You Don't Know Jazz! With Dr. Lewis Porter: Walter Page
October 27, 2012. Posted by Tim Wilkins.
This blog, on bassist Walter Page, is the latest in our regular series of blogs, "You Don't Know Jazz! With Dr. Lewis Porter." To read previous installments, click on the links below.
(PLEASE NOTE: If the reader uses any of the material from this series, no matter how brief, this article and its web address must be cited as the source. Thank you for respecting the intellectual property of Dr. Porter.)
Walter Page: Listen to the Bass, Already!
Of all the musicians in a jazz band, the one who gets the least “props” is the bass player. Most people just don’t listen to what they play!
And the things they say about bass players are so superficial, either they haven't listened to them at all, or what they say is based on just a minute or two of listening to a single recording. Therefore, this is the first of several occasional blogs where I will focus on bassists.
A case in point is Walter Page, who lived from 1900 to 1957. Page played bass (and tuba) in early Kansas City swing bands. He led his own Blue Devils in the late twenties, then joined one led by Bennie Moten, which had William “Count” Basie on piano for its last recordings in 1932. Page then anchored the rhythm sections of Basie’s own bands, with one break, through 1948, and it is for this work that he is most celebrated.
What do folks say about Walter Page? Not a lot. You can Google all over the place, and look at all your jazz books, and either they say nothing, or they say something vague like “He really swung,” which is just a way of saying, "I don't KNOW how Page sounds, because I've never really paid attention."
Many people think they’ve got Page covered when they say he played “four beats to the bar,” which means one note on every pulse of a four-beat measure.
But this is basically meaningless - because that's what bass players are supposed to do. So that can't be all there is to it. You don’t get famous because you play four beats to a bar. That would be considered adequate, but never great.
Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about Walter Page:
"More than any other jazz bass player in history, Page is credited with developing and popularizing the “walking bass” style of playing on all four beats, a transition from the older, two-beat style."
Ok, so I guess this is what people mean when they say Page plays “four beats to the bar.” It’s true, he did play a role in the transition from the older, "two beat" or "oom-pah" style, but my listening tells me that that there was a general and nationwide trend around 1930 towards playing walking bass, so I would *never* want to say Page or any other single person was the first to do it.
Let’s listen to part of one of Page’s very first recordings, “Squabblin’,” recorded in Kansas City by the 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, though Parker didn't play like him).
The next section features the rhythm section, and Page plays melodic rhythms taken from the tune's written theme, played previously, and he even takes a solo break. There is a passage later where he does play on all four beats, mostly with repeated notes, but it's not 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 today's bassists 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.
Now let’s listen to the end of the most famous Benny Moten recording of all time, “Moten Swing,” from that same 1932 session. Pay close attention to what you hear.
This track is on the Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz, a boxed set was first issued in 1973 and eventually sold over two million copies, and is now in almost every music library in the U.S. and around the world. But nobody seems to have ever noticed that at the very end - and I do mean the very end, while the band is playing - Walter Page is slapping the bass. You might think it’s percussion at first, but it’s definitely Page.
So one thing we can note about Page, although no one ever mentions it, is that he was an early proponent of the slap bass style.
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 Walter Page plays here is so beautiful, that when you do start listening to the bass line, after a few seconds you won’t be able to take your ears off of it!
On each of these tracks, Walter Page leaves the standard four-four pattern behind and does something that surprises the listener. On “He's Funny That Way,” he leaves space – lots of spaces, and plays beautiful melodies; it just sounds great.
Let's listen to another small-group session, “Live And Love Tonight,” led by Basie himself in February of 1939.
This is interesting because it’s one of the few sessions where Basie plays organ, and it’s also as close as Page ever got to playing a solo during all of his years with Basie - even though you have to listen very closely, because he’s playing behind the organ.
Guess what? 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 pretty unusual, and another example of Page breaking up the pattern of four notes to the bar.
There are plenty of other recordings from this period where Walter Page plays great and creative stuff, such as “Farewell Blues,” “I Left My Baby” and “Swinging at the Daisy Chain.”
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. Walter Page takes a real solo on this one, as do Charlie Christian and Lester Young, and it's kind of interesting and 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 Page knows he won't, because you have the drummer and the piano player, and everybody to hold it together. So what you have is a very clever, very offbeat kind of a bass solo.
So, by the time you’re actually done listening to Walter Page, you realize he was a very creative and very melodic bass player. And what's most interesting about him is that in fact he's not riveted to the idea of playing four quarter notes in every bar. That's not what's so special about him.
On the contrary. What you hear when you actually listen to Walter Page is that he breaks up that pattern of four beats to the bar whenever he thinks of something more interesting, interactive, or melodic to do.
That's why he's famous, and that's why we love Walter Page.
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