Walter Page: Big ‘Un of the Bass

Count Basie begins his autobiography, Good Morning Blues, with the story of how he was pleasantly roused from a sleep-it-off hangover by Walter Page’s Blue Devils playing outside the rooming house where he was staying in Oklahoma City in 1925.  It was late morning, and Page was doing what bands customarily did to drum up business for that night’s engagement.  Basie dressed hurriedly and followed the sonic trail around the corner where he encountered Page at the helm of his 10-piece band.  Basie described him as as a “heavy-set, pleasant looking fellow,” and soon learned that Page was known by the nickname “Big ‘Un,” with respect both to his size and to the affection his sidemen felt “because he was also one of them.”

Walter Page at far left with Kansas City's Lincoln High School Cadet Band and Orchestra

Walter Page at far left with Kansas City’s Lincoln High School Cadet Band and Orchestra

February 9 was Walter Page’s 114th birthday anniversary.  Born in Gallatin, Missouri, Page grew up in Kansas City and began playing bass at the behest of Lincoln High’s band director, Major N. Clark Smith.  He majored in music at the University of Kansas at Lawrence, but rather than pursue a career in teaching, he traveled with Bennie Moten’s Orchestra and Billy King’s vaudeville troupe.  After King’s road show went belly-up, Page formed the Blue Devils in Oklahoma City.  During its half-dozen years existence, the Blue Devils provided formative experiences for Basie, Jimmy Rushing, Oran “Hot Lips” Page, Prof Buster Smith, Lester Young, Eddie Durham, and Dan Minor, most of whom eventually played with Moten. But while Moten enjoyed greater longevity and popularity as the premier territory band in the Southwest, Page’s outfit was highly regarded for its powerful blues playing.

Page played bass and baritone horn when Basie first heard him, and was still playing tuba when he led the Blue Devils on the 1929 recording, “Blue Devil Blues,” which features Basie, Dallas native Lips Page on trumpet, Smith on clarinet, and Jimmy Rushing.  Lips Page, only 21 at the time, sounds commanding on the opening theme/solo and the muted obligatto behind Rushing, but Smith, the legendary Prof Smith who was an influence on Charlie Parker, sounds stiff and out of tune.  “Not altogether successful,” Gunther Schuller writes in Early Jazz,  where he also disputes the notion that this is Basie at the piano.

With the eventual dissolution of both the Blue Devils and Moten’s orchestra, Page joined Basie’s fledgling Barons of Rhythm in 1935 and remained till 1948.  He gets substantial props in Kansas City Lightning, Stanley Crouch’s 2013 biography of Charlie Parker. “Page’s background touches on nearly every element in the story of pre-bebop jazz,” he writes.  As the player who helped popularize the walking bass style that’s been in common use ever since, Page was at the center of the innovative Basie rhythm section.  Crouch adds, “Page had an ingenious sense of the new beat needed to melt the pulse from…a fervent stiffness [of New Orleans jazz] into what would be known as the relaxed heat of Kansas City swing.”

Page credited Wellman Braud as a player who inspired him when he heard the  New Orleans-born bassist in K.C. around 1915. “I was sitting right in the front row of the high school auditorium,” recalled Page, “and all I could hear was the oomp, oomp, oomp of that bass, and I said, ‘That’s for me.’  When Braud got ahold of that bass, he hit those tones like hammers and made them jump right out of the box.”

Nearly 20 years later, by which time Braud had been with Duke Ellington for a decade, Page had apparently eclipsed his hero, “I remember Duke coming through on his way West that year. They were playing the Main Street Theatre and some of the boys in Duke’s band wanted to go hear Basie.  Braud was in the band and he acted biggety, didn’t want to go, said, ‘What’s he got?’  We were playing at the Sunset Club and finally Duke and the rest crept around the scrim and started sitting in. I was playing right on top of Duke and he told Basie he was going to steal me out of the band.  Basie told him I owed him $300.00 and that’s how I didn’t get to join Duke during all those good years he had.  It was the smartest move Basie ever made…”

What Basie perfected with assistance from Page, guitarist Freddie Green, and drummer Jo Jones, his celebrated All-American Rhythm Section, was the art of swinging the blues.  Here in 1938, on “Sent for You Yesterday (and Here You Come Today),” is one of its finest early examples.

“Pagin’ the Devil,” a classic of Kansas City chamber jazz, is a tribute to Big ‘Un’s former ensemble.  It was introduced by the Kansas City Six on its Commodore session in 1938 and performed the following year at Benny Goodman’s Carnegie Hall concert.  Charlie Christian is here with the Basie-ites Page, Green, Jones, Young, and Buck Clayton.

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