“Jive at Five” (1939) Count Basie with Lester Young, Sweets Edison, Jack Washington and Dicky Wells

 

“Jive at Five”

Composed and arranged by Harry Edison.

Recorded by Count Basie and His Orchestra for Decca on February 4, 1939 in New York.

William J. “Count” Basie, piano, directing: Lester “Shad” Collins, Wilbur “Buck” Clayton and Harry “Sweets” Edison, trumpets; William “Dicky” Wells, trombone; Lester Young, tenor saxophone; Ronald “Jack” Washington, baritone saxophone; Freddie Green, guitar; Walter Page, bass; Jonathan “Jo” Jones, drums.

The story:

There began to be a good bit of discussion in the “classical” music world about “minimal music” or “minimalism” starting in the 1960s. I will not delve into that here. I will however assert that some three decades earlier, pianist William J. Basie came to the fore in jazz by playing the piano in a way that could justly be called “minimalist.” Basie himself would have undoubtedly eschewed any terminology or categorization that in his view might have limited his expression as the unique jazz pianist he was. In his view, by playing piano the way he did, he was just being himself musically. Quite apart from Basie’s self-awareness as a musician, which was extraordinary, his approach to playing the piano remains widely imitated.

Similarly, the tenor saxophonist Lester Young was a unique and pioneering performer on his instrument. He and Basie began working together intermittently in the early 1930s in Kansas City. Young left Kansas City with Basie in late 1936, during the time when Basie was essentially putting together his first big band, which was the immediate successor to the smaller one he had been leading. Basie certainly understood that Lester Young was an extraordinary jazz player. In the five or so years Young was a sideman with Basie (1936-1940 at first, he returned periodically after that), Lester was the most heavily featured performer in the Basie band, primarily on tenor, but occasionally also on clarinet. His solos with the early Basie band remain as reminders not only of how great he was, but also of what a remarkably fertile time the swing era was for gifted musicians.

Lester Young in solo flight – at the Randall’s Island Carnival of Swing – May 29,1938. Faces visible L-R: Walter Page, Basie surveying his troops from the keyboard; Herschel Evans and Earle Warren. Freddie Green’s guitar is at right.

Although the Basie band scuffled through much of 1937 and well into 1938 (1), things improved somewhat as a result of a long residency (mid-July until early November) at the Famous Door, a jazz club that then was located (in its second iteration), at 66 West 52nd Street in Manhattan. That gig came about through the machinations of Willard Alexander, who was then Basie’s liaison with Music Corporation of America (MCA), his booking agency, producer/impresario John Hammond, and others who were in Basie’s corner. The magic key that was at the center of this engagement was that the Famous Door had a CBS radio hook-up. What made that engagement so important was that the Basie band was frequently broadcast over all or parts of the CBS radio network while they were at the Famous Door. Radio exposure like that was critical to establishing a band’s identity and music with the general public during the swing era.

(That story also had to do with air-conditioning in the Famous Door. The story of how Basie got that all-important engagement is told in detail at another post here at swingandbeyond.com. A link to that post can be found at endnote (2) below.)

The Basie band at the Famous Door – summer 1938. L-R front: Basie, Herschel Evans, Earle Warren, Jack Washington, Lester Young; middle: Walter Page, Freddie Green, Buck Clayton (standing), Ed Lewis, Sweets Edison; back: Jo Jones, Benny Morton, Dicky Wells and Dan Minor.

After the Famous Door engagement ended, the Basie band did some recording for Decca under the less than entry level contract (in terms of compensation) that Basie had signed with that label almost two years previously. That contract would end in early 1939, but Basie owed Decca quite a few sides, so six recording sessions were scheduled and made between November 16, 1938 and February 4, 1939, Basie’s last session for Decca. He made his first recordings for Columbia on February 13, 1939.

The records Basie made for Decca did not generate enough cash to pay all of the band’s overhead. In addition, their lengthy stay at the Famous Door, while worth plenty in terms of promotion via many radio broadcasts, did not generate any radio money because it was unsponsored. What Basie was paid while his band was there was probably union scale, or perhaps a bit more. Like almost all other bandleaders who were trying to build-up their names with the public, Basie was going deeper into debt each week he played at the Famous Door.

Fortunately, the radio broadcasts did as hoped create new demand for the Basie band on the road. MCA was able to book a number of theater engagements where Basie would make enough money each week to both offset current expenses, and to pay down his debt. They played one-week at the Paramount Theater in Newark, NJ in mid-November, followed by weeks at the Earle Theater in Philadelphia, and at the Hippodrome Theater in Baltimore. (Above left: John Hammond and Basie – late 1930s. Hammond, a man of extreme privilege, could be pushy and obnoxious in advocating for his causes. But Basie understood how powerful an ally he was. Despite Hammond’s aggressiveness, Basie’s personality, warm and unpretentious, immediately disarmed the people Hammond had irritated. Together, they moved the Basie band into a place of considerable popularity.)

The Basie band returned to New York to be presented as a part of John Hammond’s Spirituals to Swing concert at Carnegie Hall on December 23. Soon after that, Basie was back on the road playing at theaters, including the Nixon Grand in Philadelphia, the Howard in Washington, D.C., and the Apollo in Harlem.

Basie completed his Decca contract with back-to-back-to-back recording sessions on February 2,3 and 4, 1939. He was finally freed from that financially oppressive contract, and had a new contract to make records with Columbia (courtesy of John Hammond), which at least paid him a fair sum of money.

But just as Basie worked his way out of some old problems, a new one presented itself. Herschel Evans, one of Basie’s featured tenor saxophone soloists, became seriously ill in early February. By February 9, he would be dead, a month before his thirtieth birthday. This tragic event shook the Basie band musically and personally. (The story of that is told here at swingandbeyond.com in a post about Herschel Evans. A link to that post can be found at endnote (3).

The music:

“Jive at Five,” as was often the case in the Basie band, evolved into a full (though minimal) arrangement after Basie heard one of his sidemen play something that interested him. In this case, trumpeter Harry “Sweets” Edison played the catchy melodic fragment that is the tune’s main melody, and Basie’s ears perked-up. I suspect that he then asked Edison to create an eight-bar bridge to go with that melody to have a full 32 bar tune. From that point until this recording was made, I think Basie himself formulated how he wanted to hear the music, and may have dictated to Edison what instruments he wanted to use and how he wanted the performance to unfold. The result that we hear on this recording is relaxed, delightful jazz.

The title was selected, probably by Basie, as a musical tip-of-the-hat to a young New York radio announcer, Bob Bach, who was an ardent Basie fan often in attendance at the Famous Door, who shortly after hosted a swing-based radio show on WNEW-New York called Jive at Five.

This classic performance begins with a brief humorous introduction by Basie at the piano. Then the first chorus begins. Immediately we hear that the ensemble Basie used for this recording is a smaller version of his big band. The cup-muted trumpets carry the melody as Dicky Wells on his oo-ah plunger-muted trombone, and Jack Washington on his baritone saxophone provide spicy contrasting sounds in the background. This music rests upon a magic carpet of rhythm provided by Basie on piano, Freddie Green on guitar, Walter Page on bass and Jo Jones on his brushed snare drum. On the bridge, the cup-muted trumpets continue in the lead with Wells alone providing the contrasting sound. The final eight bars of this chorus return the music to the format of the first sixteen.

The second chorus is a showcase for the tenor saxophone playing of Lester Young against a scrim of syncopated cup-muted trumpets, and that marvelous rhythm. Lester’s light sound and inspired improvisation float above the background like a fluffy white cloud floats across an azure summer sky. He plays the three “A” sections of the main melody, being spelled on the bridge by some sweet trumpet playing by Harry Edison. (Listen for Basie comping Sweets. His support is perfect.) (At right: Lester Young blows while to his right Jack Washington and Earle Warren love it.)

Basie himself then plays a quintessential sixteen-bar solo against a cushion of strong rhythm and tart oo-ah brass. He is followed by Jack Washington with some fluid playing on his baritone saxophone.

The cup-muted trumpets return with the main melody, with trombone sighs provided by Mr. Wells, then the fade-out ending. (At left: A young Harry Edison – 1938.)

This is happy swing at its best.

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

Notes and links:

(1) Just how much the Basie band was scuffling in early 1938 is revealed in these numbers which come from a one-night dance date at the Al-Dorn/Castle Rock Ballroom at Dorney Park, Allentown, Pennsylvania on June 6, 1938: The Basie band received $250 to play that gig. The date drew 342 paid admissions and 30 comps. Ticket price was 50 cents. The venue lost $79.09 that night. As a comparison, here is the data for Benny Goodman, who was then leading one of the most successful bands on the scene, and who played at that venue on May 12, 1938: Benny received $1,250; admissions were: 1327 paid and 110 comps; ticket price was $1.10; the venue made a profit of $76.99. This information comes from Benny Goodman …Wrappin’ It Up, by D. Russell Connor (1996) 17-18.

(2) Here is the colorful story of how Count Basie got the all-important engagement at the Famous Door in 1938: https://swingandbeyond.com/2021/05/14/the-blues-i-like-to-hear-1938-count-basie-jimmy-rushing/

(3) Here is a link to the post about Herschel Evans: https://swingandbeyond.com/2020/01/04/blue-and-sentimental-1938-count-basie-with-herschel-evans-and-lester-young-and-1969/

Here are links to other great performances by Count Basie from the swing era:

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

https://swingandbeyond.com/2021/11/15/taxi-war-dance1939-count-basie-with-lester-young-dicky-wells-and-buddy-tate/

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

https://swingandbeyond.com/2022/09/25/countless-blues-and-i-want-a-little-girl-1938-lester-young-with-eddie-durham-and-buck-clayton/

https://swingandbeyond.com/2020/06/02/920-special-1941-count-basie-with-coleman-hawkins/

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

https://swingandbeyond.com/2018/06/30/sent-for-you-yesterday-live-1939-count-basie-with-jimmy-rushing/

https://swingandbeyond.com/2017/02/17/lady-be-good-1936-lester-young-and-count-basie/

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