By Melissa Fossum
By Lauren Wise
By New Times
By Amanda Savage
By Jason P. Woodbury
By Troy Farah
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Although its story has a sad ending, Swing Time! is a fine overview of swing music from puberty through impotence. Some of the major big-band hits are oddly overlooked, but a feeling for what made swing first succeed and then fail comes through loud and clear.
If you'd rather spend the same amount of time basking in unflagging big-band fertility, The Complete Decca Recordings of Count Basie will get you through the night just fine. These recently reissued 1937-1939 Decca sides cover the hottest period of Basie's band as it relentlessly and consistently pointed its horns at the bottom half of its audience. Like many of his peers on Swing Time!, Basie and his group eventually misplaced the goods, but not before creating the most ass-shaking swing in the history of the big-band era.
The story of Count Basie's territorial band explains how swing came to join sex and music together in the first place.
Anyone with a taste for the wild side of life would envy the rough-and-tumble scene that catapulted the young pianist William Basie to fame. Of the four cities jazz developed in--New Orleans, Chicago, New York and Kansas City--New Orleans and Kansas City were the most immoral and alive after dark. In K.C., prostitutes walked the streets without fear of arrest, gambling was legal, the clubs never closed and booze was readily available even during Prohibition. And Count Basie came to supply the soundtrack for the crazy scene.
Basie began playing piano with the local Bennie Moten Kansas City Orchestra. After Moten died in 1935, Basie took over and a year later brought the band's ribald K.C. style to New York City.
Besides making great dance music, the early incarnations of the Basie band also presented a slew of characters almost cartoon colorful. Tenor saxophonist Lester Young, heavy-lidded and generally under the influence of one substance or another, tossed off butter-smooth improvisations as complex as physics lectures. Vocalist Jimmy Rushing belted out a tough, corn-fed style of blues. The steam engine supplying all the underlying power came from bassist Walter Page, drummer Jo Jones and the chunk-chunk guitar of Freddie Green--a rhythm section as steady and brash as a jackhammer. All the key players seemed imbued with a different shade of sex appeal.
On top of it all sat Count Basie at the keys, playing three-note solos where other pianists would deliver 30. Basie chose to swing rather than assault, and it made him the rhythm king throughout the late 30s and 40s. Luckily, Decca Records caught it on disc for those who couldn't catch Basie and his cohorts live. Even now, listening to the reissues, it's not hard to imagine the shock some Iowan parochial schoolgirl must have felt when hearing the Basie band slam through raunchy, hot cuts like "Doggin' Around" and "Out the Window." Hearing Jimmy Rushing sing, "Don't show me my pretty baby/I'll break all the rules," she knew he wasn't talking about running red lights.
Tough economic times slowly ate away at Basie's band, at one point even forcing him to cut his group down to a mere seven pieces for several years. When he returned to the big-band format, the music scene had lost something important. Long gone was the primitive sexual drive that the Swing Time! collection shows dissipating over the course of a decade and a half. Today, saxophonist and former Basie employee Frank Foster is trying to keep both swing and the Basie Orchestra alive, but the music presented is far removed from the hot jazz on The Complete Decca Recordings. The new Basie sounds a lot like the washed-up blaring that finishes out Swing Time!.
But unlike a lot of the ever-lame white bands finishing out the Swing Time! box, at least Basie was a swing dog who had had his day. Fifty years after the fact, Basie's juices remain in The Complete Decca Recordings, still honking and shouting about the good ol' days when sex, rebellion and popular music were first equated. Although sex in music didn't begin with the big bands, it first became an integral part of popular music during that era. On that solid foundation, people like Louis Jordan, Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry would later whipsaw and nail down the carnal house that rock n' roll built.