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Count Basie – “Comping with Swing”

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Count Basie, 1954

The complex harmonies and expanded forms of Ellington weren’t the only front on which jazz was developing in the late ’30s. In Kansas City, a young stride piano player named William “Count” Basie was beginning to put his own mark on jazz.

Basie was born in New Jersey, learned piano at home, was influenced by the sounds of Fats Waller and Earl Hines on the radio, and got his first job accompanying silent movies in the local theatre. At age 23 he left home to travel with a jazz combo and eventually ended up in Kansas City, where he decided to form his own band in 1935.

Unlike the New York jazz musicians, who could all read music, Basie’s Kansas City band consisted of some who played backup by memorizing “riffs” of each song. These riffs, which were simple two measure patterns repeated over and over until the next chord change, caused the band to put an emphasis on a consistent groove while soloists were free to improvise on top.

Basie’s individual style of piano playing developed out of the minimalist presentation of some of his arrangements. Although he started as a stride-piano player, creating high energy oom-chuk, oom-chuk accompaniments, he adopted a “less is more” style by the late ’30s to keep out of the way of the soloists. This style of accompanying, made popular by Basie, which creates great space and silence between chords is called “comping.”

The simple, steady rhythm section of Basie’s band set a pattern for jazz players for years to come. Following the pattern of Basie’s comping, the drummer tended to avoid bombastic shows of virtuosity, instead favoring simple, laidback grooves which invariably included a light, swinging beat with brushes on the cymbals. The bass player in Basie’s rhythm combo also created one of the fundamental sounds of lighter jazz: the “walking” bass line. Instead of punching rhythms and bouncing through the beats, the walking bass line was a steady stepping line over a consistent “one note per beat” rhythm.

These three elements: comping piano, light brushes on the cymbals, and a walking bass were the core of the Basie sound. In contrast with the energetic rhythms of other bands, it was part of what was known as “sweet jazz,” the lyrical counterpart to “hot jazz.” No band played exclusively “hot” or “sweet” jazz, but each found their own balance and blend of the two, depending on the tastes and skills of their arranger.

In the “b” section (2nd chorus or verse) of Ellington’s classic song “It Don’t Mean a Thing,” he gave recognition to the balance in jazz:

“It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing,

                Doo-wah, doo-wah, doo-wah, doo-wah, doo-wah….

It makes no diff’rence if its sweet or hot;

                Give that rhythm everything you’ve got”

Basie’s style of easy-going, riff-based jazz was a perfect counterpart to the highly orchestrated, energetic and complex sounds of Ellington’s band. The combination of Basie’s sweet rhythms and Ellington’s progressive harmonies would meld into the next development in jazz: bebop.

Many other jazz instrumentalists played a role in the early jazz and big band eras. Sidney Bechet, the first great saxophone soloist, was one of the few instrumentalists of the New Orleans/Chicago era that could be compared with Armstrong. Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young’s saxophone solos showed the maturity and lyrical style of the instrument and paved the way for Charlie Parker in the bop era.

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Ch. 1: Understanding Pitch

Ch. 2: Understanding Musical Pulse

Ch. 3: Understanding Volume

Ch. 4: Understanding Tone

Ch. 5: Understanding Melody

Ch. 6: Understanding Harmony

Ch. 7: Understanding Rhythm

Ch. 8: Understanding Bass

Ch. 9: Understanding Countermelody

Ch. 10: Understanding Structure

Ch. 11: Understanding Instrumentation

Ch. 12: Understanding Tempo

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Ch. 1: 19th Century: Pre-Foster

Ch. 2: Folk Music by the People

Ch. 3: Popular Music in its Infancy

Ch. 4: Stephen Foster – “Father of American Popular Music”

Ch. 5: The Importance of Stephen Foster

Ch. 6: Scott Joplin – “King of Ragtime”

Ch. 7: The Player Piano – Automated Music

Ch. 8: John Philip Sousa – “The March King”

Ch. 9: John Philip Sousa – Recording Artist and Activist

An Overview

Ch. 1: John Lomax – Recording American Roots Music

Ch. 2: Woody Guthrie – “Father of Modern American Folk Music”

Ch. 3: Leadbelly & Pete Seeger: End of the First Wave

Ch. 4: The Kingston Trio – Beginning of the Second Wave

Ch. 5: Joan Baez – “First Lady of Folk Music”

Ch. 6: Peter, Paul & Mary – Balancing the Message

Ch. 7: Robert Zimmerman – The Beginning of an American Icon

Ch. 8: Dylan in New York City

Ch. 9: Dylan after Newport

Ch. 10: The Importance of Dylan

Ch. 11: Folk Music in the 21st Century

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Ch. 1: The Roots of Country

Ch. 2: Bristol Beginnings

Ch. 3: The Grand Ole Opry

Ch. 4: Cowboys and the Movies

Ch. 5: Western Swing

Ch. 6: Bluegrass: Hillbilly on Caffeine

Ch. 7: Honky-tonk: Merging Two into One

Ch. 8: The Nashville Sound: Country-Pop

Ch. 9: Rockabilly – Country meets R&B

Ch. 10: Country Feminists Find Their Voice

Ch. 11: The Bakersfield Sound

Ch. 12: Austin “Outlaw” Country

Ch. 13: Neo-Traditionalists at the end of the 20th Century

Ch. 14: Mainstreaming Country in the ‘90s

Ch. 15: Redesigning Country in the 21st Century

An Overview

Ch. 1: What is Jazz?

Ch. 2: Before It Was Jazz

Ch. 3: Jazz is Born!

Ch. 4: Early Jazz Musicians

Ch. 5: Louis Armstrong

Ch. 6: Chicago and Harlem – Hub of 1920s Jazz

Ch. 7: Big Band – Jazz Swing!

Ch. 8: Big Band Musicians and Singers

Ch. 9: Jump Blues and Bop

Ch. 10: Cool Jazz

Ch. 11: Hard Bop

Ch. 12: Free Jazz – Breaking the Rules

Ch. 13: Fusion – The Jazz-Rock-Funk Experience

Ch. 14: Third Stream and World Jazz

Ch. 15: New Age & Smooth Jazz

Ch. 16: Summary – Jazz Lives!

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Ch. 1: Blues – The Granddaddy of American Popular Music

Ch. 2: Where Did the Blues Come From?

Ch. 3: What Are the Blues?

Ch. 4: How to Build the Blues

Ch. 5: Classic Blues – The Early Years

Ch. 6: Delta Blues – Authentic Beginnings

Ch. 7: Blues in the City – Migration and Power

Ch. 8: Blues in Britain – Redefining the Masters

Ch. 9: Contemporary Blues – Maturity and Respect

Ch. 10: The Relevancy of the Blues Today

Ch. 1: Timelines, Cultures & Technology

Ch. 2: Pre-Rock Influences

Ch. 3: Rock is Born!

Ch. 4: Rock is Named

Ch. 5: Doo-Wop

Ch. 6: Independent Record Labels

Ch. 7: Technology Shapes Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 8: The Plan to Mainstream Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 9: Payola – Rock ‘n’ Roll’s First Scandal

Ch. 1: Crafting Sound in the Studio/Producers and Hit Songs

Ch. 2: West Coast Sound: Beach, Surf, and Teens

Ch. 3: The British Invasion: Two Prongs – Pop & Blues

Ch. 4: Motown and the Development of a Black Pop-Rock Sound

Ch. 5: Soul Music: Gospel and R&B in the Deep South

Ch. 6: The Sounds of Bubble Gum Pop-Rock

Ch. 7: The Arrival of Folk-Rock

Ch. 8: Psychedelic Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 9: Early Guitar Gods of Rock

Ch. 10: Rock Festivals: The Rise and Fall of Music, Peace, and Love

Ch. 11: Anti-Woodstock and Shock Rock Movements

Ch. 1: Technological Breakthroughs

Ch. 2: Electronic Dance Music

Ch. 3: Hip-Hop & Rap – An Introduction

Ch. 4: The Beginnings of Rap

Ch. 5: Old School Rap – Up From the Streets

Ch. 6: Rap’s Golden Age

Ch. 7: East Coast – Political Rap

Ch. 8: West Coast – Gangsta Rap

Ch. 9: The Fragmentation of Rap – Pop, Party & More

Ch. 10: Further Fragmentation – Different Directions

Ch. 11: The Importance of Rap

Ch. 1: Musical Stage Productions in America before the 1800s

Ch. 2: Minstrel Shows and Melodramas

Ch. 3: Stage Presentations in the Late 19th Century

Ch. 4: Early 20th Century: Revues and Operettas

Ch. 5: The Arrival of the Modern American Musical

Ch. 6: Great Partnerships in Book-Musicals

Ch. 7: Musical Theatre Composers in the mid-Century

Ch. 8: Fresh Voices on the Stage in the 1960s

Ch. 9: Two Dominant Forces at the End of the Century

Ch. 10: New Voices at the End of the Century

Ch. 11: New Voices, New Sounds in the New Century

Ch. 12: Musical Theatre Glossary

Ch. 13: Is it “Theatre” or “Theater”?

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