Battles of the bands were a common occurrence in the big-band era of the 1930s and ‘40s; some were public-relations stunts, others were hard-fought challenges for dominance. In 1936, two bands engaged in one such battle as the Count Basie Orchestra was leaving Kansas City, Mo., and preparing for a cross-country trip to its new home in New York City. The Duke Ellington Orchestra triumphed easily that night, because the Basie band was still finding its footing. It had yet to fully establish the personnel or the sound that would eventually make it famous, and it did not yet have the proper arrangements for a 12-piece band.
The Symphony Center Presents Jazz Series will stage a re-creation of this encounter Jan. 23 in a concert titled “Battle Royale.” The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, led by trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, will take the role of the Duke Ellington Orchestra, as it comes face to face with the still-touring Count Basie Orchestra, under the direction of trumpeter Scotty Barnhart. Expect to hear some of the classic tunes that these two legendary ensembles made famous.
In advance of this concert, Sounds and Stories spoke to Chuck Haddix about Basie and the Kansas City, Mo., jazz scene that helped shaped his bluesy, swinging sound. Haddix serves as director of the Marr Sound Archives, a collection of 360,000 historical recordings at the Miller Nichols Library at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, and is a radio host on KCUR-FM in Kansas City. In addition, he is the co-author of Kansas City Jazz: From Ragtime to Bebop — A History (2005) and author of The Life and Music of Charlie Parker (2013).
How important was Kansas City in the history of American jazz, and is it as recognized for its contributions as it should be?
There are, of course, four cradles of jazz. Jazz was really born in New Orleans, and then it moved by rail to Chicago and then moved on to New York, where jazz really matured. The Kansas City style developed independently from the other jazz capitals. And the thing about Kansas City music, and this is the thesis of my book, is that the music evolved very quickly. In 1921, James Scott composed “Don’t Jazz Me – Rag (I’m Music),” and by 1941, Charlie Parker is playing bebop. Kansas City developed a very distinctive style of jazz distinguished by riffs and great soloists, and was a saxophone town. And Basie really was the architect of the Kansas City sound, first as a member of the Bennie Moten Orchestra, and then as a leader of his own band.
Among the leading figures in Kansas City jazz, where do you rank Count Basie in importance?
He is the one who really defined Kansas City jazz. If you listen to the recording, “Moten Swing,” from 1932, it contains all those elements that distinguish Kansas City from those other jazz capitals. The rhythm section is playing a straight line, led by [bassist] Walter Page. The sections are riffing off each other – there are complex riffs, incredible solos. Then when he develops his big band, he reunites with [arranger] Eddie Durham. See, Basie couldn’t read music, so it was Eddie Durham who orchestrated his ideas for the Moten band [for which Basie played piano] and then later for the Basie band in New York for those Decca recordings.
Can you provide a quick thumbnail history of Basie’s time in Kansas City? How many years did he spend in Kansas City and how did he become a bandleader?
He came here originally in 1927 with the Gonzell White band. Well, he came through with “Hippety Hop” [a touring vaudeville show] first, but it was 1927 when he really arrived in Kansas City. And he stayed here until 1936. He becomes a bandleader quite by accident. If Bennie Moten hadn’t died, there’s some question about whether Count Basie would have emerged as a bandleader. When Moten died in 1936, he was preparing the band to go back East, and it was always the goal of Kansas City musicians, from Andy Kirk to Bennie Moten to Charlie Parker, to make it in New York. Bennie was preparing for another tour and then he died, and Basie couldn’t get along with [Ira] “Bus” Moten [Bennie’s nephew], so he opened at the Reno Club and basically recruited former members of the Moten band and the Blue Devils [a territory band led by Walter Page].
That was a nine-piece band that was playing head [stock] arrangements. It was [jazz journalist] Dave Dexter Jr. and [music critic and record producer] John Hammond that really advanced the Basie band, and they expanded to 12 pieces. They didn’t get off to a very good start, but, finally, they settled down in the basement of the Woodside Hotel in New York City, and that’s really where they came up with that sound and composed the classics “One O’Clock Jump” and “Jumpin’ at the Woodside.”
By the time Basie came along and hits the national scene, swing had really begun to stagnate. And he really reinvigorated the swing movement. It was a rawer sound. It was a driving sound. The Eastern bands had been using riffs, which is a short melodic phrase that is repeated throughout the piece, but he used riffs in a more pronounced manner. They come to the forefront and it’s also music to dance to.
The thing about Ellington, he considered himself to be more “beyond category.” His band really didn’t swing, although some people would say that I’m wrong on that. But if you listen to it, he wrote very intricate compositions, and he was more interested in using the full palette of his audio colors when he composed. That’s not a very artful way of putting it, but it’s a whole different thing. Ellington didn’t get on board the swing bandwagon like Basie did, but Basie was driving afterward. And it’s ironic, because like I said, Ellington told him, “You’re going to make it,” and Basie becomes one of his principal rivals.
Where do you rank the Count Basie Orchestra among the great big bands?
I’d rank them right up there with Ellington. If you think about the great big bands, and you look at the bands of the 1930s and 40s, who survived that era? Ellington and Basie. Benny Goodman had personal issues. He was hard to get along with and hard to work with. And after the end of the big-band era, due to World War II, these guys re-formed and continued to play big band music, where most of the other bands fell by the wayside.
Do you have a favorite Count Basie tune?
Probably my favorite one would be “Jumpin’ at the Woodside.” I don’t know why, but I just love that song. He co-wrote “One O’Clock Jump” with Buster Smith and Eddie Durhan when he was a member of the Moten band. So the Moten band was playing this swing music. But I like “Jumpin’ at the Woodside,” yeah.
Could you compare and contrast the Basie and Ellington bands?
They really are the culmination of Kansas City and New York. New York is an orchestral expression of jazz, and with Fletcher Henderson and Ellington, they had very intricate arrangements. But with Kansas City, the arrangements were simpler — almost head arrangements — but the bands swung harder.
Did they see each other as rivals?
I think they saw each other as friendly rivals. Ellington was the gold standard of bands, and when he would come to town, he would raise the bar for the Kansas City bands. When he first came here — I think it was 1931 — on his way to appear in [the film] “Check and Double Check,” he played at Paseo Hall, and the place was packed. They had heard of Ellington and they’d heard the broadcasts and they’d heard the records and they’d read about Ellington, but they hadn’t seen him. The Ellington band sounded so much different than the Kansas City bands. Everybody showed up, according to the Kansas City Call. It really created a sensation. So Ellington really set the standard. Count Basie comes along much later than Ellington, and like I said, he really reinvigorated swing and he became one of Ellington’s principal rivals.
Did they have more than one battle of the bands, or was it just that one time in Kansas City in 1936?
It was that one time in Kansas City. [Reading from his Kansas City jazz history:] Before pulling out of Kansas City, Basie and crew played a double bill with Duke Ellington at Paseo Hall on Nov. 2. Ellington went to town on “It Don’t Mean a Thing,” “Stormy Weather,” “Solitude,” “Troubled Waters” and several other numbers that had the huge crowd applauding raucously. The Basie band played with their usual gusto.
[Guitarist] Claude Williams remembered that the Basie band was caught ill-prepared to share the bill with the more polished and experienced Ellington band. “Duke Ellington blew us out the other side of the hall, because we didn’t have arrangements,” Williams said. “They were for nine pieces.” Right after the engagement, as the band prepared to board its new bus and depart for Chicago, Ellington joined the crowd of well-wishers gathered outside to see the band off. Pulling Basie aside, Ellington graciously assured him, “You can make it.”
Kyle MacMillan, former classical music critic of the Denver Post, is a Chicago-based arts journalist.
TOP: The Count Basie Orchestra, circa 1940, in performance. | Photo: Courtesy of the University of Missouri-Kansas City Libraries, Dr. Kenneth J. LaBudde Department of Special Collections.