I turned eighteen in July of 1956. It was, in several ways, the most important year of my life up to then. I would start college in the fall. I was now also able to drink legally. But most important of all, I was finally old enough to go to jazz clubs.
Jazz was our household music, along with a bit of modern classical, such as Stravinsky. Both my parents, especially my mother, were jazz fans. The earliest musical sounds I remember were records by Billie Holiday, who had become well known among jazz fans in the mid-1930s. She had a light, fluent voice and an innovative style, matched on many of her recordings by the great saxophonist Lester Young, who played with the Count Basie band in the 30s, before he began a solo career. Those records became my mother’s favorites, and mine, too. They remain so to the present day.
By the 1950s, the Basie band had become famous, and in the summer of ’56 it played a gig at Birdland in New York City, my hometown. So as soon as possible after my birthday, I recruited a friend, whose name I no longer remember, to go with me to hear it. This was the original Birdland, the one on 49th Street and Broadway (its present-day location is 44th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues). Several years later, it gained notoriety because of an incident that involved the renowned African-American trumpet player Miles Davis. He was playing at the club, and one night he went outside between sets to have a smoke. A passing police officer told him to move along. Davis refused and tried to explain to the cop that he was appearing at the club. For his trouble, he was arrested and beaten up. The incident made the newspapers.
The entrance to Birdland was at street level, but the club itself was down a lengthy flight of stairs. Once you reached the bottom and entered the club, there was an admission charge at the door, something on the order of two dollars or a bit less, if I remember correctly. That doesn’t seem like much now, but in the 1950s it wasn’t trivial. (The current admission charge varies from $25 to $50, depending on who’s performing and where in the club you sit.) The door was at the back of the club, and here’s what you saw when you stepped in. At the front was the bandstand, with the piano on the left, along with space for the rest of the rhythm section: drums, bass, and guitar. On the right were the horns, in a terraced arrangement, with four trumpets at the top, three trombones in the middle, and five saxophones at the bottom
On the left side of the club was the bar. If you stood there during a set, you were expected to buy a drink. Next to the bar was an aisle that ran from next to the bandstand to the back of the room and then to the kitchen. And taking up the space from the bandstand to the rear were the tables. If you sat at a table, there was a minimum. The amount is lost to memory, but whatever it was, it was too steep for a couple of teenagers like my friend and me. We were old enough to buy a drink, but that would have meant spending money we were saving for textbooks and other college costs. (The present minimum, covering drinks and food, is $20.)
What made our visit affordable was a unique feature of Birdland known as the peanut gallery. It consisted of a single row of about a dozen wooden folding chairs next to aisle. The first chair was only a couple of feet from the piano, and the rest of the row ran between the aisle and the tables. Unlike the other parts of the club, if you sat in the peanut gallery you didn’t have to spend another cent. In other words, you could sit there all night, and listen to each set, just for the price of admission.
And so, one night in July 1956 my friend and I descended the stairs, paid the admission, parked ourselves in the peanut gallery, and eagerly waited to hear Count Basie with his great singer Joe Williams. This was the era of the big band: the Benny Goodman band, of course, along with others led by Stan Kenton, Tommy Dorsey, and Les Brown, to name a few. But Basie and Duke Ellington ruled the roost. They were, after all, jazz royalty: the Count and the Duke. Those nicknames hadn’t been bestowed on them for nothing. For if you wanted to hear real big-band jazz, as played by two of its originators, this is where you started.
The audience were mostly young-to-middle age adults. At the bar and in the peanut gallery, all were men; couples sat at tables. Most patrons were white, with a handful of Black listeners scattered around the club. At a jazz club in Harlem, such as Minton’s, that ratio would have been reversed. (Nightclubs had been integrated since 1938, when Barney Josephson opened Cafe Society in Greenwich Village and welcomed all races. At the time, even famous clubs in Harlem, such the Cotton Club, were segregated, despite featuring Black performers.)
The set began. Sets were fifty minutes long, and the first part, before the singer came out, was about thirty-five minutes. The opening number was usually a mid-tempo piece, followed by an array of ballads, other mid-tempo numbers, and an up-tempo piece or two (the latter were called flag-wavers). Aside from tempo, the songs were a mix of standards (e.g., April in Paris), blues (Going to Chicago), and jazz tunes (Li’l Darlin’).
Basie, like most bandleaders, played an instrument—in his case, the piano. He led the band seated at the piano, beginning each number by playing a chorus or two with the rhythm section to set the tempo before cueing in the horns. Then, when the instrumental part of the set was over, the singer stepped out in front of the bandstand.
Joe Williams had started working with Basie about two years earlier, and it’s safe to say he was the most popular singer Basie ever had. Even after he left in the early 1960s to go out on his own, he often appeared with the band at concerts. Basie called him his number one son.
He started with a blues, this one called Everyday, written in the 1930s by Pinetop and Milton Sparks (music) and Memphis Slim (lyrics). The blues is a unique American song form derived from late nineteenth century spirituals and enslaved field workers’ chants. Some of the first recordings of the blues were made by Bessie Smith and Robert Johnson in the 1920s. Over the years, two types of blues singers emerged: those who sang only, or mainly, the blues, and those who were all-around singers, and sang mostly standards along with some blues. Williams was one of the latter.
He was a tall, striking man, and he had a distinctive trait when he sang: he didn’t make gestures of any kind. Rather, he stood completely still, with his arms at his sides, and let his voice carry the message. And what a voice it was: strong and flexible, and he could do anything with it, even sing a few lines of Everyday in a near yodel.
The band and Williams weren’t far into the number when I realized that I’d never heard anything like it in my life. I had the recording of it at home, but it came nowhere close to the sheer, overwhelming power of Williams singing in person with the Basie band riffing behind him. I imagine that if you’re a classical music fan, it would be like sitting sixth-row center at Carnegie Hall, listening to a full orchestra play a Beethoven symphony.
After Everyday Williams sang a slow ballad, a change of pace that allowed us to catch our breath. He did a couple more numbers after that, and the set was over. My life had changed.
From that point on, I knew that the best way to listen to music—any kind of music—is to hear it live, if at all possible (hardly, of course, an original sentiment). Records that can be heard on Spotify, and videos of live performances available on YouTube, are fine as substitutes, but they aren’t the real thing. Nonetheless, with the pandemic still with us, it’s probably the best that most of us who are of a certain age, and therefore cautious, can do. And if truth be told, these records and videos provide us with welcome, if temporary, relief from the environmental, medical, and political problems that presently dominate our lives.
So now, from time to time, I pull up Basie and Williams on YouTube and pretend I’m a kid again, back at Birdland, sitting in the peanut gallery, waiting for the maestro and his number one son to launch into Everyday.
(My thanks to Mary Cunnane, an editor and good friend whose suggestions greatly improved the story.)
He [Wiilliams] was a tall, striking man, and he had a distinctive trait when he sang: he didn't make gestures of any kind. Rather, he stood completely still, with his arms at his sides, and let his voice carry the message, and what a voice it was, strong and flexible, and he could do anything with it, even sing a few lines of Everyday in a near yodel.