For years it has been the contention of many jazz critics that the long career of Count Basie fell into two distinct periods. The first and best, they argue, was during the '30s and '40s, when his big band featured such performers as Lester Young, Jo Jones and Freddie Green; its style was light, witty, swinging yet never merely loud. The second was from the '50s until his death in 1983, a period when the musicians in his band were less distinctive and its style, in their view, tended to be loud and ponderous.
This has always seemed to me a misjudgment of the second Basie band -- could anyone possibly call "L'il Darlin' " ponderous? -- but it is certainly a convenient way to assess "Good Morning Blues," Basie's posthumous autobiography. Its first half, covering the apprenticeship on the road, the critical years in Kansas City with Benny Moten, and the formation of Basie's own first band, is as impish and sprightly as a Basie piano solo; its second half, by contrast, covering the years of his ever-growing success and acclaim, is a recitation of itineraries, recording dates and personnel changes that has all the pep of a Lawrence Welk seniors' hop.
So let's concentrate on the first half and forget the second. In the first 200 pages Basie tells the story, well known to jazz lovers, of his upbringing in the New Jersey town of Red Bank and his escape from it as a teen-ager. What is less well known is that as a young man Basie was less interested in music than in show business, and that his early experience was in vaudeville and burlesque, playing piano behind comedians and singers and other performers. Not really until 1929, when he had been in show business for a decade, did Basie become "more and more tied up with music itself and less and less concerned with show business and entertainment in general."
Kansas City is where the transformation took place, first when he played with a band called the Blue Devils and then when he managed to insinuate his way into the Moten band, which "was number one throughout that part of the country." Moten himself was a pianist, and for Basie to "connive" his way into the band took a lot of pluck and luck; he succeeded, and ever after regarded it as the most important moment of his career, both because he received invaluable musical experience and because it paved the way for his emergence as a band leader in his own right.
When Basie describes this long apprenticeship, the book positively sparkles. He loved the camaraderie he found, in burlesque and music alike, and he writes with palpable affection of the people, famous and otherwise, whom he met along the way. He reserves particular enthusiasm for his accounts of those occasions, now long since lost in jazz history, at which musicians and/or bands competed against each other, each attempting to "chop" the other. One such competition took place when Basie happened to wander into a bar in Ohio:
"I don't know why I sat down at that piano. We were all in there to get a little taste and a little snack, and the piano was there. But it was just sitting there. It wasn't bothering anybody. I just don't know what made me do what I went and did. I went over there and started bothering that piano. I just started fooling around with it, and then I started playing and messing around. And what did I do that for? That was just asking for trouble, and that's exactly what I got. Because somebody went out and found Art."
Art was the fellow whose hangout this bar happened to be, and when he entered the room young Basie "got my personal introduction to a keyboard monster by the name of Art Tatum." By the time Tatum had done his number, Basie was wasted. "I could have told you," a woman at the bar said. "Why didn't you, baby?" Basie asked. "Why didn't you?"
The first half of "Good Morning Blues" is packed with fine stories such as this, told in a wry, sly prose that sounds for all the world like Basie himself at the keyboard. He met most of the greats before they became famous, played with or against them, and loved them all, most especially Fats Waller ("He would have on his tuxedo and a new straw hat, and I never will forget how fine he looked and how good it felt just to be around him") and Duke Ellington: "He was something. He was colorful. Oh, I love him. He was the man. Oh, he was some kind of man. All down the years, I used to go and listen to him, and I knew exactly where he was, because I could feel him."
That Basie retained this affection and enthusiasm for other musicians long after he had become a jazz monument himself is ample evidence of his great and good heart. But the best evidence of all is his music, preserved for all time on hundreds of incomparable recordings. What he said of Ellington can be said as well, and as fervently, of him: ". . . thank God the music is still here for us."