copyright © 2003 John McDonough
from the Wall Street Journal/Leisure & Arts
December 17, 2003
In his recent book, "Jazz Modernism," Alfred Appel, professor emeritus at Northwestern University, broke rare new ground in jazz writing by linking Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller and other jazz players to Masisse, Joyce and the icons of the modern high art canon. He argued without a speck of condescension that jazz, painting, literature and other arts actually did talk to each, even if subliminally, through the medium of modernism.
Upon spending several lively hours with "Count Basie: America's # 1 Band," a new four-CD collection from Columbia/Legacy covering the Count Basie band's formative years from 1936 to 1951, I find myself persuaded that Mr. Appel is on to something and that to view Basie's music only within the constraints of jazz is to miss the range of his reach. His name not only belongs alongside the likes of Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington and Parker, as you would expect, but also the pioneers who interpreted the technology of the machine into art in the 1930s - men such as Henry Dreyfuss, Norman Bel Geddes and Frank Lloyd Wright.
Even the most innovative artists are accountable to gods beyond than their conscious influences and their own imaginations. There are unseen ties that connect otherwise unconnected spheres of popular culture into a recognizable continuum. If economics answers to an all-pervading "invisible hand," surely the arts must have a similar force channeling the buzz between music, art, industrial design, architecture, etc. into some cohesive and unified point.
It lurks in the shadows, but they all feed on its presence. Call it common sensibility if you like, or zeitgeist or the spirit of the times. Whatever, nothing is more public, yet conceals itself more completely within its own pervasive omnipresence. It is everywhere, and therefore nowhere. It must be coaxed out to be recognized, even as it openly manifests itself under our noses in countless works of bric a brac. Only in the perspective of time does it ultimately become clear.
There are 90 selections in the Basie package, 22 of them from live radio broadcasts. Thirty are by Basie small groups; the rest by the full orchestra. Nearly all remind us that in the 1930s Basie, his band, piano, and particularly his rhythm section rewrote the most fundamental laws of motion in jazz. And therein lies the link, because few things dominated the spirit of the late '30s more than the larger wonders of motion, speed and new aerodynamic shapes that became expressions of a futuristic and optimistic modernism.
Count Basie materialized, as if by some invisible hand, at almost precisely the moment when streamlining seemed to reach a critical mass in breakthrough designs and public fascination. In one brief 18-month period from 1934 to 1936, America saw its first diesel streamliners, Raymond Loewy's Hupmobile, the Chrysler Airflow, the smooth metallic shrouds that transformed traditional steam engines into futuristic projectiles on rails, the first production DC-3's, "Flash Gordon," and the statuesque curves of Jean Harlow sheathed in white and silver satin.
In the midst of all this, popular music also took a sudden turn as well, from a frumpy two-beat angularity lingering from the '20s toward the unbroken propulsion and rhythmic flow of swing. Within that same 18 month window came the breakthrough of Benny Goodman, whose theme, "Let's Dance," seemed the essence of aerodynamic unity - four simple whole notes gliding over a rolling four-four rhythm. A few months later Basie came flying out of Kansas City like an arrow, the musical mirror image of the same spirit of modernity that found beauty in sleek designs inspired by the physics of velocity, designs that merged all sub-forms into a continuum of smooth, rounded, transitional lines.
Toward the end of disc four there is a remarkable Basie version of "I Got Rhythm" that perfectly illustrates this. As the band retires after a chorus, tenor saxophonist Lester Young, the most streamlined and gifted of Basie's great soloists, glides in skimming like a stone across a sustained F for over four measures, capping the sprint with exclamatory B-flat. It's more striking for its sheer aerodynamic contour than any content - that, and the fact that a decade earlier Louis Armstrong might have ridden that F by hammering out a string of staccato quarter notes while bumping along on a two-cylinder rhythm section. Jazz lurched into the '30s as a boxy jalopy. It exited, largely under Basie's leadership, as a streamliner.
Another Basie soloist worth noting is Dickie Wells. Using the trombone's sliding intonations, he found ingenious ways to disobey the formalities of tempo with oblique swerves and eccentric phrasings. Outside the Basie context, they could sound awkward. But they make perfect sense here. On one small band tune, "Dickie's Dream" on disk one, Wells drifts leisurely in on top of Young, in a flowing, almost imperceptible transition of overlapping C's across four measures. The handoff is as seamless as a soap bubble, all disjunction between the two camouflaged in the gentle, curved lines of a Saarinen or Eames silhouette set to music.
If anyone personified and objectified the subtle sweep of Basie's understated swing, it was Jo Jones, drummer on all but a handful of these performances (and sometimes so understated as to be barely audible). It was Jones who forged his mastery of the high hat cymbal into a fragile but steely force that breathed with the natural elegance of a gull's wings. It was said that he "played like the wind," a perfect metaphor for the ideals of streamlining, which derived in part from such organic models as birds in flight.
Basie never saw his music in this way, of course. I doubt if he'd ever heard of Raymond Loewy or contemplated the interconnectedness of the arts. It wasn't that he resisted intellectualizing his music. He was simply incapable of it.
About 30 years ago I interviewed him. I took the occasion very seriously, intent on digging into the roots of his innovations and getting insights from the Man himself on his creative logic. What I got instead were looks of confusion, a lot of hemming and hawing, and a strong sense that he'd rather be wasting his money at the race track than his time with me. He didn't understand what I was after because he couldn't see it in his own work. It was a fool's search. Ten years later, a 400-page autobiography written with Albert Murray contained no more insight that my interview.
I finally understood that Basie's most original music, much of which is included in the Columbia/Legacy set, was a completely natural and unpremeditated reaction to unique circumstance and opportunity. It is the only way, perhaps, in which the "invisible hand" of sensibility can manifest itself free of the distortions of unnecessary knowledge - something best left to those of us who imbibe our arts from the galleries with intent to commit criticism.John McDonough writes for Down Beat as well as the Wall Street Journal.
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