Born on August 21, 1904 in Red Bank, New Jersey, William James Basie was taught piano by his mother. At age 20 he moved to Harlem, center of the jazz piano world at that time, and soon began touring with various groups. He first gained fame in Bennie Moten's band, based in Kansas City; when Moten died in 1935, Basie formed his own group incorporating many Moten men.
Columbia Records producer/A&R man John Hammond heard Basie's band on the radio and made the first recordings of the band in 1936, but it was when Basie started recording for Decca in 1937 that he made his most classic records. The three-CD set The Complete Decca Recordings is the crucial documentation of what may have been the hardest-swinging big band, and additionally shows why Lester Young became an icon of the tenor saxophone. Each of the three discs in this set is devoted to one year of the period 1937-39, after Basie and his band had moved to New York City.
There were other bands that were more refined or used more complex arrangements -- the aggregations of Fletcher Henderson and Duke Ellington come to mind -- but the Basie band was a juggernaut of swing based in the blues. Even cheesy pop songs ended up sounding soulful after these players got their hands on them. A lot of that credit goes to singer Jimmy Rushing, both a great blues singer and one of the finest big band vocalists ever. "Good Morning Blues" sounds funny, sexy, and like a force of nature as it issues from his mouth, his microtonal adjustments of the tuning deeply redolent of the essence of the blues, adding emotion to a somewhat silly Christmas ditty.
The opening of that same tune features the suave yet pungent mute work of trumpeter Buck Clayton, which points out another asset of this group: imaginative, tasteful soloists. Besides Clayton's subtle inflections, there are the vibrantly exciting trumpeting of Harry "Sweets" Edison, the elegantly pointed tenor sax solos of Young, the earthy effusions of tragically short-lived tenorman Herschel Evans, the slyly witty slipperiness of trombonist Dicky Wells, and the leader's piano solos, much more voluble than in later years.
But above all, there are the interlocking or contrasting riffs of the different instrumental sections. Sometimes they were arranged by Don Redman, or Eddie Durham (the band's most prolific chart-writer), or Clayton, or others, but most famously they were sometimes spontaneous creations, "head" arrangements worked out in action by the band. The head arrangements are among the catchiest and most thrilling: "Jumpin' at the Woodside," "Oh, Lady Be Good," "Panassie Stomp," "Boogie Woogie (I May Be Wrong)," and possibly "Sent for You Yesterday" (another great Rushing vehicle), which might also be a Durham job. Durham's many charts, playing perfectly proportioned section riffs off each other, often have the feel of head arrangements: "One O'Clock Jump," "John's Idea," "Swingin' the Blues," and possibly "Doggin' Around."
The sound of the Basie band at full tilt in its days of youthful vigor is among the most joyous and invigorating in jazz history, or in all of music. This is one of those cornerstone sets that belongs in every collection, a historical item that never ceases being fun to listen to.
Basie continued leading great bands until his death in 1984, experiencing an especially strong revival in the '50s. - Steve Holtje
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based composer, poet, and editor who recently composed and recorded the soundtrack for director Enrico Cullen's film A Man Full of Days.