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 lasted from 1952 until Basie’s death in 1984. The former orchestra thrived in the 78 era and was marked by frantic 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 band played in a more laid-back, minimalist swing style that packed plenty of punch but wasn’t dependent on a set roster of musicians or soloists. The New Testament band managed this break from tradition through a new breed of skilled arrangers such as Neal Hefti and Nat Pierce, who became the early developers of the new band’s streamlined swing and coy personality.
Yesterday, I spent a few hours listening to the New Testament band between 1950 and ’52, recordings that form the continental divide between the two eras. I also did some research. What I discovered is that six people in addition to Basie were responsible for the success of the New Testament band. Basie was involved in the transition since without his piano, name and decisions, there would be no Basie band. But he was less of a visionary and driver of this overhaul and more of an eager participant, motivated largely by a series of opportunities that made it easy to revamp the orchestra.
First, let’s go back a few years. Basie decided to disband his Old Testament orchestra in 1949. There were many reason for his move to pull the plug. More newly married 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 a 18-piece 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 cleverly arranged to sound much larger. During the year, Basie would downsize again to a septet and sextet.
In his autobiography, Good Morning Blues, Basie admitted that 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 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 leaned hard into Basie, 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."
Was Basie on the hook to Levy for loans? 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. By the end of that year, producer Norman Granz, the third catalyst in the New Testament band’s success, signed Basie to his Clef label. Then Hefti and Pierce began cranking out arrangements. They both had a light, melody-driven style that was infectious and perfectly suited to the musicians hired. From 1952 to 1954, Basie appeared regularly at Birdland as well as other concert and club venues in New York and recorded.
Then, in 1955, Granz recorded Basie’s first successful album in the 12-inch LP era—April in Paris, with tenor saxophonist Frank Foster writing most of the arrangements along with guitarist Freddie Green and Ernie Wilkins. Hefti contribute just one—Dinner With Friends. By then, Hefti was preoccupied with a range of other writing and arrangement assignments, and leading his own band.
Hefti’s first Basie arrangement was Neal’s Deal, for the octet in 1950. His first full-fledged New Testament band arrangement was Little Pony in 1951, which may have been a sly inside reference to Basie’s love of the racetrack. From that arrangement on, Hefti, Pierce and those who followed adhered to a simple guiding principal: Craft a catchy melody, have the band’s sections play off each other, let Basie be the band’s accent rather than its locomotive, and build toward a thrashing, brassy crescendo.
Count Basie’s New Testament band reflected the bandleader’s think-big swing concept and wry sense of humor. But there may not have been a second chapter in Basie’s career if it wasn’t for Billy Eckstine’s needling, Morris Levy’s Birdland, Charlie Fowlkes’s choices, Neal Hefti’s and Nat Pierce’s arrangements, and Norman Granz’s record label.
JazzWax tracks: This Basie period, from 1952 to ’54, are well documented on Count Basie Talks: The New Testament Band (Ocium) and The Complete 1953-54 Count Basie Orchestra Dance Sessions (Jazz Connections). You’ll find these CDs here and here.
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.
JazzWax tracks: Here’s 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) …
Here’s 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) …
And here’s 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)…