Friday, 6 May 2011

Swingology 101: a seminar in Pres and Herschel

"Fellow swingology students, we request that you all rise now and join in our alma mater, Swinging at the Daisy Chain."

That's the way radio announcers, eager to establish their hepcat bona fides, used to speak when introducing jazz. It's what lucky listeners tuned to stations along the Mutual network heard as announcer Leslie Williams introduced the not-yet-famous Count Basie band from the Hotel William Penn in Pittsburgh one night in early 1937.

The Basie band, still in its formative stage, had recorded Daisy Chain a few weeks earlier, in January 1937, their first record for Decca. The studio version, impeccable and swinging, features Basie's piano, Buck Clayton's muted trumpet, and eight bars of Herschel Evans' tenor saxophone; no Lester Young. This broadcast performance is something else entirely. Like all live performances, it has a loose, expansive, spontaneous feeling rarely achieved in a recording studio. Most important, Professor Basie has largely discarded the studio chart in order to showcase, as he often did, the very different tenor saxophone styles of Lester Young and Herschel Evans -- not exactly a battle of the saxes, but a study in contrasts. Here we're treated first to a chorus of Pres at his best, then a chorus of muted Buck before Hurricane Herschel blows in at 1:25 with that big, soulful, "Texas tenor" sound of his.

Herschel Evans' career was tragically brief. He joined Basie in the mid 1930s and died in February 1939, not yet 30 years of age. Aside from his all-too-few records with Basie, he's on eight sides in a band led by Harry James in 1937-38, and four sides with Mildred Bailey in 1937. That's it. Ardent devotees -- and I am one -- must forever be content with a chorus of Herschel here, eight bars there. Just one reason why this air-check is such a treasure.

Pictures of Herschel are as rare as his recordings. Here he is on the left, Buck Clayton on the right, both resplendent in their work attire.

Serious swingology students may want to compare and contrast the saxophonic styles of Lester Young and Herschel Evans, but your assignment today is simply to enjoy. During the ensemble riffing near the end of this wonderful performance, you'll hear Jimmy Rushing exclaim, "My, my, my, my!" echoing my sentiments exactly. As an alma mater, Swinging at the Daisy Chain sure beats Far Above Cayuga's Waters(I'm reliably informed that the Daisy Chain was a New York brothel. Don't tell the dean.)


  1. Dear Sir,
    May one enroll in the Institute of Swingology? I have advanced degrees from other institutions, but yearn to study Swing on a more formal basis. Please send a catalogue to me at the address below at your earliest convenience, and I would also appreciate directions to the Registrar's Office.

    Cordially yours,
    Muriel Holsumbake

  2. Dear Muriel,

    I've sent your particulars to the registrar's office for immediate action. The entrance exam is pretty simple. First an aptitude test in which the admissions committee observes you listening to jazz, to see if you clap on 1 and 3, or 2 and 4. Then some easy questions like, Why do you want to be a rug cutter? (The correct answer, of course, is: So my jive will improve.) To place you in the proper grade, the questions get progressively harder. The only question I couldn't answer was, Complete the following song title associated with Benny Goodman: "Dip Your _____ in the _____."

    There's just one minimum requirement for admission into the hipness program: a thorough knowledge of Jabbo Smith. I'm sure you have no problem there.

    Of course you can also go for a degree in Florid Jazz Criticism. Many of our FJC graduates are now plying their craft for major publications, competing for our annual You're-Not-Whitney-Balliett Award.

    Good luck!


  3. Dear Professor SABK,

    Is it "Dip Your Blintz in the Sour Cream" (and keep on eating away, yes sir!)? Or is that too sectarian for the Institute of Swingology? I feel much better about the entrance requirements, because my Mom knew Mister Smith when he was only Cladys, but that's a long story. She could have told you a lot about how he got his nickname.

    Are there any opportunities for extra credit? And how many words do I have to put in my paper?

    Yours Mutually,