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Kansas City Swing: Jumpin the Blues, Swingin', Fine and Mellow

 

Showtime
 

Kansas City, Robert Altman Film

 

By CALVIN WILSON
Arts and Entertainment Writer
Kansas City Star Newspaper


If Bill Basie had never gained international acclaim, he still would be remembered as a prime purveyor of Kansas City swing.

 But for the pianist and bandleader known as the Count, fate was far more gracious. Sixty years ago this month, a young, keen-eared record producer named John Hammond came to town in pursuit of a sound he'd heard on the radio.

 It was the stomping sound of Basie and his band, broadcast live from the Reno Club, one of those fabled, constantly jumping joints that made the city's jazz name.

 Hammond wasn't thrilled with the club, which was hardly palatial. But the band got to him. And together, improviser Basie and impresario Hammond would take the music far beyond the city limits.

 The Kansas City jazz style, based on the blues and propelled by a rhythmic swing, is getting renewed attention, largely because it's prominently featured in director Robert Altman's upcoming film, "Kansas City."

 Set in 1934, the film evokes the days when the city was brimming with crime, corruption and cacophony. It was against this backdrop that Basie's music took shape.

 Basie had a reputation as a pianist whose style was simple but engaging, in contrast to the two-handed, full-sound players of the day such as Thomas "Fats" Waller and Earl "Fatha" Hines. Indeed, his sound was so impressive that Bennie Moten hired him a way from Walter Page's Blue Devils to play piano in his band -- even though Moten was a pianist himself. After Moten's death in 1935 Basie became the leader of a new band that grew out of the old group.

 It was a good time to play jazz in Kansas City. There was no shortage of clubs, or "cutting contests" in which excellent players prodded each other toward ever-greater feats of artistic dexterity.

 Basie's band drew from the best of these musicians. Among its members were saxophonists Lester Young and Herschel Evans, trumpeters Hot Lips Page and Buck Clayton and drummer Jo Jones.

 The group had a standing gig at the Reno Club, which was near 12th and Cherry streets; the club had become known for its live radio broadcasts (over W9XBY). One evening in the winter of 1936, a jazz fan was listening to his car radio in Chicago when th e Basie band began to play.

 That fan was John Hammond.

 "I couldn't believe my ears," Hammond wrote in his autobiography, John Hammond on Record.

 It wasn't the first time he'd heard Basie play. Some years before, Hammond noted, he had seen Basie perform in Harlem while he was still in the Moten band: "He was a little guy then, weighing about 120 pounds, and playing up a storm."

 And Hammond had heard of Basie's own band. But actually hearing it for the first time, on the radio, was another matter.

 "What I picked up from Kansas City was amazing," Hammond wrote. "Basie had developed an extraordinary economy of style. With fewer notes he was saying all that Waller and Hines could say pianistically ... which could inspire a horn player to heights h e had never reached before."

 Excited about the music, Hammond wrote enthusiastically about the band, hoping for a response from Basie. Eventually the bandleader did write him a letter. Hammond responded that he would visit Kansas City.

 In his autobiography, Good Morning Blues (co-written with Albert Murray), Basie said he had been skeptical that the meeting actually would take place.

 "I guess the thing about it was that I really wasn't actually shooting for the top at that time," Basie recounted. "I was just interested in having something good there in the Reno."

 But when Hammond showed up with "a big wide grin," the bandleader took a liking to him. Hammond was in town for a few days in late July (neither he nor Basie was specific about the dates).

 Basie again: "The band played exceptionally well that night, too ... and this young fellow really dug it. He stuck around to talk some more after we finished our last number, and we went out to some other spots that were still open, and that was a bal l, too. He liked what I liked. He liked the blues."

 Hammond wasn't the only jazz aficionado to notice that the Basie band was something special. In the July 1936 issue of Down Beat, Kansas City jazz critic Dave Dexter contributed an article headlined, "Basie's Fine Music From One of Town's Worst Dives." Dexter chided the more prominent Kansas City clubs for not hiring Basie's band.

 "While musicians and swing connoisseurs come away from a session with Basie talking to themselves with amazement," he wrote, "the bright business men who spend thousands of dollars to import name bands for Kansas City dancers continue to pass up an opp ortunity to put the town on the musical map."

 Dexter was referring to the fact that even though musicians acknowledged Kansas City as a regional hub for jazz, New York was the place bands had to go if they wanted to break through to the big money.

 That's where Hammond came in. With his connections to the New York recording world, Hammond, who had recorded the Benny Goodman band, could gain Basie the sort of recognition that was beyond the grasp of a regional outfit.

 And the Basie band was ready, said Chuck Haddix, a music historian and director of the Marr Sound Archives at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

 "It's like, did Columbus discover America? America was already here, and Basie was already here," Haddix said. "He was ready to happen."

 But not without problems. Hammond set up a favorable deal with Brunswick Records. But before he could reach Basie with the proposition, the band signed a three-year contract with Decca for $750 a year and no royalties.

 Undaunted, Hammond took a quintet culled from the band to Chicago, where he recorded it under the name Jones-Smith Inc. It was the first recording for saxophonist Lester Young, and the sides still are considered some of the group's best work. Late in 1 936, the band moved to New York in a 12-piece version that included guitarist Freddie Green and saxophonist Earl Warren.

 The band got a big break when Hammond secured an engagement at the Famous Door, a small but notable jazz club, in 1938. In the same year, the band gained one of its strongest players in trumpeter Harry "Sweets" Edison.

 Through the years Hammond maintained his interest in Basie and his work. His comments weren't always complimentary, and Basie didn't always appreciate them. But in Good Morning Blues, Basie, who died in 1984, commended Hammond for his commitment to his music.

 "As far as I'm concerned, John Hammond was the one who made the big difference in my life as a bandleader, no question about it. Without him, I probably would still be in Kansas City, if I still happened to be alive."

 Basie would go on to enlist a stream of top soloists, including saxophonist Paul Gonsalves and Frank Foster (who took over leadership of the band after Basie's death), trumpeter Thad Jones and singer Joe Williams.

 Hammond went on to create and further the careers of such essential pop and rock artists as Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin and Bruce Springsteeen. He died in 1987.

 But both men would look back on their encounter in the Reno Club as a sweet moment in time.
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