The definitive Basie book. Straight talk from the king of jazz
Good Morning Blues: The Autobiography of Count Basie, as told to Albert Murray. New York: Random House. 339 pp. $19.95. This is the Count's own story, and he's quick to tell the reader that it isn't anybody else's story. In other words, if anybody expects to find out some way-out gossip about any of Basie's friends, fellow musicians, acquaintances, or family in ``Good Morning Blues,'' they can forget it! In fact, they won't find out anything like that about the Count either. Basie on discretion:
``When it comes to naming names and going into details, I just don't see the point of doing that just to give somebody something to gossip about.'' And he adds, ``Whenever and wherever the people you're talking about are not still around, there are still their children and grandchildren and even great-grandchildren to be considered.''
What we do find out about is Basie's life as a professional musician and band leader, with enough little side trips away from the inevitable gig-record-band personnel chronology to make the book thoroughly engrossing. The first half of it is especially chock-full of amusing and revealing personal reminiscences. Some of the most interesting of these involve Basie as the star-struck kid from Red Bank, N.J., who spent a lot more time figuring out how he could get into the circus or vaudeville than about being a musician. In fact, as he brings out in the book, this love for show biz stuck with Basie throughout his life. Even in his last years, some of his favorite gigs were the big Sinatra, Tony Bennett, and Ella Fitzgerald megashows, and he could never understand why some of his fans asked him how he could play all that pop stuff.
Basie never thought of himself as a top-flight piano player, and there is more than one funny bit here about how he got ``chopped'' by somebody more fleet-fingered. Cutting contests were the thing anyway, from the '20s right up through the big-band era and beyond, and battles of the bands were a popular event.
The Basie that emerges from these pages is a man who spent most of his life on the road, and much of it playing one-nighters -- endless travels, hotels, audiences, interviews, radio broadcasts, recording sessions. He was so busy right from his early days that he never thought much about where he was going in the world of jazz. Even when John Hammond discovered him in Kansas City and things really began to pop, he was too ``green'' to realize that the big time was so close.
Throughout Basie's career, fame and success were never the issue. The road life was Basie's life, and the band was his ever-changing family. The best part about the book, and it isn't a bit corny, is the camaraderie and genuine affection that inevitably grew out of such close day-to-day association. If there were other feelings, he doesn't talk about them, and rightly so. The Basie music tells the real story, anyway.
Racism is an issue that almost always comes up in books about jazz, and Basie comes off as refreshingly colorblind -- and, I might add, not self-consciously so. Nor does he try to avoid the issue when there's a reason to bring it up.
``I already knew about all of that beforehand just as you would just have to know about what you have to go through to become a prizefighter or a football player or something like that. You don't let that stop you if that's what you really want to be.''
Unquestionably this is, and will continue to be, the definitive Basie book. These are Basie's own words, and Albert Murray (author of the ASCAP Deems Taylor Award-winning book ``Stomping the Blues'') has done a splendid job getting them down on paper, along with 16 pages of photos tracing the history of Basie's career.
With few of the original jazz greats still here to give us their insights, a book like ``Good Morning Blues'' is a real treasure.