“Basie’s stuff means something.” i Jack Kerouac, Horace Mann Record
Good Morning Blues: The Autobiography of Count Basie as told to Albert Murray (first edition 1985) is something like the Count’s music: it’s not only about the notes he plays, it’s also about the notes he leaves out. This is more a “tell some” rather than a “tell all,” and so be it. Basie plays it straight and simple, like his music, and the subject of the book is that: the music, jazz, and all those great jazz players. Count enjoyed a sixty-year career as pianist, band leader, composer, and arranger.
It’s a delight “listening” to William Basie tell his story. It couldn’t have been easy in those early years, but Count sheds a gracious light on events with gentleness, style, and humor, and some very funny stories that go back to the glory days of Kansas City and the early New York years with the likes of Fats Waller, Billie Holiday, Lester Young, and everybody in the jazz world. A good read for jazz enthusiasts who want to glean some insight in a world long gone.
Apparently, young William, newly arrived in New York City, was so green he (and Elmer Williams, sax player) got these remarks from Sonny Greer, Duke Ellington’s drummer from Long Branch, New Jersey, “Hey, where you two farmers think you going? . . . . Hey, what you two country boys doing up here in the big city?” ii Small town Red Bank being the farm, and, for the record, Long Branch being a few shore towns away.
Was Count called Count because the jazz world had a Duke, King, Earl, Baron? iii Or as Bennie Moten suggests was it more, “Aw, that guy ain’t no ‘count.” and “Where is that no ‘count rascal?”
“no ‘count, as the old expression goes.” iv
Count makes strides, develops, and has his own ideas, “I had been around long enough and gotten into enough to call myself a New York musician . . . I was not from Red Bank anymore. I was from New York.” v Count makes clear that Red Bank is in the past and he hightailed it out of there, fast.
He relates an amusing account about an Apollo Theatre backstage incident. “I’m standing there in the wings, this mean old bastard working back there starts signifying me . . . I’m standing there shaking already, and this son of a gun is . . . talking so loud so I can’t help hearing him.” The work man grumbles away, “Now here’s the great Count Basie back here. The great Count Basie! Well, I want to hear this. The great Count Basie. Now we’ll find out what he’s going to do in New York!” vi The man goes on and on, won’t give Basie a break, and it gets worse.
But Count finds himself and forges his identity, “Talking about jumping at the Woodside . . . it came to me that I really wasn’t William Basie or Bill Basie the piano player from Red Bank anymore. From now on and for better or worse I was Count Basie, the bandleader out of Kansas City, back in New York.” vii Small town boy does well, takes on the world as Count, and does so with a lot of good times and great jazz.
i Kerouac, Jack. Atop an Underwood: Early Stories and Other Writings. (New York: Penguin) 2000. pp. 21-22.
ii Basie, William. Good Morning Blues: The Autobiography of Count Basie. (New York: Da Capo Press) 1995. p.51.
iii Ibid., pp. 146-147.
iv Ibid., pp. 146-147.
v Ibid., p. 84.
vi Ibid., p. 190.
vii Ibid., p. 196.