June 14, 2024

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Basie’s New Testament Band: Videos

The history of the Count Basie orchestra is generally divided into two broad periods – the Old Testament band, which lasted from 1935 to 1950, and the New Testament band, which ran from 1952 until Basie’s death in 1984. The former orchestra thrived in the 78 era and was dominated by uptempo riffs, the blues and a cavalcade of superstar soloists, including Lester Young, Jo Jones, Buck Clayton and Harry “Sweets” Edison, among others.

By contrast, the latter band was more suited to the 12-inch LP era. The New Testament band played in a more laid-back, minimalist style that packed plenty of punch but no longer had to race to complete songs within the short, three-minute duration of the 78 format. The band also no longer had to depend on a fixed group of musicians or soloists who knew the orchestra’s unique material. The band made this break through a new generation of skilled arrangers who stretched out songs and crafted a streamlined swing without losing Basie’s personality or character.

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Yesterday, I spent a few hours listening to the 1950-’52 recordings of the New Testament band that form the continental divide between the two eras. I also did some research on the band’s development. What I discovered is that six people in addition to Basie were responsible for the band’s launch and success. Basie was involved in the transition, of course, since without his piano, name and final decisions, there would be no Basie band. What I found, though, is that he was less of a visionary and driver of this overhaul than I thought. Instead, Basie was more of an eager participant motivated largely by a series of opportunities that were impossible to ignore.

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Why did Basie decide to pull the plug on his Old Testament band in 1949? More newly married post-war listeners were staying home, leading to the decline of swing dancing. With audience interest in live bands shrinking across the country, the cost of touring and maintaining the payroll of an 18-piece big band became prohibitive. As jazz shifted from the ballroom to the club during this period, squeezing a large brassy orchestra into smaller settings grew increasingly difficult. So in early 1950, Basie began touring and recording with an octet that was cleverly arranged to sound much larger. During the year, Basie would downsize again to a septet and sextet.

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In his autobiography, Good Morning Blues, Basie said he loved leading these small groups. But, he said, his friend, singer Billy Eckstine, who led a powerful big band in the mid-1940s, thought the small ensembles were miniature golf. In his autobiography, Basie recalls Eckstine saying, “Man, what do you keep fooling around with little old one- and two-piece stuff for? Get your goddamn big band back together. Man, you look funny up there… This is small garbage for you, Basie.” After Eckstine’s intervention, Morris Levy, Birdland’s owner, made Basie an offer. In Godfather of the Music Business: Morris Levy, author Richard Carlin writes, “According to some people—including Basie himself—Levy was central in reviving Basie’s band… By guaranteeing Basie regular work at Birdland, Levy lay the groundwork for the resurrection of the band.” Birdland was a club, but Levy managed to make room in the space for the Basie band and gave him an open-ended residency. Birdland also was steady income for Basie, without the need to tour. This was welcome news to Basie and the band, since all of the musicians lived in New York at the time.

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Did Basie owe Levy money and was he working off the debt through his Birdland residence? Or was Levy doing Basie a favor to call in a favor at a later date? That’s unclear. What is apparent is that Basie turned to baritone saxophonist Charlie Fowlkes to hire the new band’s musicians in the spring of 1951. Then Neal Hefti and Nat Pierce began cranking out arrangements. They both had a light, melody-driven style that was infectious and perfectly suited to the band. By the end of that year, record producer Norman Granz signed Basie to his Clef label. From 1952 to 1954, Basie appeared regularly at Birdland as well as other concert and club venues in New York while recording for Granz.

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Then, in 1955, as the 10-inch LP was giving way to the 12-inch album, Granz recorded Basie’s first successful release in the larger format—April in Paris, with tenor saxophonist Frank Foster writing most of the arrangements along with guitarist Freddie Green and Ernie Wilkins. Hefti contributed just one—Dinner With Friends. (By then, Hefti was preoccupied with a range of other writing and arrangement assignments, and leading his own band.)

From this point forward, Basie’s New Testament band would record one hit album after the next that captured the sound of modernity without losing the essence or soul of the Old Testament band.

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In retrospect, Hefti was the band’s main designer—the arranger who relaxed the Basie style much the way building architects of the period worked in glass and steel instead of stone. Hefti’s first Basie arrangement was Neal’s Deal, for Basie’s octet in 1950. Hefti’s first full-fledged New Testament band arrangement was Little Pony in 1951, a song title that may have been a reference to Basie’s love of the racetrack. From that arrangement on, Hefti along with Nat Pierce and those who followed adhered to a simple guiding principal: Craft a catchy melody, have the band’s sections play with the melody, let Basie be the band’s accent rather than its relentless locomotive, use space for suspense, and build toward a thrashing, brassy climax at the end.

Count Basie’s New Testament band was a direct reflection of the bandleader’s think-big swing concept and wry sense of humor. But its success owes a great deal to a cast of characters not generally celebrated. If it wasn’t for Billy Eckstine’s needling, Morris Levy’s Birdland offer, Charlie Fowlkes’s musician choices, Neal Hefti’s and Nat Pierce’s arrangements, and Norman Granz’s record label, Basie may have faded away like so many other band leaders of the Swing era or simply performed in the old style as a nostalgia act. Instead, the Basie band became the envy of foundering bandleaders and ignited a new concert-band era in the 1950s and 60s.

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This Basie period, from 1952 to ’54, is well documented on Count Basie Talks: The New Testament Band (Ocium) and The Complete 1953-54 Count Basie Orchestra Dance Sessions(Jazz Connections).

If you want a bigger New Testament package, look for Mosaic’s Complete Clef/Verve Count Basie Fifties Studio Recordings. It’s out of print but still available from many independent sellers at eBay and other online retailers.

Neal’s Deal in May 1950, with Clark Terry (tp), Buddy DeFranco (cl), Charlie Rouse (ts), Serge Chaloff (bar), Count Basie (p), Freddie Green (g), Jimmy Lewis (b) and Buddy Rich (d) …

 

Hefti’s Little Pony in April 1951, with Lammar Wright, Al Porcino, Clark Terry, Bob Mitchell (tp); Booty Wood, Leon Comegys, Matthew Gee (tb); Marshal Royal, Reuben Phillips (as); Wardell Gray, Lucky Thompson (ts); Charlie Fowlkes (bar); Count Basie (p); Freddie Green (g)’ Jimmy Lewis (b) and Gus Johnson (d) …

 

Hefti’s Sure Thing, in January 1952, with Paul Campbell, Joe Newman, Wendell Culley, Charlie Shavers (tp); Henry Coker, Benny Powell, Jimmy Wilkins (tb); Marshal Royal (cl,as); Ernie Wilkins (as,ts,arr); Floyd Johnson, Paul Quinichette (ts); Charlie Fowlkes (bar); Count Basie (p); Freddie Green (g); Jimmy Lewis (b) and Gus Johnson (d)…

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