“Count Basie had the best swing band ever…It wasn’t that the other bands weren’t good, it’s just nobody was better at it than Count Basie.” (Norma Miller).
It’s been a while since I have written here…this has been a strange year. There has been little dancing and more study these months, so I will share some summer reading I am enjoying at the moment.
William “Count” Basie (1904-1984) was born in Red Bank, New Jersey, but moved to Harlem when he was about twenty and just starting his career. Recently I have been reading Count Basie’s autobiography, Good Morning Blues (co-written with Albert Murray), where he shares his first impressions of the neighbourhood. I was excited to find out the first place he went was the Alhambra –which was a theatre at the time, but later was converted into the famous Alhambra Ballroom, one of the few venues from that era still standing in Harlem. Only last year I attended at a very special event at the Alhambra Ballroom honouring Norma Miller and Frankie Manning’s 105th Birthday. I have walked many of these streets tracing the venues and locations while preparing Norma Miller’s Harlem map — Count Basie’s directions would have come in handy!
His first address was 2150 Seventh Avenue (now Adam Clayton Powell Jr Boulevard), between 127th and 128th streets.
“When we arrived in New York at the end of that summer, Smitty met us at the station and took us uptown. Our first address was 2150 Seventh Avenue, which was in the block between 127th and 128th streets in Harlem. The apartment was on the third floor, and for a few days we didn’t go anywhere. Because we didn’t know where to go…It took us a few days to get our bearings, and the only place I remember going during that time was the Alhambra Theatre, which was only about a block away on the same side of Seventh Avenue, at the corner of 126th Steet. Other than that, the main thing I recollect is how Elmer Williams and I used to come downstairs and out onto the porch where the other tenants used to sit chatting from around dusk dark until late into the night. I remember sitting out there on the railing and on the steps looking at the people strolling along the sidewalk and the traffic moving up and down Seventh Avenue. ” (p 49).
Basie mentions that the Alhambra Theatre was segregated at the time, something common in Harlem despite it becoming the black cultural capital of America (when the Savoy opened in 1926 it was the first integrated ballroom).
“That was the biggest stage show I had ever seen up to that time, and Elmer Williams and I enjoyed it in spite of the fact that the only way you could get in there was through a side entrance for coloured people on 126th Street, and the only section you could sit in was the balcony. I hadn’t expected to find anything like that in Harlem but that is the way it was, and the Alhambra Theatre was not the only segregated place along that part of Seventh Avenue in those days”.
In fact, 126th was on the southern edge of Harlem back then: “Everything stopped at 126th Street. You didn’t go much further down than that. When you came to 125th Street, it was like another part of town.” (p50). Many of the venues on 125th Street were “lily-white”, including the Theresa Hotel, and Basie and his fellow musician Elmer Williams didn’t have much interest in anything further down from 125th Street or going sightseeing in Manhattan –their priority was where they were going to play music and meeting other musicians and people in show business.
After getting their bearings, they decided to explore Harlem, bringing them up to 140th Street.
“Then that next Sunday we decided to get out and go exploring in Harlem. So we checked our landmarks and started up Seventh Avenue. We passed the Lafayette Theater between 131st and 132nd streets and went on beyond 135th Street and came to the Renaissance Casino at the corner of 138th Street, which was kitty-corner across Seventh Avenue from a section of houses known as Strivers’ Row. As I looked around, I figured we must be getting into the main part of Harlem, and later on I found out that wasn’t very far off. ” (p 51).
They end up at a matinee in the Capitol Palace (140th Street and Lenox Avenue) where Basie sees the Washingtonians and Duke Ellington playing for the first time. What a significant musical coincidence! It is also when he hears the famous pianist Willie “the Lion” Smith. Another thing he notes about that matinee is the new dance step one of the dance acts was featuring: “It was called the Charleston and it was just catching on as a ballroom fad because it had made a big hit in a Broadway musical called Running Wild” (p52).
He stayed in Harlem playing in different venues and returning there between tours (he worked as a pianist with Katie Krippen on the Columbus Burlesque Circuit and later toured the TOBA circuit with Gonzelle White) for several years before settling in Kansas in 1927, where his musical career really took off. He would return to Harlem in 1936/37 with his own band, and play the Savoy Ballroom — an event that Frankie Manning and Norma Miller remember well. But that is all another chapter.
“There was so much going on all around in Harlem during those days. I wish I could get myself together about more of it. But I’ll never be able to do justice to what it all meant to me…Maybe I wasn’t raising any hell, but I was there, and in my mind I was one of them. So when I would get a chance to go on those little out-of-town dates that came up every now and then, I was not from Red Bank anymore. I was from New York.” (p84).
Next time I am in Harlem – and it’s a place it is always worth returning to- I will be sure to visit Basie’s locations.
This is only the beginning of Count Basie’s adventure, if you would like to read more I recommend the book!
Good Morning Blues: the Autobiography of Count Basie (as told to Albert Murray). Albert Murray and Count Basie Productions, 1985.