By Dag Walker
Long ago, back when my father was a ten-year-old, his father announced one evening that he was going to town to buy an automobile the next morning. My father was so excited he could hardly sleep that night. He woke before dawn and walked with my grandfather to the top of the hill while my grandfather strode to town to buy his first car. My father sat on the hilltop awaiting his return.
My father sat and watched and waited; and every hour or so when a car came to my father stood up and cheered, his father driving that beautiful car with the shining windscreen, the huge, bulbous fenders, and hood, the wheels churning up a storm of dust from the dirt road. Yes, it had to be my grandfather behind the wheel of that luxurious new 1935 DeSoto motorcar. But, no, that one passed by, and my father sat down to wait a little longer.
The dust churned and the sky darkened as the next car came into view miles away, a sleek and lovely 1933 Plymouth, black and sleek as a panther. It kept ongoing. As did the 1930 Cadillac 16 with the sixteen-cylinder engine.
1928 Packard? 1926 Willy-Overland? 1922 Hudson? 1920 Nash? Maybe the beautiful 1919 Studebaker? No, none of the above. An older car? A 1918 De Soto? Maybe that classic 1907 Rolls Royce Silver Ghost?
Unfortunately, no, not the Rolls, either. Then it rained. Then, in the rain, my father saw a dark cloud of … not road dust rising high into the sky in the wake of a charging automobile with his father at the helm, but a cloud of smoke from the exhaust of a 1909 Ford Model A on wobbling bicycle tires with a horse and buggie carriage atop. My father wept. I never liked that man.
Down the road apiece, far from my grandfather’s car backfiring and my father crying in the hills, and yeah, across the Atlantic Ocean, in 1935 on the shores of America, William James Basie, became The Count, part of legendary American music royalty. Billie Basie, born in Red Bank, New Jersey in 1904. Around 1924 Basie moved to Harlem. Before Basie formed his own orchestra, he had led The Barons of Rhythm, regulars at the Reno Club in Kansas City where they performed for a live radio broadcast. During a broadcast, the announcer wanted to give Basie’s name some style, so he called him “Count.” In 1935 “Basie the pianist” turned the world into a swinging scene that lasted for another 50 years: in ‘35, he formed his own “Count Basie and His Orchestra.” Man Oh Man. Jazz!
Edwin James Barclay was president of Liberia in 1935; the effects of the Fernando Po scandal were drawing international attention, including the famous English novelist Graham Greene and his young cousin Barbara Greene. Graham Greene’s Journey Without Maps (1936,) still in print today, covers his 350-mile, 4-week journey through the interior of Liberia in 1935. Firestone Rubber Corporation was squeezing Liberia for payments on a loan during the depths of the Depression. Back in America, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Norris v. Alabama case that a defendant must have the right to a trial by jury by his/her peers. This ruling overturns the Scottsboro Boys’ early conviction. On the music scene, life was good. Count Basie was swinging and the nation was dancing through the hard times. For those who couldn’t get out, Elizabeth Magie invented the board game Monopoly. For looking good on the dance floor, DuPont scientist Wallace Carothers invented nylon.
It’s ironic that as the U.S. economy began to soar in the late 1940s onward big bands found themselves unable to compete in the musical world with smaller, four-member groups, soon to become rock and roll bands of unrestrained electronics. Count Basie’s music in some ways predated the fluid movements of later bands in that his music was often improvisational, what he and the band members termed “head music,” what they knew, and what they liked and what the listeners liked. Not deeply considered and portentously noted, the music of Basie and band came from the playing.
Basie attracted the stars of the Big Band Era, from Bessie Smith to Billy Holiday to Ella Fitzgerald, even Frank Sinatra. Though the era of the big bands has passed, the music lives on.
“In 1983, Basie made his last performance at the Carlton Theatre / Monmouth Arts Center, just nine days removed from the death of his second wife, Catherine, with whom he had been married 43 years. Just 53 weeks later, Basie succumbed to cancer at the age of 79, and was buried in Pine Lawn Cemetery in Farmingdale, Long Island, New York. In November 1984, the Monmouth Arts Center was renamed to honor Basie, then wholly recognized as Red Bank’s most famous son.”
Yes, my father claimed to have played the clarinet with Artie Shaw, but, sitting in the 1957 Chevy as he wheeled us to the drive-in burger joint when at long last the family had abandoned the barren wastes of the high islands of the North Sea for the easier lands of the mountains in America, he frowned as I would turn on the car radio to listen to the turns of the day, The Platters, The Four Tops, The Shirelles. Always bitter, that man, he who had lived in the era of grand music. At least he had a nice car. Me? Well, I had the music.
Dag Walker is an American writer
Main Photo: Count Basie, BBC
“One O’clock Jump” (1943)
“Corner Pocket” 1955. Composed by Freddie Green, Count Basie, album April in Paris;