Good Morning Blues: The Autobiography of Count Basie as told to Albert Murray
Introduction by Dan Morgenstern
University of Minnesota, $22.95 (paperback)
“I don’t remember that there was ever any question of me doing anything but playing music. The only question for me was where I was going to play next.”
– William “Count” Basie (1902-1984)
Count Basie, whose autobiography Good Morning Blues (as told to Albert Murray) has just been reissued in a new edition by the University of Minnesota Press, knew early on he wanted to be in show business. “I don’t think I even came in contact with any rich entertainers,” he explains. “Money is not what it was all about. I liked the life and I liked music.” When the circus came through town, “I would have gone along just to be a water boy for the elephants.”
The limelight calling, he found work while still a child in a silent movie house. He assisted with the projector, swept the place clean, and kept his eye on the piano. When his moment came, he was ready to hop on the keyboard and accompany the film.
He kept at it his whole life; assisting his luck by making sure he was there to catch the big break. In his autobiography he accuses himself of “conniving,” but later softens the self-assessment, saying, “I was always game, I mean willing to take a big chance on yourself because you want to do what you want to do.”
He followed those breaks out of Red Bank, New Jersey and up to the clubs of Harlem. From there he caught out on the Columbia Burlesque Wheel, with Katie Crippen and her Kiddies, and then out even farther on the TOBA circuit with Gonzelle White and her Big Jazz Jamboree. “At that time,” he says, “I really didn’t think of myself as a jazz musician. I was a ragtime or stride piano player, to be sure, but I really thought of that as being an entertainer—in other words, just another way of being show business.”
That would change one morning in Tulsa when he woke to hear the Blue Devils Jazz Band playing in the street outside his hotel. “Hearing them that day,” he says, “was probably the most important turning point in my career so far as any notions about what kind of music I really wanted to play was concerned.”
William Basie found his way into the Blue Devils and then the Bennie Moten band. There are many apocryphal stories of how he got his nickname, but Basie recalled it as a tribute to his less than conscientious attendance at Moten arranging sessions with Eddie Durham. As soon as Eddie and Bill made some small headway, perhaps a few bars, on a band chart, Basie would slip out, seeking another kind of bar. Moten would come looking for him saying, “Where is that no ’count rascal?” The name “Count” would stick to Basie through his career as a bandleader that spanned fifty more years and six continents.
Looking back, he captures legendary places as his young eyes saw them. Harlem, Chicago, and especially Kansas City where, “when things were really jumping in the joints in that neighborhood, you could come in there and there would be musicians leaning out of the windows of the hospital, playing their horns, I’d never seen and heard anything like that in my life.”
Three times he takes us back with him to his first flat in Harlem where he would “eat little hotdogs in bed.” The last time he describes it in relation to his own New York club. A palpable impression of the man gets through, the young man awed by the world and the older man humbled by how far he has come in it.
He describes neighborhoods, block by block, the clubs and acts and movers on the scene both forgotten and legendary. Basie finds nice things to say about scores of people in the music business with nary a bad word for anyone. In his words, “I just don’t intend to bring up anything that might add up to a lot of gossip and speculation that don’t really have anything to do with playing music the way I play it.”
He openly discusses the negative effects of the booze, the racism, and the dirty dealing in the industry, but he considers them “occupational hazards” that he knew about going in. By giving the things that “reporters” always ask about such short shrift he leaves plenty of room to talk about the music the way he played it, the way he thought about it, and what it was like to be part of it all for 80 years.
I really enjoyed the inside look at variety shows. He describes the routines of the dancers and comedians his bands would comp behind from the orchestra pit before taking the stage. He reviews the showman’s tricks of each musician, treating these flourishes as a vital part of the show. The bottom line was a happy audience and the assurance that the band would be paid.
In the ’50s bands still found themselves between comedy acts and dancers accompanying first run movies in New York. The persistence of these multi-act extravaganzas had me wondering if they weren’t due for a resurgence.
Could a modern audience handle it all? Dance for a band, laugh for a comedian, cheer for the acrobats—and leave with an experience that can’t be streamed on Netflix. I don’t mean a nostalgia trip, either—the real thing: relevant but classic.
Basie acknowledged the changing climate for big bands as the ’40s wore on and describes why he “decided to lay off for awhile.” But it wasn’t a long hiatus. He credits Billy Eckstine with encouraging him to get another band together while not forgetting the roles played by Birdland and Norman Granz.
About the idea that his early band was a “head” band and his later band was an arrangers’ band he says the time of LPs and the need to fill them caused that misperception. The new band didn’t “have to get into a sentimental bag to play any of” the old material. “Band in the Famous Door had its thing, band in Birdland had its thing, both were swinging.”
While many more pages are to devoted to the early years, it is obvious that Count Basie also took great joy in life as an elder statesman and ambassador for jazz. He kept recording albums, sometimes several a year, decades after many would have rested on their laurels.
I expected the later years to drag, but while they lose the youthful wonder they have their own satisfactions. Reduced to playing for old folks at home, he was a legend abroad. “When you’re big,” he says, “you don’t look at a city—it looks at you.” In the ’60s, he would play 39 dates across Europe and bounce off to Asia before landing back on the West Coast to play Disneyland.
He describes the year of his first Japanese tour as one of his best. An opening act, paying tribute to his style, had him convinced arriving at the venue that his band had started without him. This was also the year that while riding a train in England he finally committed to making an account of his life.
Throughout the book he gives credit to his “main man in the research department,” co-author Albert Murray, for burnishing his memory. Murray’s contribution cannot be overstated. He worked with Count Basie over ten years, visiting him numerous times at his home in Freeport, Bahamas.
Murray’s presence can be felt both in the prose and the usefulness of the book as a reference. Something is said about nearly every tour, recording date, radio broadcast, or shift in band membership. The index lists names and song titles accordingly. My one complaint is the difficulty of discerning the specific year the reader has reached in the story. Chapter headings inform one of the years covered (e.g., “1940-1944”) but within a chapter it is easy to lose track and at times the exact year discussed is important to know.
It is a testament to the quality of the writing that so much information is packed in without the narrative suffering. Even passages that are essentially lists of cities or band members don’t feel like it.
There is much for the musician to appreciate. From stories of finagling his way into gigs; a practice he started “while still in short pants” back in Red Bank, to more technical advice on structuring a band, “When you get away from having one leader,” he warns, “you’re going to have a mixed-up band.”
He reminds us that “getting onto the dancers is a very important part of being a bandleader” and that knowing how to “comp” behind performers will always come in handy. Of the later variations of the music he tells us, “I didn’t have any objection to new things so long as it all made sense. . .and the rhythm had to be right. Because it really wasn’t a matter of doing something different just try to have a new sound; it all had to have feeling.”
Good Morning Blues is one of the best-written and most engaging autobiographies of the past century. It is more than as a mere chronicle of the jazz world, it is the story of a man and his time. First published shortly after Count Basie’s death in 1984, it is well-deserving of this new edition.
Basie said he still played the old tunes “because I don’t think a blues gets old anyway. I think a blues is the same no matter how long it’s been around. No matter how many years.” Neither does a great American story.