build-up process for his band lasted for years. As late as 1941 it was rumored that Basie would be giving up his band and joining Benny Goodman. Whoever was spreading those rumors did not know Basie. He was a patient man. Patient and tenacious, …and ambitious. (Above right: Count Basie and John Hammond in the late 1930s. Note the newspaper under Hammond’s right arm. He was never without a newspaper, which he often read while he was listening to a band. This drove musicians to distraction. Basie however, remained serene – as always.)

The music: 

I will cite to the excellent analysis Loren Schoenberg, who is both a pianist and a tenor saxophonist, wrote of “Taxi War Dance” in the liner notes for the Mosaic CD set Classic Columbia, Okeh and Vocalion Lester Young with Count Basie, (2008). No one has ever explicated this music better: “Basing performances on familiar chord sequences was already common practice by the late 1930s, but transforming the moody ballad ‘Willow Weep for Me’ into the up-tempo ‘Taxi War Dance”  is an unexpected and inspired idea. There’s not a whiff of the original to be found, but the harmonies inspire Lester and the band to create one of their classic performances. No time is wasted beyond the rolling introduction in getting to Young, who creates a solo so idiosyncratic that even he rarely recalled it in his subsequent solos.  …(H)e was always looking for a (musical) dialogue with Basie, and (here) he fractures the upper notes of Basie’s comp in his second eight bars, after starting the solo by reciting them almost verbatim. At moments like these, the piano and tenor blend into a unified whole, easily the equal of Young’s rapport with Billie Holiday. One way of hearing it is imagining the piano to be adding the punctuation to the saxophone’s sentences; another is as a braking mechanism, creating the slightest pause to Young’s seemingly unstoppable rhythmic flow. However you think of it, it is the kind of spontaneous combustion that the slightest reflection or hesitation would destroy. The bridge contains one of the offhandedly polyrhythmic phrases with which Young could stop traffic at will. On the surface, it seems to be based on quarter note triplets, but it goes deeper to the core of rhythmic irrationality than that.

Prez at his most presidential – at the Apollo Theater in New York – January 1940. The head to the left of Young is that of Ed Lewis. Also visible, Basie at the piano and Jo Jones at the drums.

Both takes of Young’s solo (on ‘Taxi War Dance’) have odd sounds that function more as effects than as pitches. They occur on measure 14 of the issued take (a high E) … Taken as a whole, these two 32-bar choruses capture an essence as close as we will ever get to the wild and wooly Young of Kansas City jam sessions who cowed any and all challengers. The issued version is on the whole more inspired, in better balance, and Young’s opening, with its supposed paraphrase of ‘Old Man River’  became one of his most famous and oft-quoted phrases. Dicky Wells’s (trombone) solo  highlights many things–most notably his original voice and concept on the instrument, and the way Basie’s piano (chord) changes function, depending on whom he is accompanying. Wells is followed by Buddy Tate, who trades fours with the band (bridge by Basie) before Young returns. At this point (drummer Jo) Jones turns on the heat.  …Young’s last four-bar (break) on the issued take has him alternate fingering a C# and a C-natural in a way that seems to say ‘what to do, what to do.’ Countless saxophonists copied it, more than likely unaware of its roots in the work of one of Young’s early idols, Jimmy Dorsey, who used it on any number of mid to late 1920s recordings with Red Nichols.” (6)  NOTE: The version of “Taxi War Dance” presented with this post is the version that was issued on Vocalion 4748.

P.S. 1 – Produced by John Hammond:

As was pointed out above, John Hammond produced the first Count Basie recording session for ARC/Vocalion on November 9, 1936. Due to the two-year Decca contract Basie signed earlier in 1936, which began in January of 1937, Hammond was unable to record Basie again until February 13, 1939, when he made his first recordings with Basie pursuant to a new contract Hammond negotiated for Basie with the successor to ARC, Columbia Records. That first session was made by eight musicians from Basie’s big band, plus vocalist Jimmy Rushing. It is apparent when listening to the music recorded at both of these Hammond-supervised sessions that Hammond wanted to capture on record the excitement he felt when he first heard the Basie band in early 1936. This “informal” approach is also apparent in the Hammond-supervised recording session of March 19, 1939, that produced “Taxi War Dance” employing the full Basie band.

P.S. 2 – What’s in a Name?

Over the years, people have speculated about the source of the rather mysterious title of this recording. In my study of and fascination with Lester Young, which has been ongoing for several decades, I have learned that Lester related to the world around him in a way that was unique, usually typified by irony and humor. His use of the English language was every bit as creative as his saxophone playing. Here are some vintage Lesterisms: His most famous sobriquet, Lady Day, was for Billie Holiday. But he applied the name Lady to men as well: His sectionmate in the Basie band, tenor saxophonist George “Buddy” Tate, was Lady Tate to Lester. When he was disturbed by anything, Young would say, “I feel a draft.”  If something was to his liking he would say, “I’ve got eyes for that,” or if he disapproved, “I’ve got no eyes for that.” He used the word “poundcake” to describe a beautiful woman. (“Pound Cake” was later commemorated in a Basie recording made on May 19, 1939.) A lover from years before was a “wayback.” When Lester inquired of a woman, “Does madam burn?” he was asking, “Do you cook”? According to jazz piano great Oscar Peterson, “George Washington” was Prez’s term for the bridge of a tune. He would ask Peterson, “Lady Pete, may I have the George Washington again?” When his agent offered him various gigs, Lester would inquire: How does the bread smell? …meaning, how much do they pay?

My speculation is that Lester somehow had the term “taxi dance” in mind when it came to naming this tune. That term was very familiar to dance band musicians in the 1930s. It meant an event that dance hall proprietors staged where young women were employed to dance with male customers, often for ten cents a dance. In the middle of this term, Young inserted the word War. This possibly came to him because at the time the Basie band recorded “Taxi War Dance,” Tommy Dorsey’s recording of “Hawaiian War Chant” was getting a lot of play. In Lester’s fertile mind, it was just a droll half a beat from “Hawaiian War Chant” to “Taxi War Dance.”

The recording presented with post was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.

Notes and links:

(1) John Hammond’s relationship with Benny Goodman was an interesting one. These two men, both with strong personalities, interacted productively though informally for several years through the mid and late 1930s, when Goodman went from being a very talented young musician to being an international celebrity. The inevitable clashes started as the 1940s began, when Hammond transitioned from being Benny Goodman’s patron to functioning as Goodman’s A and R man (producer) at Columbia Records. Their relationship was greatly complicated when Hammond’s older sister Alice, of whom he was very fond, married Benny Goodman in 1942. Benny and Alice’s marriage was successful and long-lasting. His relationship with John Hammond was equally long (longer, in fact), but fraught with conflict. As elder statesmen of jazz in the 1970s and 1980s, they tolerated each other with professional smiles and platitudes.

(2) John Hammond on the Record, by John Hammond with Irving Townshend (1977), 170.

(3) Basie did sign a contract with Music Corporation of America in 1936. This was exceedingly unusual because MCA’s policy was to sign bands that had “arrived” in public awareness, not ones that were having to have their public identity built. But in 1936, MCA was also observing the ongoing success of two of its swing band clients, Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey, and was willing to take on the still developing Basie band.

(4) Good Morning Blues …The Autobiography of Count Basie, as told to Albert Murray (1985), 167-168.

(5) Here is the link to the Jones-Smith Inc. recording of “Lady, be Good”:  https://swingandbeyond.com/2017/02/17/lady-be-good-1936-lester-young-and-count-basie/

(6) Mosaic CD set Classic Columbia, Okeh and Vocalion Lester Young with Count Basie (2013), 8. Notes on the music by Loren Schoenberg.

Here are links to a number of Lester Young recordings that you will enjoy:

https://swingandbeyond.com/2020/10/03/every-tub-1938-count-basie-with-lester-young-and-sweets-edison/

https://swingandbeyond.com/2016/08/16/mosaic-classic-1936-1947-count-basie-and-lester-young-studio-sessions/

https://swingandbeyond.com/2020/01/04/blue-and-sentimental-1938-count-basie-with-herschel-evans-and-lester-young-and-1969/

https://swingandbeyond.com/2019/02/01/easy-does-it-1940-count-basie-with-lester-young-buck-clayton-and-sweets-edison/

https://swingandbeyond.com/2017/09/23/the-smell-of-money-george-shearing-and-nat-king-cole/

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2 Comments

  1. “Taxi War Dance” has always been one of my best loved showcases for my favorite tenor player, Pres — from his “Ol’ Man River” opening quote through that arresting “what to do, what to do” figure! (I knew, of course, that Jimmy Dorsey was one of Lester’s early influences; now I want to dig out my Red Nichols sides and hunt for instances of “what to do” from Jimmy.) It’s continually fascinated me that the band chose the beautiful, complex “Willow Weep for Me” as the harmonic basis for an up-tempo romp, to which its amusing title is so well-suited. Incidentally, though I was familiar with the term “taxi dance,” I had never taken that leap with the concurrent popularity of TD’s “Hawaiian War Chant” to cipher out Lester’s possible amalgam of the two — makes perfect sense, though. It seems that it was not until Bird began recording under his own name that we would commonly find a jazz artist blowing over such sophisticated fare as this somber Ann Ronell standard. There is a nearly exact melodic quote from “Willow” in Basie’s first bridge, so I can’t agree with Loren’s observation that “There’s not a whiff of the original to be found … ”

    It’s a rotten shame that it was common practice for record labels to try to screw potential artists with a contract that would enable only the company and not the performer to benefit appreciably from the work present on the records. Still, a talent as immense as Basie was destined to succeed eventually.

    Congratulations on the milestone!

  2. To me “Taxi War Dance” is one of the great recordings of the Swing Era. It has no “head” to latch on to. There is no “Cherokee” or even “Opus One” theme that everyone remembers. On the other hand the solo’s are so perfect. It belongs in every collection of big band recordings.

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