From Chapter Six: The Velocity of Celebration 1936-1939
The Energy It Takes
Benny Goodman’s favorite orchestra was Duke Ellington’s, he said, both because “the flavor of Duke’s music is entirely different than anything else in jazz,” and because his soloists seemed to have such a deep personal commitment to what they were playing.
For his part, Duke Ellington rarely complained about Goodman’s coronation by the press as “The King of Swing” or the enormous popularity of the new, mostly white bands that followed in his wake. After all, Ellington had written the tune that gave the new music its name–“It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing”–three years before Goodman hit it big at the Palomar, and he didn’t much like the term, himself. “Jazz is music,” he said. “Swing is business.”
Ellington continued on his own independent course, refusing as always to be categorized. By doing so, Rex Stewart remembered, “he could stand above his contemporaries . . . in the manner of a god descending from Olympian heights. And why not?” Stewart continued. “He had removed himself. Let the world catch up.”
When hits for the full orchestra proved few and far between, he formed small groups within his band, just as Benny Goodman did, and wrote or arranged some 140 pieces to showcase his stars. Other bands would eventually follow suit: Tommy Dorsey’s Clambake Seven; Bob Crosby’s Bob Cats; Woody Herman’s Four Chips; Artie Shaw and his Gramercy Five; Chick Webb and His Little Chicks. Ellington also tried having two basses for a time, to give his band a little extra lift; and he continued to experiment with longer forms, as well, most notably a two-part piece called “Diminuendo in Blue” and “Crescendo in Blue” that took up both sides of a 78. “Like all of our compositions,” he said, these pieces “concern themselves with capturing and revealing the emotional spirit of the Race.”
Eventually, there were new popular hits, as well–Juan Tizol’s “Caravan,” “I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart,” “Prelude to a Kiss,” “Jeep’s Blues.” And again and again–in Dallas and Chicago and Memphis and half a dozen other towns–Ellington and his men found themselves playing theaters and ballrooms that had previously been closed to black bands. When an overly familiar interviewer asked Ellington how he felt about the fact that he could neither dine nor stay in some of the hotels in which his band played, Ellington characteristically deflected the question. “I took the energy it takes to pout,” he said, “and wrote some blues.”
Benny Goodman was not the only white bandleader to revere Ellington. No one admired him more than Charlie Barnet, and when he opened at a club on New York’s Fifty-second Street Barnet invited him down to hear his men play Ellington’s music. Ellington hesitated. The club did not normally welcome black patrons, and he asked Helen Oakley, now in Manhattan and working for Irving Mills, to scout the territory on his behalf. “Duke was terribly careful, extremely careful about what he called ‘situations,’ ” she remembered. “He never got into situations. Fifty-second Street was making all their money on black talent and keeping out black customers. But they told me that they would be very pleased if Duke Ellington would come. They’d have a table ready.” Ellington asked her, “ ‘Is it all right?’ ” she remembered, “and I told him, ‘Yes, yes it was.’ And it was all right. They received him at the door and they had a special table and Charlie was in seventh heaven.” Ellington sat quietly, sipping his drink and smiling appreciatively as Barnet and the band outdid themselves playing his music. But at one point he quietly turned to Oakley and murmured, “Hmm, they even fluff where we do.”
John Hammond, who had been partly responsible for putting together the Benny Goodman band which had ushered in the swing era, now had a new mission. He had been in Chicago in the winter of 1936, recording boogie-woogie piano players during the day and listening to the Goodman band at the Congress Hotel at night. One evening, he wrote later,
Having heard enough of Goodman’s music, . . . I went out to my car, . . .
not quite decided where to go next. It was cold as only January in Chicago can be, and I turned on the car radio. I had a twelve-tube Motorola with a large speaker . . . I spent so much time on the road that I wanted a superior instrument to keep me in touch with music around the country. It was one o’clock in the morning. . . . [T]he only music I could find was at the top of the dial, 550 kilocycles, where I picked up W9XBY, an experimental station in Kansas City. The nightly broadcast by the Count Basie band from the Reno Club was just beginning. I couldn’t believe my ears.
Hammond had heard Basie during a brief visit to New York with the Bennie Moten band several years earlier. He had been a powerful but busy pianist then, a stride player with a rumbling left hand. But now, he had developed what Hammond called “an extraordinary economy of style. With fewer notes he was saying all that Waller and Hines could say pianistically, using perfectly timed punctuation–a chord, even a single note–which could inspire a horn player to heights he had never reached before.”
Despite the cold, Hammond slipped out to his car every night that week to listen in to Count Basie and his band. One evening, he insisted that Benny Goodman join him between sets to hear them. Goodman was unimpressed. “So what’s the big deal?” he said, shivering in the car.
“I suppose I was asking too much of Benny. There I was in the parking lot of the Congress, telling him that a nine-piece group in Kansas City was the best I had ever heard, while across the street he was enjoying a triumph with one of the smash bands of the country.” Hammond was undeterred. He was now determined to bring Count Basie to New York.
William James Basie had given himself his title. “I knew about ‘King’ Oliver and . . . that Paul Whiteman was called the ‘King of Jazz,’ ” he remembered. “Duke Ellington was also . . . one of the biggest names in Harlem. . . . So I . . . had some little fancy business cards printed up to announce it. ‘Count Basie,’ it said, ‘Beware the Count Is Here.’ ” It was a rare moment of immodesty. Count Basie’s career seemed to build almost in spite of himself–or so he always liked to make it seem.
He was born in Red Bank, New Jersey, in 1904, the son of a coachman. His mother took in laundry to pay for his piano lessons. As a boy, he had dreamed of joining a circus and running away to see the world. He dropped out of school at fourteen, planning to become a drummer. Then young Sonny Greer, who would soon spark the Ellington band, came to town and outplayed him so badly he was driven back to the piano. In 1924, he had moved to Manhattan, where he learned all he could from the Harlem stride specialists–James P. Johnson, Willie the Lion Smith, and his own contemporary, Fats Waller–and paid his bills by accompanying silent films.
Then he went on the road, playing burlesque and vaudeville theaters with Katie Krippen and Her Kiddies, Liza and Her Shufflin’ Six, and a troupe called Gonzelle White’s Big Jazz Jamboree–which ran out of money when it reached Kansas City in 1927. “There we were,” Basie remembered, “with no show and no loot and no job.” He played organ in the Eblon movie theater for a while, but for the first time in his life wherever he went in Kansas City he found himself surrounded by the blues. “Eighteenth Street, at that time, was blazing,” he remembered. “I mean, everything was happening there, beautiful . . . you could hear the blues from any window or door. Right away I knew that was for me.” The blues would be at the heart of everything he did for the rest of his life, specifically the irresistible Kansas City style of stomping the blues that his friend the writer Albert Murray, quoting Duke Ellington, has called “the velocity of celebration.” “I really don’t know how you would define stomp in strict musical terms,” Basie once said. “But it was a real thing. What I would say is if you were on the first floor and the dance hall was upstairs, that was what you would hear, that steady, rump, rump, rump, rump, in that medium tempo. It was never fast.”
Basie spent several months on the road with Walter Page’s Original Blue Devils, but when they began to have trouble finding dates, he returned to Kansas City and went back to working at the Eblon, moving from club to club after it closed, listening and sitting in. At about five o’clock one morning in 1929 he saw a big crowd on Eighteenth Street. “When I asked about them, somebody said that they were the wives and sweethearts and . . . relatives and friends and followers waiting for the Bennie Moten Band that was due back in town from a long tour out in the territory. . . . It was kind of like standing around waiting for the hometown team.” Eventually, the band pulled up in two gleaming Chryslers. Bennie Moten and his brother Bus were waving from the first one. “They had a special kind of class,” Basie said, “and they also looked like they had it made in some ways, while the Blue Devils were still out there struggling from gig to gig.”
Basie wanted to sign on right away, but there was a problem. The band already had a piano player–Bennie Moten himself. It seemed hopeless, Basie recalled. “But I have always been a conniver, and began saying to myself, I got to see how I can connive my way into that band.” Basie could read little music but he had plenty of arranging ideas and managed to talk the trombonist, guitarist, and arranger Eddie Durham into working some of them out with him on paper, then passing them along to Moten. Moten liked them, asked for more, and when he went away on a brief business trip, let Basie sit in at the piano. Dancers loved him. After that, Moten played only an opening number or two at each show, then turned the keyboard over to Basie. The Moten band recorded for Victor, and traveled all the way east to New York City where they played at the Savoy and were not disgraced in a battle of the bands with Chick Webb. Playing with Moten’s band night after night for five years, Basie said, made him realize that music mattered more to him than show business.
Then, in 1935, after Bennie Moten died on the operating table during a botched tonsillectomy, his band disintegrated and Basie began putting together a nine-piece outfit of his own–“Count Basie and the Barons of Rhythm.” Their home base was the Reno Club at Twelfth and Cherry Streets. It was a rough place, with a tiny bandstand. Imported Scotch was fifteen cents a shot, domestic whiskey just a dime. Food came from a hot-dog stand next to the bar. Blue clouds of marijuana smoke hung perpetually above the balcony where the white customers sat, and taxi dancers and their clients climbed constantly up and down a separate staircase that led to bedrooms on the second floor for two dollars a trip. “I liked the atmosphere down there,” Basie said. “There was always a lot of action.”
The band’s nine members would eventually include five fellow veterans of the Blue Devils and Bennie Moten bands: Walter Page, Jo Jones, Buster Smith, Lips Page, Herschel Evans, and Lester Young. But Basie was firmly in charge. “I . . . had some pretty clear ideas about how I wanted the band to sound,” he remembered. “I knew how I wanted each section to sound. . . . I had my own way of opening the door for them to let them come in and sit around awhile. Then I would exit them.”
“A band can really swing when it swings easy,” Basie said, “when it can play along like . . . cutting butter.” The rhythm section was the heart of that conception, and Basie’s was perhaps the greatest in jazz history. Walter Page’s bass provided the powerful “walking” 4/4 pulse that allowed Jo Jones, himself a former tap dancer, to keep time on the high hat and ride cymbals and abandon the heavy, thumping, insistent emphasis on the bass drum that had characterized much jazz drumming. The result was light and relaxed, fluid and shimmering, less the ticking of a rhythmic clock than a surging wave of percussion, on top of which soloists seemed able to float without apparent effort. “When [Jo Jones] came out with the Basie band,” the drummer Louie Bellson said, “it was as if we had been waiting for him.” And Basie’s piano provided the perfect complement. With Page and Jones at work, he had long since given up the steady, four-beats-to-the-bar left hand that the masters of Harlem stride had taught him in favor of spare, witty fills and asides that commented on the music being played and spurred his men to greater effort. Even a single note, Count Basie said, can swing.
His band caught on fast. Soon, a crew from radio station W9XBY was turning up at the Reno Club several times a week to broadcast its music as far east as Chicago. Like most Kansas City outfits, the Basie band specialized in “head arrangement,” worked out informally without sheet music. Buster Smith remembered how one of their favorites came about: “We were fooling around at the club and Basie was playing along in F. That was his favorite key. He hollered that he was going to switch to D-flat and for me to set something from [another tune called ‘Six or Seven Times’] on alto. Lips Page jumped in with the trumpet part without any trouble and Dan Minor thought up the trombone part. That was it–a ‘head.’ ”
Basie and his men called the arrangement that resulted “Blue Balls.” The band was about to play it with just a few minutes to fill before they went off the air one morning, when the announcer asked Basie for the name of his next tune. Its informal title clearly wouldn’t do for the radio audience. He looked up at the studio clock and said, “Call it ‘One O’Clock Jump.’ ” He would play it night after night for the next fifty years.
Basie himself later claimed he would have been happy enough if he’d stayed in Kansas City forever. But John Hammond’s vociferous public enthusiasm for the band made the move east almost inevitable. It seemed to Hammond that the Basie band–blues-based, loose but hard-swinging, with plenty of soloing room–had everything the big commercial bands lacked. “I want to say categorically and without fear of ridicule that Count Bill Basie has by far and away the finest dance orchestra in the country,” he wrote in Down Beat. “And when I say this I am fully aware of Benny Goodman, Fletcher Henderson, and Chick Webb. . . . He has excellent soloists . . . and a driving rhythm section more exciting than any in American orchestral history.”
Enthusiasm like that inevitably attracted the interest of others. Before Hammond could sign Basie for Columbia, Dave Kapp, the brother of Jack Kapp, the head of Decca Records, turned up in Kansas City. Claiming to be Hammond’s friend, he talked Basie into agreeing to make twenty-four sides a year for a total of $750–less than union scale and without the promise of so much as a penny for royalties. Joe Glaser came to town, too, and hired away Lips Page–then put him under wraps for a time so that he could not challenge Louis Armstrong’s trumpet primacy. Page’s replacement in the Basie band was Buck Clayton, a master melodist who had begun life in Kansas but honed his skills in California and in a hotel dance band in Shanghai. Hammond convinced Willard Alexander to book the band but Alexander, in turn, insisted that it be expanded immediately from nine to thirteen men in order to compete with the big swing bands back east.
Duke Ellington happened to be in town on October 31, 1936, the night Basie and his men boarded their secondhand Greyhound bus for the journey east. “Go ahead,” Ellington assured Basie. “You can make it.” Basie himself was not so sure. As he set off, he knew that his band, which had been small and tight, was now ragged, unwieldy, and under-rehearsed.
Its first engagement–at the Grand Terrace in Chicago–did not provide much encouragement. The Basie men already played the blues better than anyone else in the country, but management insisted they also master more complicated arrangements to accompany an elaborate floor show. (Basie didn’t even attempt the special arrangement of The Poet and Peasant Overture he was handed, he remembered; a “lady pianist” had to be called in just to play it.) Only the dancers seemed to like the band: “Why don’t you just lay off,” one told her boss when he complained about Basie’s men. “Take it easy. These are just a nice group of country boys. . . . My God, one of these days you might be trying like hell to get them back in here. Just wait and see.” They played a one-nighter in Buffalo on their way to New York, Basie remembered, and Mal Hallett’s orchestra–the same outfit that Jean Goldkette’s band had so badly intimidated in Massachusetts in 1926–“ran us out of there.”
“Basie, who’ll be in a New York ballroom by the time this gets into print hasn’t been . . . impressive,” the critic George T. Simon wrote in Metronome that fall. “True, the band does swing, but that sax section is so invariably out of tune. And if you think that sax section is out of tune, catch the brass! And if you think the brass by itself is out of tune, catch the intonation of the band as a whole! Swing is swing, but music is music. Here’s hoping the outfit sounds better in person.”
The band’s first appearance in Manhattan, at Roseland, was little better. Basie’s men knew no waltzes, no tangos, few standards. The young clarinetist and band- leader Woody Herman, making his own New York debut at Roseland that week, kindly lent Basie several of his own arrangements. “[Basie] was so green,” Helen Oakley recalled. “Lester’s saxophone was tied with string. And Basie had his back to the [crowd]. . . . He was afraid of the people.” Humiliated, Basie determined to take hold. He commissioned arrangements of current tunes, replaced some of his men, tightened discipline among the rest, and spent most of the next year and a half on the road, trying to make his orchestra better.
Meanwhile, the Great Depression, which had showed signs of lifting, suddenly deepened instead. The stock market collapsed again. In less than six months, four million more men and women lost their jobs. One- third of the people of Akron, Ohio, were thrown onto the relief rolls. When funds ran out in Cleveland, sixty-five thousand men, women, and children found themselves without any money for food or clothing. Poor Chicago children scavenged for food in garbage cans. Sharecropper families huddled along Missouri roads in makeshift tents, driven from their homes by landlords for daring to talk of organizing. It was called the “Roosevelt Recession,” the steepest economic decline in American history. Things got so bad in Basie’s native New Jersey that the state began issuing licenses to beg. If ever the country needed the healing power of the kind of blues Basie and his men played it was now–blues born in the dance halls and roadhouses and juke joints of Texas and Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri; pulsing and stomping and played by men who had honed their skills in cutting contests that sometimes went on all night.
On the morning of March 3, 1937, the Benny Goodman orchestra was to begin a two-week run at the Paramount Theater on Times Square. The movie, a dour Pilgrim-era drama called Maid of Salem, went on first, and by the time Goodman and his men took their places on the movable orchestra pit and the elevator began its slow rise, every seat in the house was filled. As the band came into view, playing its theme song, “Let’s Dance,” it was greeted by a roar so loud and so prolonged, Goodman said, that it seemed “like Times Square on New Year’s Eve . . . exciting, but also a little frightening–scary.” The applause did not let up for four or five minutes, Goodman remembered. “We looked at them . . . as if they were the show and we were the audience.” Soon, the audience was the show–or at least a large part of it. As the band resumed playing, and despite efforts by an army of uniformed ushers to stop them, young people leaped from their seats, filled the aisles, even jumped onto the stage to dance. (Much later, a Goodman publicist admitted that the first two dancing couples had been plants, but there was nothing orchestrated in the response of the rest of the audience, which had started lining up that morning at seven o’clock.)
Until then, Goodman’s high school—age fans had had to content themselves with hearing their hero on records. His band had traditionally played hotels and ballrooms, where alcohol was served, prices were high, and the customers were mostly adults. But before noon at the Paramount, anybody with a quarter was welcome. By three that afternoon, 11,500 teenagers had paid their way inside; by closing time that evening the number had risen to 21,000, and the aisles had been alive with dancers all day.
The Paramount appearance set a strange sort of benchmark for Goodman and his rivals. If they couldn’t get their audiences up and dancing no matter where they played, they had failed. “We’d go to another place like Philadelphia or Detroit,” Goodman said, “and the manager would say, ‘What about the kids dancing in the aisles?’
He would be rather disappointed if the whole theater didn’t . . . dance, whereas we were always trying to curtail it and avoid it because it did interfere with the actual program that was going on.”
Swing music had been growing in popularity for years, but it was adolescents–working-class adolescents, for the most part–who now turned it into a national craze. In spite of the Depression, trumpet sales doubled, while sales of clarinets–Artie Shaw’s and Benny Goodman’s instrument–tripled. There was an unofficial swing “uniform”: boys dressed in sport jackets and slacks, like the ones their heroes wore on the bandstand; girls favored bobby socks and saddle shoes, blouses and sweaters, and pleated skirts that flared when they got onto the dance floor.
Young fans had their own language, too, and Cab Calloway lent his name to a Hepster’s Dictionary to aid the uninitiated. A hot number was a “killer-diller.” “Armstrongs” were musical notes in the upper register. “Swingaroos” or “hep-cats” were divided between “jitterbugs”–who danced–and “ickies”–who didn’t, but stayed on the sidelines shouting encouragement to the musicians and clapping, usually just off the beat. Young women showered the best-looking players with letters and telephone numbers and some waited at the stage door, as one Goodman saxophonist fondly remembered, willing to “do anything” to meet their heroes.
Swing inevitably had its critics. When bandleaders began “swinging the classics”–rifling well-known works by everyone from Bach to Stephen Foster in search of familiar airs that could be turned into danceable hits–some radio stations barred the results altogether as artistic desecration. After a Detroit station cut the singer Maxine Sullivan’s swing version of the traditional Scottish ballad “Loch Lomond” off the air, Sullivan sent Eleanor Roosevelt the titles of other familiar songs she hoped to record to see if the First Lady was in any way offended. “My dear Miss Sullivan,” Mrs. Roosevelt replied from the White House, “I can’t imagine what the songs you mention would be like in swing tempo, but there is nothing wrong in doing it. If people like it, and you succeed, you will be doing other things. You cannot please everyone all the time.”
The sweet bandleader Blue Barron denounced swing as “nothing but orchestrated sex . . . a phallic symbol set to sound.” The Catholic archbishop of Dubuque called it a “communistic endeavor,” a pretext for “cannibalistic rhythmic orgies.” To others, it seemed a “mass contagion . . . musical Hitlerism.” Dr. A. A. Brill, a Manhattan psychiatrist, went before newsreel cameras to declare that “Swing music represents our regression to the primitive tom-tom-tom, a rhythmic sound that pleases savages and children. . . . It acts as a narcotic and makes them forget reality. They forget the Depression, the loss of their jobs. . . . It is like taking a drug.” There was nothing new in any of this. The sight of white youths enthusiastically adopting dances that had been born in the black community had always alarmed their elders. “If they’d been told it was a Balkan folk dance,” Duke Ellington said, “they’d think it was wonderful.”
Still, even musicians sometimes grew alarmed at the unbridled enthusiasm of their fans. Jerry Jerome, who played tenor with Benny Goodman for a time, remembered what it was like. “They’d scream and yell and dance and carry on and enjoy themselves,” he said. “I was shocked when I stood up to take a tenor solo, there was such a scream, and I realized they didn’t hear one note of my solo. They were there because someone stood up, ‘He’s with the band,’ you know. ‘He’s a soloist.’ But what he played? They weren’t listening.”
They were listening at the Savoy. It was still Harlem’s best-loved ballroom, still home to the most demanding dancers in the country. “The lindy hoppers up there made you watch your p’s and q’s,” Dicky Wells recalled. “The dancers would come and tell you if you didn’t play. They made the guys play, and they’d stand in front patting their hands until you got the right tempo.” Frankie Manning and his dancing partner Frieda Washington had now added “air steps” to the lindy, lifting their partners over their shoulders, sliding them between their legs, hurling them high in the air. And Chick Webb was still in charge. On the night of May 11, 1937, Benny Goodman himself ventured uptown to challenge him at what was billed as the “Music Battle of the Century.”
Webb considered the Savoy his personal territory, to be defended against all invaders, but he also had far bigger dreams. “You know something, man?” he once told Artie Shaw. “Someday I’m gonna be walkin’ up the street one way and you gonna be comin’ down the other way, and we gonna pass each other and I’m gonna say, ‘Hello, best white band in the world’ and you gonna say, ‘Hello, best colored band in the world.’” Webb had scrimped and sacrificed to keep his men together, sometimes using his rent money to buy arrangements, and he was never able to pay his men enough to fend off job offers from more successful bandleaders. (Whenever he spotted Fletcher Henderson at the Savoy, he would call out, “Well, who do you want this time?”)
It was not lost on Webb that Benny Goodman’s band had succeeded spectacularly with music that greatly resembled his own. (“Stompin’ at the Savoy,” and “Don’t Be That Way,” both big hits for Goodman, had in fact been written and arranged for Webb’s band by its alto saxophonist, Edgar Sampson.) Nor had he forgotten those evenings back in 1934 when Goodman had brought his brand-new band up to the Savoy, hoping his men would learn how to play with what Goodman called the same sort of “guts” Webb’s men employed. Now he called special afternoon rehearsals. The brass, reed, and rhythm sections each went through its precise paces in a separate room. “Fellas, [this] is my hour,” Webb told his men as they took the bandstand. “Anybody misses notes–don’t come back to work!”
Four thousand fans had jammed into the ballroom on that May evening, and mounted policemen had to be called to control the crowd of five thousand more who couldn’t get in and refused to go home. Among those who managed to squeeze through the door were Norma Miller and Frankie Manning, professional lindy hoppers now, who had been taking on all comers in dance contests across the country. Now, they had come home to the Savoy to see their hero face the best-known band in the country.
frankie manning: This was an electrical night. I mean, here’s Benny Goodman, the king of swing, and here’s . . .
norma miller: . . . Chick Webb, the king of swing.
frankie manning: The king of swing, you know as far as we are concerned. We knew about Benny Goodman. A lot of people may not realize that a lot of arrangements that Benny Goodman had, Chick Webb had the same arrangements and when they get on a bandstand, now this is when you can know which band is the best–by listening to them play the same arrangement. And to me, Chick Webb outswung Benny Goodman that night.
norma miller: I say the same thing, yeah.
frankie manning: That was my feeling. I’m not saying this because . . .
norma miller: . . . Not being prejudiced.
frankie manning: I feel that Chick Webb outswung Benny Goodman that night, you know, because I saw guys on Benny Goodman’s bandstand when Chick Webb was playing. I seen guys on there, . . . they just shook their heads.
The Goodman band was routed. Gene Krupa bowed low before the man who had beaten him. Chick Webb, he said later, had “cut me to ribbons.” “Nobody,” one of Webb’s men remembered, “could have taken it away from Chick that night.”
In March of 1937, the same month Benny Goodman opened at the Paramount and two months before Goodman was vanquished by Chick Webb, Count Basie hired Billie Holiday to sing with his band. She called him “Daddy Basie.” He called her “William,” and understood both her talent and her temperament. “You know the kind of people that say, ‘I’m going to get cussed out anyway, so what’s the difference? What the hell?’ ” a woman who’d known Holiday since the age of twelve once asked. “Well, [she] went out and done what she felt like doing, ’cause she was just don’t-carish.” She would remain don’t-carish all her life–cursing, drinking, brawling, pursuing partners of both sexes, and unwilling to make the kind of compromises with public taste and racial custom that other performers routinely made in order to get ahead.
Nonetheless, John Hammond had remained determined to make her a star. In the summer of 1935, he arranged for the first of a series of recording sessions for her, singing with small groups led by Teddy Wilson. Many of the tunes–“What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” “A Sunbonnet Blue,” “Miss Brown to You”–were throwaways, but she managed to make them memorable with her bright, mocking voice and her trick of singing just behind the beat. “She enjoyed singing so much,” Wilson remembered. “She was bubbling at those record dates.
In those days there was none of the blues and despairing, none of the stuff that came out [later].” She began to play better clubs, too, and to garner some good reviews. “Billie Holiday,” wrote Ted Yates in the Amsterdam News, “the torch singer . . . can be heard in the popularly frequented ‘hot spots’ [around Harlem]. You should hear the buxom lass go to town with . . . very fine recordings [like] ‘Miss Brown to You.’ ”
But trouble seemed to follow her wherever she went. She lasted only four days at the Famous Door on Fifty-second Street; furious when she was told she couldn’t sit with the white customers, she walked off the job. “When she walked in,” the manager’s wife remembered, “she walked in with her head high. . . . If you asked her for a request, she might sing it if she was good and ready. That was her way. She sang what she wanted to sing.” She appeared at Chicago’s Grand Terrace with Fletcher Henderson, but lost that job after hurling a chair at the manager when he dared tell her she was singing “too slow.” Even Joe Glaser had no luck trying to make her over. Once, when he suggested she sing a little faster, she turned on him. “Look, you son of a bitch,” she said, “you sing it. I’m going to sing my way, you sing your way.”
On the road with the Basie band, Holiday drank and cursed and gambled with the men on the bus as if she were one of them–and won so much money shooting dice that when Christmas came she had to lend the losers cash to buy presents for their families back home. “She was like a man,” Harry “Sweets” Edison said, “only feminine.” She had an affair with guitarist Freddie Green, who she later claimed was the only man she ever really loved. But on the road and off, she was closest with Lester Young, whom she had first befriended during his brief New York sojourn as Coleman Hawkins’s replacement in the Fletcher Henderson band. They gave one another nicknames. She was “Lady Day” to him, and he was “Prez” to her (named after President Franklin Roosevelt, whom she called “the top man in this country”). They would be friends most of their lives, though never lovers.
John Hammond had brought them, other members of the Basie band, and Teddy Wilson together in the recording studio for a series of small-group sessions that were among the most memorable in jazz history: “This Year’s Kisses,” “Why Was I Born?” “I Must Have That Man,” “I’ll Get By,” “Mean to Me,” “Foolin’ Myself,” “Me, Myself, and I,” “A Sailboat in the Moonlight,” “The Very Thought of You,” “Without Your Love,” and more. The best jazz is built upon shared communication–musicians listening and responding to one another and in the process creating something greater than any of them could ever achieve alone. The music offers no better example than these recordings on which Billie Holiday and Lester Young seem almost to meld, languorous voice and languorous saxophone weaving in and out of one another, as if completing one another’s thoughts, sharing one another’s souls, having a wonderful time.
A Whore in Church
On the evening of January 16, 1938, Benny Goodman was scheduled to make still more jazz history. Paul Whiteman had presented a program of his symphonic version of the music at Aeolian Hall almost fourteen years earlier. Now, Goodman was to offer up the real thing, a celebration of two decades of authentic jazz. As usual, he’d been reluctant to break new ground and, again, Helen Oakley and John Hammond had had to talk him into it. He had been so worried that no one would turn up to hear what the world still considered dance music that he asked the British comedienne Beatrice Lillie if she would appear on the bill as an added attraction. She sensibly declined.
He needn’t have worried. The house was sold out weeks in advance. Seats for one hundred overflow onlookers were set up onstage, and Goodman himself had to go to a scalper to get tickets for members of his family from Chicago, who decided at the last minute to attend.
On the evening of the concert, Roman Catholic picketers, bundled against the cold, marched up and down in front of the Fifty-seventh Street entrance, their placards denouncing Goodman for having played at a benefit concert for the Spanish Loyalists. Backstage, Goodman’s men were nervous. Peeking out through the curtains, Harry James muttered that he felt “like a whore in church.” But when they had all filed onstage and Goodman appeared, clarinet in hand, wrote Olin Downes of the New York Times, “he received a real Toscanini send-off from the excited throng. There was a quivering excitement in the air, an almost electrical effect.”
The opening number was Edgar Sampson’s arrangement of “Don’t Be That Way.” The men, still unsettled by their surroundings, sounded strangely tentative until Gene Krupa took it upon himself to wake them up with a thunderous drum break. Goodman had commissioned nothing new for the occasion, but he had planned a tribute to “Twenty Years of Jazz.” “I didn’t have the idea of putting across a ‘message’ or anything like that,” he wrote. “I was just satisfied to have the kids in the band do what they had always done, and the way they did it was certainly wonderful. . . . We were playing for ‘Bix’ and the fellows on the riverboats, in the honky tonks and ginmills.”
They began with a doggedly faithful rendition of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s “Sensation Rag.” The twenty-three-year-old cornetist Bobby Hackett played “I’m Coming, Virginia” in honor of Bix Beiderbecke. Goodman himself gently parodied his first idol, Ted Lewis. Harry James paid florid tribute to Louis Armstrong. Then–since only Ellington men could fully capture the distinctive Ellington sound–Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney, and Cootie Williams were featured on one of Ellington’s loveliest pieces, “Blue Reverie.” There was a jam session in which Ellington’s musicians as well as Count Basie and several of his men–including Lester Young–took part. Goodman played beautifully with his trio and quartet–and the crowd gasped with pleasure when Krupa accidentally knocked one of his cymbals from its stand and Lionel Hampton snatched it from the air and stroked it with his mallet without losing a beat. As they played, young people and older concertgoers alike got up and danced in the aisles of the staid old hall.
Critics weren’t quite sure what to make of it all. Olin Downes was baffled that while he was utterly unmoved, his teenaged daughter, seated next to him, had been unable to sit still. The Carnegie Hall concert actually lost Goodman money–rehearsal time and guest stars had eaten up all the profits–but it opened the New York concert stage to the new music: there would be four more evenings of jazz at Carnegie Hall before the year was over. And a live recording made that night but then forgotten and not released for a dozen years captured the Goodman orchestra at something like the peak of its powers. “I think the band I had at Carnegie Hall . . . was the best . . . I ever had,” Benny Goodman remembered.