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Listening, Party For Two: Bennie Moten, 'Moten Swing'

Bennie Moten's orchestra, circa 1926.
Frank Driggs Collection
Getty Images
Bennie Moten's orchestra, circa 1926.

My boss readily admits that she doesn't know a whole lot about jazz. But she lets me write all this nonsense on the Internet, so I'm not complaining. And at least she's willing to learn. So every so often, she and I get together to listen to and Instant Message about a different great jazz song.

The bandleader Bennie Moten was an important cultivator of jazz in Kansas City. The core of his ensemble eventually became the Count Basie Orchestra, and his big band's style came to represent his hometown's sound. And he would have been 116 last Saturday. So I picked out his most famous recording:

"Moten Swing," by Bennie Moten's Kansas City Orchestra. Joe Keyes, Oran "Hot Lips" Page, Dee Stewart, trumpet; Dan Minor, trombone; Eddie Durham, trombone/guitar; Eddie Barefield, clarinet/alto sax; Jack Washington, alto sax/baritone sax; Ben Webster, tenor sax; Count Basie, piano; Leroy Berry, guitar; Walter Page, bass; Willie McWashington, drums; Bennie Moten, director. Recorded Dec. 13, 1932, Camden, N.J.

Purchase: Amazon / Amazon MP3 / iTunes

Patrick Jarenwattananon: So instead of going through that whole rigamarole of "who is this guy?" like we always seem to do, I'll just tell you. This is music from Bennie Moten.

Boss Lady: Huh? Well, it sounds like he sure knew how to get people dancing.

Me: Well, first, this is from 1933, and most if not all jazz had a much closer relationship to dancing. Like, if you couldn't play for dancers, you didn’t work. But also, "Huh?" is right. People don’t much remember Bennie Moten these days. But his band was very important. This tune, "Moten Swing," was his biggest hit.

Boss Lady: I love the sound of that bar house upright piano. Or at least that's the feel of it via 1930s recording technology. Also, this is the kind of tune that is so playful and, well, tuneful that I want to make up words and sing along.

Me: Huh. See, I don't hear much of a melody here. I hear these rhythmic riffs which are really hip, but maybe not sing-along-able to, right? And then you've got that long intro, and all the soloing. Although the underlying harmony and form implies a certain sing-songy pattern to it. It's a common form, and it might even be based harmonically on an existing song.

Boss Lady: I guess it has a kind of free-for-all-quality that makes me feel I can join right in!

Me: Sure, that joyous, free-floating feeling. I think you'll find that in a lot of the big band music from the ’20s-‘40s from Kansas City, like this band. That rock-solid 1-2-3-4 bass, the brushes on 2 and 4, the boogie-woogie-ish (but not quite) piano. In fact, Bennie Moten's band was one of the primary exponents of the Kansas City style. You remember when we listened to Count Basie and Lester Young?

Boss Lady: Unrestrained joy, with a wink. Not much music made like that these days. We're more dark, cacophonous and ironic these days. Who's that horn player? Is he using a mute?

Me: The trumpet player is Oran Page, better known as "Hot Lips" Page. One of the best of his day: his career spanned from early jazz through bebop and beyond. Speaking of all the other horn players, that's Eddie Barefield on the alto sax, that high-pitched sax that takes the early saxophone solo. A man who would become a rather famous jazz musician, Ben Webster, takes a short break on tenor saxophone. But I was trying to bait you by mentioning Count Basie.

Boss Lady: First we have “Hot Lips” Page, then “Hot Lips” Houlihan on M*A*S*H, but you’re too young to know anything about that. Is Count Basie leading the band?

Me: Well, I told you it was Bennie Moten's band, right? And it is: he ran the biggest group in Kansas City for a long time, stockpiling the best players -- including Count Basie. In fact, Moten, a pianist, didn't play here, and had Basie play on the recording instead. This is late 1932. The band was getting bigger … and then in 1935, Moten died when a tonsil surgery went wrong. He might have been a much bigger name in the history books. Instead, Basie consolidated control of members of the band. And in 1936, it was Basie who moved the reformulated group to NYC, and made The Canonical Classics which he did.

Boss Lady: Well it sounds like he was a rightful heir and took it to the next level, but I hope he appreciated the boost that he got from his unlucky friend.

Me: I presume so: He definitely took the energetic Kansas City thing to fame. And Basie would later remake "Moten Swing" under a different arrangement, so I bet he was grateful for more than just the gig.

Boss Lady: To be grateful is a very good thing.

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