AMERICA'S ALL-TIME GREATEST PRESIDENT #3 - WITH BASIE 1937-1940

Looking back over all the "musings" since I launched this website, I notice that I have started a few series with instalments which get side-tracked when I go off at a tangent about other subjects that grab me.

I've started series on Lester Young, Bobby Wellins and Piano Trios. They will all be followed through, I promise.

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 I haven't written about Lester since February and March when I covered

#1 his start with the Basie band, focussing on privately captured broadcasts from a residency at the Chatterbox, Hotel William Penn in early 1937; and

#2 the small group musical masterpieces with Billie Holiday.

I reckon it is high time now for #3, dealing with his legendary contribution to the Basie band following on from The Chatterbox in the studio and on tour until he quit the band in 1940.

For three years or so, the Basie band was on the road or in the studio pretty well non-stop. There were residencies for several months at the Famous Door on 52nd Street New York and for lesser periods at the Savoy Ballroom, Meadowbrook New Jersey, the Panther Room, Hotel Sherman Chicago and the Southland Café in Boston.

At the same time, they were fulfilling record contracts with Decca (a bad deal signed hastily by Basie) and Columbia (a better deal procured by the sympathetic and enthusiastic John Hammond). Lester was on 105 Basie recordings for the two labels!

His famous studio solos are widely familiar to jazz fans so I have chosen two obscure and arresting live examples for the Music page this week, one from the Randall's Island swing carnival in May 1938 and one from the Famous Door NY in August 1938. You may well not have heard these: ENJOY!!!

Pres was of course a key member of the band - heavily featured as their most original soloist and up for jousting with tenor sparring partners, notably Herschel Evans and Buddy Tate. On a great arrangement of Blue and sentimental Herschel was featured on tenor and Pres briefly on clarinet.

Pres and Herschel fought musical battles but they were close personal friends and Pres was devastated when Herschel died of heart failure at the cruelly early age of 29 in 1939. Basie tried to hire Chu Berry as a replacement but Berry had always been hostile towards Pres who would have none of it. In the end, it was Buddy Tate who took Herschel's chair. He was another Texas "whiner" like Herschel. Pres liked him and he could imitate Herschel's solos.

In fact, Basie liked all his soloists to reproduce what they had played on the studio recordings because the audiences would be familiar with those. Pres never did or could. He was an improviser of genius and never played the same solo twice. The audiences loved him.

The signature eccentric stance

The signature eccentric stance

He would unbutton his band jacket, shamble to the front mike, twist his neck to the right and offer musical gem after gem with the saxophone held at 45 degrees.

On the bus, he would reserve the back seat and survey all before him, rolling joints, sipping from a gin bottle, singing and organising card games. He bestowed nicknames on his bandmates - Freddie Green = pepper, Jo Jones = samson, Buck Clayton = cat eye and Harry Edison = sweetie pie. That stuck with "Sweets" Edison for the rest of his life.

 Lester was pretty wild on the road but meawhile he married a nurse called Mary and they would stay together at the Woodside Hotel (of "jumpin' at" fame) whenever the band was in New York.

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By the latter part of 1940, the band was running out of steam. A new agent booked them on senseless itineraries with hundred of miles between gigs, Basie was thinking of disbanding and joining Benny Goodman and Pres was getting increasingly depressed. He was bored with playing the routine arrangements every night and just getting up for 12 or 16 bar solos. He was also becoming superstitious and fixated on the number 13.

The story that he quit the band on Friday December 13th is actually true. Basie had called him up for a recording date that evening. He glanced at the calendar in his hotel room and said down the phone "No. Let me sleep. Nobody records on this day."

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Spike Wells