Not to be overlooked in our Big Band series is the enormous contribution made by those World War II-era cinematic potpourris featuring top stars of the time along with an array of front-ranked orchestras and singers.
Rummaging through Joe’s extensive photo library one afternoon, Frank — a devout jazz fan since adolescence — was pleasantly taken aback at the discovery of the marvelous still (above) from the 1943 musical comedy/romance distributed by United Artists, Stage Door Canteen.
There they are — a svelte, smiling Ethel Waters standing at the microphone in front of the full Count Basie Orchestra of the period. (That’s Basie to the left at the piano.) The audience in the photo was comprised of a raptly attentive ensemble of soldier and sailors plus girlfriends.
It was all a movie, of course, set in New York but, according to some sources, actually filmed at a military installation near Los Angeles.
Producer Sol Lesser pulled off an amazing feat of show biz organization, putting together a cast including scores of stage and movie personalities ranging from theater stalwarts Alfred Lunt, Lynn Fontanne, Tallulah Bankhead, Katherine Cornell and Helen Hayes to less lofty types such as George Raft, Georgie Jessel, Gracie Fields, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy and Gyspsy Rose Lee.
Let’s focus today on Count Bill Basie and Ethel Waters, two influential figures in the history of black entertainment in America.
Basie was unquestionably a giant in his field; Waters logged at least one of the most captivating screen portrayals ever put to film by an Afro-American actress in director Vincente Minnelli’s Cabin In The Sky (also made in 1943).
Movies were not especially Basie’s element (he was more frequently seen over the years on tv) unlike Duke Ellington, who both individually and as a bandleader appeared in about a dozen pictures including speaking parts.
But Basie’s personal style was nowhere near as expansive as Ellington’s, and he is less frequently seen on film in front of his big band. That’s why this picture from “Stage Door Canteen” is so intriguing, at least to Frank. It provides a rare, up close look key instrumental players in what jazz historians refer to as Basie’s “Old Testament” orchestra in its post-Lester Young period.
There’s fabled Basie rhythm section — Joe Jones on drums, Walter Page on bass and guitarist Freddie Green (upper right) — as well as the front line reed section, which, at this time in the band’s history probably comprised (left to right) Buddy Tate, Tab Smith, Earle Warren, Jack Washington and Don Byas. The trumpet and trombone players (mostly obscured in the upper left of the photo) probably included Buck Clayton, Harry Edison, Al Killian, Ed Lewis, Dickie Wells, Robert Scott and Eli Robinson.
Basie folded this band in the late Forties for economic reasons only to regroup stronger than ever in 1952, with a powerhouse “New Testament” orchestra. This hard-charging unit played all over the world with Basie at the helm for more than three decades until the bandleader’s death at 79 in 1984. (In the photo still above, he was just 39.)
It’s wonderful that we have movies such as “Stage Door Canteen” to record on film musicians and performers so that for future generations can appreciate them just as they were back then.