Venture Beyond a Walking Bass Line with the All-American Walter Page, in Deep Dive

Apr 4, 2018

When most people think of Walter Page, they think of a steady, driving rhythm. Yes, absolutely — but there was a lot more to his art.

Page is among the most celebrated bassists in jazz history, mainly for his anchoring role in the original Count Basie band, with which he recorded and toured (with one break) from 1936 through 1948.

Born in Gallatin, Mo. in 1900, he got his start playing bass (and tuba) in early Kansas City swing bands. And he led his own group, the Original Blue Devils, in the late ‘20s.

Walter Page's Blue Devils, sometime in the 1920s. (Page is holding a trumpet in the front row, third from left.)
Credit Duncan Schiedt / Dave Dexter, Jr. Collection, LaBudde Special Collections, Miller Nichols Library, UMKC.

A prominent example of the so-called territory bands (because they toured within a certain territory, not nationally, and not in the big coastal cities) the Blue Devils had a tremendous reputation around Kansas City. At various times the band featured Basie, singer Jimmy Rushing, trumpeter “Hot Lips” Page and saxophonists Buster Smith and Lester Young. It only recorded two songs, which both sound great; it’s a shame the band wasn’t better documented, but that was typical for territory bands.

The rhythm section of the original Basie band — Page, Jo Jones on drums, Freddie Green on guitar, and of course Basie on piano — is often cited as one of the best rhythm sections in jazz history (an opinion that I share). In fact, somewhere around 1941 they became known as the “All-American Rhythm Section.” 

My friend Anthony Barnett, publisher of historic jazz violin recordings at abar.net, tells me that the first usage of “All-American” that he has found in jazz is in reference to Paul Whiteman’s “dream orchestra” in Colliers magazine, in September 1938

"The All-America (sic) Swing Band,” essentially a listing of Whiteman’s favorite players, was criticized in the black press because only six of the 26 players listed were black — omitting prominent figures like Basie, Young, Duke Ellington and Coleman Hawkins. In response, members of the Associated Negro Press voted for and selected their own “All-American Swing Band” listing in 1938 and 1939.

The expression “All-American Rhythm Section” was reportedly used in 1941, when Count Basie appeared with only his rhythm team on The Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street, a variety program broadcast on NBC radio. The show featured spoken introductions in classical style that were meant to be witty. Perhaps the host, or a scriptwriter, came up with the phrase.

To my knowledge, it first appeared in print on the labels of Basie’s 1942 small-band session with Don Byas. 

In any case, while it’s a famous expression, “All-American Rhythm Section” doesn’t seem to have been used very much in print. I don't see it at all in Basie’s memoir Good Morning Blues, written with Albert Murray, the well-respected novelist and writer on jazz. And I have to say that I’ve always found it a bit ironic that the term “All-American” was applied to black artists, considering how badly black people were treated in those days (and still are).

Page himself was apparently an amiable big guy. Basie recalls in his memoir that musicians knew him by his nickname, Big ’Un. “You could also tell right away that they didn’t just respect him because he was the boss,” Basie adds. “They really liked him and felt close to him because he was also one of them.”

Basie doesn’t feel the need to describe what Page did on the bass. But the critic Stanley Crouch picks up that thread in Kansas City Lightning, his biography of the young Charlie Parker. In one passage, Crouch observes that Page “had invented the modern way of phrasing a bass line and had almost single-handedly organized the jazz rhythm section for ultimate swing.”  

He later elaborates on this idea:

Page jettisoned the tuba that was still often heard in bands of the time, replacing it with his string bass and working out a two-bar, eight-beat rhythm cycle in four/four (1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8) that gave the time a flow that bass players use to this very day. This new rhythm removed the earlier music’s feeling of choppiness, allowing the pulse of the rhythm section to breathe every two bars, switching gears on the ninth beat to start the cycle again. Along with Basie, drummer Jo Jones, and eventually guitarist Freddie Green, Page forged the self-orchestrating ensemble-within-an-ensemble that is the jazz rhythm section.

This jibes with the conventional wisdom about Page, which is that he developed and popularized the “walking bass” — a steady expression of all four beats in a bar, rather than two.

But the truth of the matter is that Page’s contribution was both more and less than this. First, while it’s true that he did play a role in the transition from the older “two beat” or “oom-pah” style, there was a general and nationwide trend around 1930 towards playing walking bass. So I wouldn’t want to say that Page or any other individual was the first to do it.

Second, focus on listening to Page throughout his numerous recordings and you’ll hear an artist who wasn’t afraid to break up that 4/4, insert memorable melodic phrases, and interact with his fellow band members.

Here’s a taste of one of his earliest recordings, “Squabblin’,” recorded in Kansas City by his Blue Devils in November of 1929.

Page's playing here is quite varied. He starts with a two-beat style behind saxophonist Buster Smith, who was later a mentor to Charlie Parker. The next section features the rhythm section, and Page plays melodic rhythms derived from the tune's written theme, and even takes a solo break. There’s a passage later on where he does play on all four beats, mostly with repeated notes, but it wasn’t his primary style at this time.

Page didn’t record again until December of 1932, with Bennie Moten’s Kansas City Orchestra. Here’s a track from that session, “Lafayette.”

At the very beginning, you hear kind of an unusual sound coming out of the bass department, before he moves to four-four behind Ben Webster's sax solo. What is it? Page is playing what we call “slap bass,” where you alternate between slapping and aggressively plucking the strings. Listeners today may associate this sound with the electric bass, but the technique has been around for years.

The most famous Benny Moten recording of all time, “Moten Swing,” comes from that same 1932 session. This track was featured in the Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz — a boxed set, first issued in 1973, that has sold over 2 million copies, and can now be found in almost every music library in the United States and around the world. Here are the final 20 seconds or so of the track; pay close attention to what you hear.

For all the prominence of “Moten Swing,” nobody has noted in print that at the very end — and I do mean the very end, while the band and Basie are playing — Walter Page is slapping the bass. So based on these two recordings, one thing we can say with confidence is that he was an early proponent of slap bass technique.

Now let's listen to another track from the Smithsonian Collection, “He’s Funny That Way.” This is a recording that Billie Holiday made with Page, saxophonist Lester Young and others in November of 1937.

What Page plays here is so beautiful that if you do listen closely to the bass line, after a few seconds you won’t be able to take your ears off of it. Leaving the standard 4/4 pattern behind, he does something a bit surprising. He leaves space – lots of spaces, in fact — and threads a beautiful melody through the bass part.

Now let's listen to another small-group session, “Live And Love Tonight,” led by Basie himself in February of 1939. This is one of the few sessions where Basie plays organ, and it’s also as close as Page ever came to playing a solo during all of his years with Basie — even though you’ll have to listen very closely, because he’s playing behind the organ.

Here Page plays double-time. I can’t think of another bass player in the ‘30s playing double-time. For that matter, I can't think of one in the ‘20s or the '40s, either. So it may not leap out at you, because Page is playing mostly scale notes, but it’s unusual, and another example of Page breaking up the pattern of four notes to the bar.

There are many other recordings from this period where Page makes creative leaps: “Farewell Blues,” “I Left My Baby” and “Swinging at the Daisy Chain” come to mind. One very interesting track is “Oh Lady Be Good,” from the Spirituals To Swing concert organized by John Hammond at Carnegie Hall in December 1939. Page takes a real solo on this one, as do Charlie Christian and Lester Young. It’s wild to hear what he does.

Page purposely starts to hang back and play slower than the pulse of the band — to the point where it really starts to feel like he's going to drag everybody down with him. But he knows he won't, because you have the drummer and the piano player to hold it together. So what you have is a very clever, very offbeat kind of bass solo.

All of these musical passages – just a handful of illustrative examples, readily available but often overlooked — build the case that Page’s bass playing was full of variety and melody. What's perhaps most interesting about him, in fact, is that he's not riveted to the idea of playing four quarter notes in every bar.

So while I couldn’t claim that Page was unappreciated, since he was well-known and well-liked, I hope it’s clear that it’s worth taking the time to listen to him on his many recordings in order to fully appreciate his musicality. Do so, and you’ll be well rewarded with bass playing that goes well beyond swinging four beats to a bar.

FOR FURTHER EXPLORATION:

  • The longest interview ever published with Page appeared in the first issue of The Jazz Review, which is now available online. (Check pages 12-15.)
  • This 1943 footage of Count Basie with his band features a good close-up of Page at 1:18.

Dr. Lewis Porter has published acclaimed books on John Coltrane, Lester Young, and jazz history, and has taught at institutions including Rutgers and The New School. He’s also a prolific pianist whose latest album as a leader, Beauty & Mystery (Altrisuoni), features Terri Lyne Carrington, John Patitucci and Tia Fuller.

Deep Dive with Lewis Porter carries on a project originally known as You Don't Know Jazz! with Lewis Porter, produced for WBGO by Alex W. Rodriguez and Tim Wilkins.