“Flight of the Foo Birds” (1959) Count Basie with Frank Wess, Thad Jones and Billy Mitchell

“Flight of the Foo Birds”

Composed and arranged by Neal Hefti.

Recorded by Count Basie and His Orchestra as a part of the “Stars for Defense” transcription series on July 28, 1959 in New York.

William J. “Count” Basie, piano, directing: Eugene “Snooky” Young, first trumpet; Wendell Culley, Thaddeus “Thad” Jones, Joe Newman, trumpets; Henry Coker, Al Grey and Benny Powell, trombones; Marshal Royal, first alto saxophone; Frank Wess, alto saxophone; Frank Foster and Billy Mitchell, tenor saxophones; Charlie Fowlkes, baritone saxophone; Freddie Green, guitar; Eddie Jones, bass; Percival “Sonny” Payne, drums.

The story:

In the late 1950s, the United States was a place where concern over possible nuclear attacks by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, that now dissolved confederation of nations that was dominated by Russia, was real. The USSR, also called the Soviet Union, had successfully tested an atomic bomb in 1949. That started the general concern in the United States that somehow, the USSR could successfully attack the United States with a nuclear weapon. This fear was regarded as hysteria by some people who asked how the Soviet Union was going to deliver such a weapon to the United States. Nevertheless, American military and civilian leaders began taking measured steps to deal with such a threat. Various air defenses were put into place to intercept any Soviet aircraft that might be carrying a nuclear bomb.

Then 1951, CONELRAD (Control of Electromagnetic Radiation), a method of emergency broadcasting to the public of the United States in the event of enemy attack was established. It was intended to allow continuous broadcast of civil defense information to the public using commercial radio stations, while rapidly switching the transmitter stations to make the broadcasts unsuitable for Soviet bombers that might attempt to home-in on those radio signals as was done during World War II, when German radio stations, based in or near cities, were used as beacons by Allied bomber pilots.

Such an attack before the USSR obtained the ability to deliver a nuclear bomb via a rocket was substantial enough. But after the 1957, when the first intercontinental ballistic missile and orbital launch vehicle, the R-7 Semyorka, was tested successfully, concern of a nuclear attack in the U.S. escalated. Because of its global range and large payload of approximately five tons, the reliable R-7 was an effective delivery system for nuclear warheads. The late 1950s was a time in the U.S. when school children (myself included) were taken through drills preparing us for a possible nuclear attack. (All I remember about that was that we were told to hide under our desks, and that we did so in very orderly fashion.) At home, when I heard the tests of the CONELRAD broadcast system on radio, I asked my parents where we were to go in case of a nuclear attack. My father told me to go to the fruit cellar in the basement of the house we lived in then. When my parents built a new house in 1961, I was concerned that they had not built a bomb shelter in its basement. Soon however, other challenges in my young life provided me with new things to worry about.

I am grateful that the United States has never been attacked with nuclear weapons. Now, various defenses against such a thing, that I cannot comprehend, are in place.

The music:

Stars for Defense was a series of radio transcriptions recorded for the United States Federal Civil Defense Administration from 1956 to 1967. Commercial radio stations were instructed to broadcast the content of those transcriptions at certain specified times assigned by the Civil Defense Administration to help Americans prepare for possible disasters, like a nuclear attack. They contained both music and interviews. The total running time of each transcription disk was approximately 15 minutes per side. Emcee Jay Jackson would introduce and talk with the week’s musical guests (one per week). The background music was supplied by Ray Bloch and His Orchestra.

This series is little remembered today, nevertheless, it presented an extremely diverse and large group of talented people including Bing Crosby, Dinah Shore, Johnny Mercer, Dick Haymes, Edie Gorme’, Al Hibbler, Burl Ives, Victor Borge, Les Paul and Mary Ford, The Three Suns, Rosemary Clooney, Don Shirley, Roger Williams, Johnny Mathis and Count Basie, among many others.

In the autumn of 1957, Count Basie and his management team, were about to record the Basie band playing a full LP, eleven new compositions/arrangements, by Neal Hefti. The idea and planning for this concept album originated with Basie and Hefti in response to requests by Morris Levy, owner of Birdland and Roulette Records, to come up with a program that would showcase the then-current Basie band doing what it did best – swinging. The Roulette LP album that resulted was called The Atomic Mr. Basie. Basie’s two recording sessions for the Atomic album (October 21 and 22, 1957) were at Capitol Studios Studio A on the first floor (one floor up) in the Eaves Building at 151 West 46th Street in Manhattan. The Eaves Costume Company occupied the ground floor.

The Atomic Mr. Basie was a very successful record for Basie. It included a number of compositions that would become permanent parts of the Basie book, including “The Kid From Red Bank,” “Whirly-Bird,” “Fantail,” and the most popular tune from that album, the beguiling “Li’l Darlin’.” “Flight of the Foo Birds,” Hefti’s clever retooling of the pop tune “Give Me the Simple Life,” was also much played by the Basie band over the next two-plus decades.

The music:

I have chosen to present with this post a recording of “Flight of the Foo Birds” that was made nine months after the Roulette original because to my ears, it is a more exciting performance, taken at a slightly faster tempo, with more compelling solos. Those solos, in addition to Basie’s electric contributions on piano, are by Frank Wess on alto saxophone, (shown at left with Marshal Royal), Thad Jones on trumpet, and here, Billy Mitchell on tenor saxophone. (Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis played the tenor solo on the Roulette recording.) Drummer Sonny Payne and lead trumpeter Snooky Young also play brilliantly in this performance.

As noted above, “Flight of the Foo Birds” is Neal Hefti’s jazz reimagining of the song “Give Me the Simple Life.”  In vocal music, contrafactum is “the substitution of one text (or lyric) for another without substantial change to the music.” The earliest known examples of this procedure (sometimes referred to as ”adaptation”) date back to the 9th century used in connection with Gregorian chant. Contrafactum is not to be confused with contrafact. Here is a definition of contrafact: ““A contrafact is a new musical work based on a prior musical work. The term comes from classical music and has only since the 1940s been applied to jazz, where it is still not standard. In classical music, contrafacts have been used as early as the parody mass and In Nomine of the 16th century. More recently, Cheap Imitation (1969), by John Cage was produced by systematically changing notes from the melody line of Socrate by Erik Satie using chance procedures. (At right: Thad Jones.)

In jazz, a contrafact is a musical composition consisting of a new melody overlaid on the harmonic structure of a preexisting tune. As a compositional device, it was of particular importance in the 1940s development of bop, since it allowed jazz musicians to create new pieces for performance and recording on which they could improvise without having to obtain written permission or pay publisher fees for copyrighted songs. (While melodies can be copyrighted, their underlying harmonic structure cannot be.)

In jazz, a contrafact is a musical composition consisting of a new melody overlaid on the harmonic structure of a preexisting tune. As a compositional device, it was of particular importance in the 1940s development of bop, since it allowed jazz musicians to create new pieces for performance and recording on which they could improvise without having to obtain written permission or pay publisher fees for copyrighted songs. (While melodies can be copyrighted, their underlying harmonic structure cannot be.) (At left: Billy Mitchell.)

Contrafacts are not to be confused with musical quotations, which comprise borrowing rhythms or melodic figures from an existing composition.”(1)

The Basie band in late 1958 – L-R rear: Sonny Payne, Thad Jones, Snooky Young, Wendell Culley, Joe Newman; middle: Eddie Jones, Freddie Green, Henry Coker , Al Grey and Benny Powell;  front: Basie, Billy Mitchell, Frank Wess, Marshal Royal, Frank Foster, Charlie Fowlkes.

Jazz contrafacts from the swing era include Duke Ellington and Ben Webster’s “Cotton Tail,” which is based on the chords of George Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm”; ” Edgar Sampson’s “Don’t Be That Way,” which is also based on ” I Got Rhythm”;  Jimmy Giuffre’s composition for Woody Herman called “Four Brothers,” which is based on Harry Warren’s “Jeepers Creepers”; Duke Ellington’s “In a Mellotone,” which is based on Art Hickman’s “Rose Room”; George Shearing’s “Lullaby of Birdland,” which is based on “Love Me or Leave Me” by Walter Donaldson; Charlie Christian and Benny Goodman’s “Seven Come Eleven,” which is based on “I Got Rhythm.” There are many more. The practice of creating jazz contrafacts accelerated greatly during the bop era of the 1940s and 1950s. Among jazz and swing aficionados, especially musicians, identifying the underlying chord progressions of contrafacts is something of an esoteric parlor game.

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

Notes and links:

(1) The information presented above on contrafactum and contrafact are derived from Wikipedia posts on each term.

(2) Here is a link to the great Duke Ellington band performance of the jazz contrafact “Cotton Tail,” which Duke and Ben Webster collaborated on:https://swingandbeyond.com/2018/02/02/cotton-tail-1940-duke-ellington-and-ben-webster/

(3) Here are links to other great recordings by Basie’s “New Testament” band:





(4) Here are links to great performances by Basie’s “Old Testament” band:







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