Bennie Moten

Allie and I lived in Kansas City for 11 years. We met there, working for The Pitch. Bennie Moten is among the many treasures we stole from there. It’ll be with us no matter how far we stray from KC.

Tonight we were talking about how we need to go back. There’s a conference there next year, and we’re going. I said, Do you think the people who bought our house would let us bring over some foster dogs and sit in the back yard with them late into the night? Like, they would leave, the owners. We’d have the place to ourselves. Us and the dogs.

I had Bennie Moten on CD, a CD with a green cover. Now I have a six-record anthology and a compilation with an orange cover. The music is so snaky. Weirder than some of the weirder stuff I have, though you wouldn’t know it on first listen.

Allie and I have been in the Deep South now going on six years.

According to Allmusic:

Bennie Moten is today best-remembered as the leader of a band that partly became the nucleus of the original Count Basie Orchestra, but Moten deserves better. He was a fine ragtime-oriented pianist who led the top territory band of the 1920s, an orchestra that really set the standard for Kansas City jazz. In fact it was so dominant that Moten was able to swallow up some of his competitors’ groups including Walter Page’s Blue Devils, most of whom eventually became members of Moten‘s big band. Motenformed his group (originally a sextet) in 1922 and the following year they made their first recordings. Among Moten‘s 1923-1925 sides for Okeh was the original version of his greatest hit “South.” During 1926-1932, Moten’s Orchestra recorded for Victor and, although none of his original musicians became famous, the later additions included his brother Buster on occasional jazz accordion, Harlan Leonard, Jack Washington, Eddie Durham, Jimmy Rushing, Hot Lips Page, and (starting in 1929) Count Basie. So impressed was Moten by Basie‘s playing that Count assumed the piano chair for recordings from that point on (although in clubs Moten would generally play a feature or two). The most famous Bennie Moten recording session was also his last, ten songs cut on December 13, 1932 that found the ensemble strongly resembling Basie‘s five years later. In addition to Hot Lips Page, Durham, Washington, and Basie, the band at that point also starred Ben Webster, Eddie Barefield, and Walter Page and one of the high points was the debut of “Moten Swing.”

According to Wikipedia:

Bennie Moten (November 13, 1894 – April 2, 1935) was an American jazz pianist and band leader born in Kansas City, Missouri.

He led the Kansas City Orchestra, the most important of the regional, blues-based orchestras active in the Midwest in the 1920s, and helped to develop the riffing style that would come to define many of the 1930s Big Bands.

His first recordings were made (for OKeh Records) in 1923, and were rather typical interpretations of the New Orleans style of King Oliver and others. They also showed the influence of the ragtime that was still popular in the area, as well as the stomping beat that the band was famous for. These OKeh sides (recorded 1923–1925) are some of the more valuable acoustic jazz 78s of the era and continue to be treasured records in many serious jazz collections.

They signed with Victor Records in 1926, and were influenced by the more sophisticated style of Fletcher Henderson, but more often than not featured a hard stomp beat that was extremely popular in Kansas City. Moten remained one of Victor’s most popular orchestras through 1930. The song Kansas City Shuffle was recorded during this time. (The band recorded prolifically and many of their records were issued in Victor’s regular series, therefore not specifically marketed to the Black community.)

By 1928 Moten’s piano was showing some boogie woogie influences, but the real revolution came in 1929 when he recruited Count Basie, Walter Page and Oran ‘Hot Lips’ Page. Walter Page’s walking bass lines gave the music an entirely new feel compared to the 2/4 tuba of his predecessor Vernon Page, coloured by Basie’s understated, syncopated piano fills. Another boon to the band was adding Jimmy Rushing as their primary vocalist.

Their final session (10 recordings made at Victor’s Camden, New Jersey, studios on December 13, 1932, during a time when the band was suffering significant financial hardship) showed the early stages of what became known as the “Basie sound”, four years before Basie recorded under his own name. By this time Ben Webster and Rushing had joined Moten’s band, but Moten himself did not play on these sessions. These sides (mostly arranged by Eddie Durham) include a number of tunes that later became swing classics:

  • “Toby”
  • Moten Swing
  • The Blue Room
  • “Imagination” (vocals: Sterling Russell Trio)
  • New Orleans” (vocal: Jimmy Rushing)
  • “The Only Girl I Ever Loved” (vocals: Sterling Russell Trio)
  • “Milenberg Joys”
  • “Lafayette”
  • “Prince of Wails” (often mistitled as “Prince of Wales”)
  • “Two Times” (recorded with six musicians and with vocalist Josephine Garrison)

Moten died at Kansas City’s Wheatley-Provident Hospital on April 2, 1935 following a failed tonsillectomy operation.

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