Walter Page: What Made His Bass Playing Notable?
Of all the musicians in jazz, it seems that the bassists get the least “props.” Most people just don’t listen to what they play. And the things non-bassists say about bass players are so superficial, either they haven't listened to them at all, or what they say is based on just a minute or two of listening to a single recording.
A case in point is Walter Page, who lived from 1900 to 1957. Page played bass (and tuba, a common “double”—second instrument—in the 1920s) in early Kansas City swing bands. He led his own Blue Devils band in the late twenties, then joined one led by Bennie Moten, which had William “Count” Basie on piano for its last recordings in 1932. Page then anchored the rhythm sections of Basie’s own bands, with one break, through 1948, and it is for this work that he is best known.
What do folks say specifically about Walter Page’s music? Not a lot. You can Google all over the place, and look at all your jazz books, and either they say nothing, or they say something vague like “He really swung,” which is just a way of saying, "I don't know how Page sounds, because I've never really paid attention."
Many people think it’s enough to say that Page played “four beats to the bar,” which means one note on every pulse of a four-beat measure. But this is basically meaningless - because since about 1930, that's the minimum of what bass players are supposed to do. So that can't be all there is to it. You don’t get famous because you play four beats to a bar. That would be considered merely adequate, never great.
Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about Walter Page: "More than any other jazz bass player in history, Page is credited with developing and popularizing the ‘walking bass’ style of playing on all four beats, a transition from the older, two-beat style.” Okay, so I guess this is what people mean when they say Page plays “four beats to the bar.” And he did play a role in that transition from the older, "two beat" or "oom-pah" style, but my listening tells me that that there was a general and nationwide trend around 1930 towards playing walking bass, so I would never want to say that Page or any other individual was the first to do it.
Page himself was apparently an amiable big guy. Basie recalls in his memoir (Good Morning Blues, with Albert Murray, 1985) that musicians knew him by his nickname, Big ’Un. “You could also tell right away that they didn’t just respect him because he was the boss,” Basie adds. “They really liked him and felt close to him because he was also one of them.” But Basie doesn’t describe what Page did on the bass.
However, the late critic Stanley Crouch does talk about Page’s music in Kansas City Lightning, his 2007 biography of the young Charlie Parker. In one passage, Crouch claims that Page “had invented the modern way of phrasing a bass line and had almost single-handedly organized the jazz rhythm section for ultimate swing.” He later elaborates on this idea: “Page jettisoned the tuba that was still often heard in bands of the time, replacing it with his string bass and working out a two-bar, eight-beat rhythm cycle in four/four (1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8) that gave the time a flow that bass players use to this very day. This new rhythm removed the earlier music’s feeling of choppiness, allowing the pulse of the rhythm section to breathe every two bars, switching gears on the ninth beat to start the cycle again. Along with Basie, drummer Jo Jones, and eventually guitarist Freddie Green, Page forged the self-orchestrating ensemble-within-an-ensemble that is the jazz rhythm section.”
This jibes with the conventional wisdom about Page, which is that he developed and popularized the “walking bass.” But it is entirely wrong! I’m even sorry to have just quoted it, because some people might think I’m endorsing it. It was not Page who “jettisoned the tuba,” nor did he invent the walking bass. Both trends were—I repeat—happening nationwide around 1930, clearly documented on recordings. (Nor was the tuba the original bass instrument in jazz—first was the string bass in New Orleans, then came tuba during the 1920s, then the string bass came back around 1930 and ever since. Another topic for another time.)
If you actually focus on listening to Page throughout his numerous recordings, you’ll hear an artist who, on the contrary, wasn’t afraid to break up that 4/4—and who inserted memorable melodic phrases, and who interacted with his fellow band members.
His Blue Devils, an example of a territory band (so-called because they toured within a specific territory, not nationally, and not in the big coastal cities), had a tremendous reputation around Kansas City. At various times the band featured Basie, singer Jimmy Rushing, trumpeter “Hot Lips” Page and saxophonists Lester Young and Buster Smith, who was later a mentor to Charlie Parker. (However, Parker did not play like Smith—please don’t try and persuade me that he did. People regularly confuse mentors with influences. Yet another topic for another time.) It only recorded two songs, which both sound great; it’s a shame the band wasn’t better documented, but that was typical for territory bands, because they were not based near the major recording centers.
Here’s one of those recordings, “Squabblin’,” recorded in Kansas City in November of 1929. Page's playing here is quite varied. After the intro, starting at 0:13, he and the drummer play a kind of “Charleston” pattern, which is clearly rehearsed. Next, starting at 0:38, Page plays a two-beat style behind Buster Smith’s alto sax solo. The next section, starting at 1:03, features the rhythm section, and Page plays melodic rhythms derived from the tune's written theme, and even takes a solo break. Behind the clarinet solo, also by Smith, he does some 4-beat “walking.” Starting at 1:50 he plays a written solo on baritone sax, alternating phrases with the band. That’s the only time Page recorded on the saxophone, yet another of his talents. While he’s on sax, the piano brings out the bass notes until Page is back on bass from 2:27 until the end.
(By the way, there is some uncertainty about who plays piano on the Blue Devils recordings. It’s usually listed as Charlie Washington, and a pianist named Willie Lewis has also been named. Some people have suggested that it was Basie himself, and on the 78rpm disc’s label, he is credited with composing “Squabblin’.” But even if wrote the tune while he was in the band, he was already recording with the Bennie Moten band by October 1929, and in his memoir he does not say that he recorded with the Devils.)
Page didn’t record again until December of 1932, at the last recording session of Bennie Moten’s Kansas City Orchestra. Here’s the beginning of a track from that session, “Lafayette”:
At the very beginning, you hear kind of an unusual percussive sound. It’s not from the drummer, who enters later playing brushes. It’s coming out of the bass department, before Page moves to four-four behind Ben Webster's sax solo. What is it? Page is playing what we call “slap bass,” where you alternate between slapping and aggressively plucking the strings. Listeners today may associate this sound with the electric bass, but the technique has been around for many years. (Here is a website dedicated to slap bass.)
The most famous Benny Moten recording of all time, “Moten Swing,” comes from that same 1932 session. This track was featured in the Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz — a boxed set, first issued in 1973, that eventually sold over 2 million copies, and ended up in almost every music library in the United States and around the world. Here are the final 20 seconds or so of the track; pay close attention to what you hear.
For all the prominence of “Moten Swing,” nobody has ever noted in print that at the very end — and I do mean the very end, while the band and Basie are playing — Walter Page is slapping the bass. So based on these two recordings, one thing we can say with confidence is that he was an early proponent of slap bass technique.
Now let's listen to another track that was part of the Smithsonian Collection, “He’s Funny That Way.” This is a recording that Billie Holiday made with Page, saxophonist Lester Young and others in November of 1937. Maybe you’ve heard this track before. But this time, listen only to the bass, from the beginning of the track until the end. If it’s new to you, listen twice, once for pleasure, and once just to focus on Page:
What Page plays here is so beautiful that if you do listen closely to the bass line, after a few seconds you won’t be able to take your ears off of it! Leaving the standard 4/4 pattern behind, he leaves space – lots of spaces, in fact — and threads a lovely melody through the ensemble.
Now let's listen to another small-group session, “Live And Love Tonight,” led by Basie himself in February of 1939. This is one of the few sessions where Basie plays organ, and it’s also as close as Page ever came to playing a solo during all of his years with Basie — even though you’ll have to listen very closely, because he’s playing behind the organ:
And guess what? Page walks in double-time. I can’t think of another bass player of his generation walking in double-time in a rhythm section. In fact, the only double-time bass moment from long ago that anyone has come up with so far is Jimmie Blanton in the middle of “Plucked Again,” his 1939 duet with Ellington (thank you to David Perlman for this). But that’s a bass solo feature, not a rhythm section walking passage. And of course Blanton was born 18 years after Page, so he represented a much different era. It was Mingus, born in 1922, who would sometimes walk in double-time starting in the late 1950s. So it may not leap out at you, because Page is playing mostly scale notes, but it’s highly unusual, and another example of Page breaking up the pattern of four notes to the bar.
There are many other recordings from this period with Basie where Page plays creatively: “Farewell Blues,” “I Left My Baby” and “Swinging at the Daisy Chain” come to mind.
One amazing track is “Oh Lady Be Good,” the closing jam session from the second “From Spirituals To Swing” concert, organized by John Hammond at Carnegie Hall in December 1939. Page takes a real solo on this one, as do Charlie Christian and Lester Young, and others. We will return to the complete recording at another time to focus on Pres and Christian (and to try and figure out the sequence of piano soloists, which has never been sorted out). For now, I’m sharing two excerpts of Page’s work here.
Listen to the rhythmic pattern that he plays at the start of Basie’s second chorus—the drummer goes along with it too. After that he “walks”:
And here is Page’s solo from later in the track. It was standard in those days for a bass “solo” to simply consist of walking, but more exposed than usual because everyone else quiets down. It’s wild to hear what Page does during his two choruses (that is, twice through the chords of “Lady”). At 0:25 he purposely hangs back a little, and at 0:43 to the end he really exaggerates that effect, essentially playing slower than the pulse of the band, against the rest of the rhythm section—they, of course, hold it together.
All of these musical passages – just a handful of illustrative examples, readily available but totally overlooked — build my case that Page’s bass playing was full of variety and melody. What's perhaps most interesting about him, in fact, is that he's not riveted to the idea of playing four quarter notes in every bar.
So while I couldn’t claim that Page was unappreciated, since he was well-known and well-liked, I think it’s fair to say that today nobody knows why. I hope it’s clear that it’s worth taking the time to listen to him on his many recordings in order to fully appreciate his musicality. Do so, and you’ll be rewarded with bass playing that goes well beyond swinging four beats to a bar. I feel certain that in his day, he was admired for his creativity, not solely because he could play four notes in a row!
Of course the drive of his walking lines was notable as well. And he varied his walking lines by alternating between arpeggios, and chromatic or scalar lines. And when playing the latter, he sometimes played higher on the neck of the bass than was typical in the 1930s.
If someone asks you “What was notable about Walter Page’s playing?,” now you can give a meaningful reply: “I actually took the time to listen to him” (what a shocker!) “and I noticed that in addition to his driving ‘walking lines,’ he breaks up the 4/4 lines in creative ways, uses slap bass on his early recordings, and creates very melodic counterlines.”
FOR FURTHER EXPLORATION:
The longest interview ever published with Page appeared in the first issue of The Jazz Review, a significant but short-lived magazine that is now available online. (Check out pages 12-15.)
This footage of Count Basie with his band features a good close-up of Page at 1:18 to 1:26, playing high up on the neck of the bass.
See you again—soon! (I have a bunch of posts just about ready to put up.)
All the best,
P.S. I originally posted a version of this at WBGO.org in 2011 and it was edited by my former grad student and now friend, Tim Wilkins; it was re-posted in 2018 with edits from Nate Chinen—thank you, Tim and Nate!
P.P.S. Thank you to Leo Valdes for help with the Carnegie Hall recording. He runs the best Charlie Christian site, with complete detailed recording listings, many transcribed solos, etc.:
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