Bennie Moten’s KC Orch 1931-32: The Birth of Swing

Jeff Barnhart: This month, commitments have swept Hal away and it took me about 20 seconds (actually, Im exaggerating) to arrive at my desired substitute; he was happily available, and were repeating one element of our collaboration two years ago: once again, while Anne and I are performing in the UK, Mr. Dan Barrett is on a European tour!—Welcome, Mr. Barrett!!

Dan Barrett: Hello, Jeff. Hello, TST readers! I was very pleased when Jeff asked me to contribute more of my thoughts about the great Bennie Moten band. I always enjoy discussing my heroes, and several cats in Moten’s aggregation certainly qualify for that title.

Hot Jazz Jubile

JB: We turn our ears to the final recording sessions of Bennie Moten and his Orchestra, following up our initial collab (TST: April, 2022) on this great bandleader/pianist. Dan, I may be mislabeling Mr. Moten; by October 1929 hed given up the piano chair to young Bill Basie, content with directing the band, at least on all the recordings released from then on. While we skimmed the cream from 49 sides in our exploration of the bands recorded output from September 7, 1928 to October 31, 1930, weve only twelve sides—rendered across two recording dates—to cover this time. The band mustve been enjoying a very busy performance/touring schedule; after their prolific output in October 1930, they only convened twice more, on April 15, 1931 and December 13,1932. The 1931 recording date is the only time the band records in New York City, while the 1932 takes place once again in Camden, NJ. Only two sides were completed on the 1931 date and both feature star vocalist Jimmy Rushing. Stylistically, both songs are surprisingly a bit staid. Even in 1931, the rhythm section is still banjo/tuba based (although Vernon Page is now playing in more of a four-beats-to-the-bar style), and Basie is given nothing to do on either side.

“Ya Got Love” opens with some riffing call-and-response between the brass and reeds; theres no discernible melody until the bridge assayed by trombonist Thamon Hayes, after which its back to eight final bars in the style of the first half of the song. Jimmy Rushing vocalizes in an unusual (for him) Sprechstimme style; perhaps the lack of a tune inspired (or disheartened) him to change up his delivery. The muted trumpet backing him adds interest. An interlude brings us to an uncharacteristically saccharine rendering of the verse, complete with a limp reed style in homage to (or perhaps parody of) the Lombardo sound. Things liven up with an alto solo punctuated by brass hits, until the wind gets knocked out during the bridge and they never fully recover. The band perfunctorily steps through the final chorus and nothing exceptional takes place.


DB: I hope by now, Jeff, you know the high regard in which I hold you and your ability. So, I hope you won’t mind my gentle disagreement with your assessment of this recording. You’re right in that it certainly isn’t what we think of as a “hot” side. However, I think it merits more attention, and is perhaps a better side than you might think.

First, in the opening chorus, I do indeed hear the melody, very clearly played by the saxes, with what I call “brass punctuation.” (Granted, it’s not much of a melody, but…it’s there). Your description of Jimmy Rushing’s spoken vocal-Sprechstimme–is spot-on. Now, we must remember that Ted Lewis was a superstar during these years. When Rushing began his vocal chorus, I immediately thought of Lewis. It’s the same kind of delivery and timing. (Don Redman would often “speak” his vocals in this style, but in a cooler, more understated way).

In the background, behind the vocal, I heard the nice trumpet work to which you referred, but my ear also kept being drawn to the great, bluesy guitar work of the genius Eddie Durham. The recording bears a few repeated listenings for Durham’s guitar alone. I think I hear a banjo along with the guitar. (Mention should be made of the great recordings RCA Victor was making at this time [and before and after, for that matter.] Those RCA engineers knew what they were doing!) Perhaps some credit should also be given the late John R.T. Davies, whose ability to extract and transfer sound from 78 rpm discs remains unparalleled.

Sorry, Jeff: I really don’t hear the “wind getting knocked out during the bridge.” True, it’s far from an exciting arrangement, but these fellows didn’t go into the studio saying, “Let’s make a jazz masterpiece today; one that two guys will write about ninety-three years later!” After all is said and done, this was dance music. It’s maybe a mundane record by jazz standards but it’s a good, solid dance record with the rhythm section holding a very steady tempo; overall, a well-played side, I think. Then again, maybe I’m just in a good mood today…

JB: Dan, I dont find it disagreeable to share diverging viewpoints on a piece of recorded music; if we all had the same ears what a boring world it would be! I Wanna Be Around My Baby All the Timeis brightened up during the first chorus by some lovely, swinging interpolations from guitarist/arranger Eddie Durham, who alternates between single note and chordal figures. The tune is catchy, the band struts along, and I can see dancers filling the floor with this one. A dramatic 6-bar interlude enters two bars before the end of the chorus (so feels like a 4-bar interlude) and we joyously return to Mr. Five-by-Five, who although clearly uninspired, is now once again singing rather than reciting the lyrics. His vocal chorus is greatly enhanced by the terrific cup-mute figures from trumpeter Hot Lips Page.


Another interlude brings us to the final chorus with highlights including more muted trumpet answering the melodic phrases for the first eight bars and heavenly figures from guitarist Durham backing the second eight. The second half of the final chorus is tutti, with clipped phrasing from the horns—again a la Lombardo—and the whole thing unceremoniously ends. I’m going out on a limb here, but I honestly find this side kind of blah as well.

Dan, any insight as to what happened here? While the old-style rhythm instrumentation is no help, I think back to the heat created by it and the seven horns on the sides from 1928-1930 and this doesnt sound like the same band. Do you think Moten was under pressure from the producers to record a less intense sound?

DB: Well, I would submit Moten may have been called in simply to make a few dance sides. The Moten band might have been provided the arrangements for these sessions by song pluggers; an effort from the publishing houses to push their latest numbers. (Vince Giordano, leader of the great Nighthawks band in New York City, could tell us more about this.) Sometimes at sessions, one must play what is assigned. On another date, when the producer liked your music on its own terms, you could pull out the stops and play what you want. I have no idea why there is such a difference between these recordings and the hell-for-leather sides made in Camden in 1932. Wish I knew.


Regarding Rushing’s vocal here, I must again call your criticism into question. I don’t know that he’s “uninspired” here. True, he’s singing the song straight, but I’ll take any Jimmy Rushing vocals I can get! His great individual sonority and his exaggerated diction are on display, and I love it all.

JB: Great observations! Perhaps its unfair of me to compare the 1931 session with the unprecedented burst of productivity and energy in the following year’s session. But these two sides from 1931 so dramatically veer from anything before or after both in terms of style regarding the instrumentalists and in terms of Rushings typical delivery. Being the only two sides the group recorded between Oct. 1930 and Dec. 1932, I agree that perhaps Motens aggregation was invited into the studio to make a few quick bucks by delivering a couple danceable records—although with very few exceptions I believe wed be hard pressed to find a Moten side that didn’t invite dancing!


Dan, could you guide us into the band’s final recording date?

DB: Now we’ve reached one of my favorite recording sessions in jazz history: Moten’s RCA Victor sessions of 1932, in Camden, New Jersey. I’ll start with a personal note: it occurred to me I’d met and played with two of the men on this session!

Eddie Barefield

I had a gig in New Jersey with Eddie Barefield in the early 1980s. I had my car in NYC, so I picked up Mr. Barefield at some rendezvous point and drove him to the gig and home afterward. Of course, during the drives, I asked him about the Camden recording session. He was friendly enough, but I sensed that he’d been asked so many times over the years about this date, he seemed reluctant to go into it again, so I backed off. A couple of years later Buck Clayton’s Swing Band played a party/concert honoring Eddie Durham. (Maybe Mr. Durham’s birthday? I wish I’d kept a diary like my mother suggested). Mr. Durham joined the band on trombone. Very exciting!

Eddie Barefield, older

OK; on to the music itself. I’m in Stuttgart as I write this. I played “Toby” for my host, Iris Oettinger, who is a very good drummer in this area of Germany. I didn’t tell her anything about the recording. After the recording was over, Iris remarked, “the piano introduction sounded like Gershwin.” I sat back and realized that after years of enjoying this record, it had never occurred to me that Basie alludes to Rhapsody in Blue in his brief solo introduction! Live and learn…

These recordings were my introduction to the Moten band, via an RCA Victor LP from their great 1960s “Vintage Series.” I still have it on my shelf. The cover has a dark blue hue, with a black and white photo of young Count Basie looking confidently at you over the piano keyboard. He’s framed by wine bottles (“vintage” series, don’t you know). The bottles are covered in cobwebs, kind of like I am right now. Well, back to the music.

Regarding the title, “Toby”: years ago, I learned of the Theater Owners’ Booking Agency (T.O.B.A), founded in Nashville in 1920. It ran a network of theaters and vaudeville houses stretching from Kansas City to the east coast, and booked Black entertainment. (The performers interpreted the acronym to mean “Tough On Black Artists,” with the last word often being changed to a reference to posteriors. You get it.) This song title might’ve been named for a friend of the band’s, but I always thought it was an indirect reference to T.O.B.A.

I hope younger musicians hearing “Toby” will recognize the piece is based on the chord changes to Fats Waller’s venerable “Honeysuckle Rose.” After decades of hearing that tune and its countless derivatives, it’s surprising to realize that it was only three years old (or so) at the time of this recording. It was still a new song with a new, exciting set of chord changes for jazz players. I’d always assumed the masterful arrangement was by Eddie Durham; the riffing throughout is in his style.

Eddie Durham

However, Eddie Barefield is listed (along with Moten) as a co-composer. Mr. Barefield was also a skilled arranger. I’m now thinking the piece might have been a collaborative effort between Barefield and Durham. (As bandleader, Moten could have received co-credit for the composition, so as to share in the publishing royalties. This was a common business arrangement between bandleaders and composer/arrangers at that time). It’s extraordinary how the band and the chart (arrangement) seem to be meant for each other.

At this ferocious tempo, many bands might “drag” at some point or, at the very least, the “edge” would come off the tempo. Not so here! In fact, if anything, the horns are pushing forward; not “rushing,” but playing slightly ahead—or “on top of”– the beat, giving the whole performance genuine excitement, and a sense of urgency.

JB: Two quick asides, if I may. As you point out, bandleaders would often take co-credit for compositions performed by their band that were written by their sidemen (Ellington was notorious for this) but here its Bennies brother Buster who receives this honorific, perhaps as a door prize for no longer being featured on accordion: hes disappeared by the 1932 session. Also, I laughed out loud when I read the Bluebird Record label indicating this tune is a Fox Trot,a dance typically executed at a tempo of 120-136 bpm (beats per minute). This tune clicks along at 374 bpm so a fox would need ten legs to dance to it without breaking one. Dan, can you take us through the highlights of this side?

DB: Sure! In the opening chorus, Eddie Durham plays the first solo, at the bridge. Durham was one of the first to play an acoustic guitar through an amplifier. To my ear, it sounds as though he’s on an unamplified metal “Dobro” or “National” guitar here, but guitarists out there in TST land might know better.

Trumpeter Hot Lips Page (Oran to his mother) is the next soloist. He’s brilliant, opening with seventeen quarter notes all played perfectly “in the groove,” helping to “rivet” the beat. His solo continues, showing the obvious influence of Louis Armstrong. But Lips was Lips, and had his own strong and wonderful identity.

Ben Webster, who became a household name after his tenure with the Duke Ellington Orchestra a few years later, is also brilliant. At this tempo, an improviser doesn’t have time to really think; it’s more about reacting. Webster “reacts” beautifully, and the skein of notes in his second eight bars are all musically “correct” with regard to the underlying harmony. Amazing, really. Not many guys were this articulate at this tempo at this time in jazz.

The ensuing chorus finds the band “riffing” intensely, presaging the Basie band, and other big bands of a decade later. I think it might be Eddie Barefield who plays the alto sax solo at the bridge of this chorus. Like Webster’s, his solo is conceived in full and complete phrases; not easy (or common) at this tempo.

Quite unexpectedly, the bass, guitar, and drums drop out, and we’re treated to a solo chorus (in a new key!) by young Bill Basie, who wouldn’t be known as “Count” until a few years later. Jeff, being no stranger to the stride idiom, you should be the one to share your thoughts about Basie’s work here.

JB: Basie draws my attention throughout this side, from his impressionistic solo introduction to his full accompaniment during every chorus. Until Basies solo chorus, the tune has been in Eb, but he solos in F. Dan, I hear the tasty brush work of drummer Willie McWashington here, although the rest of the band does drop out, This chorus is a masterclass on how to swing in the stride style. Basie’s scalar bass line (rather than an oom-pah” figure, his bass notes are Bb-A-G-F-E-D-C) allows for chiaroscuro chordal changes that spice up the progression, while his riffing right hand keeps the momentum going. The intensity doesnt diminish though most of the band has dropped out, excepting Eddie Barefields exciting clarinet interpolation on the bridge. The right-hand figures Basie plays shows how inspired he was by James P. Johnson, Fats Waller, and even Jelly Roll Morton, although of course he would soon develop his own distinctive sound. Back to you, Dan!

DB: I’m glad you mentioned Barefield’s great solo on the bridge of Basie’s chorus. With all that’s happening in this whirlwind, it goes by quickly, but it too is great playing.

As if there haven’t been enough surprises so far, the full band returns in yet another new key, going up to Ab. Trumpeter Page defines the role of LEAD trumpet. I think it’s trombonist Dan Minor who solos effectively on the bridge here. Minor went on to play with the larger Basie band in New York. His comparatively few jazz solos show him to be a more-than-capable improviser, but he was known to be a great section player.

In the closing three choruses, the band really digs in for some serious riffing. The brass play chattering phrases while the saxes play different, rolling comments that dovetail beautifully with the brass. (Again, this sounds to me like Durham’s work). There is so much musical interest here, and the repetition creates a suspense and excitement that few recordings have achieved since. Ben Webster plays the next bridge, and Lips Page has the final bridge, growling blue notes into a metal derby “hat.”

Finally, hats off to bassist Walter Page! He occasionally switches to two-beat rhythm (on the bridges, and the first of the out-choruses), but essentially he’s playing four beats to the bar throughout this performance. I bet he hit the showers after this session!

I’ve heard this side many times over the years. I always notice that just after it ends, I’m holding my breath. You will, too.

JB: Indeed! In only three-and-a-half minutes, the band plays this 32-bar tune EIGHT times! And Ill doff my hat to that reed section. Listen to their work, not just on those final three out-choruses, but especially under Hot Lipssolo earlier on the recording: precision that only comes from playing a LOT together!

Dan, we love this music so much we could spend a column on each tune and not run out of things to say. Why dont we cover one more side and continue this adventure together next month?

Moten Swingbecame such a hit that everyone was covering it, from Bunny Berigan (with Buddy Rich) in 1938 to the Oscar Peterson Trio decades later to Basie himself! It’s still a welcome inclusion on any set anywhere! I hadnt listened to this side in years, so there were many surprises for me.

The opening eight-bars of the piano solo sound like an intro (accompanied by a the swinging bass of Walter Page) but turn out to be the first eight bars of the form; after Basie plays eight more bars (now channeling Hines’ “trumpet” and lighter left hand style) the full band charges into the bridge and Basie finishes the last eight. I say the bridgeonly because the harmonies suggest it; we have yet to hear the by-now familiar tune with which most current bands start their versions. In fact, the next chorus reveals this composition is modeled after Walter Donaldson’s 1930 hit Youre Driving Me Crazyas the reed section starts off pretty much playing that tune! Although the melody is increasingly hinted at, we dont reach it until the final chorus starting at 2:37. Dan, as a master arranger, I know youll have some insightful comments regarding the sound the band attains here!

DB: Certain songs recorded by certain bands achieved “immortal” status, and were continually reworked and re-orchestrated for each current band. A good example of this is “Mood Indigo,” which Ellington first recorded in 1930. He revamped it many times over several decades, and it remained in his band’s repertoire until his death. Similarly, “Moten Swing while born at this 1932 session, is still played by today’s Count Basie Orchestra, and swing bands of all sizes all over the world. (Incidentally, the original RCA Bluebird 78 label shows the title as, “Moten’s Swing”).

Whenever I perform it onstage with swing-minded friends, the usual question is, “Do you want to phrase it the old way, or the new way?” Or, someone asks, “Will we phrase it ’30s-style, or ’50s style?”

This refers to the way the familiar melody (as Jeff points out, it’s at 2:37 on our reference recording) mutated over the years into a “cooler,” more streamlined statement. Also, the tempo is often/usually more relaxed than heard here. I think the way the guys phrase it on this original recording suits the tempo, and emphasizes the “blue” notes in the first four bars. I like that, but then I’m a blue kind of guy.

The “elephant in the room” that neither of us has yet addressed is how woefully out of tune the piano is throughout this landmark session! I’ve grown used to it over the years, and it hasn’t ever affected my enjoyment of these records. Still, I can’t help but think that Basie and the band must have been disappointed, if not outright appalled. Maybe it was too late to get a tuner to the studio. Who knows, but man, that is one ripe piano! What say you about this, Jeff?

JB: However unfortunate the piano tuning was, it heartens back to 1931 when the band was given less than stellar material to interpret: do the gig, take the money. The playing and arrangements are so superior, Basie could’ve been playing on a celesta and it still would’ve been a success!!

Bennie Moten’s Orchestra at Pearl Theatre in Philadelphia, PA, 1931. Pictured from left: Jimmy Rushing, vocals; Hot Lips Page, trumpet; Willie McWashington, drums; Booker Washington, trumpet; Ed Lewis, trumpet; Count Basie, piano; Buster Moten, accordian; Leroy “Buster” Berry, banjo; Thamon Hayes, trombone; Bennie Moten, piano; Harland Leonard, reeds; Eddie Durham, trombone; Jack Washington, reeds; Vernon Page, tuba; Woodie Walder, reeds.

DB: Regarding the arrangement (once again, probably by Eddie Durham), the first word that comes to mind is, “classic.” It’s one of the best examples of big band arranging of that time; maybe ever. In fact, when Ernie Wilkins wrote his own iconic arrangement for the 1950s Basie band, he retained several ideas and phrases from the original. This was probably in tribute to Durham and the early band, with perhaps a dose of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!”

After Basie’s opening chorus, Durham contrasts his smart written passages with solos by: Durham himself (guitar); Barefield (on alto sax, soloing over a memorable brass background); Lips Page (in a new key); and Ben Webster’s tenor sax on the bridge. Then the band comes in with the iconic melody known as “Moten Swing.

All I can say is, I’m sure happy these guys made this record.

JB: And I’m sure happy you’re joining me on this adventure, Dan! More next month!

Jeff Barnhart is an internationally renowned pianist, vocalist, arranger, bandleader, recording artist, ASCAP composer, educator and entertainer. Visit him online Email: [email protected]

Dan Barrett is a professional trombonist/ cornetist, arranger, and composer. He enjoys performing in admittedly old-fashioned jazz styles. He has recorded for Concord Records, Arbors Records, and his own Blue Swing Recordings label, among many other labels. Dan fell in love with jazz in high school, and learned to play from much older musicians from New Orleans, who had settled in the Los Angeles area. He has played at Carnegie Hall five times, and was featured in the last bands led by Swing Era icons Benny Goodman and Buck Clayton. Another highlight of Dan’s musical life—so far—was being a member of Lueder Ohlwein’s Sunset Music Company. Write to Dan at:

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