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Count Basie's Miracle Band 1938

by John Cobley

Wednesday Jul 28th, 2021


Jo Jones: “When it comes to wealth, musical wealth, I’m the richest drummer that’s lived in 50 years, because nobody ever had what I have. Nobody ever had the pleasure of sitting up with a band night after night that had a Herschel Evans, a Lester Young, A Harry Edison, a Buck Clayton, A Dicky Wells, a Benny Morton, a Freddie Green, and a Walter Page.” Dance p. 52

 When the 31-year-old Count Basie left the Moten band after the death of its leader in April,1935, he took a one-week job as substitute pianist at a small club in Kansas City called The Reno. Soon after, he was asked by the owner to take over the house band. This request initiated an amazing process over nearly 2 ½ years as Basie transformed this local house band into a full-sized band that became the equal of the Goodman and Ellington bands at the very top. That Basie, a little-known pianist from the Mid-West, was able to assemble an elite group of 15 musicians and two singers in such a short period is nothing short of miraculous. 


This article will follow Basie’s 27-month journey from The Reno in 1935 to his epic engagement at New York’s Famous Door in July of 1938. This journey saw the band improve gradually, often being reminded that it still had a way to go. At the same time, Basie gradually assembled musicians who would comprise the ultimate band. The growing number of Famous-Door band members will be listed as they joined Basie, together with their age on enlisting. 




The complete 1938 Basie Band at the Open Door club



When Basie left the Moten band, he had in mind a job in a small club, “Maybe with a little combo….I really didn’t have anything definite. I just wanted to see what I could do.” (Count Basie, Good Morning Blues, p. 156-7) At the Reno, he developed a good relationship with the owner Sol Steibold, and quickly progressed from substitute pianist to regular pianist and then to band leader. And when Steibold agreed to allow Basie to hire a couple more players, Basie was on his way—thanks mainly to his partly to get on with people.


At first, he did not approach any of his former colleagues in the Moten band because the band was still working under Moten’s brother Buster. “Somebody is always claiming that I took over Bennie Moten’s band after he died, but that’s just not what happened.” (Basie, p. 158) Not surprisingly Basie’s first recruits came from musicians he had previously played with. His first move was to go down to Oklahoma and persuade Walter Page and Jack Washington to join him. Page (bass) was four years older than Basie and had originally been his leader in the Blue Devils. He stayed with Basie until 1948, contributing hugely to the “All-American rhythm section” that emerged later. Washington (baritone and alto), also originally with Moten, was to stay with Basie until his 1943 military call-up. This experienced musician became a fine soloist on baritone.


Two: Washington (23), Page (35)


Next he travelled even further to Dallas to sign up Buster Smith and Joe Keyes. Texan Smith (alto, clarinet) had been with the Blue Devils, eventually leading the band from 1931 to 1933; he played an important part in the early band, but when Basie began to travel, Smith refused to leave Kansas City and had to be replaced. Keyes (trumpet), another ex-Moten player, did not stay long: according to Basie he “had to cut out” (Basie, p. 192) in 1937. 




After the break-up of the Moten band, Basie was soon able to recruit some of its members, and his band increased to nine players: three trumpets, three reeds and three in the rhythm section. An important addition to the trumpet section was Hot Lips Oran Page, who was well known to Basie from the days of the Blue Devils and the Moten band. Page was not with Basie for long, however, as he was lured away by promoter Joe Glaser to lead his own band. Page was the only top-level player that Basie was unable to keep during this building period.  


At this stage, Basie was having trouble finding the right drummer for his nine-piece group. He finally contacted Jo Jones who was playing in St. Louis. Jones answered Basie’s call immediately without giving his employer notice. “That was when the band really started swinging,” Basie wrote later. (p. 160) Jones was also a great help to Basie in the forming of the band. He stayed with Basie until 1948.


Three: Washington (23) , Page (35), Jones (24)


At this early stage of recruitment, Basie had a very lucky break. A new radio license was granted to a Kansas City radio station W9XBY. This was one of four licenses granted nationally that allowed double the normal 10KHz power. This extra power increased the station’s range to the East Coast and the Northern border. When W9XBY began broadcasting from The Reno for 30 minutes six times a week, Basie suddenly acquired an unexpectedly huge audience. The benefits were soon to come.


The first benefit was an enormous one: Lester Young, playing in Minneapolis, heard the band on W9XBY and contacted Basie and asked to join. The former Blue Devil was soon in the line-up Why was Young so taken by the sound of the early Basie band? A clue can be found in Gunther Schuller’s The Swing Era: “In its linear concept of swing and uncongested (at first) largely unarranged, airy-textured approach, it was the ideal setting for Lester…. The beauty of the early Basie band was its stylistic looseness—within an overall concept—which allowed for considerable amount of individual diversity.” (p. 550) Young was with Basie until the end of 1940 and left behind an endless stream of memorable solos.


At this time, singer Jimmy Rushing, who had been around The Reno from the start and who had known Basie since his arrival from New York, officially joined the band. Basie now felt he had recruited enough: “When Lester came in there on tenor, I figured I had just about what I needed for what we were doing in the Reno. We didn’t have much room on that bandstand anyway.” (Basie, p. 161) But the situation soon changed.


Five: Washington (23), Page (35), Jones (24), Young (25), J. Rushing (32)


Now another major benefit from the W9XBY  broadcasts emerged. Prestigious record producer John Hammond heard the Basie band on his car radio in New York. He was immediately impressed the band: “The sort of free, swinging jazz that I have always preferred.” (Hammond on Record, p. 171) After writing several articles on the Basie band for the New York jazz press, he made a trip to Kansas City to hear the band live. This made him even more impressed, and he returned to New York with plans for a recording contract. 


    “I walked down to 12th Street to a dingy building with a second floor which must have been a whorehouse, because there were girls lounging on the stairway. On the street level was the Reno Club with signs advertising domestic scotch for 10 cents, imported scotch for 15 cents and beer 5 cents…. There was no cover, no minimum, and there was a show which included chorus girls and the Basie band with Jimmy Rushing and Hattie Noel as vocalists. It was quite a bargain. 

The first thing I saw was the high bandstand, at the top of which sat Jo Jones surrounded by his drums. Basie sat at the left with Walter Page and his bass crowded as close to the piano as he could get. In the front line were Lester Young, Buster Smith on alto and Jack Washington on baritone. Behind them were two trumpets, Oran “Lips” Page and Joe Keys, and the trombone Dan Minor. Jimmy Rushing, the famous Mr Five-by-Five, sang the blues, and Hattie Noel, as big as Rushing and dressed in a ridiculous pinafore, was the comedienne and a fairly good singer…. Liquor, even at those prices, was too expensive for musicians who were making $15 a week. Basie was paid $18, but he had a day job playing the organ at station WHB, so he paid Lester, Jo Jones and Walter Page a little extra each week.  John Hammond                        


The band was really gelling by this time and began attracting influential visitors from the music world. First, Fats Waller came to The Reno and wanted to take it over as his own. Second, a New York artist manager, Joe Glaser, came by. This visit was a setback for Basie as he talked Lips Page into leaving the band.  And third, Dave Kapp of Decca records came to town and signed up Basie for a two-year deal with Decca Records. Hammond who was working on a contract of his own was upset. The Decca contract was not beneficial for Basie and contained no royalty payments at all. But Hammond made the best of a bad situation by getting Basie signed up with Willard Alexander, a successful booking agent for MCA.


Alexander wanted Basie to enlarge his band for booking bigger engagements. So Basie made a series of changes. First, he enrolled two trombonists George Hunt and Dan Minor. George Hunt stayed with Basie until Eddie Durham replaced him in July 1937. Dan Minor was contacted by Basie and Jo Jones on a visit to St Louis. Basie considered him “a strong player” and had known him from the Moten and Blue-Devils days. Minor signed up and stayed until 1941. Next, Claude Williams (guitar) was discovered by Jo Jones and added too. Then Caughey Roberts (also) replaced Buster Smith, who didn’t believe the Basie band had a future. Basie also needed another tenor, so he contacted ex-Moten tenor star Herschel Evans, who was playing with Lionel Hampton in California. Basie’s reputation by then was enough to bring the prestigious Evans to Kansas City. With all these changes, there were only two more additions to the classic line-up. 


Seven: Washington (23), Page (35), Jones (24), Young (25), J. Rushing (32), Minor (27), Evans (27)


The departure of Hot Lips Page left Basie needing a replacement in the trumpet section. Fortunately at that time Buck Clayton was passing through Kansas to visit family. He had been recommended by Herschel Evans who had been playing with him in California. Clayton was “spellbound” by the band (Steven Lasker, Notes to Count Basie: The Complete Decca Recordings, p. 12) when Evans took him to The Reno. The brilliant soloist signed up right away and stayed with Basie until 1943. 


Eight: Washington (23), Page (35), Jones (24), Young (25), J. Rushing (32), Minor (27), Evans (27), Clayton (25)


By the time Basie ended his residency at the Reno in September 1936, the band had swelled to 13. They spent several weeks woodshedding before moving out of Kansas City for a November engagement at the Grand Terrace in Chicago. The band’s shortcomings, especially in the area of sight-reading, became apparent as soon as they set up with the floor show. Even Basie had trouble with the special arrangements and had to hire a second pianist. It was clear that for engagements at large clubs, the band members needed to be good sight-readers, so Basie had to reconsider some of his members. Five changes were soon made. 


After Chicago, they worked their way across the continent to New York, opening at The Roseland on December 24. It was during the Roseland gig that Hammond made the unusual suggestion that Basie audition a guitarist. Basie didn’t use guitarists in his band, the one exception being violinist Claude Williams who sometimes played guitar. He recalls what happened when Freddie Green played with him in an audition: “We just played maybe one song with a couple of choruses, And when I heard that much, I knew that was all that was necessary.” (Basie, p. 186) Green, a rhythm guitarist who never soloed, was hired soon after and became the final and crucial member of Basie’s immortal rhythm section. Basie’s ear served him well yet again.


Nine: Washington (23), Page (35), Jones (24), Young (25), J. Rushing (32), Minor (27), Evans (27), Clayton (25), Green (25)


The Roseland gig was not a success. According to Basie, “It was not as bad as the Grand Terrace, which was the worst. But we were definitely not a hit in the Roseland either.” Basie, p. 184) Following the band’s first recording for Decca, there were several important changes. First, Earle Warren replaced Caughey Roberts. He was discovered by Herschel Evans while the band was touring in Ohio.  Warren was to stay with Basie until 1945. Second, Billie Holiday, another Hammond discovery, joined the band for almost a year. Her tenure with Basie is not widely known because for contractual reasons she never recorded with the band. And third, Basie hired Eddie Durham for a year as an arranger, trombonist and guitarist. Durham was a top arranger and made significant contributions to the Basie songbook.


Later in 1937 Basie added a prestigious trombonist in Benny Morton to replace George Hunt. Morton was a fine soloist and had seen success with Fletcher Henderson, Redman and Chick Webb. He was with Basie until the end of 1939. There were also changes in the trumpet section.  Ed Lewis, a former Moten trumpeter, took the lead chair and stayed with Basie until 1948. It’s not clear how either Morton or Lewis was recruited by Basie.


Twelve: Washington (23), Page (35), Jones (24), Young (25), J. Rushing (32), Minor (27), Evans (27), Clayton (25), Green (25), Warren (23), Morton (30), Lewis (28)


By the 1938 New Year, Basie’s band-building was almost complete, but he needed to replace a sick trumpeter, Bobby Moore. Harry Edison, who had been having some problems with his employer Lucky Millinder, was staying in the same New York rooming house as Jo Jones and Herschel Evans. These two recommended him to Basie. Edison was in the band for ten years. Thus band members helped Basie yet again, and now there were two great soloists in the trumpet section.


When Durham’s one-year contract was up in July, Basie hired the experienced Dicky Wells for the trombone section. “Basie sent for me in 1938 and told me to come by his house because Herschel and Lester and some of the fellows in the band liked my blowing with Teddy Hill,” Wells recalled (Dance, p. 86) Wells had to undergo an audition to see how he would fit in. As a veteran of four top bands (Luis Russell, Benny Carter, Fletcher Henderson, Teddy Hill), he fitted in easily and became one of Basie’s main soloists until 1950.


Fourteen: Washington (23), Page (35), Jones (24), Young (25), J. Rushing (32), Minor (27), Evans (27), Clayton (25), Green (25), Warren (23), Morton (30), Lewis (28), Edison (22), Wells (29)


Since big bands needed a female vocalist in this period, Basie sought a replacement for Billie Holiday. According to Basie, “We replaced Billie with Helen Humes as fast as we could, and we hung onto her for as long as we could, which was four years.” (Basie, p. 211) Basie had heard her sing the previous year, and she was being promoted by John Hammond as the perfect singer for the band. At first she turned down Basie over money. A few months later, through John Hammond’s intervention, she agreed to work for Basie for the original rate she had been offered. Humes was the last addition, just two days before the Famous Door gig.


Fifteen: Washington (23), Page (35), Jones (24), Young (25), J. Rushing (32), Minor (27), Evans (27), Clayton (25), Green (25), Warren (23), Morton (30), Lewis (28), Edison (22), Wells (29), Humes (25)


With these 15 band members and Basie himself, the great Basie band was 

finally complete for the Famous Door gig that has since been seen as a pinnacle for Basie. The Famous Door was packed every night of the four-month engagement. (The band was originally booked for six weeks.) Air-conditioning had to be installed to accommodate the large audiences, and CBS broadcasted sessions nationwide. In a review of the band’s opening, the New York Times called the band “a tip-top aggregation.” The brass section was singled out for having “individuals who can really make a solo passage mean something.” (“News of the Night Clubs,” July 17, 1938) With a hit record topping the charts as well (“One O’clock Jump”), the Basie band had reached the summit of popular swing music in just 27 months. 




It’s important to remember that none of the 15 players enlisted by Basie were well-known musicians when they joined the band—not even Lester Young. All, of course, showed talent, but it was Basie’s ear and his sense of what he wanted for his band that influenced his choices. Six of the band were chosen because of Basie’s previous experience playing with them: Jack Washington, Walter Page, Lester Young, Jimmy Rushing, Herschel Evans, Dan Minor, and Ed Lewis. Because of his personality and past musical record, these would have been easy enlistings for him. Jo Jones, a crucial early member, was a slightly different matter. Basie was familiar with Jones’s drumming, but he hadn’t actually played with him. Jones, on the other hand, was well aware of Basie’s qualities as a musician and a human being, so he immediately chose to join him.


Several players came to the band on the recommendation of other band members: Harry Edison (Jo Jones and Evans) , Dicky Wells (Evans and Lester), Warren  (Evans) and Clayton (Evans) And John Hammond initiated the signing of two musicians: Green and Humes. 


Lester Young stands out as the only one who actually applied to Basie for a job.


Group Spirit

A crucial factor in attracting musicians to the band was the atmosphere that Basie created. From the outset the band was known as a convivial and relaxed group. Critic Martin Williams noted the “group spirit” of the band (The Jazz Tradition) According to Steven Lasker, “A number of first-hand accounts indicate that this was an unusually happy band.” (Notes to Count Basie: The Complete Decca Recordings) Buck Clayton recalled that soon after joining Basie “it became such a pleasure working with that band that sometimes I could hardly wait to go to work.” (Buck Clayton’s Jazz World, p. 92)


Radio Exposure

Basie benefitted enormously from radio exposure twice during his formation years. The early exposure from the Reno Club across much of the USA gave his early band a lot of publicity. It not only brought in John Hammond, but also attracted Lester Young. Then later at the Famous Door in New York, nationwide broadcasts on the CBS network put the band at the very top of the popular-music world.


John Hammond

Basie never had a better ally than the influential John Hammond. After falling for the Basie style in its early stage, he used his legendary energy to help Basie in any way he could: promoting the band in his Down Beat articles; finding suitable musicians (Humes, Green); and setting up Basie with promoter Willard Alexander. 


Opportunity to Improvise

Basie’s style of jazz differed from the carefully arranged music of the major big bands and attracted true improvisers like Lester Young. Gunther Schuller described the essential Basie style as “Simple, direct, uncluttered, but creatively un-innovative, mostly riff-in-blues pieces, with plentiful open spaces for Rushing and the band’s major soloists, with the Kansas City swing feeling as the prime selling point and stylistic common denominator.” (The Swing Era, p. 238-9) This kind of jazz appealed to players who felt comfortable in blues-rooted jazz and who relished the opportunity to solo. 


Basie Himself

Ultimately, despite the help he received from Hammond, Jo Jones and others, the miracle of the Famous Door Band was achieved by Basie himself. His ear, his style, his charismatic personality, his piano playing, his judgment—all these were essential ingredients in the building of the 1938 Basie band.


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