From Basin St. to Birdland

Mike Conklin on Jazz

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Thelonious Monk

How to segue from Ellington, perhaps the seminal figure of the Swing Era, to the “High Priest of Bebop”? Well, that’s an easy one.

Writer Stanley Dance, in his book The World Of Duke Ellington (Da Capo Press: Cambridge, MA), offers this experience:

“[Ellington] first heard Monk’s music, according to trumpeter Ray Nance, in the summer of 1948. Nance was traveling with Ellington and a small group of musicians on a short tour of England and had taken with him a “portable gramophone.” As Nance told Stanley Dance in a 1966 interview:”I was on my way to Bournemoth, Hampshire, by train, and in my compartment I put on one of my Thelonious Monk records. Duke was passing by in the corridor, and he asked, ‘Who’s that playing?’ I told him. ‘Sounds like he’s stealing some of my stuff,’ he said. So he sat down and listened to my records, and he was very impressed. He understood what Monk was doing.” (Dance 1981, 139).

Below, I offer two versions of Ellington’s Solitude. The first rendition is from Ellington’s September 17, 1962 recording United Artists records; the album was entitled Money Jungle and included Charles Mingus and Max Roach! The second version is by Thelonious Monk from his album, Thelonious Monk Plays Duke Ellington.

Here’s Duke!

Now Monk!

Just a “lil sumpin” to whet your curiosity on a Sunday morning 🙂



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I mentioned in yesterday’s post that no other jazz composer has had more of a profound impact on me than Billy Strayhorn. In works such as Day Dream, Lush Life, Blood Count, and Lotus Blossom, I hear a deep sense of lament that rattles my core.

The following link, again an excerpt from the documentary Lush Life by Robert Levi, describes the way in which Billy handled what would come to be his last years:

Strayhorn’s condition worsened and even hospitalized, he continued to compose:

The prior example of Blood Count was performed by Elvis Costello, Joe Lovano and Hank Jones.

Devastated by the lose of not only a musical soul mate, dear friend, but as he declared, “the other half of my heart beat.” A few months after the death of Strayhorn, Ellington brought in an ensemble to record an album dedicated to his memory. The recording is entitled, And His Mother Called Him Bill.

The next tune, Lotus Blossom, is absolutely heart-wrenching. There are two versions on the album. First, I will post the trio version played with only baritone saxophonist Harry Carney and bassist Aaron Bell accompanying Ellington.

The solo version will follow. You can hear a quiet, restrained, meditative mood. As the tune progresses, the dynamics increase as Ellington seems to be striving to speak to his lost friend. Focused on the passionate delivery of the song, Ellington misses some notes and stops on occasion, perhaps overcome with emotion. Yet, this adds to the recording — he his human and this rendition illustrates the frailty of the human experience.

(As an aside, you can hear the band packing up and speaking in the background. Ellington ignores this and continues to record his elegy.)


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Billy Strayhorn

In all of jazz history, the compositions of William Thomas Strayhorn, have had the most profound impact on mebar none.

This is a brazen statement considering the myriad of composers and wonderful works since the inception of the music.

This post will provide some insight via audio clips from the beautifully composed documentary Lush Life by Robert Levi, in addition to musical examples and analysis (on the Jazz and Theory page).

I will also be referencing two exquisitely researched and written books on Strayhorn: Something to Live For by Walter van de Leur and Lush Life by David Hajdu.

Let’s get started!

(The music in the background is a tune called Cashmere Cutie by Strayhorn and it is being performed by the The Dutch Jazz Orchestra & Jerry van Rooijen on an album entitled, Portrait of a Silk Thread – Newly Discovered Works of Billy Strayhorn.

The composition that is most often associated with the Duke Ellington Orchestra is Take the A Train. Here’s some background on how their collaboration began…we’ll address the Orchestra’s theme song shortly after:

Strayhorn was determined to be a part of the Ellington organization: Ellington initially thought Billy would be a lyricist, but upon hearing Strayhorn play a composition that he composed around the age of 16, Ellington knew he would be of greater use:

FYI: The song that Strayhorn was referring to  (that he “didn’t finish”) was Take the A Train – he composed one of the most famous compositions in jazz history based on the directions to Duke Ellington’s residence!  I digress…

The song that astonished Ellington, Lush Life, thought to be autobiographical and references Strayhorn’s homosexuality is below with Billy accompanying himself as he sings:

Here’s some background from the Billy Strayhorn website prior to embarking on Take the A train:

If you are familiar with the jazz composition, “Take the A Train,” then you know something about not only Duke Ellington, but also Billy “Sweet Pea” Strayhorn, its composer. Strayhorn joined Ellington’s band in 1939, at the age of twenty-two. Ellington liked what he saw in Billy and took this shy, talented pianist under his wings. Neither one was sure what Strayhorn’s function in the band would be, but their musical talents had attracted each other. By the end of the year Strayhorn had become essential to the Duke Ellington Band; arranging, composing, sitting-in at the piano. Billy made a rapid and almost complete assimilation of Ellington’s style and technique. It was difficult to discern where one’s style ended and the other’s began. The results of the Ellington-Strayhorn collaboration brought much joy to the jazz world.

Take a listen and dig it!

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Duke Ellington

I must admit that I had a challenging time with the subject of this entry. Where do I go from James P., Waller, and Tatum. Well, Duke Ellington, of course!

Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington was born in Washington, DC, on April 29, 1899. He began studying the piano at the age of seven and started performing music professionally in Washington, D.C. in 1917. His piano technique was influenced by Harlem Stride masters like James P. Johnson and Willie “The Lion” Smith. While a part of the Wilbur Sweatman band, Duke visited New York in 1922. He returned to New York a year later, accompanied by his friend and drummer, Sonny Greer. They worked for a while with banjoist Elmer Snowden and Duke eventually became the leader of the ensemble,  The Washingtonians. This band worked at The Hollywood Club in Manhattan (which was later dubbed the Kentucky Club). During this time clarinetist and soprano saxophonist,  Sidney Bechet played briefly with the band — sadly, he never recorded with them.  One of the greatest contributors to Ellington’s new aggregate was the trumpet player Bubber Miley; Miley brought with him his unique plunger mute style of playing (very reminiscent of Joe “King” Oliver!). This sound came to be called the “jungle style,” and it was largely responsible for Ellington’s early success.

Here is a prime example of that “jungle style.” The song is East St. Louis Toodle-Oo.

In 1927, the band debuted Black and Tan Fantasy and Creole Love Call, songs that would be remain in his repertory from the entirety of his career and embodied the “jungle style.”

One of the most significant events in 1927, Ellington earned the honor of leading his band, Duke Ellington and His Orchestra, at the legendary Cotton Club from 1927-1931.

Here are the aforementioned tunes, which were certainly a part of the Cotton Club performances!

Black and Tan Fantasy:

The personnel:

Duke Ellington, piano, arranger, Bubber Miley, Louis Metcalf trumpets / Joe “Tricky Sam” Nanton, trombone / Otto Hardwick, saxes / Harry Carney, clarinet, alto sax, baritone sax / Rudy Jackson, clarinet, tenor sax / Fred Guy, banoj / Wellman Braud, bass / Sonny Greer, drums, Adelaide Hall, vocals. Camden, NJ, October 26, 1927.

Creole Love Call

The personnel:

Duke Ellington, piano, arranger, Bubber Miley, Louis Metcalf trumpet / Joe “Tricky Sam” Nanton, trombone / Otto Hardwick, saxophones / Harry Carney, clarinet, alto sax, baritone sax / Rudy Jackson, clarinet, tenor sax / Fred Guy, banjo / Wellman Braud, bass / Sonny Greer, drums, Adelaide Hall, vocals. Camden, NJ, October 26, 1927.

With a career that lasted over five decades, it would be impossible to cover all of Ellington’s career. Consider this just a taste of what’s to come in future posts!


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Art Tatum

I thought we would begin our coverage of Art Tatum with an excerpt from the exquisitely researched website, Riverwalk Jazz.

Here’s the excerpt:

Behind narrator David Holt’s commentary, you’ll hear one of Tatum’s signature songs, Tea for Two.

I’m hoping you are beginning to see the Harlem Stride lineage from James P. Johnson (the “Father of Stride”) to Fats Waller and now…Art Tatum.

The starting point of Art Tatum’s style was that of Fats Waller’s Harlem stride. As Tatum once said, “Fats, that’s where I come out of and, man, that’s quite a place to come from.”

But to listen to Tatum is to be exposed to an artist with unrivaled speed, technical virtuosity, and perhaps most importantly, the exploration of more advanced, complex harmonies. He may have had the foundation of Waller’s style, but he certainly eclipsed him and anyone else who crossed his path.

To prove my point, I have included a recording of Art Tatum performing Waller’s Ain’t Misbehavin. And, below that, I have included the example of Waller from our previous post. Get ready!

Fat’s Waller’s version:

My comparison is by no way meant to diminish Waller’s role in jazz history. On the contrary, sometimes I feel that Waller has a smoother sense of swing and perhaps that…less is more. I’ll let you decide.

As an aside, here are some famous anecdotes about a few very famous jazz musicians’ first exposure to Tatum:

When Oscar Peterson was a prodigious teenager, his father thought he was getting “too big for his britches.” His father sat Oscar down to listen to a recording of Tatum; the young Peterson wept and he refused to touch a piano for two months.

When Hank Jones first heard a recording of Tatum, he believed that at least three people were playing and clearly they had devised some sort of trick to make people think it was just one.

Les Paul, guitarist and pioneer of the solid-body guitar (that made Rock and Roll possible!), began his musical pursuits as a pianist. Regarding his first exposure to Tatum,  “after hearing Tatum for the first time, I quit piano completely and began playing guitar.” Lucky for the history of American music!


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Fats Waller

As promised, it’s time to listen to one of the most important figures in the history of jazz (yet sadly, he is unfortunately better known to the public for his comedic charm rather than his musical virtuosity!).

From yesterday’s post, we discovered that Waller was not only a pianist of startling technique, but was a prolific composer as well. One of his most famous works, a collaboration with Andy Razaf, was a musical entitled (Connie’s) Hot Chocolates in 1929 (which ultimately featured Louis Armstrong!) The show proved to be such a success that it moved onto Broadway, opening at the Hudson Theatre on June 20, 1929, and ran for over two hundred performances.

Over the next two days, I’d like to focus on two tunes from the show: Ain’t Misbehavin and (What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue.

Ain’t Misbehavin’

(Recorded: Hollywood January 23, 1943)

Original key: C Major

Form: AABA (popular song form); some might argue that it’s an AABC form, which is certainly acceptable.

Tonal center: Primarily major with the exception of the brief minor passage in the B section.

Here’s the cast of characters:

Fats Waller (piano/vocals), Benny Carter (trumpet), Alton ‘Slim’ Moore (trombone), Gene Porter (clarinet/tenor sax), Irving Ashby (guitar), Slam Stewart (bass), Zutty Singleton (drums).

Here’s the tune:

Fats begins the tune with a four bar introduction before entering with the main theme — all in the Harlem  stride style (notice the striding left hand — almost providing a boom-chick-boom-chick effect). Meanwhile, Zutty is tastefully accompanying him with brushes in the background. Slam shortly joins to fill out the rhythm section.

Fats plays through the 16 bars of the A section — mostly keeping with the melody while adding some ornamentation in the right hand.

In the B section (0:48), which is traditionally a contrasting section that bridges the first A sections to the final A section (or what some may label a C section), Fats strays from the melody — he uses descending, cascading runs. The harmony, though, should be fairly apparent (for the more advanced listener) under his melodic elaborations.

After the bridge, Fats takes some liberties with the melody of the final A section. As we approach the final bars, you’ll notice a climax that will lead to the entire band accompanying Fats as he sings for the second chorus!

The second chorus, as Fats sings, has a slightly different texture; initially Slim Moore provides an obbligato line under Fats’s vocal line, while Irving Ashby establishes the chord sequence with his guitar. All the while, the rest of the rhythm section supports underneath. After the first two A sections (16 bars), they enter the B section…

Clarinetist Gene Porter takes the obbligato role while Fats sings through the 8 bars beginning with, “like Jack Horner…”

After the bridge, comes the final A section. Once again Slim plays his trombone under Fats’s vocal line. Keep in mind, the rhythm section is accompanying them throughout.

Then, they kick it up a notch! Zutty Singleton takes a solo with Fats comping behind him. There are essentially moving through the first two A sections (yes, a THIRD chorus!) Then, they have somewhat of a conversation before the entire band joins the fun!

You’ll notice at (3:22) they play in a collective improvisation format, where each instrument improvises at the same time. This is over the B section (you might try singing “Like Jack Horner, in ther corner…” to catch what the band is doing. In the final bar of the B section, they break it down! The tempo slows (uses a ritardando)  just in time to bring Fats to the final A section, “I don’t stay out late, don’t care to go. I’m home about eight, just me and my radio. Ain’t misbehavin’, I’m savin’ all my love for you!”

That’s a wrap, folks!

P.S. Check out the Jazz and Theory page for a harmonic analysis of the tune!


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Thomas 'Fats' Waller

Well, we certainly couldn’t discuss James P. Johnson, without following it up with his protege, Fats Waller. The following biographical sketch was written by me for Salem Press.

Thomas “Fats” Waller was born on May 21, 1904 in a subsection of New York City, New York known as Harlem – a city that was already well on its way to becoming the largest and most significant urban community of African-Americans in the northeast.  It would be in Harlem where Waller, among other artistic prodigies, would launch one of the most profound cultural celebrations in American history, the Harlem Renaissance.

Waller’s parents, Edward, a Baptist lay preacher and Adeline, migrated to New York from Virginia in 1888, and by 1902 had permanently settled in Harlem. Fats, as he would come to be known in his youth, was the youngest of the couple’s five children. Like many in the African-American community, Edward and Adeline were devout churchgoers, and intensely musical as well; indeed, music in a religious context informed much of their everyday lives. This reverence for music, as espoused by his parents, had a tremendous impact on Fats; by the age of six, he was already at work playing the harmonium to accompany his father’s sermons at open-air services.

Waller’s musical education and professional growth intensified in his teenage years. In 1918, he won a talent contest for his rendition of James P. Johnson’s “Carolina Shout,” which was considered to be the barometer by which all budding stride pianists were measured. By 1920, he was under the tutelage of Johnson, the father of the Harlem stride piano style. At about this time he also began to perform regularly at Harlem’s Lincoln and Lafayette theaters. During the next few years, as a result of his increasingly frequent public appearances, Waller came to be acknowledged as one of the most gifted, inventive and virtuosic of the younger generation of stride practitioners. He made his debut recording, “Birmingham Blues” and “Muscle Shoals Blues” in October of 1922; other early performance activity included accompanying blues singers, such as Bessie Smith, on recordings and cutting numerous piano rolls in 1923 for the Victor, QRS and Okeh labels. During the early years of this decade, he continued to play for rent parties, engaged in cutting contests, was an organist at movie theatres and served as an accompanist for various vaudeville acts.

While still in his early twenties, Waller composed dozens of songs (although some were not published) and began critical collaborations with such songwriters as Spencer Williams and most importantly, Andy Razaf.
In 1927 Waller recorded his own composition “Whiteman Stomp” with Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra, one of the pioneering African-American bands of the Swing Era. Henderson used other compositions by Waller as vehicles for his arrangements and improvisations, including “I’m Crazy ’Bout My Baby” and “Stealin’ Apples.”

In 1928, along with Razaf, he contributed much of the music for James P. Johnson’s all-black Broadway musical Keep Shufflin’. He would also make his Carnegie Hall debut on April 27, 1928, when he was the piano soloist in a version of James P. Johnson’s Yamekraw, A Negro Rhapsody for piano and orchestra.

Waller’s star was rapidly ascendant in 1929; in that year alone, he was involved in numerous extensive recording sessions that documented some of his finest songs: (“Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “I’ve Got a Feeling I’m Falling,” “Honeysuckle Rose,” “(What Did I Do To Be So) Black and Blue?,” “The Minor Drag,” “Numb Fumblin’,” and many others).  This exposure gained him a certain cachet with record executives; he was permitted to use an interracial band (one of the earliest in recording history).

In 1930 he appeared on radio as one of the earliest African-Americans hosts. And from 1932-1934 he broadcasted his own show regularly for WLW in Cincinnati, “Fats Waller’s Rhythm Club.” When the WLW contract concluded in early 1934, Waller returned to New York where he broadcasted the “Rhythm Club” show over the CBS network to a still larger audience.  This experience would prove to be invaluable as it offered an unparalleled opportunity to sing, satirize, and provide a running commentary while he was playing – all traits for which he would become widely known.

Waller’s success on CBS convinced Victor to sign him to his first recording contract; Waller decided upon a six-piece band format similar in organization to a typical Dixieland band ensemble: clarinet, trombone, trumpet, piano, bass and drums. Maintaining the association with the “Rhythm Club” name, Waller dubbed the band “Fats Waller and His Rhythm.” Between 1934 and 1942 the group recorded about 400 sides, well over half of Waller’s lifetime recorded output. Many critics consider that the band’s best work was issued in 1935 and 1936, and many of these releases sold millions of copies. In February 1938, Victor extended Waller’s contract through May 1944.

In 1938 Waller undertook a European tour and recorded in London with his Continental Rhythm as well as making solo organ recordings for the HMV (His Master’s Voice) label. His second European tour in the following year was terminated by the outbreak of World War II, but while in Britain he recorded (also for HMV) his London Suite, an extended series of six related pieces for solo piano: “Piccadilly,” “Chelsea,” “Soho,” “Bond Street,” “Limehouse” and “Whitechapel.”  It became Waller’s greatest composition in scale and magnitude and is indicative of his aspirations to be a composer of concert works, along the lines of his mentor, Johnson.

The final years of Waller’s life involved frequent recordings and extensive tours of the United States. In early 1943, he traveled to Hollywood to make the film Stormy Weather with Lena Horne and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, in which he led an all-star band. His professional responsibilities intensified in that year with more touring as well as collaborating with the lyricist George Marion for the stage show Early to Bed. This exhaustive schedule along with constant overindulgence of food and alcohol irrevocably damaged Waller’s health. He died of pneumonia while returning to New York by train with his manager, Ed Kirkeby.

Tomorrow’s post will focus on Waller’s music! Stay tuned!


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James P. Johnson

As mentioned in yesterday’s post, Bessie Smith worked with many key figures in the history of jazz; this included “The Father of Harlem Stride,” James P. Johnson.

James P. Johnson (James Price Johnson, also known as Jimmy Johnson, born February 1, 1894, died November 17, 1955) was an American pianist and composer. A pioneer of the Harlem Stride style of jazz piano, he was a model for Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Fats Waller. Johnson composed many hit tunes including The Charleston and Carolina Shout; the latter becoming known as the test piece for aspiring stride practitioners. His 1921 recording of the tune stands as the prototype of the Harlem Stride style. As conductor Marin Alsop once stated in an interview, “If you couldn’t play Carolina Shout, you couldn’t play.”

Here’s the tune:

The Harlem Stride piano style, taken from the looping left hand of the pianist as it strides from the lower register of the piano to the middle register, was a prominent feature in the upper side of Manhattan or Harlem. Here, a large African-American population resided after the real estate bust. This style of piano, largely meant for entertainment, gained great popularity during rent parties and cutting contests.

Although reminiscent of the ragtime tradition of the late 1800s and early 20th century, Stride piano included unique aspects such as improvisation (or preconceived concepts applied in a live performance), a sense of a swing rhythm, and elements of the blues.

Johnson, although a pianist and composer of extraordinary talent, has had very little written about him. In fact, the only thorough biography on Johnson is by author Scott E. Brown; the book is entitled James P. Johnson: A Case of Mistaken Identity,

As a supplement to our discussion on Johnson, I thought I would provide some audio clips:

Here are some highlights on James P. from Riverwalk Jazz © from Public Radio International.

As an aside, the estate of James P. Johnson bequeathed a collection: Johnson, James Price, Collection, ca. 1921 – 1955, Posthumous: Music and Scripts,which can be found at the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University in Newark, NJ.

For an incredibly astute article on James P. Johnson, Carolina Shout, and improvisation, read Henry Martin’sBalancing Composition and Improvisation in James P. Johnsons ‘Carolina Shout.’ Be advised: this is a very complex analysis and is not for the faint of heart 🙂

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Bessie Smith

Before there was Billie, Ella, or Sarah…there was Bessie.

Bessie Smith (1895-1937), also known as the Empress of the Blues was a rough, crude, violent woman. She was also the greatest of the classic blues singers in the history of the music. Bessie started out as a street musician in Chattanooga, Tennessee. In 1912, Bessie joined a traveling show as a dancer and singer. The show featured Ma Rainey, with whom Bessie developed a close friendship. Bessie, while under the tutelage of Rainey,  remained with the show for three years. She then joined the Theatre Owners Booking Association (T.O.B.A.), a vaudeville circuit and gradually garnered some acclaim. By the early 1920s, she was one of the most popular blues singers in vaudeville. In 1923 she made her recording debut on Columbia, accompanied by pianist Clarence Williams. They recorded Gulf Coast Blues and Down Hearted Blues. The record sold more than 750,000 copies in one year.

Throughout the 1920s, Smith recorded with many of the greatest jazz musicians of that era, including Fletcher Henderson, James P. Johnson and and a young Louis Armstrong. Her version of St. Louis Blues with Armstrong, which was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1993, is considered by most critics to be one of finest recordings of the 1920s.

St. Louis Blues, composed by the “Father of the Blues,” W.C. Handy. Published in 1914.

Original key: G Major

Form: AABCD; the ‘A’ and ‘C’ sections are 12-bar blues and the ‘B’ section consists of 16 measures.

Tonal Structure: All sections revolve around the key center of G major, however the ‘B’ section establishes a minor tonality.

It has some unique features:

1) It doesn’t completely follow, as noted, what we now consider the tradtional AAB 12-bar blues form.

2) The bridge section, in 16-bars, is actually written in a habanera rhythm in a minor key, popularly called The Spainish Tinge (and made famous by the inimitable Jelly Roll Morton).

  • Handy, in his 1941 autobiography Father of the Blues: An Autobiography, stated, When ‘St. Louis Blues’ was written the tango was in vogue. I tricked the dancers by arranging a tango introduction, breaking abruptly into a low-down blues. My eyes swept the floor anxiously, then suddenly I saw the lightning strike. The dancers seemed electrified.

Here’s the line-up:

Personnel: Bessie Smith (vocals), backed by Louis Armstrong (cornet) and Fred Longshaw (harmonium).

Here’s the tune:

The song starts of with Armstrong and Longshaw establishing the tonal center.

Bessie sings through the chorus with Longshaw behind her and Louis playing a more active role: while Bessie is singing her part, Louis adds an obbligato part underneath. Then, once Bessie states the “call” (e.g. “I hate to see the evenin’ sun go down,” Louis adds with a response. Again, the sense of call and response permeates the history of jazz…

Quite an incredible blues tune…which is not conventionally…a blues tune!


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Well, we heard Billie with Goodman on What a Little Moonlight Can Do and Strange Fruit with Frank Newton and his Café Society Orchestra…now, let’s hear her Swing, Brother, Swing with the master of swing, Count Basie!

This recording was one of two sides that were recorded for air checks on 06/30/1937 (New York City- Savoy Ballroom (Harlem)-MBS Broadcast by WOR): They Can´t Take That Away and Swing, Brother, Swing” (Columbia CL 1759). A few more tracks were recorded that day (including Jimmy Rushing on vocals), but Holiday was not featured.

Here’s the line-up:

Personnel: Count Basie (piano); Billie Holiday, Jimmy Rushing (vocals); Jack Washington (alto & baritone saxophones); Earl Warren (alto saxophone, clarinet); Hershel Evans, Lester Young (tenor saxophone, clarinet); Buck Clayton, Ed Lewis, Bobby Moore, Bobby Hicks (trumpet); George Hunt, Eddie Durham (trombone, guitar); Dan Minor, Benny Morton (trombone); Freddie Green (guitar); Walter Page (bass); Jo Jones (drums).

The tune starts of with four bars from the band before Billie jumps in…

Billie sings through the AABA form twice with the band supporting her — nothing better than the All-American Rhythm section to have behind you!

Here’s the tune: