Count Basie Goes Organic

I have come to understand that the concept of “centering” is worthwhile in all sorts of pursuits, whether it might be meditation, prayer or just settling down. I realized awhile ago that it has been a long time since Count Basie has graced this place with his musical gifts. And with Count Basie sort of serving as my “musical center” when it comes to classic jazz, some centering is in order. We can do our centering in a very organic way today, because one of the things that made Basie unique was his long (if infrequent) association with the Hammond organ.

William James Basie was born in 1904 in Red Bank, New Jersey. He learned piano as a kid and later followed a typical path of playing in a band on the Vaudeville circuit and then with small area bands. It was luck that Basie became stranded in Kansas City when a band broke up during the Depression. KC was a part of the country where east meets west and it was there that Bill Basie developed a style merged two kinds of rhythm in a way that changed how jazz was played. East coast bands played with a four-beat rhythm that emphasized the 1 and the 3 beats while western bands played their 4 beats differently – with the 2 and the 4 as the strong pulses. Basie produced a smooth, lilting rhythm where all four beats were pretty much equal and matched it with a freewheeling musical style got him into Kansas City’s Reno Club. He was heard on a radio broadcast by a promotor, whose efforts helped Basie start a band that ran almost uninterrupted from 1936 into until shortly before the Count’s death in 1984.

Although he was a piano guy, Basie got some experience playing theater organs during his youth when Fats Waller offered some tutelage. Waller had been the son of a preacher and had a real command of the organ. Organs are like pianos in that they have keys, but with their multiple keyboards and numerous pedals are played quite differently Theater organs were, of course, the same basic pipe organs that had been featured in the cathedrals of medieval Europe, and made their music by blowing air through dozens (if not hundreds) of specially tuned pipes. The Hammond Organ was something entirely different.

Laurens Hammond was a mechanical engineer and all-around tinkerer. He started the Hammond Clock Company in the late 1920’s and was even building a bridge table of his invention that included a built-in automatic card shuffler. He had noticed the sounds made by the whirring works of his electric clocks and started fiddling with the idea of a musical instrument that worked on the same principles. His organ employed “tonewheels”, or ridged discs spun by an electric motor, each of which generated a specific sound frequency. Those frequencies were electrified by a coil and amplified through a speaker. Hammond was not a musician and required help to tune the tonewheels to musical notes. With that task completed, Hammond patented and began selling his electric organ in 1935.

The Hammond was never envisioned as a jazz instrument, but was originally marketed mostly to churches too small to afford a “real” organ. Shortly afterwards, Hammond suggested that every household needed an electric organ too. The Hammond was perceived as a threat by pipe organ manufacturers, who sued the company in an attempt to have it called something else. An organ, however, it remained. Fats Waller was the first to notice that an electric organ could be used for jazz, and at a mere 400 pounds (the organ, that is, although Waller was close) was more-or-less portable when compared to a pipe organ. But where Waller only tinkered with it, it seems to have been Count Basie who was the first to seriously put it to work in a recording studio.

In 1939, Basie had a band that played at all of the top venues. The Basie band of those years was built around star soloists and a peerless rhythm section. On February 13, 1939 Basie tapped key members for a four-side recording session in New York, to be credited as Basie’s Bad Boys. The 8-man group did one number that found the Count sliding onto the bench of a Hammond organ. “Live And Love Tonight” is a little-remembered song from an unremarkable 1934 film (“Murder At The Vanities”), and this is probably the only version anyone remembers.

After the Buck Clayton trumpet solo, the Count goes to work with the organ. In this first recorded example of Basie at the organ bench, he plays it a lot like a piano, and even keeps time with steady pulses of the low notes. He was clearly feeling his way around this new experience, and parts of the record sound like the accompaniment of a baseball game, or even radio soap opera. The last third of the record is hard to beat with the great Lester Young’s saxophone backed by Basie’s organ playing. There may be an earlier version of the Hammond organ being put to work in jazz, but if there is I have yet to come across it.

Fast forward to1949-50 – this was a really bad time for big swing bands, with one after another closing up shop because of an inability to make them pay in an era when young couples were staying home with little kids and not going out dancing or nightclubbing. Count Basie was not immune from the trend and pulled the plug on his group in the latter part of 1949. He spent the next year-and-a-half with a small group, but was convinced by several that his brand of music could still make a big band work. This second group, often referred to as his “New Testament” band, was less reliant on soloists and was more about tightly written and played arrangements that still featured plenty of solos. One thing that did make the transition was the Count’s continued (if only occasional) use of the organ.

A pair of small-group tracks show that by 1952 Basie had become more familiar with how to get his kind of music from the organ. After early years of playing a high-energy keyboard, Basie’s style gradually became more sparse and was more about rhythm and punctuation than it was about being all over the keys. The first of these examples, “Port Of Rico”, saw Basie and his guitarist Freddie Green sitting in with the group of saxophonist Illinois Jacquet. Basie loved the tenor saxophone, and Jacquet sounds amazingly like Lester Young (a favorite of mine) in this session. Basie’s organ work is mostly in the background behind the others, but his “less is more” style really shines here, as does the way he boosts the rhythm with his playing.

Jacquet, by the way, was an early jazz player whose influence seeped into R&B and early rock & roll. Here, however, he left his hard “honking” style behind and was a good host for Count Basie with a relaxed swinging session.

“Blues For Count And Oscar” is another small group collaboration, but this time Basie was the host and paired his organ with the piano of the young up-and-coming Oscar Peterson. The contrasts of two tenor saxes (the smooth Paul Quinichette and Eddie Lockjaw Davis’ rough and raw sound) is great. And the pairing of Basie and Peterson is not just about piano and organ, but of their contrasting styles too. Peterson would go on to a long career as one of the best to ever play the keyboard and would occasionally collaborate and appear with Basie multiple times over the ensuing decades. All in all, these guys make for three minutes of peerless jazz.

I was going to stop at three, but will add a bonus track from that same year. Lest you think that all of Basie’s organ playing was with small groups, we have another 1952 track where Basie did organ with the full band. “Paradise Squat”* is some more early work by longtime Basie saxophonist Lockjaw Davis. It is clear that by 1952 the Count had full command of the Hammond organ, being able to parry and thrust with his sax soloist and to even be heard with, through and even over an early version of that fabulous powerful band of the 1950s.

The 1950s would see the jazz organ come into its own, with players like Wild Bill Davis, Jimmy Smith and Shirley Scott (who was married with and recorded quite a bit with Lockjaw Davis). Although Count Basie only played organ as an occasional change of pace from his piano, there is no doubt that Basie is the guy who kickstarted the Hammond organ into the big leagues as a jazz instrument. Something Mr. Hammond probably never saw coming, but for which music fans are much the better for.

* Note – there are two recorded versions of Paradise Squat – this one, and a slightly shorter version used for a 78 rpm release. Mark this in your calendars, because this is one place I prefer the “album cut” to the 78 version.

Further reading on early jazz organ:


17 thoughts on “Count Basie Goes Organic

  1. Another great Friday entry, I consider a “twofer” since I’m a big fan of Illinois Jacquet as well! Great to read this, as I’m not that familiar with the Counts organ work, but remember seeing him on TV when he was still alive. As far as I’m concerned, the Count was has the definitive swinging version of April in Paris, from his 50s album, on the ‘tube for your enjoyment!

    As an aside, I always wanted the captains hat, even when I was a small boy. Love the Count wearing the hat! I actually have a ton of hats, but have been on a hard target search for a Captains hat for years. Most available are sort of fakey party hats, and the real “sized” ones apparently haven’t been made for years and go for a lot used on the net!

    Liked by 1 person

      • One other side note on the organ – the Hammond B3 is the one everyone talks about as the classic jazz organ, but all of these records were made before the B3 came out around 1954-55. There was a Model A and several variations of B before the 3, so some of those are what we are hearing here.

        Apparently Mr. Hammond hated the idea of the Leslie speaker and made it a point to not offer them as a package. Leslie, in turn, had speakers for other organs and reportedly hated the Hammond, but it was where most of the market was. It is funny how each inventor’s hatred of the other’s invention combined to make a classic combination.


    • I loved that Captain’s hat too. For awhile in the early to mid 60s my father had one of those and brought me a kid’s version when my parents came back from a trip to Florida in maybe 1963.

      Basie was still rocking the Captain’s hat in that great scene in Blazing Saddles –


    • Jim, you gotta get onboard with the “Incredible”. Jimmy Smith, which no one seems to want to call “Incredible” any more (big usage in his early years). In addition, something from my misspent “yout”, Brian Auger and the Oblivion Express, his 1974 album with “Compared to What”, was seminal from changing me from jazz fusion, to straight ahead jazz!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Jim’s first sentence is also my own. The sample recordings, as you implied, showed a more sophisticated contribution of the organ as Basie progressed in his career. I couldn’t help hearing a church organ in the first one but it was all jazz by the time I got to “Paradise Squat”. Basie was just a name before today, so I appreciate the education.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I learned after writing this that the sound difference between that 1939 record and those from the early 50s is more than just style. Donald Leslie worked up a speaker that would make a Hammond sound more like a pipe organ and began manufacturing his Leslie Speaker/Amplifier in 1941. Interestingly, Hammond refused to work with him, but the Leslie speaker became almost universal with the jazz organ. It used mechanically rotating devices in front of the speakers to get an effect that could not be matched by the Hammond’s built-in speaker/amp setup. Those early 50s records are almost certainly using a Leslie speaker setup, while the 1939 record was made before the Leslie was being made.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Not to mention, for some reason, local rock bands I knew back in the late 60’s and early 70’s, were always trying to get a hold of a “Leslie” for some rock effects!

        Liked by 2 people

      • Wiki has a great 30 second sound clip of the speaker with a Hammond Organ, showing the speed changes and with and without! Google Leslie Speaker Wiki, and it’ll come up!

        Liked by 1 person

    • And I did not know how far ahead of the jazz organ curve Count Basie was. I had assumed that others were noodling with it too, but I still have not found any known jazz figure recording with the Hammond earlier. I read somewhere that jazz organ of the 1950s-60s tied heavily into the soulful organ playing in many black churches of the time, with as much gospel influence as jazz influence.


  2. JP, for some reason only the first paragraph of your post showed up in my Reader. I had to go over to your blogsite to read the rest. But maybe this is just me and my browser? Has anyone else mentioned it? I’ve heard Reader is doing strange things lately.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. That pipe organ from 1947 was amazing – a different kind of “Surround Sound” which looked like sitting in a pilot’s cockpit with the instrument panel. I’m not really familiar with Count Basie’s work, except what I read here today, but it seems in photos I’ve seen of him in the past, he is always laughing, maybe not as much as this last photo though. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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