Book Excerpt: The Swing Era

Editor's Preface: All comments in brackets [ ] have been added to clarify the text.
-Michael Pettersen

Pages: 226 - 228
Author: Gunther Schuller
Copyright: 1989
Publisher: Oxford University Press - New York
ISBN: 0-19-504312-X

The Basie rhythm section is and always has been one of the most consistent and resplendent joys in all jazz, almost always to be relied upon, almost always living up to expectations. There is a reason for that, and that reason is Freddie Green. For over forty years he has been quietly laying down a steady subtly swinging beat, unifying the rhythm section, providing the harmonic and textural binding in the middle range, and thus furnishing the critical linkage between melody and bass - in short, performing all those horizontal/vertical functions which are the essence of swing era jazz at its best.

But Freddie Green's role in the Basie rhythm section - and by extension that of all guitars in this type of rhythm section - became possible only in the 1930's, as the technical abilities of rhythm instruments players expanded and their functions within the four-piece rhythm section shifted, concurrently becoming clearer and more individual.

As greater technical flexibility developed, it was natural that the rhythm instruments, initially confined to very primitive rhythmic functions, aspired to enter the melodic realm. And so they did: first the piano with Earl Hines and Jelly Roll Morton in the early to mid-twenties, to some extent Fats Waller and James P. Johnson. Next followed the guitar. After replacing the banjo, which had been used purely rhythmically in early jazz, the guitar found its melodic voice with players like Lonnie Johnson, Dick McDonough, and above all, Eddie Lang; and eventually in the mid- and late thirties, with the advent of electric amplification and the arrival of Charlie Christian, the guitar emerged as a full-fledged member of the melodic fraternity. Freddie Green is thus a wonderful anachronism in that he has (almost) never played a melodic solo and seems content to play those beautiful "changes" night after night. How many quarter notes that man has played over the years; 250 million would be a conservative figure - and virtually all perfect at that!

Following the guitar, the next rhythm instrument to gain emancipation was the string bass, first when it replaced the tuba and then, within a short time after that, when the bass acquired a quasi-melodic capacity that freed it from providing merely the most rudimentary harmonic and rhythmic functions in the form of [chord] roots and a regular 4/4 or 2/2 beat. The player who more than any other developed the "walking bass" line so endemic to jazz of the thirties and forties was none other than Walter Page, for years the anchor of the Basie rhythm section. As early as 1928 in his recordings with his band known as the Blue Devils - in which Basie was for a while the pianist - we can hear Page's wide-ranging, beautifully balanced bass lines beginning to function on three levels: rhythmic, harmonic, and now melodic. Such bass lines also provided a new contrapuntal element, not in the old New Orleans collective improvisation sense but as a more purely linear counterpart, heard with, and against, the melodic elements in the middle [Freddie's guitar] or upper [Basie's piano] register.

The last member of the rhythm section to be freed for melodic duty was the percussion, the drum set. Here, too, an early leader in the development was Jo Jones, the drummer in the Basie rhythm section for many years. His earliest recordings with Basie in 1936 reveal that he had already transformed the percussion from its earlier, solely time keeping and mostly vertical-sounding role into a melodic-linear one, in which cymbals, with their ringing capacity and their ability to elongate sound, became a new voice in the horizontalization and linearization of jazz, and, with this last innovation, swing was finally achievable.

As the four rhythm instruments acquired these new melodic-linear, even soloistic capabilities, they could also discard some of their earlier simpler ensemble functions. And in doing so the rhythm section could merge into a more unified, more sophisticated cohesive ensemble, albeit with four co-equal partners. This cohesion cannot be better exemplified than in the Basie rhythm section.

Most crucially affected by these developments was the piano. As the bass acquired greater melodic and upward [in pitch] mobility, extending frequently into the "tenor" register [and thus into the pitch range of the guitar's 6th and 5th strings], and as the guitar settled firmly into its middle-register choral "comping" slot [pitch range of the 4th and 3rd strings], it became clear that the left hand of the piano had lost almost all of its earlier harmonic and rhythmic importance. In stride piano, the prevailing piano style throughout the twenties, itself an evolutionary extension of ragtime piano, the left hand played a leaping accompaniment pattern which generally placed bass note on the first and third beats of a bar, and the harmony notes, one or two octaves higher, on the second and fourth beats. But once the string bass had acquired its ability to roam linearly all over the lower range, even the bass notes of the piano were no longer necessary and actually were bound to collide and interfere with the bass, obscuring harmonic function and clarity, and producing unpleasant low-register dissonances and voice leadings. [This clash with the bass could also happen if the guitarist employed chord voicings with notes on the 6th and 5th string.]

Similarly, since the guitar was now playing middle-register [pitch range of the 4th and 3rd strings] chords in a constant pattern of four chords to the measure or two chords to the measure [on beats 2 and 4], the piano's second and fourth beats of harmony notes became redundant, an unnecessary duplication of the guitar which muddied the texture and often created terrible intonation problems.

The drum set was also liberated by the bass and guitar. The bass drum, played at first with four regular thumping beats per bar, would now obliterate the new moving lines of the bass (a lesson which, for example, a drummer like Gene Krupa could not seem to learn for a long time). Similarly, a regular reiterated beat on the snare drum could, if not done sensitively, obscure the harmonies in the guitar - although many fine swing drummers found ways to balance judiciously with the guitar, so as to virtually become a part of the guitar sonority. In the best examples of this kind of dynamic and sonoric blending, the guitar and the drum became not two blended sounds but one new amalgam of the two. The cymbal, on the other hand, with its higher pitched overtone laden sound, was a perfect solution of getting out of the way of the other instruments, riding above them, as it were, in a sonority which had at once the capacity to blend and to isolate.

In the first recordings Basie made in 1936 these developments had already taken place, and the modern rhythm section, four players functioning as a "choir", as an ensemble unit, was already fully present. This is not to say that Basie's rhythm section was unique in accomplishing such a high degree of integration - other rhythm sections (Ellington, Lunceford, Henderson, Webb) in various ways and at various times had by this time achieved as much - but perhaps Basie was more consistently preoccupied with developing this approach as a particular trademark of his orchestra. Economy, "less is more": these are the ideals pursued. Perfected to a "T" in later years, the work of the rhythm section was at times the only redeeming feature of performances which were otherwise totally predictable.

Editor's Note: I created the music example below to illustrate the typical pitch range (tessitura) employed by Walter Page, Freddie Green, and Count Basie. Note that the three ranges overlap very little. Each player stayed within his own "pitch layer" so as not to interfer with the parts played by his rhythm section partners.

The Style | Recordings | Biographical Info | Photos | Additional Info | Contact Us | Post Comments | Home Page