Count Basie

9. Count Basie Swings, Joe Williams Sings

BasieJoe1Record: Count Basie Swings, Joe Williams Sings
Artist: Count Basie and Joe Williams
Released: Clef Records, 1955

If there's one thing that classic jazz has in common with modern hip-hop and rap it's that it was as common then as it is now for major artists to collaborate. My father's collection is full of records like this one, with two legends sharing the studio, apparently unafraid of being overshadowed by the other. Instead each elevates the other, especially when a gifted singer joins a renowned band leader.

In some of these collaborations we see the genius of Count Basie. I've already written about the record he recorded with Frank Sinatra, in which his band adjusted to Sinatra's pop-leaning style. Here, Basie accommodates Joe Williams, one of the great blues singers of the era.

The opening track, "Every Day (I Have the Blues)," is a negotiation. The record opens up with Basie's signature stride piano style, and then the horns join in, reminding us that this is one of the most powerful big bands in history. Once that's been established, Williams is welcomed in, and his trademark baritone voice parts the waters; within seconds a swing tune morphs into the blues.

Nobody loves me,
Nobody seems to care.
Speakin' of bad luck and trouble,
Well, you know I've had my share.

Although he's best known for singing the blues like that, there are other tracks on the album that are more upbeat ("Alright, Okay, You Win") or ask Williams to do a little crooning ("In the Evening"). His versatility, along with Basie's, is on display, and the result is a showcase for both legends. (There will be lots more from both men as this project continues.)

Depending on the version you find, this record could have as many as twelve tracks, with the final three recorded in 1956, but my father's album, released in 1955, has only nine, which remains mysterious to me. 

One of my favorite things about this record is the slip case, which features cover art by David Stone Martin, an artist who designed covers for more than a hundred jazz albums in the 1950s and '60s. (Like Williams and Basie, we'll see Martin's work again.) On the back cover Basie and Williams, resplendent in suits that would still look sharp today, frame liner notes that are modest for the time, only six paragraphs. 

But most interesting is something that you won't find on your album. In the upper right hand corner there's a price tag -- $3.98 -- that's survived sixty-seven years. My father bought this record from Hudson's, a landmark department store in Detroit. Once upon a time, Hudson's was the tallest department store in the world, and only slightly smaller by square footage than Macy's in New York City. My own memories of the store are hazy, but I remember shopping trips and lunch and Sander's with my mother, and when I learned to write in cursive in the third grade, I patterned the H in my first name after the stylized loopy version in the Hudson's logo rather than the standard H I saw on the chalkboard.

I was just a boy back then, but it's fun to imagine my father as a young man twenty years earlier, walking into the flagship store at the corner of Woodward and Gratiot and heading to the record counter, either down in the basement or up on the twelfth floor. After settling on this record, perhaps he paid with a five dollar bill, then used the change to get some lunch on the way out. There's no way to know if he might've taken the same elevator my mother and I did twenty years later or sat in the same booth at one of the restaurants, but this morning I listened to the record he bought that day, and that's a pretty cool thing.

BasieJoe2

Side 1
Every Day (I Have the Blues)
The Comeback
Alright, Okay, You Win
In the Evening (When the Sun Goes Down)

Side 2
Roll 'Em Pete
Teach Me Tonight
My Baby Upsets Me
Please Send Me Someone to Love
Ev'ry Day


4. Sinatra-Basie

SinatraBasieRecord: Sinatra-Basie
Artist: Frank Sinatra and Count Basie
Released: Reprise Records, 1962

I bought my first true stereo in the summer of 1990, and few purchases before or since have given me as much pleasure. Until then my music had come from single-speaker clock radios, cassette tapes played through a boom box, or the CD players of college roommates. 

But when I gladly parted with six hundred dollars of my summer earnings and came home from Rogers Sound Labs with a receiver, a five-disc CD changer, and a set of speakers, everything changed. Suddenly I needed to have every song I'd ever loved in my CD collection, and even some that I didn't love just because someone else might want to hear it.

If only my twenty-year-old self had known about the world of streaming that was just a few decades away. Today I can stand in my kitchen and ask Alexa to play any song ever recorded, and within seconds I can be singing along while dicing an onion. It's a brave new wonderful world, but one thing we've lost is the joy of the search and the thrill of discovery.

During that first summer I had a detailed list of CDs that I wanted (needed) to add to my collection. Most weekends I'd spend a few hours with a likeminded friend scouring the racks at a used record store, searching for nuggets hidden in the stacks. The CDs were organized alphabetically, but only loosely, so the only method was to flip through -- flip through them all.

That rhythm of the cases clicking together as my index and middle fingers walked up the stack was hypnotic, and I don't have to look too deeply into my memories to hear the sound of the plastic click, click, click, clicking. And then you'd find one. Sometimes it was a CD you'd been searching for for weeks, but sometimes it was even better -- a CD you didn't even know existed. A bootleg recording of a live concert or the European edition of a CD you already owned. (You'd buy it anyway because it might have different artwork and an extra track.) I miss the search. I miss the discovery.

It wasn't immediately that I connected my love of music with my father's, nor my growing CD collection to his vinyl, but that would come. When I wanted to expand my jazz collection, I looked to my father for guidance and opened his record chests with intent. It was similar to my Saturday CD runs. Some of the names were familiar, but others were brand new. I flipped through the records, pulling one album out at a time, and I added titles to my list.

This record, Sinatra-Basie, was one of the first to show up in my collection, and it's still one of my favorites. I don't remember for sure, but I'm guessing I was drawn to it because of Frank Sinatra, who was one of my mother's favorites, probably her only favorite. 

My whole life was in front of me when I was in my early twenties and first listening to this record, and no track spoke to that like the fourth song on the first side.

"Lookin' at the world through rose-colored glasses
Everything is rosy now
Lookin' at the world and everything that passes
Seems a rosy hue somehow..."

If my life had been a movie, I imagined, this was the song playing in the opening credits. A few scenes later, when life took its first turn, there would be Sinatra again with a track from side two, "Learnin' the Blues," this time gently explaining the pain of lost love. He gently croons,

"When you're at home alone, the blues will taunt you constantly.
When you're out in a crowd, those blues will haunt your memory."

People often refer to one album or another as being the soundtrack of their lives, and I think that's telling. Music speaks to us, and great music speaks to all of us. What Sinatra and Basie have done here is combine Basie's orchestra with Sinatra's singing, and the result is a record the must've spoken to by father sixty years ago, certainly spoke to me thirty years ago, and still swings today. That's genius.

SinatraBasieVinyl


Side 1
Pennies from Heaven
Please Be Kind
(Love Is) The Tender Trap
Looking at the World thru Rose Colored Glasses
My Kind of Girl

Side 2
I Only Have Eyes for You
Nice Work If You Can Get It
Learnin' the Blues
I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter
I Won't Dance


1. Not Now, I'll Tell You When

Basie1Record: Not Now, I'll Tell You When
Artist: Count Basie & His Orchestra
Released: Roulette Records, 1960

I wish I had the musical expertise to better describe this record. Any casual jazz fan knows Count Basie and the Count Basie Orchestra. I'd put myself in that group, certainly. I pulled this record, the first step of my journey, from a small subset of my father's collection. 

Twenty years ago my wife gave me the most thoughtful gift I've ever received. What struck me first was the weight, but the weight made sense when I unwrapped it and found a small carrying case holding twenty or so records. At first I didn't know why my wife was giving me a case of old records, but then I quickly recognized them as my fathers. By itself, it was beautiful, but then she explained. "These are your father's records, some of his favorites."

My mother hadn't yet given me his collection, so it still sat in her house in two record cabinets. They were actually matching chests with upholstered lids that could serve as seats when closed but then open to reveal the vinyl they held within. My wife wanted to buy me a record player, specifically so I could listen to those records. And so she and my mother went through the collection one record at a time so that my mother could pull out twenty or so titles that my father listened to most often. His favorites.

I've never talked to either of them about their actual process that afternoon, but I've replayed the imagined scene in my mind hundreds of times. I see my mother lifting one album after another, each one a time capsule of sorts holding memories from another lifetime. I watch as her eyes play across the images on a cover and the music begins to play in her mind, no needle required. Tears begin to collect in her eye lashes, and she hands a record to my wife. "This one," she says. "He liked this one."

I like this one, too. Piano player Basie was the king of bebop, and as you listen to this record it isn't hard to imagine him leading his orchestra on stage with dozens of spinning  couples on the dance floor in front of them. This title was released in 1960, a couple decades after the height of the Big Band Era, and even though people like Miles Davis and John Coltrane were beginning to take jazz in new directions, there's something special about these songs.

I don't know if it's my time playing saxophone in middle school and high school, but I've always been a sucker for horns, especially when they find their way into pop music. Few people in history have sold more albums than Phil Collins, whose legacy is largely defined by the greatest drum fill in the history of pop music and a string of songs that play well in grocery stores, but his liberal use of a horn section on his first two albums is what I'll remember. I've been a casual reggae fan since I went away to college and started hearing Bob Marley's Legend coming out of every dorm room on the hall, but what I really love is reggae's precursor, British ska with its stabbing horns.

All of that, in one way or another echoes back to bepop, echoes back to the Count. Basie is known for jazz classics like "Fly Me to the Moon" and "One O'Clock Jump," but you won't find those tracks on this record. It's a bit more obscure, but I think I like it more because of that obscurity. I listened to it for the first time this morning, and I'm quite sure today was the first time it had been out of its sleeve in more than fifty years, the last time my father's hands set it on a turntable and set the needle on the grooves. 

Basie2Side 1
Not Now, I'll Tell You
Rare Butterfly
Back to the Apple
Ol' Man River

Side 2
Mama's Talkin' Soft
The Daly Jump
Blue on Blue
Swinging at the Waldorf
Sweet and Purty