I am now into my fifth month of blogging, and I have seen one constant: my posts on old jazz records have consistently gotten the lowest readership of anything I write about. Therefore, I have another one to offer the intrepid souls who stick with me today. As the sign once said, “The beatings will continue until morale improves.” So here we go – I offer you a little tune called Shoe Shine Boy. It’s an oldie, recorded nearly eighty years ago in Chicago, on November 9, 1936.\
Those who know me know that I am a Count Basie fan of long duration. William Basie (who took to calling himself the Count in the 1930s) may have had a longer history of being both commercially viable and artistically successful than any other jazz musician. Certainly any other jazz musician who fronted a band. By the time he died in 1984, there had been a Count Basie Orchestra in almost continuous operation for nearly fifty years.
Basie grew up in the general vicinity of New York. Along with his contemporary, Fats Waller, he was one of the last major jazz piano players steeped in the stylistic tradition of Harlem stride piano. Stride was a style that evolved from ragtime, where the right hand played all of the fancy stuff as the left hand pounded out a rhythm by a constant back and forth between octaves.
Basie played with a handful of minor bands and shows until one suddenly disbanded, leaving him stranded in Kansas City. Kansas City of the early 1930s was a hotbed of emerging jazz talent, most of it African-American. By 1935, the 31 year old Basie was leading a nine-man group in a little dive of a club that had just been wired for radio broadcasts. A wealthy white jazz promoter named John Hammond heard the band on his car radio one night and heard in this group his next big thing.
Before Hammond could get there to sign Basie to a contract for Columbia Records, a guy from Decca showed up and tricked Basie into signing a different contract, one that paid a paltry flat fee and which gave no royalties to the Band, proving that the cutthroat nature of the music business is nothing new. As the Band was travelling east to begin its first Decca recording session, Hammond got a five man core of the band into a studio to record a few songs under the pseudonym of Jones-Smith, Incorporated. This record was the very first take of the very first song of that session, which resulted in four songs on two discs. Amazingly, though the session started at 10 a.m., none of the musicians had been to bed from playing their normal show the night before. Hammond later said that in all of his years, this was the only perfect recording session he had ever been involved with.
The tune itself was a forgettable little song, so common then, that had been written for an all-black musical review called Connie’s Hot Chocolates of 1936. It was a standard pop tune of two verses, a bridge and a final verse (often called an AABA form), that would have been well enough known, both to the public through recordings by folks like Bing Crosby, and to jazz musicians from performances by Louis Armstrong. This Basie treatment, which involved not a wrinkle of sheet music, was pure improvisation, and taken at double or triple the more common tempo, allowing five full run-throughs of the song in the three minute span of the disc. This record would set the template for most of Basie’s early work – take a song, any song, use its standard chords, and let your soloists have at it until time was up, all backed by a rhythm section that has not been topped to this day.
Basie took the first stab at the tune. Though his later playing would be economical nearly to the point of sparse, young Basie was all over the keyboard. Modern pianists eschew the left hand, on the theory that it leaves room for the bass player to do his thing. Not Basie. He was never afraid of the low notes, figuring that there was plenty of room for a decent bassist to work right along with him. I never tire of listening to Basie’s left hand down in the low keys.
The second and third choruses would be taken by 27 year old tenor saxophonist Lester Young. Any debate about who were among the top three jazz sax players of all time is going to include Lester Young, and this record was his first-ever recording. Nobody sounded like Lester Young in 1936. His sound was smooth and relaxed, even at the frenetic tempo of this record. He played a tenor sax way up high in its range, with a sound that would be widely imitated through the 1950s and beyond. But his genius was in how he approached the tune. Lester starts with the same few chords that everyone was working with and jumps off with fresh phrase after fresh phrase, one surprise after another in the directions he leads us. The thing was that he could do this all night long and never run out of ideas, so a mere sixty four bars was nothing. A smashing debut.
The fourth lap was given to trumpeter Carl “Tatti” Smith, easily the most obscure of the musicians. His muted trumpet may be the least compelling part of the record, which is saying something. The trumpet solo could have easily been eliminated to make more room for Basie and Young, but Smith’s muted trumpet adds another layer of texture and brings some more ideas to the table. Sadly for Smith, this could have been the best performance of his life, but he will forever be little more than “anonymous trumpet guy”. It’s hard to be merely talented when sharing a bandstand with legends.
We cannot discuss an early Basie record without a mention of the rhythm section. Jo Jones on drums and Walter Page (nicknamed “Big ‘Un”, due to his massive size) on bass were an iconic team. They, along with Basie’s piano re-invented the jazz rhythm section. There is no pounding here, only the delicate cymbal work of Jones and the walking bass of Page that hit evenly across all four beats. The next year, guitarist Freddie Green would join the section and would remain for the rest of Basie’s life. The Basie rhythm section of the 1930s has been described as having the smoothness of a Cadillac and the power of a freight train. Basie’s piano is perhaps most interesting when he was backing other soloists – most of the action is down on the low keys behind Young’s saxophone and then up in the high keys behind the trumpet.
The final chorus shows what a well-oiled unit this had become, with short solos, expertly handed off to the next guy, one after another after another. Did I already say that they did all this without any written music? Many of Basie’s early players read music poorly or not at all, so “head arrangements” like this were the norm for these guys, even with a full thirteen or fourteen piece band. Anyway, just as suddenly as it all began, the whole thing slams to a halt with everyone hitting that final note in perfect unison.
The life of a black musician was not an easy one in the 1930s. Most of these men would become household names among music fans by the 1950s, but none of them ever made any real money. But to their everlasting credit, they took all the unpleasantness that they were given and turned it into an enduring gift for generations of music fans. For those of us willing to take the time to press “play” (hopefully two or three times) and make the effort to listen past the deficiencies in the depression-era recording technology, we can receive that gift yet again. So, click the little red arrow up top and enjoy! You might be surprised how much fun it can be listening to genius.