For nearly a century, the rhythm section has been at the forefront of musical development in jazz, and perhaps the most influential rhythm section of all is that of William “Count” Basie. This quintessential rhythm section, consisting of Walter Page on upright bass, Freddie Green on guitar, Jo Jones on drums and Basie on piano, culminates twenty to thirty years of jazz tradition, particularly as it relates to time and feel. The trademarks of this rhythm section included signature contributions from each member: Basie’s use of space and lyricism at the piano, Page’s placement of quarter notes within his walking bass lines, Green’s approach to playing chords on every quarter note that lined up intuitively with Page’s bass lines, and Jones’ innovative and complimentary method at the drum set. This dynamic combination of musical concepts and chemistry would serve as a model for nearly all of the jazz rhythm sections that followed.
The origin of a benchmark rhythm section such as Basie’s can be traced to Kansas City at the height of Prohibition. It must be understood that music, specifically jazz and blues, cannot be analyzed and appreciated fully without understanding the cultural and historical context in which it originated. Former record producer for Charlie Parker’s Dial Recordings in the late 1940s, jazz historian and author Ross Russsell argues that:
“Kansas City was just another one ofthsoe large, unremarkable, untidy, and undistinguished cities located somewhere on the American plain. Yet it was here in Kansas City, Missouri, that that the same kind of musical ranaissance that occurred in New Orleans was about to take place, though with somewhat altered material, a different cast of players, and a different set of backdrops: for the honky-tonk we substitue the cabaret; for the street parade, the jam session. Kansas City jazz started from scratch. From the beginning it was a grass-roots movement, and so it was to remain for the greater part of its life.”
This “grass-roots movement” would eventually spread across the plains of the Midwest, which was at the time considered the Southwest and included Oklahoma, Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, and Texas. As Prohibition was being enforced and the Great Depression was sweeping throughout these states, entertainment venues began to close their doors. Not all cities in the Southwest were adversely affected. In fact, Kansas City’s economy was booming largely due to Kansas City’s political boss, Tom Pendergast. From approximately 1920 until the 1940s, Pendergast was invested in one way or another, in the city’s gambling, illegal alcohol sales, prostitution, narcotics and political corruption. Despite the economic depression in the surrounding regions, Kansas City was thriving, and musicians were flocking there. History has shown that where there is vice, there is music and Kansas City was no exception. It became the ‘hub” for jazz music in the American Southwest.
Though Pendergast may be criticized for his unscrupulous business practices, one cannot discount the fact that in so doing, he provided at an acceptable quality of life for thousands of Kansas City residents, including black citizens who stood little chance of surviving as musicians elsewhere. Economy and culture, specifically art and music, flourished in the African-American communities largely due to the vibrant nightlife fostered by Pendergast . This booming economy enabled and empowered an emphasis on the arts and education within the black communities of Kansas City creating a movement, a renaissance, similar to the ones in New Orleans, Chicago and New York during the 1920s.
This movement, as Russell called it “grass roots,” grew out of Kansas City and quickly spread to other Southwest territories. The Southwest was becoming rich with its own musical traditions, amongst black and white communities. Its rural jazz language developed out of folk, blues and ragtime traditions of the American Southwest, and from early jazz recordings of the 1910s and 1920s. Countless “Territory Bands” emerged and worked throughout these areas.
Territory Bands, as the name suggests, were jazz bands that varied in size, and occupied certain regions or cities. A few examples include Walter Page’s Blue Devils (Oklahoma City, OK and Kansas City, MO), Bennie Moten, Andy Kirk, Jesse Price, Lawrence Keyes (Kansas City, MO), The Alphonso Trent and Troy Floyd Orchestras (Much of TX) and the Mckinney Cotton Pickers (Detroit, MI). These types of bands dominated the jazz scene throughout the southwest.
Despite the expanding growth of jazz amongst these Southwest territories, Kansas City maintained its position as the nucleus of the Southwest jazz and blues scene largely due to the city’s thriving economy and development, a prime environment for the cultivation of jazz and blues traditions. In his book, Jazz Style in Kansas City and the Southwest, Ross Russell describes Kansas City as a “country cousin” to New Orleans. Russell describes the musical product as a “folksy, raggy and blues saturated tradition.” Additionally, author Lewis Erenberg states in his book, Swingin’ the Dream, . . . “Kansas City fostered and preserved more traditional elements of black preindustrial oral culture than did New York and Chicago . . . its proximity to the South and the absence of opportunities for social mobility maintained the strength of rural folk culture.” Such “folk culture” includes a society’s musical practices, and oral culture was a prime example. Of any musical influences on Kansas City, this the blues, derived from that oral and folk culture, had the most profound influence. This chapter will examine and analyze the blues’ influence on the Kansas City jazz “sound,” highlight individual contributions to the rhythm section, and reveal how the collective approaches of these great musicians created the model for the jazz rhythm section.
 Ross Russell, Jazz Style in Kansas City and the Southwest. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971 (3).
We all know the song “Amazing Grace” I’m sure. But, did you know this was how it originally sounded in the early days? Tim Eriksen here is singing it solo, along with his banjo, but it was also practiced like this in the old form of shape note singing (in congregations throughout the colonies) that I talk about in one of my essays on Daniel Read on my own blog found on my website. If you’ve ever seen the movie Cold Mountain, you wouldn’t have seen Eriksen, but you would have heard him on songs like “I Wish My Baby Was Born.” Here’s America’s original, raw, organic version of “Amazing Grace,” that haunted the colonies in the 1600s and 1700s, then sadly after a musical reformation (spearheaded by European composers and musicians true to the old ways of musical composition, who deemed this way of singing improper by their standards backed by Europe’s centuries of musical development from composers such as Bach to Mozart to Beethoven to Chopin to Debussy and beyond), made its way down to the southern states around the time of our Civil War. Even down south now, this version and way of singing for that matter, is pretty rare. Except to mountain folk and a select few congregations in the deep south. We need to reclaim this kind of worship music as our own. It’s part of our culture, and therefore musical heritage. It’s not just a southern thing but actually a northern thing too that could serve as a commonality between us. Especially during a crucial time in our nation’s history where we seem to need it. One of the goals of this musical practice was to make it accessible to every man and every woman. They didn’t have to be musicians to partake. Hence the shape note notation and even a different, simpler solfege system (again, check out my blog at traviswesleyjazz.com and access the article on Daniel Read’s “Sherburne” for more insight into this musical tradition). And, that’s what made it indigenous to America’s culture. There’s lots of good stuff out there on YouTube of Tim Eriksen. “Wayfaring Stranger” trumps Jack Black’s version in my opinion. I still love ya Jack!, just my personal opinion. You’re version is pretty killer too!!! And, I loved your role in the film Cold Mountain. You can also find me on Youtube trying my hand at some of this stuff with my banjo. Keep in mind I’m a jazz pianist who has only been playing this music on the banjo, dulcimer & guitar for about a year and a half now. :) Enjoy y’all. Pretty deep. Any questions, please ask! Tim Eriksen has a Ph.D in Musicology from Wesleyan University (in Connecticut), a professor, active performer and has traveled the world collecting folk songs and tying them back to America’s deep and complex folk roots.
Since I mentioned in this post, here’s Tim Eriksen singing “Wayfaring Stranger” along with his “banjer”
Damn! Check this out. . . I got to play once with Russell Malone when I was with Willie Akins in St. Louis about 10 years ago. These are three of my favorite musicians. Been listening to all of them for a very, very long time. Gotta give it your complete attention. It deserves it for sure. They’re the real thing man.